Wedding at Cana 2003 | John 2:1-11
*Preached at Grace North Church January 19, 2003.*
A word of warning before I begin: This sermon is, at least of the surface, in praise of wine. If there are any prohibitionists in the crowd, please stand up now and sing a chorus of "Away, Away with rum, by gum," or kindly hold your peace. In the name of the father, and the son
There is a legend which states that in the late middle ages, the Russian Czar had come to the conclusion that in order to unite his country, there would have to be one state religion to which everyone should belong.
He considered carefully all of his options. Finally, he settled on a short list of three, Islam, Buddhism or Christianity. He called representatives from each of the three religions to his court in Russia, and asked them each to state the case for their religion before himself and his advisors.
The Muslim representative spoke first. He spoke of the humaneness of Islam, of its tolerance for others, its respect for science and culture, and how it came with a complete legal system that had been refined and perfected through the centuries. When he had finished his pitch, he asked the Czar if there were anything else he would like to know. "One thing," the Czar told him, "Does Allah look favorably upon Vodka?"
The Muslim emissary shook his head and told him no, that alcohol was an abomination to Allah, and was not permitted.
"Next!" cried the Czar, and the Buddhist missionary was ushered in. The Buddhist monk explained the basic teachings of the Buddha, how all of life was suffering and how the Buddha showed the way to end suffering. Finally the King was getting bored and said, "I'll tell you how I stop suffering. Vodka! What does your Buddha have to say about that?"
The Buddhist monk told him that intoxicants were a hindrance to enlightenment, and were not permitted in Buddhism.
"Next!" cried the Czar, and a Christian Orthodox monk was ushered in. But before he could even begin teaching his elementary catechism, the Czar stopped him short. "Just tell me one thing, does your Jesus allow vodka?"
"Are you kidding?" the monk said, "We will give you wine and bread at every service of worship."
"Now I know what I am!" proclaimed the Czar, "I am a Christian! Baptize me, and all of my people." We can imagine that he also ordered them to break out the vodka in celebration.
Now, whether or not there is a grain of truth to this story, it is certainly true that Christianity has a different perspective on alcohol, and by extension, other vices, than many religions. In this we are closer to our parent religion, Judaism, in which alcohol also has a large ceremonial function. Now, this is not to say that Christianity is in any way a libertine religion; we share in common with Judaism the prohibition against drunkenness and disorder, but given that, we have enjoyed the gift of the grape. As scripture says, "A little wine makes the heart glad."
This attitude is never more in evidence in the New Testament than in our gospel reading for today. Jesus and his disciples have been invited to a marriage ceremony near Jesus' hometown. They're singing, they're doing those wacky dances that Jewish menfolk do with chairs in their teeth and all, and suddenly the wine runs out. Jesus' mother takes him aside and informs him. "So?" he says, "What does that have to do with me?"
Now, I'm not exactly sure what Mary was up to. I doubt she was a lush that just couldn't bear the thought of an empty glass. Probably she was the codependent type who didn't want anything to go awry at her friends' daughter's bash; she wanted to help her friends save face, perhaps. In any case, she tried to coax Jesus into doing some kind of miracle so that the party would keep going. Jesus is reluctant. It even seems to me that he gets a little ticked off at Mom, but ultimately she persuades him, and the wine does NOT run out. Not only that, Jesus apparently knows how to produce a good vintage, a trait not typically required of prospective messiahs.
Now, this story has been used in various ways throughout the centuries. Let's keep in mind that it only appears in the Gospel of John, the most highly mythologized of the gospels, so its authenticity is already highly suspect. Probably it got its start as the story that kicks off Jesus' career as a miracle worker. Those in the Romantic tradition have always loved this story as they tend to read into it a Jesus who is a bit of a party animal. But I think its greatest value is that it displays Christianity as a middle way between the ascetic extreme and the libertine.
I think it was Aristotle who said, "Nothing human is alien to me." This is an attitude that Jesus would have approved of, and one which Christianity, with greater or lesser degrees of success, has attempted to emulate. Jesus is not the severe ascetic who eschews every earthly joy spending all of his time in the heavenly rapture of contemplation. But nor is Jesus a self-destructive burnout. Instead, he walks the middle path between renunciation and excess. Jesus loves the world. He loves religion and learning. He loves food and wine and dancing and song. But most of all, Jesus loves people. And he loves all the things that go into making human beings human: courage and fear and joy and sorrow and studiousness and fun and friendship and solitude.
Any of these things in excess is destructive. But Jesus showed us much about what it means to be human, and how it is one can live an authentically human life by embracing the whole of human experience.
