Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon for II Epiphany

Christ the King, Normal--John 2:1-11
I’m not what you would call a science fiction junkie, exactly, but I have enjoyed a great many science fiction movies and TV shows and the occasional novel. Science fiction writers don’t have to precisely and in great detail solve every technical issue that their stories raise—in other words, there’s room for “fiction” in “science fiction.” But they do have to at least appear to make an effort; they have to try and describe something that is at least remotely plausible to explain the “science” part of what’s happening in their story. I don’t think anybody knows how the warp drive on Star Trek vessels works, but I can at least conceptually understand the notion of “bending space” in order to make the shortest distance between two points something other than a straight line.
One of my favorite science fiction concepts is from the Star Trek: Voyager TV series from the mid-1990s. Several of the episodes mentioned locations in space that were known to be, or suspected to be, wormholes.  Try and imagine space as the surface of an apple. In order to get from one point to another on that apple, our normal impulse would be to move along the surface in as direct a route as we can plot. But what if the worm has a better idea? What if we were to take a shortcut through the actual substance of the apple, and save a lot of time and distance in the process? If there were indeed wormholes in space, or, for that matter, if we could find a way to “warp” space and create our own wormholes, well … that opens up a whole new range of possibilities for travel. Now, I hope I haven’t made too much of this introduction, but what I want to suggest to you is that today’s very familiar gospel narrative from John 2 might be credibly understood as a wormhole—a wormhole, moreover, that we are invited to dive into!
Yes, it’s a familiar story—the miracle at Cana, the turning of water into wine. Yet, it’s also a story that we never seem to be able to quite get to the bottom of, at least not in a completely satisfying manner. This is actually quite typical—this feeling of trying to nail a serving of Jell-O to a tree—quite typical of this gospel, along with the three epistles attributed to the Apostle John, along with the Book of Revelation—what the academicians call the “Johannine” literature of the New Testament. Back in 2009, I got to visit the shrine church in the village of Cana that, according to tradition, sits on the very spot where this miracle took place, and the experience of being there only intensified my questions, intensified my uneasiness.
One thing we need to understand right from the beginning is that, in this narrative, John tells us precisely what’s important about what went on there that day—no more and no less. All the details in the story are significant, but—and this is what’s difficult for us—any of the details that are not provided are therefore not important. So, if we are left with any unanswered questions—Why was Jesus invited? Why did all his disciples come? How many people were there? What sort of building was it?—if we have any unanswered questions, then we just need to suck it up and realize that they’re irrelevant to the point, and move on!
What are we left with, then? Pretty much two things, really: First, Jesus’ terse dialogue with his mother about his “hour,” and the fact that, in his estimation, it has not yet arrived. Then, secondly, good wine in abundance. These are the elements—Jesus’ “hour” and abundant good wine—from which we need to tease whatever the “takeaway” is from this story.
Perhaps the most critical element in the narrative—the hinge or fulcrum on which the plot turns—is when Jesus responds to his mother’s initial petition with, “My hour has not yet come.” This conveys the notion that Jesus had a sense of a particular purpose for being in this world, a particular act or work that he needed to accomplish, and that this work would take place only when certain conditions had been met, when certain prior events had already occurred, when all the “ducks were in a row,” and that right now and right here—at a wedding, in Cana, in Galilee, rather than in Jerusalem—right now was not that moment. This was not his “hour.” So Jesus resisted being prematurely drawn into the sorts of actions that he anticipated would characterize his hour. It’s always risky to psychologize Jesus, but we might speculate that he felt something like panic, like a woman in labor who has an irresistible urge to push, but the midwife assures her that it’s not yet the time to do that; her “hour” has not yet come.
With the gift of hindsight, having read both John’s gospel and the synoptics, we know that Jesus’ hour comes to fruition only as he hangs on the cross, lifted up—like Moses’ graven serpent in the wilderness when the people of Israel were literally “snakebit”—when Jesus is lifted up for all to look to and be saved. Yet, Jesus does not persist in his resistance. Neither does he panic and indulge in premature engagement with his hour. Rather, he exploits the opportunity to put forward a robust sign of his “hour,” a foretaste, a sneak preview. In the miracle of turning water into wine, we have an epiphany of the glory of Jesus’ hour by means of a wormhole. This miracle is a wormhole that transports us from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its conclusion. Even as Jesus hangs on the cross as a sacrificial victim—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—he is also the officiating priest, the go-between who brokers the deal that is “done” when he utters his final cry, “It is finished.”  In Cana, Jesus brokers the deal that turns water into wine, allowing a nuptial banquet, a marriage feast, to proceed. The miracle is a wormhole from the initiation of Jesus’ ministry to its completion, showing, manifesting what the purpose of his life and teaching is.
But I haven’t gotten to the best part yet! The miracle at Cana is a prefigurement—a premonition—of the Eucharist. The amount of good new wine was not meager, but abundant, with plenty for everybody, even as, at the Eucharist, we never run out. We can break the bread down into miniscule crumbs and everybody still gets the same amount of Jesus, a full serving of the Body of Christ. We can dilute the wine in one chalice with gallons of water, and everybody still get the same amount of the Blood of Christ. It’s the closest thing to what we might call a “routine miracle” that I can think of.
And then, in that way, under that sign, the Eucharist itself becomes our wormhole to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the Celestial Banquet, the consummation of the salvation of the universe by the Father through the Son—who is both Priest and Victim, brokering the transaction—in the Holy Spirit. This is the making new of all things, the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Whenever I have to preach at a funeral where the “guest of honor” is someone I didn’t know all that well, and sometimes even when the “guest of honor” is someone that I knew quite well, and if the funeral includes a celebration of the Eucharist, I have a sort of standard conclusion that I work toward. Without ever mentioning the expression “wormhole,” I nonetheless explain how the Eucharist is a wormhole, how there is really only one Heavenly Banquet, and that when the Church gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, we are transported to that Banquet, and that when we come forward to receive Holy Communion, we are poking our hands into Heaven. We are kneeling beside not only those who are with us in church that day, but all God’s people in every place who are gathered at the altar doing what we’re doing, and all who have gone before us marked with the sign of the cross, including and especially the one whom we are commending to the nearer presence of God and laying to rest in that funeral Mass. At every Eucharist, we are with our loved ones, we are with all the saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs who have preceded us. We are, with them, fed at the same table, and given the same food, as they are. So, as we contemplate the Epiphany mystery of water becoming wine at a marriage feast, we enter a wormhole that delivers us to this very celebration of the Eucharist, and, at this very celebration of the Eucharist, we are invited to dive into another wormhole that takes us to the eternal Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Shall we do it once again? Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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