Saving the Day
Saving the Day
Years ago, when Emma was maybe in first grade, we threw a big birthday party for her in the basement of the church. She was allowed to invite everyone she wanted. Lots of children came. We planned out games and other activities. We made sure to have a cake. Though I didn’t really realize it at the time, the most important thing that we were going to do at that party was distribute goodie bags.
I came to realize just how important this was when, as I was distributing these bags to all these cute kids, one of them looked in the bag, looked me straight in the eye and said, “This goody bag sucks!.” (Sorry about the language…I’m just trying to be accurate.) Immediately, this first grader reduced me to shreds. Instead of feeling indignant, I felt like she was standing with some sort of objective view straight into my soul. (Again, I’m not justifying what she said…I’m telling you how it hit.) All of a sudden, everything that we had done to try to make this birthday special seemed like it must have surely “sucked,” too.
We weren’t at “Build a Bear” or “The Gymnastics Factory” or that cool place where you got to paint your own pottery. We were in the church basement. We had no idea that cupcakes were cooler than cake. Our games weren’t that fun. I had been reduced to feeling like a total failure by a rude first grader.
My point here has to do with the vulnerability we feel as parents. We love our children—all of us. Some of us can afford to throw some pretty amazing parties for our children and some of us can’t. Rationally, we know that how big the party is doesn’t serve as a measure of anyone’s love. However, we want the best for our kids and that’s hard when someone else’s best is better.
If there was any good news for my kids when it came to such issues it was that it was just so patently obvious that we couldn’t keep up that they gave that up pretty early. Birthday parties were family times. Spring Break included a trip to that brand new place in Vernon Hills called “Krispy Kreme” where you could watch the doughnuts roll along the conveyer belt. Vacations were times spent with our friends who were gracious enough to share their homes.
What looms, potentially, some day are the prospect of weddings which are like taking that first grade birthday party and putting it on steroids. I remember the wedding that Tracy and I did at the Drake Hotel. We walked out and faced the “congregation” and saw the most perfect place that I had ever seen. It was like the Botanic Garden and Buckingham Palace all wrapped up into one. I remember mumbling to Tracy that these people must have made some horrible mistake in asking people like us to officiate a wedding in a place like that! I have done destination weddings from Nantucket Island to Desert Mountain, Arizona. And, I have to say, that some of the most high end weddings have been profoundly meaningful. (Even though it would be “convenient” if the case were otherwise.) I’m just not sure that they were more meaningful because of their settings and trappings.
I have also overseen weddings that were profoundly simple: a seaman from the navy base and his fiancé who got married with just the three of us on the bluff before he deployed; the guy who came to clean the church carpets who asked if I would do his wedding the next day, standing on the carpets he had just cleaned. These were some of my favorite weddings because they were, in a very bare bones way, simply about how much those people loved each other. (I will admit that I do tend to mention these weddings more often to my daughters—just planting seeds, you know!)
Across that spectrum of weddings, the most interesting thing has probably been the chances that came to try to save the day. There was the wedding when the bride passed out on top of Tracy. (I will never forget just seeing Tracy’s face pop out from under all the fabric of her robe and the bride’s incredibly flowing dress!) I have had more groomsmen and bridesmaids pass out than I could remember. I have had dropped wedding rings, flower girls who refused to part with a single rose petal, and openly hostile parents who decided their child’s wedding would be a great time to make some point about why they got divorced.
The thing is, though, that there has always been a way to try to save the day. Some things you need to laugh at and by doing so just relieve everyone’s tension. Some things you need to ignore and then invite everyone back to the real focus, “Look at this amazing couple!” I have been known, if there is tension at a wedding rehearsal to deal with that tension in a pretty upfront way and make the point perfectly clear: “Hey, remember…we’re here to celebrate the love of these two people!” There’s a lot at stake. Sometimes, people need a chance to save face. Sometimes, you need to do what needs to be done to save the day.
