"We're Not Jesus (When the Wine Runs Out 2.0)"
Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Second Sunday after Epiphany
20 January 2013
Day Texts: Isaiah 62.1-5
1 Corinthians 12.1-11John 2.1-11
NOTE: On January 20th I actually preached two different sermons, for two very different communities, though drawing from the same basic material. The first, "Midnight in Montgomery" can be found here.
Audio version available here
-It’s pretty amazing how, as we grow, the same old stories can take on strange new meanings. They grow with us, or, perhaps, we grow with them. Regardless, that’s how it is with today’s text for me, the story of Jesus’ first-ever miracle - the ol’ water-into-wine trick.
-See, the last time this text came around in the lectionary, it was three years ago. Back then, it was also the day before Martin Luther King Day. And as I recall it was just days after a major earthquake ravaged the people of Haiti. Of course, churchy folks and people of good will everywhere were quick to respond. Thank God.
-But of course, I felt indignant. I wanted people to help poor black folks in Durham, North Carolina, their neighbors, as well as in distant Haiti. So I somewhat self-righteously preached about how we needed to be more attentive to places where, as in the story, “the wine had run out.” Not just the places that Brad Pitt cares about, far away. But the places nearest to us, so familiar as to go unnoticed. We needed to bring the wine of joy to places of emptiness and despair. In our own neighborhoods. To our own neighbors.
-Which is a great sentiment, and I still stand by that. As members of the Body of Christ, justice and being in community with marginalized folks is, frankly, not optional. But I also think I got it pretty wrong. Because I made a mistake that people of privilege are often quick to make. I assumed that in the story, I was Jesus. And if there’s one thing I can say I think I’ve learned in the past three years, it’s that putting ourselves in the place of Jesus rarely works out for the best. For anyone.
-Because of course, beard to the contrary, I’m not Jesus. But my one consolation is that I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one falling into that trap. We do live in Rochester, after all, which is, last I heard, the second-most voluntaristic city in the nation. I’m constantly blown away by how many people here give so much of themselves, and how deeply we all care about making a difference, in the lives of others and in our fair city. It’s totally inspiring, and I count myself blessed to live among such amazing people.
-And yet, Rochester remains near the top of the charts in child poverty and among the lowest in education. In a supposedly post-civil rights world, we continue to be more far more segregated than any place I lived in the South. Despite all the best efforts and deep passions of people here, things aren’t necessarily getting better all the time. We aren’t Jesus, after all.
-What’s more, a common story I keep hearing is one, not of success, but of burn-out. Organizers continually share how well-intentioned do-gooders pour themselves into a project or a place, only to withdraw a few months later, once the excitement has died down, and there are no results to show. At a meeting yesterday about community gardening in Beechwood, this truth was stated best by a twelve year old girl from the neighborhood. She noted, “most of them all, they’re the man. They’re here because their work revolves around a thing. It’s like big business. But once the thing is gone, once the work is done, they are gone. And we’re left feeling stood up.” Like the groom in the story, we get to the end of our meager resources. The wine runs out. And so the party ends prematurely. And we leave, still thirsting for a different world, but unable to bring about the celebration.
-”There comes a point,” Dr. King used to say, “when a man gets tired.” And if we’re honest with ourselves, we get pretty tired more often than we like to admit. Not because we don’t care. I happen to believe we are good creations made in the image of a Divine Lover who has shared with us Her deep desire for Her children to flourish. God has shared God’s love of justice, and of community, and of giving good gifts to others, and of delighting in the goodness of the world. And yet, again and again, we finite mortals get tired. We have infinite desires and a limitless capacity to dream impossible dreams. But we can only do so much. The wine runs out. Its not that we lack the capacity - we just lack the capability. We’re not Jesus, after all.
-Which is, I imagine, a hard truth for us idealists to knock up against. Hard to confess that, in the end, we cannot ultimately change the world. Hard to admit that, too often, our hopes of giving our lives over to something greater than ourselves are dashed upon the bedrock of our own brokenness, our own over-commitment, our own disappointments, our own apathy. It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that we are blinded and enslaved by our privilege, and we are tangled in webs of pain and damage beyond our ability to heal. Hard to find love beaten down again and again by unjust and broken systems and unfeeling bureaucracies. Hard to sustain our commitments, when the wine of joy runs dry. It is hard, I imagine, for us not to get to be Jesus.
-But see, here’s the thing, the really Good News. We are not Jesus. Were never called to be. We do not have to be. Because in Christ - the only Christ - God has come near to us. To reveal God’s glory. And it is a glory that delights, not in patting the strong and accomplished on their backs. But in coming to places of weakness, where the wine has run out. And filling those emptinesses with the overflowing wine of joy.
-If we find that we come to that place of utter emptiness, if we have been reduced to nothingness, we can take heart. We can have hope. Because just as, in the beginning, God’s Spirit hovered over the formless void and the waters and spoke a new creation into being, so here, at the beginning of his ministry, for his first miracle - and each day in our lives - Jesus speaks a word over our weakness, and delights to create something new in us.
-It is, in fact, precisely where we are not Jesus, that Jesus desires to come, fill us up with the waters of new life, and then to transform and transfigure us into beloved children. Empty jars overflowing with the wine of the Spirit, in order to be the joy that fills others as well.
-Martin Luther King only told one story about his personal spiritual life. It was about a midnight in Montgomery, Alabama. He had been welcomed home from a meeting by an angry phone call, threatening to kill him and his family if he refused to leave town. After years of tirelessly striving for justice, Martin was spent. He went down to his kitchen alone, brewed a pot of coffee, and then, collapsed into a desperate prayer. And he said, “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid...I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
-And then, he recalls, “I seemed to hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther King, you stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And I will never leave you nor forsake you. And I will be at your side forever.’ And, Dr. King tells us, “my uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
-And so it is with us, my brothers and sisters. It’s when we are nothing, when we are empty, when we come to the point of saying, “I have nothing left,” that Christ is most powerful in us. The long battle for justice, and for truth, and for beauty, is far from over. And yet, I wonder how much different our part in it would be, if we would let go, stop trying to do what only Jesus can do, and simply allow ourselves to be nothing. To fall into the arms of the only one who can possibly sustain us. The one who was himself made nothing upon the cross, that he might give us his everything.
-We cannot do it alone. But thank God, we do not have to. Because first and best of all, Christ is with us, and promises to be for us. And Christ sends Marys, companions, to notice in one another’s lives those places where the wine has run out. And so to advocate for one another. To intercede for one another. To keep each other from despair. To confront our emptiness. And to lead us to the One who can make us into something far more powerful together than we could ever be alone.
-We are not Jesus. Thank God. But God has made us in Jesus’ image. Our deep longing for justice and our limitless thirst for love and community are not flukes. And in Christ, God comes to us, and fills us up with the wine of God’s glory, of God’s very self. And so makes us capable of dreaming impossible possibilities. And living for them, even and especially, when the wine runs out. To live for faithfulness, and not effectiveness. To live for one another, and not just our ideals. To live for something, and someone, who remains committed to us, and to a better world, and promises to sustain us, and be with us, and for us, even when our commitments fail.