Of course, there are always those who would wish it otherwise. As a Southern Baptist, I was taught that there were a whole host of activities that God would surely get me for if I dared to try them. Alcohol was certainly out of the question, but so were playing cards, Hollywood movies, and dancing. When Cherrisa and I lived in the married housing at California Baptist College, it was often said that we should refrain from having marital relations standing up, because if anyone chanced to see us, they might think we were dancing, and THAT, of course, is a sin.
My grandmother, a devout Baptist, is convinced that since drinking wine is a sin, her Lord would NEVER have put it to his lips. And therefore every mention of wine in the New Testament is mistranslated and should properly be rendered "jelly." And we all know what it is like when your host puts out the GOOD fruit preserves at the beginning of a party, and only brings out the Smuckers AFTER you've already had several rounds of English Muffins. If my grandmother had been the one to make the appeal for Christianity to the Czar, Russia may well be a Jewish state today, and all this bugaboo about Israel would be completely unnecessary.
Imagine my shock when I came from this kind of environment and first attended an Episcopal church. Not only was it real wine and not grape juice being used at communion, but there was regularly beer and wine available at church functions. When I went to St. George's annual parish picnic, I was shocked and frankly delighted by their practice of using open beer cans to delineate the volleyball court. Whenever the ball would knock over one of the cans, both teams would shout "alcohol abuse!" and continue their play. To this sheltered little Baptist boy, this was just surreal.
Christians of a more ascetic bent, like my grandmother, would be quick to dismiss St. George's parishioners as not being "real" Christians. I have run into this myself several times, especially at wedding receptions. If the bride is catholic and the groom from a fundamentalist background, or vice versa, people would often glare at the priest nursing a beer. One time someone started to berate me for it, but I stopped them and explained that unlike evangelicals, we Catholics do not eschew our vices, we simply baptize them.
Jesus certainly encountered the same compulsive anhedonia in his ministry. The Pharisees admonished him for drinking and eating with sinners. "Look," an exasperated Jesus told them, "When my cousin John came, he ate no bread and drank no wine and you called him a demon. I come along, eating and drinking, and you call me a drunk and a glutton. There's just no pleasing some people." That's a paraphrase, of course, but you get the idea.
Now, I understand that alcohol and other vices are problematic. There are folks in our own congregation that are in recovery and I do not make light of their struggle. William Blake once said that "the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom." But, in far too many cases, it only leads to ruin. Asceticism is one extreme, but excess is another. It takes real courage to conquer an addiction, and abstinance is certainly necessary for some, but against modest use for most folks, I don't think even an AA sponsor would argue.
Now, I hear tell that Fr. Richard has been enjoying wine for nearly 70 years and has never once been intoxicated! What an amazing guy! He is a better man than I. I myself, due to some bizarre fluke of chemistry, find that I can no longer tolerate even a single shot of whiskey without waking the next day with the hangover from hell. Being the scotch fan that I am, this chemistry-enforced abstinence sometimes makes me feel like someone has removed my left arm or stolen my couch. Ah well, we live, we change, we have to do the Stairmaster. That's life.
But LIFE is what it is all about. As Christians we are not called to be separate from the world. We are not called to hole up in caves, or to deny ourselves every creaturely comfort or earthly pleasure. The Bible says that God made the world and said, "It is good." It is hubris to think that human beings are so powerful that our sin could undo the basic goodness of creation. We come to church not to divest ourselves of our sins but to celebrate the abundant life that God has given us. We do it with food, we do it with wine, just as Jesus did. And sometimes, when we have our maypole up or on Scottish Sunday, we do it with dancing. We do this because creation is good, because our bodies are good, because sexuality and sensuality are good, because human community and friendship and rejoicing is good. Because there is nothing human that is alien to any of us. Let us pray
God of wine and dancing, God of cookies and burgers, and both
the good and bad kinds of cholesterol, we are here because we
are grateful. The gifts Thou has given us overwhelm us with joy.
For our lives are not only suffering, they are also deep and rich,
and filled with pleasure and comfort. You do not call us to renunciation,
but to celebration, and furthermore you ask us to share our joy
with those around us, to point to Thee as the source of all good
things, that they may see their lives, say "It is good"
and give to Thee their thanks as well. Help us to walk the middle
path, as Jesus showed us. Help us to avoid both denial and excess,
and to enjoy your many gifts in ways which make our lives rich
and meaningful. For we ask this in the name of Jesus, who still
rejoices to eat and drink with sinners. Amen.