By Rev. Tracey Leslie
When I was six years old, my dad was about to graduate from seminary and our family planned to return to our home state of Pennsylvania. But the superintendent in Ohio liked my dad and was hoping to persuade him to remain there. He invited us to dinner at the district parsonage. Now, I don’t know the age of the carpeting in the superintendent’s dining room. But, I’m sure it was younger than I was at the time. It was beautiful – very plush. We sat down and drink orders were taken. I’d been prepped at home and opted for milk. I didn’t like milk as much as the other options, like Coca-Cola. But, milk washed out easily and was easily obscured if it dripped on the white linen tablecloth. After the beverages were served, the first course began. It was a lovely jell-o salad – with some fruit and nuts… and bright, vivid cherry jell-o. Someone served mine. But, my dad was not so lucky. He must not have gotten the spatula fully under the wobbly jell-o and before it had cleared the serving plate, it began to slide. Like a slow-motion instant replay, it seemed it took an eternity for that jell-o to teeter on the edge of the plate, and then slide off. It deflected from the edge of the table – which was covered, as I've already mentioned, with a white, linen tablecloth – and careened toward the floor, pausing but a moment on my father’s pant leg. In my anxiety, I gasped and my arms flung forward, knocking over my glass of milk that ran toward the edge of the table, dripped down the side of the cloth and landed to form a puddle around the mound of jell-o.
My family returned to Pennsylvania.
Now, in our defense, although I’m sure the superintendent and his wife aimed to be hospitable that evening, I was raised in a poor family from Appalachia. Before my dad entered ministry, we lived in federally subsidized housing. So, while the superintendent likely aimed to express hospitality, it was, for us, a terribly intimidating and anxiety-producing setting.
Within the church, the bible stories we hear on the Sundays after Epiphany are often stories designed to reveal Jesus. After all, that’s what the word “epiphany” means; a revelation or manifestation. That is the case with this morning’s bible story from the gospel of John, chapter 2, verses 1-11, a story in which Jesus’ glory is revealed. Already in the introduction to John’s gospel, Jesus’ glory is associated with his identity as the son of the heavenly Father. Notice, too, that in John’s gospel, the miracles Jesus does are called “signs.” Just as a physical road sign identifies a particular city or local attraction, these miracles Jesus does are signs that point out – or reveal – who Jesus is. So, hear this story from John, chapter 2:
1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." 4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." 5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Now when I was a child, I found this miracle baffling. Within John’s gospel, it is – as the story states – the very first of Jesus’ signs or miracles. Yet it seems to be akin to a parlor trick. Water into wine? What a waste of divine power. I mean; in the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ first miracle is an exorcism. That’s impressive.
But, we fail to grasp the weight of this miracle because we are not first century Mediterranean people. In the first century Mediterranean world, three things went hand in hand: hospitality, honor and relationships.
Hospitality, in that culture, was of enormous importance. Now, most Galilean families were peasants and lacked the resources for a feast of this scale. After all, a wedding celebration drew together the entire village. So, in order to have adequate food and drink, friends of the groom’s family – particularly, the groom’s peers – would send provisions on ahead. And of course, when it came their time to wed, the favor would be returned. So, in this culture, if a family ran out of food or drink at a wedding banquet, everyone recognized that the deficit of provisions was really a deficit of friends and a deficit of friends revealed a deficit of honor. That’s why Jesus had to keep this miracle on the down-low. If people knew what had happened, well, game over. So you see why I say hospitality, honor and relationships go hand in hand. If you were not honorable, you would not have friends; and, if you did not have friends, you could not provide hospitality; and, if you could not provide hospitality, you were dishonored. It’s a vicious, brutal cycle that destroys the opportunity for fellowship and celebration. But, like a delicious recipe, when we liberally mix hospitality, honor and friends, it yields an abundance of celebration and gladness.
So this miracle isn’t really about wine. It’s about relationships. And relationships matter a great deal to Jesus and his heavenly Father. Again, in the introduction to John’s gospel, we read: “But to all who received him” (“him” being Jesus), “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” The coming of Jesus reveals God’s goal that, by trusting in Jesus, we become part of God’s family.
This is a miracle about relationships and relationships are why Jesus came in the first place.
Friends: this current sermon series is entitled “This Little Light of Mine” and it is about that word that makes most Methodists shudder, “evangelism.” We are a congregation of introverts and evangelism makes us cringe with the thought of what we might label as “religious cold calls.” But, what if that’s not what evangelism is? What if evangelism could be understood differently?
