Some of you have already inquired about the table that is here off to my right. What’s that about? What’s that doing in the sanctuary?
Well, as many of you are aware, we are now in the season of Lent. And with this new season comes a new sermon series: Table Talk. Throughout Lent this year, all of my sermons will examine a bible story of Jesus at a meal. Then, each Sunday after worship, we’ll be heading downstairs to the Friendship Room for a soup and bread luncheon where we’ll fellowship together and also look at another bible story, a different story. I hope you’ll come downstairs and join us. If you’re a guest or a visitor, I especially hope you’ll join us so we can show you some good Trinity hospitality. Finally, with an emphasis on the “talk” part of Table Talk, I’ve written a devotional for each week and Trinity members will take turns responding to and commenting on those devotional writings.
Now perhaps “tables” seem like an odd choice for the season of Lent; but here is the thing: the season of Lent, as it was begun by the church fathers long ago, was a time when Christian converts were taught about the faith and prepared for church membership; and, it was also a time when church folks who’d “back slid,” we might say, had the opportunity to repent of their sins and return to the church and renew their commitment to Christ and to his people. So Lent is, at its core, “fellowship or relationship” oriented. Lent is a time both to strengthen our relationship with Jesus and a time to grow our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And there are not many things I can think of that have more to do with fellowship and relationships than meals. I mean, think about it: you’ll ride a bus or a plane with a stranger seated right next to you. You’ll go to the theater or some musical production and sit adjacent to a stranger. You’ll sign up for a class or a course knowing full well that the person seated at the desk right next to yours will likely be a stranger. You’ll go the gym or the Y where you barely have enough space to walk between the equipment and pay no attention to the stranger on the adjacent treadmill. But who among us sits down next to a stranger to share a meal? Meals are, by their very nature, about fellowship. We eat meals with family and friends. Even when we have a business lunch or a working lunch, often the idea in mind is that, by eating a meal together, we’ll grow the relationship enough to seal the deal or pitch the concept. There is something about meals that binds us to one another.
And there is also something about meals that is celebrative. I have presided through the years over more funerals than I could begin to count. And most of them have been followed by a meal. Now here’s the interesting thing: no matter how much the family wept during the funeral service, it is a mighty rare and unusual thing for no one to laugh over the meal. Over that funeral luncheon, they tell stories of their loved one – fun and humorous stories. “Remember that time when…”
But, of all the meal settings we can experience, none compare to the joy of a wedding reception. It is the ultimate celebration of relationship; not only of the coming together of the man and woman to begin a new family; but also of their families being joined to one another.
The gospel of John – the source of this morning’s meal story – is a gospel enormously focused on relationship and so, perhaps we should not be surprised that Jesus’ very first miracle, or sign as they are called in John, occurs at a wedding reception.
It does, however, raise a few eyebrows (this miracle of turning water into wine). I mean, this was Jesus’ very first miracle and when you consider all of the things he could have chosen to do – causing a blind man to see or a lame person to walk or even bringing a dead person back to life, all of which do happen in John’s gospel – it seems a little odd that Jesus begins with a beverage miracle. I grew up in a part of the country where “tea-tottling” and Methodist went hand in hand. And, as a child, I couldn’t imagine why Jesus would have used his godly powers to get a bunch of people liquored up at a wedding reception. But, my interpretation of Jesus’ actions was greatly influenced by my culture, a culture very different from 1st century Palestine. In Jesus’ culture, as I’ve mentioned before, the practice of hospitality had a significant impact on someone’s reputation and character. To practice poor hospitality was to dishonor oneself and one’s family. In ancient Palestine, marriage symbolized the yoking together of two families and the joining together of those two families was celebrated by the entire village.
When Britt and I were in seminary, we became friends with an international student from Italy. About a month after his graduation, Dominic was to wed Lillianna, a young lady he had known since childhood. Britt and I traveled to Rochester, NY to attend the wedding and the reception. Now, I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania where the typical wedding reception consisted of fried chicken, halupkis, and ravioli served at the local fire hall and followed by polka dancing. If I recall correctly, Dominic and Lillianna’s wedding reception took place at Rochester’s Convention Center and the place was packed. We were served a seven- course meal – the first I’d ever eaten; even sorbet to cleanse your palate. Each guest in attendance received a gift from the bride and groom. Britt and I were seated at a table with a friend from seminary. Sensing that I was stupefied by the whole enterprise, Tim remarked that Lillianna’s dad had begun saving for her wedding on the day she was born.
