A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
January 17, 2016
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana
Today I’d like to talk about miracles, Mary, Martin and the church.
It’s an odd little miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, an obscure village whose location cannot even be agreed upon by archaeologists. Jesus has been invited to the wedding and arrives with several friends and Mary, his mother, is there, too.
Doubtlessly, it is Mary’s unwillingness to have the hosts disgraced and humiliated that causes her to come to Jesus and make an indirect request: “They have no wine.”
It was a big deal to run out of wine at a wedding celebration. The hosts would risk embarrassment at best and humiliation at worst. Even so, Mary’s words seem to be an irritating challenge to Jesus who replies, “What does that have go do with me? My time has not yet come.” In effect, Mary says, “Oh, I think it has.”
And Jesus changes the water into wine—a lot of wine, the best. This is his first recorded miracle, not one that heals the sick or relieves suffering or rights a wrong. It is a miracle to rescue a family from the embarrassment of being unable to provide for their guests.
The miracle at Cana is the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry. It is the first time he revealed some kind of supernatural power, and it is after this miracle that John tells us “his disciples believed in him.” This first miracle shows us that even rescuing a family from shame and embarrassment is not beyond the scope of God’s care for us.
Today’s Epistle tells us that we are each given different gifts and that it is God who “activates” all of them within us. But the gospel shows us that even gifts we may tend to dismiss on the big social justice scale of things – the gift of hospitality, of concern for one’s friends, of lovingly preparing an event for others to enjoy, these things are not to be slighted. As one person writes, “The Book of Common Prayer bids us each night of our lives to pray that God’s spirit will ‘shield the joyous’ which is what Mary and Jesus did at Cana. The prayer declares what Jesus and his mother knew, that the joyous are essential to the justice of this word.“ Phillip Yancey writes: “Prophets like John the Baptist preached judgment and indeed many miracles if the Old Testament expressed that sense of stern judgment. Jesus’ first miracle though was one of tender mercy. The lesson was not lost on the disciples who joined him at the wedding that night in Cana—especially the recent recruits from (the wild and fiery) Baptist who were in attendance.”
Returning now to Mary. While Mary is not regarded at The Wedding at Cana as much more than a supporting player, and is maybe even seen as a nagging mother, it is her concern for others that needles Jesus into stepping up to claim his calling.
There is someone in our own history who did the same thing.
Tomorrow we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, but he, too, needed to be pushed. Writer Nancy Rockwell says this: “Based on her need to stand against humiliation, the interchange between Mary and Jesus resembles the interchange between Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King on an ordinary day in Montgomery. By refusing to give up her seat on the bus and give into one more instance of the humiliation of her people, Parks provoked a moment in history and she provoked King’s entry into that event as its vital wine and its transforming agent.”
The thing is, Rosa Parks was helping lay the foundation for the civil rights movement when Dr. King was still in high school.
In a new book called The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks, we learn that when she took her fateful action that day on the bus, she was 42 years old, a seamstress by profession and for years a member of the Montgomery NAACP. She was assigned to investigate cases of sexual assault, such as the gang rape of Recy Tahor, a young black woman. The protest that arose around that case was the first instance of a nationwide civil rights protest and laid the groundwork for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks had been working for civil rights for years before she ever got on that bus and her actions were planned. It wasn’t just that she was “tired.”
The leaders of the NAACP in Montgomery were waiting for the right moment to launch the bus boycott and Rosa Parks was their choice because she seemed beyond reproach: a dignified, married, black woman who was a seamstress. In fact, a majority of those taking the buses were black women, and their treatment on the buses was criminal.
So on Dec. 1, 1955, Parks was sitting in the front row of the section for black people on a bus driven by James F. Blake who, twelve years earlier, had ordered her to board at the back door of the bus and drove off without her. She had intentionally avoided his bus for twelve years, but when she realized he was the driver that day, she knew this was the moment. So a Caucasian man boarded the bus and since the white section was full, the driver told everyone in her row – the first of the black section– to move back. All of the others in her row complied except Parks. She was arrested and fined $10.