Our text this morning is about a wedding in Cana. Here is a little bit of background that may help. A wedding in that ancient world ran for a week—that’s right, an entire week. The bridegroom was responsible for throwing this party and that meant providing tons of food and wine. These were lavish affairs, great celebrations in which the whole community would share. They would be talked about for years to come.
The problem with the wedding at Cana is that it is only day three and they are out of wine. (In other words, their “goody bags” sucked, too!) Jesus and his mother and the disciples are all invited to this party. (Here’s an interesting fact: the Gospel of John never calls Mary by her name and she only appears twice in the Gospel—in this wedding scene and at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies.) Jesus’ mother does what any good mother would do—she tells her son that there’s a problem: “They have no wine.” And, like any good son, when he is told that there is a problem, he understands that the unspoken message is, “Do something!” (If you don’t believe me here, the next time your mother or some other similar figure in your life mentions that the garbage can is full, just try answering, “Wow, how did that happen?”)
The truth is that Jesus does sound a bit whiney at first. He calls his mother, “Woman,” which I am not going to try myself. Then, he points out that they are not under any obligation to help. At this point, I think this is John framing in what we are about to see. What Jesus is about to do has nothing to do with fulfilling the law or any other obligation. Rather, it is about pure grace. He recognizes the needs of others for help and he freely chooses to respond. (As I researched this text this week, people far smarter than me insisted that the Greek version of this text is far less whiney than the English translation.) Most importantly for John, Jesus says that, his “hour has not yet come,” a phrase that John will repeat over and over again until the hour that comes is Jesus’ time to be crucified and die and rise again. So, John, for the first time says to us, “This is a big deal but it is not the big deal.” That is yet to come. Instead, like all mothers, Jesus’ mother knows her son will act so she tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. (This, of course, is sound advice that all of us who would be servants of Christ have been trying to follow ever since!)
What follows is what John calls a sign. John never talks about miracles. To catch the difference, you need to just think about what is on metal posts at the corner of Prospect and Moffett when you leave from church. It is red and white and contains some letters which spell out the word, “Stop.” However, what matters isn’t how that sign was made or how you feel about the color combination of paints. What matters is the meaning. If you don’t catch that meaning and live accordingly, you may well run square into another car or at least you may acquire a special ticket of your very own from the Lake Bluff Police.
So, the question always for John’s Gospel is, “What does this sign mean?” Here’s what Jesus does. He goes to the servants and has them fill six stone containers with water. John tells us that these were twenty to thirty gallon containers. So, think of a container roughly the size of a big garbage can made of stone. Think how heavy that would be even if it was empty. Now, think of how heavy it would be when it was filled with water. The servants didn’t balk at this. They didn’t fill the containers just to a manageable level. They filled them to the brim. They were obedient servants who did what they were asked to do and this action was essential. So, the sign that follows depends on the actions not of holy people or the in-crowd or any experts. The prerequisite for the sign is the “heavy lifting” of the hard working folks.
Jesus then has the servants take their pitchers and dip them into the water containers and take them to the wine steward. At this point, the wine steward tastes the “water” and he discovers that it has become wine. However, this is not the cheap stuff. This is the best wine the steward has ever tasted. In fact, the steward is so excited that he calls the bridegroom out: “Hey, you’ve been holding back on us! Everyone else serves the good wine first because no one will care how the wine tastes after the first glass or two. You, on the other hand, have saved the best for last.” (And, presumably, there is another 150 to 180 gallons left which should cover even the most lavish feast!)
What does the sign mean? Jesus takes containers that would have been about making people ritually clean and graciously fills them with what was needed to save the day. Without ever calling attention to himself, he set the wheels in motion so that a family’s place in the community could be restored, through the hard work of those willing to serve. And yes, embedded in this sign is this message, if you think this is something, you just wait: the best is yet to come. The disciples stood there and watched as faith transformed from being judged into receiving grace. And for the first time, they began to believe in this man.