Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Miracles - and Why We Miss Them

John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2 (C)
January 17, 2010
William G. Carter

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

When I was a little boy, about seven or eight years old, I unwrapped a set of magic tricks for Christmas. It came in a big box, with probably twenty-two different tricks. There was an expanding magic wand, a deck of cards, and a few handkerchiefs. Pretty soon, I had practiced up a number of tricks, and decided to put on a show. The auditorium had three chairs – for my mom, my dad, and my sister, who doubled as my assistant. At 7:00, I called them together with a flourish, and announced myself as The Amazing Cartero.

Coming out to polite applause, I fanned out a deck of cards for my father. “Pick a card, any card. I can tell you what it is.” And my assistant squawked, “Every one of the cards is an ace of clubs.”

I ignored her and moved on. The Amazing Cartero would not be distracted. I moved to a card table with three orange cups and a little blue ball. Scrambling them up, I said, “I bet you can’t tell which one hides the ball.” My sister got out of her chair and pointed correct orange cup. One trick after another, she explained them all. My magical career began to fade as she laughed with glee. Sensing my disappointment, my mother said, “Maybe it’s time we make your sister disappear.” As far as I was concerned, that was the best trick of the night. The only problem is she was back again the next morning!

Today we hear a story that sounds like Jesus did a magic trick at a wedding. He turned the water into wine. Hecklers through the ages have tried to explain the trick, or at least to explain it away. “There’s no such thing as a miracle,” they say. “It was a sleight of hand trick, used to win over his first disciples.” Granted, it was a grand miracle of David Copperfield proportions – 180 gallons of sparking water turned into the best Manischewitz. How did Jesus do it? Where did he have the good stuff hidden? If my sister had been there, I’ll bet she would have tried to spill the secret.

What’s so amazing about this miracle is how low-key it is. The mother of Jesus tries to force the episode, but her son shrugs her off. When she gets out of his hair, and the coast is clear, Jesus instructs the catering guys to fill up those old stone jars. Then he does not wave his hands or incant a magic formula. In fact, he doesn’t do anything at all.

Next thing we know, the party manager takes a sip, and then another. He compliments the bridegroom for saving a secret stash of what must have been an awful lot of wine. The whole village was probably there, in generous Middle Eastern tradition. The party had gone on long enough to consume a lot of wine. And off to the side, while few people are paying attention, this strange wedding guest Jesus creates a catering miracle.

We can’t explain what he does. And forget all those sermons you’ve ever heard about this story – there is no reason for why he does this. It’s not because his mother wants him to do it – he brushes her off. Neither does he do this to perpetuate the party, as so many Woodstock-era preachers have tried to prove. There is really nothing useful about this miracle; he is not turning stones into bread to feed the multitude, nor is he preventing an earthquake from demolishing a town. For God’s sake, Jesus is making a huge amount of wine, and he’s doing it mostly out of sight.

Forget all the pious claptrap we have all heard about this story – the Jesus of John’s Gospel is no Party Dude. He does not bless a bride and groom with an abundant gift, nor does he try to save them from the embarrassment of a catering disaster. You get the sense that Jesus would have been glad to do his job quietly and walk away. That was probably his intent – until John the Gospel Writer yells out, “Look at this! Look at this!” And unless we look, we might have missed it.

One of my friends called me up at Thanksgiving break, the first year we both went to college. He was a scientist, a bright guy. In high school, he got all the top awards for physics and math. When he went to Cornell, he got involved in a Bible study group. “They helped me figure it out,” he said. Figure what out?

“Well, there are a lot of miracles mentioned in the Bible. Jesus did a lot of them, but he doesn’t do them anymore.” I wanted to know what they were telling him at Cornell. He pulled out this big study Bible. There was almost as much printing in the margins as there was on the page. He explained that somebody had figured it out: history was divided into different eras. There was a time for miracles, when Jesus walked the earth. But after his death, after his resurrection, after he went back up into heaven, there were no more miracles.

I said, “How can you be so sure?” And with level gaze, he said, “I’ve never seen a miracle; have you?”

Seeing and believing. That’s one of the underlying concerns of this famous Bible story: Jesus does this amazing, astounding deed, and it’s just out of sight for most of the people. The servants who filled the six stone jars know a little bit. They poured in buckets of water, and drew out some wine. But they didn’t really see it change.

The very last tagline of the story declares, “His disciples believed in him.” But it never says that they actually saw the miracle, either. What they saw was Jesus. What they believed in – was Him. For them, it was perfectly conceivable that he might have done, even if they didn’t see it. Unlike my sister Debbie, the squealing assistant, they had no need to try to explain what happened. They simply stayed open to the fact that he could have made it happen. Their faith wasn’t perfect – we know that from plenty of other stories in the Gospels – but there seemed to be a basic trust that if anybody could do anything, Jesus was the One who could do it.