And Mediterranean culture has changed very little in the past two thousand years. Hospitality was and is of incredible importance. If one did not have everything ready and available for their guest’s comfort and satisfaction, it reflected on one’s character. To practice poor hospitality was to dishonor oneself and one’s family. To run out of food or drink for one’s guests could mean that, not only your guests, even your entire community, would shun you. Depending on your offense, you could be shamed or ostracized for the rest of your life. And, the shame might continue even through to subsequent generations. So, to run out of wine at a wedding was no small thing in Cana of Galilee in the first century.
And here’s one more thing to add to the mix… that really, in fact, becomes the key to the whole story. A group of close friends within your village would provide you the things you needed for hospitality on an occasion like this. And, you would be expected to do the same for them, to reciprocate. What I mean is; the burden of expense for this wedding reception did not fall solely on the shoulders of the couple’s families. Such feasting would have been too expensive for a peasant family to afford. So, things like food and wine would have been sent ahead by a close circle of friends, likely peers of the groom. And, when their time came to wed, they could call in a favor, so to speak.
Now in the case of this morning’s story, the provisions were obviously inadequate. There wasn’t enough wine. There was an obvious deficit. But the deficit wasn’t really about wine. The lack of wine revealed a lack of hospitality. The lack of hospitality was due to a lack of friends. And, the lack of friends meant a lack of honor or good reputation. So you can see that the crisis in this story is really all about relationships. And perhaps that is why this miracle is kept on the down-low. Jesus’ mother, his disciples and some servants are the only ones who know what’s transpired. In fact, the chief steward – the head caterer – compliments and praises who? Why, the groom, of course. The key concern here is about a shortage of friends which would have been seen for what it was when the wine ran out. This story is about relationships, friends with whom to celebrate this most joyous of occasions. Let me say that again. The key concern of this story is not really about a shortage of wine. It is about relationships; it is about table fellowship; it is about celebration. It is about Jesus stepping into the role of friend to provide for this couple on their wedding day. What a friend we have in Jesus; the one who cares about our gladness, our celebration, our relationships.
So, although this story might seem rather trivial to us, it wouldn’t have been trivial to a first century Palestinian. And, because of that, it wasn’t trivial to Jesus either. Jesus steps in as friend to this groom to provide exactly what he needs. To provide something even better than what he needs.
You see, Jesus is not a savior in the abstract. Jesus came to live among us and to celebrate with us. Jesus, in all his divinity, cares greatly about things like receptions and celebrations; relationships and community.
In the Russian novel “The Brothers Karamazov,” the story of Jesus’ miracle at Cana becomes the focal point when the character Alyosha is grieving the death of his spiritual father and mentor, Father Zossima. The body of Zossima is being kept in a small room while prayers and various rites are pronounced over his deceased body in preparation for his burial. Alyosha returns to the room late at night, distraught over Zossima’s death. And then, as if it couldn't get any worse, he is devastated by the grief that Zossima's dead body is producing quite the stench. You see, at that point in time, people believed that saints did not give off a stench at death. So, the fact that Father Zossima's body is starting to smell, calls into question his holiness. Aloysha is heartbroken. But nevertheless, despite his grief and shame, Alyosha returns to be near the body of his mentor. He sits and prays and meditates. And then, in the background, he hears a priest begin to recite the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Suddenly, Alyosha’s mind is captured by what he hears.
And when they wanted wine, the priest read, the mother of Jesus saith unto him; “They have no wine…”
“Ah, yes,” Alyosha thinks to himself. “I was missing that… Ah, that miracle. That sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy Christ visited; he worked his first miracle to help men’s gladness… for ‘He who loves men loves their gladness, too…’
The priest in the background continued to read: Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what has it to do with thee or me? Mine hour is not yet come.
His mother saith unto the servants: Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it…
Aloysha reflects: “Gladness, the gladness of some poor people… [who] hadn’t wine enough even at a wedding. But Jesus' mother knew that he had come not only to make his great and terrible sacrifice [on the cross]. She knew that his heart was open even to the… simple merrymaking of… [those] who had warmly bidden him to come to their poor wedding. ‘Mine hour is not yet come…’ he said. And indeed was it to make wine abundant at poor weddings he had come down to earth? And yet he… worked his first miracle to help men’s gladness… For the one who loves us, loves our gladness, too."
Friends: that is gospel. It is good, very good news, that Jesus wants us to experience times of gladness and celebration. And he reminds us that he is no less present at a dinner party than he is in a hospital room. Jesus delights when we can gather around the table and celebrate the blessing of our fellowship with one another. Jesus loves, he delights in our gladness.
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