Best for Last
Scripture: John 2:13-25
During this pandemic, we have had to learn new rituals.
When we enter a place of business or even a house of worship, masks go up. Our temperatures get checked. Our hands turn to the ritual of hand sanitizer stations. Our handshakes and hugs are replaced with gentle bows, nods, and eye contact, often from a guesstimated six feet distance.
These new rituals are not religious in nature - and yet they are very spiritual, concerned with preventing the spread of a disease that has harmed and killed hundreds of thousands of neighbors.
What has been a challenging in this pandemic is whether or not these new rituals are done out of a sense of begrudging commitment or out of a true sense of care and compassion for one another.
Are we washing our hands more rigorously in fear or selfishness, worried that we may catch the virus?
Are we wearing our masks because they are the rules and we would prefer not to but we need to get our stuff from Costco anyway and don't want to end up on one of those viral loops on the internet?
Are we sanitizing our hands to protect the lives of the vulnerable, linking this new ritual to our faith in God and call to love our neighbors as ourselves?
Or a maybe little of all three depending on how we got out of bed this morning?
I wonder - are these new rituals teaching us anything about what it means to be a disciple in this time? Will these become habits that shape who we are in years to come, even if COVID-19 and other pandemics subside? Can they be vessels of our witness to God?
There is a parallel that we heard in scripture today - when Jesus takes stone jars for purification and turns them into vessels of overflowing abundance for an unlikely wedding celebration in Cana.
In the Jewish traditions, rites of sanctification, as our scripture puts it, are just a complicated way of saying practices of cleanliness and holiness. In the Jewish faith, being clean was an act of spirituality. The people of God were called to be set apart - to eat certain things, to act in certain ways, and to cleanse themselves. Sometimes, this may have saved Jewish communities from various pandemics. Other times, it made them seem different when the surrounding community followed other ways of life.
But these promises and practices were built around their devotion to God and their commitment to one another.
You can imagine the scene before our scripture begin - as guests made their way into the wedding celebration, each taking their time like we do when coming into this house of God, dipping hands into the jars, scrubbing as an act of care and faithfulness.
And later, how Jesus, at the forceful command from his mother, transforming these jars of water, 30 to 50 gallons each, into the best wine that money couldn't buy.
In the way of God and in the way of Jesus, who commanded power over nature itself, the party was just getting started, as the steward proclaimed, "You've saved the best for last!"
I love this story today, because it reveals so much about Jesus.
Yes, he was powerful enough to perform this unlikely miracle, so different than the healing stories and other acts of supernatural power, like walking on water.
Here he is at a party. Here Jesus, along with his disciples, are celebrating their community. Weddings were seven day events in Jewish culture, and everyone was invited. It was a time to feast. It was a time to drink, it was a time to sing, it was a time to dance. And it's also the location of Jesus' first sign of who he is and what he as come to do - and more importantly, who God is.
When Mary sees that the hosts have run out of wine, a fact that would have caused them great embarrassment, she approaches Jesus and asks him to do something. Jesus, in our English ears, sounds kind of rude to his mom. A better translation in his response is not simply "Woman" - but "Honored woman." Jesus is partying with his friends - he's being raucous and have fun. He's also a guest - here to enjoy the company of his people, not to fix things.
And yet Mary's faith is courageous and fierce. She tells the servants to do whatever her son tells them to do, so you can imagine Jesus looking at his disciples, telling them to pause their conversation, and committing to begin to reveal who he is. His time has yet not come - in fact, the next moment that he will drink wine in the gospels is when he is on the cross. He also will address his mother in the same way at that time. This event begins to foreshadow his journey, where God is leading him in an act of radical love for all of the world.
And what does this unusual miracle reveal? That Jesus should go into the winery business?
No - but that God is a God of abundance.
In Jesus, we find a God who desires us to feast.
This past week, I couldn't help but contrast this raucous celebratory scene of Jesus' first sign with the anniversary of January 6, when another "celebration" of sorts took place just miles away in our nation's capital.
At that party, rioters wielded baseball bats, slurs, body armor, racist imagery, lies, and violence to push and batter and smash their way to stop a democratic election from being certified. Their were no rituals of care for the community in their midst. Instead, they saw in police officers and elected officials and staffers, not neighbors worth of compassion and respect, but targets for their hatred.
As noted in report after report, many of these insurrectionists claimed to know Jesus - to have drunk from the abundant wine of God's grace - and yet their statements and their actions seemed to suggest they do not know our Savior from Galilee.
Increasingly in our society, and maybe throughout American history, we have often chosen rituals of violence over care for our neighbors. It doesn't matter if we are talking about our treatment of indigenous communities, immigrants, or descendants of enslaved African peoples. Our society does not have the greatest track record - and maybe that's why many are resistant to simply life-saving rituals even now.
But violence will not save us. Terror cannot deliver us from our bondage. Anger and lies do not lead us deeper into the traditions of holiness to which we are called.
But here is Jesus, taking these ancient stories and rituals and redeeming them for a new generation, inviting us to drink deeply of the best kind of wine, wine that embodies the love and abundance of God, a love that rejects violence and embraces and deepens our human community.
In a way, our prayer in this New Year is to see our own lives and our own church as worthy vessels of God's blessing.
To believe that in God there is always something still to come for us -
- whether it is being enfolded in God's love when we breath our last breath
- whether it is feeling like we are out of energy to go on and find a new reason
- when it is tempting to give into rhetoric that encourages us to hate our neighbors
I think this is the grace of being in a faith community - not that we will always do the right thing or sometimes don't choose selfishness over our care for neighbors - but that we gather at this table to taste that abundance of God that invites us back on track, reminding us that there is still a better reality and a better life on the way.
In this time when we are still experiencing pandemics of disease, violence, and division, let's reclaim our ancient and new rituals for the work of God - let them be a sign of who our God is and what our God offers the world. Thanks be to God!