"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Do Whatever He Tells You" (Sunday, March 18, 2012)

We’re not much into Lent around here. That whole tradition of giving something up in preparation for Easter, meant to symbolize the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his entry into Jerusalem, isn’t part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It hasn’t ever been, not even back in the old days when this church was still run by the Puritans.

No, we don’t do Lent, not here at church. But we do it at home, my dear Papist wife and I—not so much the “giving up” (which I could use more than she, obviously), but the putting aside a bit of time each day for a brief ritual to mark the 40 days of Lent, and get ourselves ready for Easter.

Which is why I know that today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and that, more particularly it’s known as “Laetare Sunday”, and we get to light the pink candle on our Lenten cross, rather than a purple one, as in other weeks. Laetare is from the Latin for “to rejoice”; so, this is “Rejoicing Sunday”—rejoicing because we’re getting closer to Easter; we’re past the half-way point, so the ancient Church declared that it would be a good time to loosen up a little, to give people a break in all their Lenten rigors. So, on Laetare Sunday (which is also sometimes known as “Rose Sunday” or “Mothering Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday”—that’s my cup of tea—if I had my may, every Sunday would be “Refreshment Sunday”!), there can be flowers on the altar, and organ music, and the priest can wear pink or red vestments, rather than the traditional Lenten purple (I am such a traditionalist, I’m still wearing purple today). Even weddings, which are otherwise banned during Lent, can be held on Laetere Sunday.

Now, the wedding at Cana did not take place on Laetere Sunday. (We know that, obviously, because, there wasn’t any Lent yet.) Other than that, we don’t know many of the particulars of the wedding at Cana, except that Jesus and his mother have travelled a few miles from their home in Nazareth to the town of Cana to be there.  We’re not sure whom the wedding was for. One old tradition says it was the wedding feast of John, the “beloved disciple”, with whom Mary would go to live after Jesus’ death. Another tradition says that the bride is Mary’s niece, the daughter of Mary’s sister; so then it would be Aunt Mary and Cousin Jesus, who had come from Nazareth to Cana for a family wedding.

Whatever the exact nature of the relationship, we know that it’s a close one, because Mary is very concerned when the unthinkable happens: {gasp!} the host runs out of wine. Now, such a lapse in hospitality would be a severe mortification for any of us, even today. (Which is why some of us, as a matter of course, always cook two or three times more than we’ll ever need when we have company coming.). In the ancient Near East, with its extremely strict code of hospitality, this would have been a Really Big Deal. But it has happened, perhaps because wedding feasts in the Near Eastern tradition didn’t go on for a few hours, like ours do; no, they went on for a few days—up to five days, or more. So a lot of wine gets imbibed during that time, and maybe the host didn’t figure right, or maybe the guests were especially thirsty, but at any rate, now they’ve run out. Mary, for whatever reason, knows all about it. Furthermore, she knows who can fix the problem.

So, she goes over to Jesus, who is probably just sitting there, talking with a couple of friends about great spiritual matters, or about the politics of the day between Rome and Palestine, or maybe about sports or something; or maybe he’s sitting all by himself, just chewing on his ice cubes (which is what some of us introverts do at weddings). She says to him, “They have no more wine.”

This is not what Jesus wants to hear. We can sense that he’s no little bit annoyed, too. “Woman,” he says (sometimes softened in translation to “Dear woman”) “why do you want to involve me?” (According to one writer who actually reads ancient Greek, addressing his mother as “Woman” would not actually be a sign of reproach (as it sounds to our modern ears), but rather of closeness and intimacy (sort of like, in English vernacular, addressing someone as “Man”, as in “Hey, man, what’s goin’ on?” So, this commentator says, it’s sort of like Jesus  saying, “Yo, mom, what’s up?”). But at any rate, this probably isn’t what Jesus wants to be told right now (he probably feels like a plumber at a party being told there’s a clogged drain upstairs). “Why do you want to involve me in this?” he asks his mother. “This isn’t any of our business.” Then, he adds (in words that only he and Mary would probably understand) “My hour has not yet come.”

But Mary knows that it has come.

Mary, as the mother of Jesus—as his helpmate and partner in faith at every step of the spiritual journey—knows that he has divine powers to heal, to transcend limitations, to set the world on its head—and that it is time for him to show his stuff right now. His time has come. As only a mother knows, Mary knows that Jesus will come through. As only the Mother of All Nations knows, Mary knows it is time to usher in a new way of relating upon the Earth.

She says nothing else to Jesus, but she probably just gives him that deep, motherly look; their eyes meet; and she knows he will respond. Mary goes over to the temporarily-redundant wine servers, and she says, simply, “Do whatever he tells you.” These are Mary’s last recorded words in Scripture; her charge to the servants—and perhaps, in the Christian tradition, to all of us: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Even Jesus knows that mother (usually) knows best. He goes over to the servants, and he points to six large stone jars—each holding between 20 to 30 gallons of water. “Fill the jars with water,” he tells them, and they do; they “fill the jars to the brim”, the gospel of John tells us. Then he tells them to draw out a draught of water, and bring it to the chief steward, the master of the banquet (the head caterer, I guess we’d say). They do so, and the steward tastes the water, and he is amazed. It’s not even water anymore—it’s wine! We’re not talking MD 20/20 or Ripple here, but the real good stuff—the best. “Ha!” he says, “you people are something! Usually people serve the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine after people have had too much to drink (and are probably too sloshed to be able to tell the difference anyway). But you’ve saved the best until now!

