[Note: Due to technical glitches, this sermon text lacks the usual links, block-quote formatting, and italicization. As Anglocat Central is moving within the next two weeks, I hope these difficulties will be solved by then. Apologies for any lack of clarity as to what is quoted and what is original material.]
Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City
January 20, 2019
Long ago, in a town called Cana, a man named Jesus attended a wedding. He was a religious leader of a kind, and those who were trying to walk the way with him, to live a life in harmony with their truest, best selves, joined him at the wedding.
Well, as seems to fit a perennial pattern, the guests got drunk, and the wine ran out.
Having been a host, and a guest, at weddings, let me assure you that a large number of drunk people who are suddenly cut off tend to become less than ideal guests.
Normally, this wouldn’t fall within Jesus’s purview. But His mother was there, also, and that’s when the trouble begins.
“They have no more wine,” she tells him, and his first response is a neat little blocking shot; basically, he says, “Why is this my problem,” and then adds, a little inconsistently, that his hour had not yet come anyway. Also, he addresses her as “Woman,” which I’m sure helped out. I tried that little gambit when I was a kid after hearing the story in religion class, and I’m only here to tell you about it, because Mom was too busy laughing to smite me.
Mary is unflappable. “Do whatever he tells you to do,” she says to the servants, and she exits the story. So not only does Jesus make a whole new supply of wine, it’s so much better than what they’ve been serving that the steward thinks the bridegroom is an idiot for serving the cheap stuff first, and wasting this great wine on these drunk unruly guests who would find antifreeze perfectly acceptable by this point in the evening.
It’s a strangely mundane, almost funny, beginning to Jesus’s public ministry, the first of his signs—the Gospel’s word for miracles—being the saving of a party, because Mom put him on the spot.
But it’s only funny if we look at it through modern eyes. The bridegroom will be disgraced if he fails in hospitality, and Mary knows this. Jesus doesn’t deny her claim on him, and he doesn’t take it lightly that she is trying to salvage the event from disaster.
And I really wasn’t kidding about how that drunken crowd could have turned angry.
In other words, a celebration, a feast, a social norm of bounteous hospitality which the guests were entitled to expect, were all about to be violated, with all kinds of social consequences—humiliation and social ostracism of the bridegroom and his new wife, spilling onto their families. Loss of social cohesion, of the glue that holds the community together.
Instead, the bridegroom ends up with an enhanced reputation for exuberant, open-handed generosity—he doesn’t run out, and in fact, he doesn’t serve cheap wine as the event’s going into overtime! Nothing but the finest for his guests! In an honor culture, that kind of generosity can make you a legend.
Oh, it was just a small town wedding, not an epochal historical event, but Jesus’s bemused intervention saves the community from fracturing.
As our own National community, based on unwritten norms sometimes feels as if it is fracturing. We can all point to different instances of community fractures, but my attention was drawn by this weekend’s march for life, disfigured by a group of high school students who surrounded a Native American man, chanting a song as part of the Indigenous People’s March. The videos of students from Covington Catholic High School, ostensibly there to urge the protection of life, aggressively chanting “Build that wall” at Nathan Philips, a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War, paint a picture of mere anarchy, a center that cannot hold.
It’s a long way from the Wedding at Cana, but these days, Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” resonates in my mind:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?
The federal government has been shut down since December 22—tomorrow, when we celebrate the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will mark the end of the first month of the longest shutdown in American history.
800,000 federal employees, furloughed, or, worse, forced to work indefinitely without pay.
The State of the Union Address?
Cancelled, or indefinitely postponed, or reduced to a written homework assignment.
Which is not a bad reflection of the fractious and dysfunctional—no, sorry, it isn’t even dysfunctional, it is simply non-functional state of the union.
And the focus of all this chaos? A wall, to separate us from our neighbors to the South. After all, as Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
But Frost didn’t say that. He was quoting his neighbor, with whom he annually repaired the wall between their homes, who had adopted the maxim from his late father. Frost’s response is “to
Wonder if I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."
On this Sunday before Martin Luther King’s Feast Day, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to think of whom we are walling in, or walling out. Of to whom we are like to give offence, with our wall to only one border, while the northern border remains free and open. Of the harms this internecine war is inflicting on us as a Nation, on those who wish to legally seek asylum, on those who look to us as a Nation to emulate, symbolized by the lady with the torch, a beacon of welcome.
That’s closed too, by the way.
Actually, it isn’t, but that’s because New York State is keeping it open by bearing most of the costs.
The ostensible subject of this stand-off, the Wall, is both a national security policy debate, and a symbol. I’ll leave the policy and politics to those who are competent to address that, draw your attention to the symbol.
A wall is a symbol of divisions that are perpetuated without any real reason for them, as Frost delicately suggests in “Mending Wall.” In Game of Thrones, which some advocates of the proposed southern border wall have pointed to as an analogy, the Wall turns out to separate those who need each other to survive, and, when true danger threatens those who rely on its protection, it is too brittle to withstand the real threat.
As a symbol, whether at Jericho, in Game of Thrones—even in Robert Frost—the Wall comes tumbling down.
That’s because division and discord are not our natural state. Dysfunction, and stalemate are not who we are called to be.
Systems do not shutdown when they are healthy, but when toxicity has reached a critical mass.
And so we have to ask ourselves, what can we learn today from Jesus’s giving in to his mother’s concerns so long ago at Cana?
Generosity of spirit, for one thing. As far as we can tell, Mary doesn’t draw any attention to Jesus from the bridegroom, the bride, or their families. She just goes to her son, and presents him with the problem. And, for all of his not feeling that this is the proper place for him to begin his ministry, he does it.
The time may not be right, but the need is real, so Jesus responds with generosity of spirit, with a sign that nobody other than his friends see, and that the bridegroom gets the credit for.
Second, a sense of humor. Yes, everything I said about the duties of hospitality in the ancient world is true, but there’s a slightly sardonic edge to Jesus here. His words to Mary are slightly barbed, and of course his wine makes the bridegroom’s best taste like the cheap stuff. He throws himself into salvaging the wedding feast, but almost like he cant believe that this is his first sign. I can’t help but think that he had to smile as he watched the restoration of the social fabric, the reproachful steward, that he had to contain his laughter. I think he enjoyed this one—no big splash, no demons to cast out, just some big jugs of water, and a mysterious benefactor who manages to use them to restore harmony to the town.
Third, we don’t have to be miracle workers. In the reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul lists various gifts we are all given, and various ways in which we can serve—but he then adds, “All of these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually, just as the Spirit chooses.”
In other words, we all have our unique gifts, our abilities, we all have our passions, and what we do with them tells us a lot about who we are. But even more importantly, if we use our gifts, our passions, to reach across divides, to make connections, to build others up, rather than tear them down, we can find ourselves looking across our divides as sisters and brothers, rather than as strangers. We can forgive, and accept forgiveness for hurts inflicted on us and by us. We can learn that hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. That takes generosity of spirit.
If we can laugh with each other, at our own foibles, and at the incongruities of life, we can see our commonalities, our shared humanity, and not our differences, and hear what we have to offer one another.
And with that recognition that we can let go of preconceptions and of fear, and find that we are all the beloved children of the same God, and that those divides, those toxins don’t get the last word.
You do, as the beloved children of God.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
 Reportage subsequent to the preparation of this sermon has provided more context for the encounter between the studeants and Mr. Philips. The students appear to have been on the receiving end of hostile remarks from a third group, leading Phillips to interpose himself between the groups, in an effort to deescalate the situation. See Sarah Mervosh & Emily S. Rueb, “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video Between Native American Man and Catholic Students,” The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2019, at p. A 13.