In fact, within the gospel of John, we discover a relational model of evangelism… which we’ll talk more about next week. And, while many of us may have a limited concept of evangelism, we also have a limited understanding of hospitality. Although I’m sure they didn’t do it intentionally, that superintendent and his wife (in my opening story) weren’t really very hospitable. Their home was lovely, their table was fancy. But we did not feel comfortable in that space. The biblical word for “hospitality” means “love of stranger.” Isn’t that interesting? Hospitality is not simply about entertaining someone you want to impress; or even your best friends and favorite relatives. Hospitality is about cultivating a welcoming space that others can step into and feel welcome. In fact, hospitality opens more than our homes. It opens our hearts.
Some of you have heard the story of my trip out west with my sister during 2019 as part of my clergy renewal sabbatical. We had a bumpy start when bad weather rerouted our flight. We were supposed to land in Albuquerque. But, we landed in Amarillo, Texas and, although the airlines can’t be blamed for the weather, their communication was so poor and so slow that it left many travelers – my sister and I included – in sheer panic-mode. Amarillo is a small airport and we overwhelmed them at the end of the day shortly before they were closing. Standing outside the airport I was frantically phoning local hotels so my sister and I could find a place to spend the night. A woman passing by us asked what was going on and we quickly relayed our story to her. There were many other passengers on our crowded flight; all of us scrambling. One hotel after another was already booked full. By now it was nearly midnight. The woman who’d passed us suddenly re-appeared. “Have you found a place to stay yet?” she asked. Since we hadn’t, she recommended a local, non-chain hotel with which she was personally familiar so she knew it would be clean and comfortable and likely an untapped resource by out-of-town travelers. Sure enough, it had an open room. “My husband and I can take you there,” the woman said. They were local and had just returned home. She apologized that they’d just purchased a new home and didn’t even have sheets for the guest room bed. “If we just had sheets for the bed,” she said, “you could stay with us.” Talk about welcoming the stranger! On the drive to the hotel we made small talk. She was a teacher, had hoped to retire soon, but with four children – albeit adults, she joked, they’d likely always need more money. As the woman spoke, her husband (driving the SUV) raised three fingers. She spoke again; in a softer tone, a slower pace. That’s right; it was three children now; she hadn’t adjusted to that yet. She proceeded to explain the reason for their flight. Their son, Jason, had undergone a double transplant surgery, but he didn’t make it. My sister and I could hardly believe our ears. Lisa’s and Bobby’s son had only just passed away – that’s why they’d been at the airport – and yet they had stopped to come to the aid of complete strangers only hours after their son’s death. When the SUV pulled into the hotel lot, Bobby opened his wallet to show me a picture of Jason. I asked if I could say a prayer with them. They said they’d appreciate that so much. So, with Lisa and Bobby in the front seats and my sister and I in the back, we leaned forward, held hands and prayed.
Now that is hospitality. It didn’t involve anything fancy. But two complete strangers saw our need and responded. Not only did they open the doors of their SUV, they opened their hearts and we opened ours. They cultivated a welcoming space, even becoming vulnerable enough to share their tragedy with us. It was not, strictly speaking, a time of celebration. After all, a young man’s life had been cut short. But it was certainly a time of blessing.
Friends: I know it’s been harder for us to be the church during this pandemic; to do all the things we used to do. But I recently shared with someone this truth about us: that I never cease to be amazed by the number of times I learn, by happenstance, about ways you care for one another and even those who are brand new to our church family. You feed one another; drive one another to appointments; pick up groceries for one another… and not because your pastors tell you to; just because it’s who you are. And that is hospitality.
My friends: I know it sometimes feels weird and awkward to try to invite someone to church, especially someone we don’t know very well. What if they think we’re being pushy? What if they think we’re judging them or trying to proselytize? But, here’s the thing: I think the hospitality and care we show one another would be a blessing to anyone. It’s a gift. It’s the offering of relationship; it’s an invitation into a local manifestation of the family of God. Let me say that again: when we invite people to engage with Trinity, it is the ultimate expression of hospitality because we are inviting them to experience our unique revelation of the family of God, right here at Trinity. What a gift!
Author Priscilla Pope Levinson writes that, “Hospitality is the first essential quality of good evangelism.” She references Catholic priest and author, Henri Nouwen, who wrote that hospitality is “the offer of a space… where the stranger can enter and become a friend.” Even more, I would say; a sibling in God’s family.
This morning’s gospel story shows us how strong the connection still is between hospitality, honor and relationships. When we open up welcoming space for friend and stranger, the very act of hospitality reveals that we honor that person’s identity as a child of God. We’re not really inviting people to church. We’re inviting them into the family of God.
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