Preached at Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Fairport, New York
Second Sunday after Epiphany
20 January 2013
Day Texts: Isaiah 62.1-5
1 Corinthians 12.1-11John 2.1-11
Audio version available here
"Coffee Pot Gospel Blues (I Heard the Voice)" (a song I wrote and recorded about Dr. King's Midnight in Montgomery with my seminary band, the Rockumentary Hypothesis)
NOTE: I preached two different sermons this Sunday for two very different communities, though each was drawn from the same core material. The other, "We're Not Jesus," can be found here.
-It was midnight in Montgomery, Alabama. Friday, January 27th, 1956. A weary preacher slumped over his kitchen table, tired yet unable to sleep, waiting for his coffee pot to finish percolating. He could not get the voice out of his head. Not the loving, encouraging voice of his wife and daughter, who, thank God, slept soundly. But the unexpected, hate-filled voice on the phone, welcoming him home with an n-word and a threat to take all he held dear if he did not get out of town quickly.
-It was midnight in Montgomery, and a darker midnight in Dr. Martin Luther King’s soul. After countless hours pouring his heart and soul into the battle for human dignity, his strength was spent, his eyes dry, and his spirit empty. And so, at the end of his considerable powers, he did the only thing left. He prayed:
“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.”
-It was midnight in Montgomery, and it is, as far as we can tell, the only time Dr. King ever spoke about his personal experience of faith. And I, for one, am incredibly grateful for this. Grateful that he shared, not a time of great triumph and success, but a time of struggle. Of utter humanity. Of weakness. Of emptiness.
-A time, not unlike in today’s Gospel, when we are told by Mary the mother of Jesus that there is “no more wine.” I am so tempted to skip ahead in this story to the grand finale. To the overflowing abundance of the miracle of 180 gallons of water turned into 180 gallons of wine. So much goodness that there is no possible way to consume it responsibly. We want the feast and celebration. We want Martin Luther King, Jr. day, a day off from work, where we can listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech and feel inspired. We do not really want the countless sermons in which the good doctor declared “I’m tired...tired of marching for something that should have been mine at birth.”
-We certainly don’t want to be the groomsman and his servants, shocked that their meager resources only went so far. That on perhaps the one day of their poverty-racked lives when it was their chance to be happy and party, the wine has run out, and they are left scrambling to save themselves from shame.
-”They have no wine,” Mary tells her Son Jesus, and indeed, for many, there is still no wine. The city in which we live ranks among the highest in the nation in child poverty, amidst the lowest in education, and remains one of the most segregated areas in this supposedly post-civil rights era. We have one of the highest levels of volunteerism in the country as well. And yet, time and again, I hear stories of folks who burn out, lose their passion and abandon their commitments after only a few months. Because there are no immediate returns. Because broken systems thwart earnest efforts. Because they have no wine. And who can blame them? Is it possible to sustain love of the light in the midst of such a dark and dreary midnight?
-I am so thankful for Dr. King’s midnight in Montgomery, because I’m betting that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve probably all come to that kind of place in our own lives. A place where, after much effort and deep hope, we found only disappointment and emptiness. Where the project we had poured ourselves into failed to yield any returns. Where the relationship with our family member or partner fizzled, and we were left alone. Where the church or community or political party or the job that we’ve spent a lifetime serving and sacrificing for betrays us or fails to live up to our expectations. We’ve given, and we’ve striven, and we’ve put all we think we have into it. And there are no returns. No change. No joy. Just a weariness, and a disappointment, and an emptiness.
-”There is no wine,” Mary tells her Son Jesus. Whether we dwell in material poverty or are impoverished in our capacity for imagination and community, we will at some point, if we’re honest with ourselves, face a time when, like Dr. King, we simply cannot go on. We are, after all only finite, mortal human beings. But blessed and cursed with the God-given capacity to dream of infinite possibilities. And even the greatest among us will find our hearts broken by our striving to reach them.
-And it is there, precisely and only there, at the bottom of the empty wine jars, that Jesus meets us. There, where the wine has run out, that Jesus is waiting. There, where we have been reduced to nothing, the God of the Cross, is ready and willing to make something new.
-For this Jesus is not the God of the strong, not the God of the self-sustaining and not the God of the successful or the self-sufficient. This Jesus, God Incarnate, does not choose, for the site of his first miracle, the wedding feast of a king or an emperor. No, this Jesus comes to a provincial town, to a provincial wedding, and to a poor man at the end of his rope, grants the gift of a different story. Not the story of “the wedding that ended when the wine ran out.” But rather, the story of “just when we thought we were done for, He came, and filled us up, and kept us going.” This Jesus’ power is made manifest, not in abundance, but in weakness.
-And did you notice what this Jesus does? Just as, in the beginning, the creative Spirit of God hovered over the formless void and the waters and made a delightful something out of nothing, so too, for his first miracle, this Jesus calls for water, and out of the emptiness of human desperation and the nothingness of human need, creates joy and delight. This same Jesus, who would one day allow us to reduce him to nothing on the cross, so that He could give us everything. That is God’s glory, revealed today. To share God’s abundance with the empty.
-That is who our God is, brothers and sisters. God wants the wine of joy to be flowing. God desires and delights that we should be able to work and live for a world in which there is abundant joy for all. Where indeed, the good desires of our hearts will no longer be impeded by sin, or dried up by despair. God longs for this different world. And so God comes to us, in Christ Jesus, to fill us up, to baptize us in water and wine, to make us new creations.
-And I wonder if Mary might be a model for us here. The poor peasant girl with the unexpected pregnancy surely knows what it means to be nothing. And yet, perhaps because she knows emptiness, she is the first to notice that the wine has run out. And to come to Jesus on behalf of another. Not with words of gossip or criticism. But with intercessions, and concern. Mary knows what it is to be filled with the wine of the Spirit, to live the impossible possibilities of the kingdom of God. And so she is ready to enter the emptiness of others.
-And I wonder if that’s the kind of beloved community Jesus is trying to bring about. One where we are willing to be honest about our own emptiness, our own vulnerability, our own failings. And so, be unafraid to enter into the emptiness and nothingness of others. And so, somehow, to fill each other up. To sustain one another in whatever mission or vocation the Spirit is calling us to undertake. To be unafraid to be empty jars that God fills with the waters of baptism. To be transformed into new wine, to be shared with a world where, far too often it seems, the wine has run out.
-It was midnight in Montgomery. Prayer finished, the great preacher had run out of words. And then, he seemed to “hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘stand up for justice, Martin Luther King, you 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.”
-The voice that calls, louder than the voices of hate or doubt, is the voice of Jesus. When the wine has run out, God sends us Jesus to fill us up, because God desires joy for us. God desires hope. God longs for us, the Body of Christ, to share the abundant life of the Spirit with all people. When the wine runs out, in the darkness of our midnight, God in Christ promises to be with us. And when the wine runs out, Jesus makes us God’s beloved community, so that, together, we will be ready to face anything, together. Emptiness, yes. But also, overflowing joy, and a hope worth sustaining.