What does it mean to have faith? One of the working definitions that emerges from this story is a basic openness to Holy Power. It’s the awareness that God doesn’t have to stick to his own script. God can do just about anything – and does. We don’t have to ask for air; it’s simply given to us. We don’t need to request more wine or bread; there is already plenty to go around. Well, where did it come from? It must come from the same Source where all things come from.

But didn’t we make the wine ourselves, plant the vineyard, harvest the grapes, stomp out the wine, put it all in bottles? Yes, if you want to think it’s all about us – but who made that field? Where did the grapes come from? Who gave us feet to stomp? And should we burrow down to the bedrock, scrape away all human work and effort, sooner or later we discover all things come from God. When did God make it? Well, we don’t know. We weren’t paying attention.

That is the number one reason why we miss out on miracles – because we are not paying attention. We are consumed with our own business that we miss out on whatever it is that God is doing.

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard tells about seeing a mocking bird dive from a rain gutter on a tall building. She said it was “as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.” Here’s her description:

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bands of while, spread his elegant white banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (p. 8)

Faith means there is more going on than any one of us can take in. Each moment is pregnant with potential. There is the deep possibility in the power of Christ that something beautiful and grace-filled can happen, even if there is a cross in the picture.

The mother of Jesus knows this. She expects him to do something about the embarrassing shortage of win. He pushes back, saying the timing is all wrong, referring perhaps to his resurrection. Not only that; this is the Gospel of John, and nobody can tell Jesus what to do. Yes, he comes in grace and truth, but it is his grace and truth, and neither gift comes out of a faucet on demand. His mother is a good Jewish mother. She throws up her hands, and says, “Do whatever he tells you!” When she’s out of the picture, the miracle can begin.

The point is, Mary knows something can happen. Jesus has the power to do whatever he wishes to do. We expect that – that’s what it means to believe in him. He can do what needs to be done – in your life, in my life, in the life of this church or this village – although I believe he’s staying pretty busy in Haiti this weekend. And to trust Jesus means that we welcome him to do as he chooses. He will go where he needs to go, and do what he chooses to do.

The world would like us to believe that what we see is all we are going to get. Fear sinks in, where trust grows cold. We grow anxious and impatient as we wait for God-in-Christ to stop working the room and get around to our concerns. Sometimes all we can see are the deficits, not the resources. We prattle on about the scarcity in the world, and pay little attention to the abundance that God provides every day. So let me just say it: either God provides, and God creates, or we are totally on our own.

Or to say it in the sharpest terms, either God is alive or we are dead. I think of the entry that Dag Hammarskjold once wrote in his journal: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

It’s telling that Jesus goes to work at a wedding. There’s always so much going on at a wedding than ever meets the eye. There’s no question that something should be happening off stage, just out of sight. And if God is present among the people, that there is some means by which God would be revealed. Not everybody will see it, not everybody can see it in any given minute, but that is how it is in the realm of faith.

For instance, John tells us a story in chapter twelve. Jesus is praying to the Father and says, “Father, glorify your name.” Suddenly a Big Voice spoke from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” John says some people were standing there. Some said it was an angel. Others said it was thunder. John said it was God. Even when God speaks directly, not everybody can hear it. (12:28-30)

That’s the way it is. God reveals and conceals at the same time. The rabbis used to say, “If a miracle occurs, and there’s only one way to explain it, then God had nothing to do with it.” God does not usually act in obvious ways. If a heavenly voice speaks to one person, the next person will not hear it. If God does something really amazing, some may see it, others will not. What’s required is faith – faith that leans forward to listen, faith that imagines this is what God is doing, faith that discerns that this is what is in the larger purposes of what we know about God, and ultimately, faith in the strange creative power of Jesus. Anything less is less than God.

Our friend Bill Leety, the poet who visited us last fall, puts some of this in a prayer that he wrote the day before the Haitian earthquake. It’s a good poem with which to end the sermon. I’ll read it, give it a few moments to sink in, and then we will sing the hymn. Bill reflected on the last few words of the Gospel story, which say, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”

Jerusalem we know, Lord;
the Big Apple of that day for Jewish preachers like you.
Where’s Cana?
Whoever heard of Cana except John the gospeller?

Lord, are you telling us your glory can be found in…
Cana? In backwaters? In nations we can’t find on a map?
In towns and hamlets and crossroads—crossroads?
You play the small venues for small people like us to see your glory.

So Lord, help me resist following just spotlights
and headlines in my search for you.
Open my eyes to glories close to home
at a village wedding, a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese,
a middle school concert, or dinner at the kitchen table;
so that I, like other disciples, believe.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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