January 16, 2016

Choosing the Setting


Text: John 2:2: “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.”

There is something about a wedding. It is a kind of microcosm, an intensely focused moment, of what makes us human. We find out the full capacity of our hearts for great hope—and just maybe the power of that hope to overcome our simultaneous capacity for uncertainty. We find out what it’s like, just for a moment—usually for about thirty-seven minutes—to be the absolute center of attention. And we quickly discover how we react to that experience.

Weddings are a kind of compressed moment of great meaning. If you see them from the perspective of the officiant, or the musician, it doesn’t take too much experience of these moments to arrive at the conclusion that weddings can bring out the very best, and the very worst, in people. And that stands to reason; because weddings create marriages, and marriages do exactly the same thing, and over a longer period of time.

In much of our culture, about the first thing a newly engaged couple goes off to do is to find a suitable setting for the engagement ring. The setting, of course, is what holds the jewel in place; it is both intended to be incidental and yet absolutely necessary.

In two of the readings we’ve heard this morning, the setting that is chosen for the text is, wouldn’t you just know it, a wedding. The relationship between bride and bridegroom is put to poetic use by Isaiah to describe the relationship between God and God’s people.

That image, so beautiful and so familiar, is offered to people who are longing to go home—to know what and where home is; they are people still living in exile and not yet returned to their own place. Isaiah is comforting them with simple, profound idea; home begins where the heart finds its mate. Home is not so much a physical place as an emotional bond.

But it’s on the text from John’s gospel that I want to focus. This little drama, with Mary and Jesus and the water and the wine, this story is remembered every time we use the prayer book to commit matrimony. It is quite literally the second sentence I say when I officiate at a wedding: “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” If you don’t believe me, it’s right there on page 423.

But this is not going to be a sermon about the miracle of turning water into wine. Instead I want to focus on the choice of setting; the wedding. It might just be incidental; but somehow I doubt that. Indeed I’m sure it has something important to teach us.

We never know just who the bride and groom of the wedding might be. There are some thin clues; Mary is there, while Jesus and his disciples are invited. So perhaps this is a family connection of Mary’s; they had to invite Jesus along because, well, he sort of comes along with Mary, or perhaps he hasn’t quite yet found a job, and she has to explain a little awkwardly that her son is traveling around with a crowd these days, and could he perhaps bring some of his friends along? Like, oh, perhaps twelve friends or so?

Those are the particulars. And we all know what happens. It must be quite a party; of course it would be, if you can bring twelve of your friends along with you on short notice. They run out of wine—the Greek text says they ended up hysteresantos, which means something more like “being deficient”; so it isn’t just as supply problem, it’s a social problem. Their lack of wine will mean a lack of respect for them by the invited guests.

And all of this comes out right when something like 120 or 180 gallons of water standing by in large pottery jars is somehow transformed into the best wine yet. Of course it’s the groom, who knows nothing about any of this, who gets the credit; and we may assume that, like any man in his position, he takes immediate and complete credit.

In the story, however, is a sign about the setting itself. And that is what is worth our attention.

That this miraculous transformation happens in the setting of a wedding is not an accident. Water is turned into wine, yes, but that is a stand-in for the transformation that love makes in us.

God’s love is not just meant to comfort us. It’s not just meant to accept us, or admire us. All of that is lovely, and all of it is true; but it is not the whole truth. God’s love is meant to transform us—for good.

At the very center of our faith is the claim that God loves us into being, and in creating us creates us in the image and likeness of God. At the very least that means that we are created with the capacity for free will, and by exercising that will to be creators—to create our own lives, and our own meaning.

In the exercise of that freedom we have a bad tendency to follow our own passions, our own ideas, or—worse—the pressures of our culture, along paths that lead us into places we were neither intended nor designed to go. The old-fashioned prayer book language for this is to speak of the “devices and desires of our own hearts.” Hard to improve on that.

So more often than not, even though we are created by God, we stand in need of being transformed by God’s love into the people God meant us to be. And it turns out that one of the purposes of marriage is to be the stage and setting in which we can find love with that kind of power.

It is love powerful enough to make us safe in our vulnerability, because without that vulnerability nothing changes. It is love powerful enough to help us give up the things that we’ve tried that don’t work, and to give ourselves to the things in us that do work, and that God intends for us. It is love powerful enough to be life-giving, which is, after all, God’s business.

Of course marriage is not the only setting in which that can happen. There are plenty of single people who find a way into a deeper, transforming relationship with God. And despite best intentions and great efforts, not all marriages manage to be what they might be. In fact exactly because of this great potential for good, marriages that fail can deeply wound.

But that setting—the setting of two people joined to each other in a bond of love, of faithfulness, and of mutual vulnerability—that setting turns out to be the primary way—the archetype, if you will-—of how God sorts this out for us. That is the setting God has chosen for most of us to figure this out, to have a way of understanding what it means to say that love has the power to transform us into our best selves.

Now, this past week we’ve heard yet again about how the question of where the church stands on the question of who gets to be married and who doesn’t is threatening the unity of the Anglican communion. And we, in the Episcopal church, have been given what I can only describe as a time out for the positions we have taken. What it means in practice is that there are meetings we won’t be invited to. It’s a little hard to interpret that as a punishment, but there it is.

I certainly acknowledge that the way in which our church has come to this position might have lacked gentleness, or nuance, or graciousness toward those who struggle to agree with the place at which we have arrived.

But friends, if your friends ask you what all the trouble is about, if you want to know why this church, your church, and why the Episcopal church, has come after a long and difficult process of discernment and dispute to the position that marriage should be a state of life open to all people, no matter what——well, I just told you.

It is because we believe every human being has both the right and the need to encounter the power of God’s love to transform us into our best and blessed selves. That is what we understand God’s purpose to be in saving us—and we believe that God intends for everyone to be within the circle of salvation. What is more, we believe absolutely every last one of us stands in need of repentance, transformation, and renewal—not just some of us.

God has chosen through Christ to save us through a love powerful enough to cut through our defenses and change our hearts. The setting God has chosen for most of us to find that love is through the love that we find with a partner in life. And so long as we put God’s fundamental purpose above our own judgment, we will be confronted again and again with the ways in which that purpose breaks down the walls we have built to keep that treasure the privilege of only some.

Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Friends, now we are the servants. And so we have. And we will continue to, by God’s grace, as well as we can. Amen.