A major social faux pas has been avoided. Everybody gets to stay at the wedding feast and have a good time. Even more, John tells us, in this, the first of his miraculous “signs”, Jesus reveals his glory, and sets out on the road that will lead him, ultimately, to crucifixion and death in Jerusalem and (in the Christian tradition) to his resurrection and glory.

Now, at first the story of the wedding at Cana might seem like a rather strange reason for Jesus to perform the miracle that will get his earthly ministry rolling. People have puzzled over it for centuries, and haven’t quite known what to make of what seems, at first glance, a rather quaint little story. But the story of the wedding at Cana is a bit of scripture that has intrigued me for years, and the more I look at it, the more I think it’s like a hidden treasure chest, full of spiritual jewels.

First of all, just by showing up at the wedding, Mary and Jesus show us, as we hear in a different gospel, that “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” There’s no contradiction between enjoying life and striving to walk a spiritual path. Indeed, the spiritual pathway can often lead us into times of joy and celebration and sharing community with one another. Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. It can be a wedding feast instead. Religion isn’t just about stern, dry rituals and serious, dour faces. We need to allow ample space for frivolity, and revelry, and celebration in our approach to the Spirit—just as Jesus and Mary did when they blessed the feast at Cana, first with their very presence, then with their spiritual gifts.

Secondly, we need to do everything in our power to help one another. Mary knew that instinctively, and it was a value she never tired in teaching her cherished son. “They have no wine,” she told him—and then—unspoken—“Do something about it.” When your friend is in need, don’t waste time by asking, “What can I do to help?” Rather, delve deep into your heart and discern what it is that you can do—right then, right there—to lighten his or her burden. It might be something very small; it might not fix their situation in the long run; but it shows that you care, and it demonstrates your love in that moment. No act of kindness is ever wasted.

Don’t stand over others in judgment, but stand by them, trying to help. Jesus didn’t say sanctimoniously (as too many of his so-called followers have been all too quick to do in the years since) “Serves them right, they should have planned better.” Or, “Look at those lushes! They shouldn’t be drinking, anyway.” Or, “What do I care? I’ve got plenty of wine of my own stored away at home? Let’s go back to Nazareth.”

No, Jesus gets up off his bench and does what he can to help someone in need, because Mary—ever practical, ever alert to depth and meaning and purpose in every given moment—ever willing to discern the workings of the divine in the everyday—Mary reminds her son that this is his business—that all humankind is his business—and that we are bound to one another in an interconnected web of all creation.

Mary also knows, deep in her heart, where all this will lead. She knows that from this relatively insignificant and small event, that the world will be turned on its head. She knows that when an age turns, that which once seemed insignificant can become very significant, and that those things once thought powerful and impenetrable turn out to be mere chimeras and walking shadows.

The call of Jesus (and of Mary) is a call to turn the “accepted” and “acceptable” political and social and economic and religious norms of society on their heads. They speak of a world of abundance—abbondanza!—where there is plenty of wine for everyone, and plenty of food for everyone, and plenty of justice for everyone—and plenty of grace for everyone. They speak of a Reign of Heaven where God does not apportion the divine blessings in little dribs and drabs, like a miser handing out coins—but where abundance reigns and there is joy a-plenty.

Jesus doesn’t just make one more teensy glass of wine for everyone, and send them on their way. No, he has the servants fill six stone water jars, each holding from 20 to 30 gallons—120 to 180 gallons in all perhaps—and he fills them with the finest fruit of the vine. That’s a lot of wine for a simple country wedding. That’s the way our Mother Earth and our universe pours out its blessings upon us. The fount of Divine Mercy is, indeed, infinite.

It is religiously significant, I think, that the first miracle of Jesus in the gospel is about celebration. May we ponder that as we approach unto the season of Easter, that particular time when we are called upon to consider the Christian portion of our heritage just a little more deeply perhaps.

May we hear the voice of Jesus calling to us, down through these twenty-one centuries: When you celebrate life with one another—remember me. When you feast and when you dance—remember me. In your communities and in your families, remember me. In all of your holy marriages—in the deepest love of two people for one another—remember me.

May we also, prodded by the wisdom and the urging of our Mother Earth, arise now to live out our truest calling—to love, and serve, and help bring forth a New Creation. When our Mother Earth tells us, “They have no food. They have no water. They have no medicine. They have no hope.” – may we arise from our comfortable seats at the wedding feast, and try to discern what it is that we can do. May we listen to our Mother—and may we listen to the voice of the Spirit in our souls—and may we do whatever the Spirit tells us to do, and go where the Spirit wants us to go—through all the days of our mortal pilgrimage on this Earth.

…whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

            May the sweet excess of the love that is within us be poured forth abundantly over the face of all our world.

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