The same night Parks was arrested, there was a meeting of local ministers and the NAACP at First Baptist Church to plan the boycott. They wanted Martin Luther King to lead it because he was new to Montgomery and hadn’t yet been intimidated by local leaders but so far he had refused, until that night.
Parks was at this meeting and despite calls from the crowd for her to speak and a standing ovation, one of the ministers said that she had said enough and she was kept from the podium. The civil rights movement was not exempt from the incredible sexism of the time.
After the bus boycott got going, “it was the women who arranged car pools and sold cakes and pies to raise money for alternate transportation. The boycott lasted a year until the Supreme Court ruled against segregation.”
So it was on the night of Rosa Parks’ arrest that Martin Luther King agreed to step up. It was Parks who first declared that the moment was at hand, just as Mary did. Nancy Rockwell goes on: “While Martin Luther King did not change water into wine, he did change words into the new wine of commitment. He did gather thousands to hear him, and they were fed; he did raise those whose lives were decaying in death, the garbage collectors. He did proclaim to the educated Nicodemuses of America that they needed to be born again in mind and spirit; he did raise up the dead daughters of Birmingham speaking of them in an unforgettable letter to the white clergy from the tomb of his jail cell in that city; he did lift up to us a cup of everlasting life and we drink from it still.”
Race is still the most divisive issue in America today. Jimmy Carter said that the abuse of women continues to be the number one human rights issue in the world today. These things come together in the story of Rosa Parks.
Sometimes a “miracle” occurs when the truth is made visible and acknowledged as that, even after a long time. It can be when people find the grace and the will to see beyond individual prejudices to the reality of God’s love for all. I believe this happened in another area of human rights when the Episcopal Church led the way in giving women and later homosexual people full inclusion in the Church.
The past few days have been challenging for the Episcopal Church as its decision to allow gay marriage has brought censure by the Anglican Communion. The Bishop of Washington Mariann Budde said this yesterday: “But I am also confident in the decisions we as the Episcopal Church have made, based on over 40 years’ engagement with Scripture and one another, on issues of human sexuality. While not all in the Episcopal Church agree with those decisions, they are as solid as earlier decisions made regarding the full inclusion of women in leadership, our positions on divorce, and our commitment to racial justice.
That there is a cost for making decisions that we believe are faithful to the love of Jesus is not a surprise to us. We have always known as Episcopalians that we might face consequences for declaring, unequivocally, that LGBT Christians are beloved members of the Body of Christ. Those consequences are insignificant in comparison with the rejection, marginalization and violence LGBT Christians have been asked to endure, even in their churches. “
Echoing today’s Epistle about different gifts being given to different people (or groups of people), Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded us that we respect our brother and sisters in the Anglican Communion even those who disagree with us, but that “it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed.”
What does this have to do with the miracles, water and wine?
Several years ago in this pulpit then-seminarian Phil Rose talked about Jesus hanging water in to wine in poetic terms that I will never forget. The statement was this: ”And the water, beholding its creator, blushed.” I tracked down the source of this statement and found that it was from a translation of a Latin poem. But on the same page, I another poem from an even more ancient source, that talks this miracle in a different way. Referring at first to Jesus, it says:
Thou water turn’st to wine, fair friend of life;
But others distill from thence the tears of wrath and strife,
And so turns wine to water back again.
A miracle transforms something as neutral as water into something rich, symbolic and hospitable. But there can be a darker side to this image. It is when the angry tears of prejudice and scorn dilute the miracle so as to change the wine back into water.
As Bishop Curry says, it is our vocation to lead the way so that this does not happen. Amen.
Nancy Rockwell, “Cana – An Unexpected Time,” patheos, Jan13, 2013
Carl Gregg, “Rosa Parks: The Rest of the Story,” patheos, Jan 19, 2015
“Women Were Leaders in Civil Rights Movements,” Associated Press, October 29 2005
Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 1995,