By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 2:1-11
Many years ago I attended a Youth Specialties Youth Workers’ Sabbath Retreat. As part of the overall schedule and structure, we were divided into small groups that met each day with a spiritual director. It was my first experience with group spiritual direction. The director provided a scripture, a topic or a question and we were invited to share how it connected with our life. We weren’t compelled – merely invited – to share. But we were asked not to comment or respond to what others shared. We were asked to simply listen; to listen with the ear of our hearts, so to speak. And, we were asked to maintain a period of silence after each person spoke, allowing time to absorb what had been said and to pray silently for the one who had shared. It was one of the most powerful experiences of Christian community I have ever had. Here’s what I discovered through that experience…
I discovered that, I don’t always listen when people speak to me because – as they are speaking – I am already formulating my response. Now, I don’t think I’m unique in this; at least I hope I’m not.
Sometimes in the evening, I flip on cable news. And, not infrequently, I catch an interview segment in which two people – representing opposing views – are talking simultaneously. But they’re not the only ones; the anchor is also talking in an attempt to get them to stop talking over one another. It’s absolute chaos; an annoying cacophony of sound… but one that is increasingly prevalent in our culture. People talk over one another, talk past one another, in an effort to have the last word and win others to their position.
This current sermon series is entitled “The Power of Words.” Words are very powerful. They are capable of building up and tearing down. The words we say to one another define and shape our relationships. And no word is more powerful than the Word of God. John’s gospel proclaims that Jesus is the very embodiment of that Word and that that Word is the source of life; that Word draws us into community, a new experience of family. The intro to John’s gospel tells us that through receiving Jesus – by entering into trusting relationship with Jesus – we become children of God, born not of blood or of the will of flesh or the will of man, but of God.[i] Jesus, as God’s Word made flesh, has come to draw us into an intimate relationship with God the heavenly Father and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
This morning’s gospel story is an Epiphany story because it revelatory in nature; a story that reveals Jesus’ identity; reveals that he is something more than your typical first-century Mediterranean rabbi. In fact, this story closes with the comment: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
But if the goal of this miracle was only to disclose Jesus’ identity and lead people to faith, why was it done in such a quiet and discreet way. At this large gathering, only a handful of people are privy to this miracle that has taken place: Jesus’ mother, his inner circle of disciples, and a few servants. So, why was such care taken to keep this miracle on the down low?
Well, let me explain a few things about wedding banquets in first century Palestine…
First, they involved the whole village. These were big shindigs because Mediterranean culture – both then and now – places enormous value on hospitality, on welcoming and meeting the needs of one’s guests. An inability or unwillingness to demonstrate hospitality resulted in shame. And running out of food or drink at a village celebration like this one… well, within our cultural context, we can’t even begin to comprehend the social implications.
We need to also keep in mind that most people in first century Galilee were peasants; peasants in an age without banks or credit cards or even refrigeration. So how was one to gather the appropriate resources for such an elaborate celebration as a wedding banquet? Well, by relying on one’s friends. 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 the favor, so to speak.
Now in the case of this wedding banquet, the provisions were obviously inadequate. There wasn’t enough wine. There was a noticeable deficit. But the deficit wasn’t really about wine. The lack of wine communicated a lack of hospitality. And 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 really boils down to relationships. (Remember what I said earlier: the intro to John’s gospel reveals that Jesus has come to draw us into an intimate relationship with God the heavenly Father and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.) And that is likely why this miracle is hidden, discreet. 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 obvious to the guests when the wine ran out. This story is about relationships, friends with whom to celebrate this most joyous of occasions. Within this story, Jesus steps into the role of friend to provide for this couple on their wedding day.
Jesus is God’s Word made flesh and, as such, you would have expected him to have a lot to say, all the time and everywhere. But within the context of this story, speaking openly and calling attention to himself would have harmed this couple and their families. It would have brought shame on them. On this occasion, the word of God is a hidden word; a subtle, private word. And if we are to live as disciples of Jesus, it ought to inspire us to give deeper consideration to our own words: what is our motivation when we speak and do our words honor others or shame them?
Many of you are aware that, over the past couple of years, I’ve been connected with Benedict Inn south of Indy; first for my spiritual direction certification and now through a clergy women’s program. Benedict’s Order (the oldest monastic order in the world) is focused on listening. His first instruction for his monks was to “listen with the ear of your heart.” Benedict taught that there are three gates (or filters) our words should pass through:
There is the story of a village that received a new rabbi. For whatever reason, the pastor in town did not like this new rabbi. He complained to others and spoke ill of them, continually criticizing the rabbi. But eventually something took place that caused him to repent of his attitude and regret his nasty words. In his repentance, he went to the rabbi to apologize and asked what he could do to make things right. The rabbi told him to get a down-filled pillow, tear it, and let the feathers fly away in the wind. The pastor did and then he returned to the rabbi. He said, “I’ve done it, now what?” The rabbi said, “Go and re-gather those feathers… for you can no better take back your words than you can re-gather those feathers in the wind.”
Friends, the first miracle Jesus performed in Cana honored a poor peasant family. It was a revelation of his glory; but it was discreet and hidden for ultimately, the Word of God did not become flesh simply to say a lot of words. The Word of God became flesh, Jesus took on flesh, to bring us into intimate relationship with God the Father and with one another. May our words, also, be words that honor others, build community, and draw us closer to God.
[i] John 1:12-13
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