A Seat at the Table
In first century Palestine a wedding feast would go on for a week. The whole village was likely to come to the feast, as everyone was related to everyone else… somehow. And if you were a member of the family, there was a seat at the table for you. This relational network is not unlike those in many American small towns.
This wedding was in Cana of Galilee. Now Galilee was a down on its heel’s kind of place, and you could think of Cana as being a bit like a small rustbelt town in the American Midwest or an Appalachian hollow in which the mine had closed years ago.
All three places don’t have much of a local economy, can’t support a lot of services - including enough police - and so they’re a good place to hide out if you’re on the wrong side of the law.
Records show that King Herod of Palestine had Galilee raided for brigands at least twice during his reign. It’s not that Herod was all that interested in the folks that lived in Galilee, he just needed to show the Romans he was tough on crime. But today’s Galilee story is a story about a wedding, not a raid (we’ll get to those at some later date). And it is not about preserving the status quo but rather setting the world on its head.
A wedding feast is an important civic event in a small town. Hard working people living close to the edge welcome such a celebration as a time to take a breath, to put down despair, and to put on the mantle of hope. A wedding is a perfect time to celebrate all the “could-be’s”, the “what-if’s”, a time to drink plenty of wine and to dance with abandon in the joy of the present moment and a sense of open possibility.
But the wine is running out at this wedding party in Cana. There are still 4 more days of the week-long feasting yet to come. When you don’t have much in material goods, your honor matters even more. When dignity is all you have left, you hold it tight. But it looks as though a joyful celebration is about to become an embarrassment to the groom, an affront to the invited guests, and a bad reflection on the whole family.
What was intended to be seen as a seal – a joining together – could instead become a stain that will be remembered, and talked about for years – a social gaffe that isolates people from one another rather than a symbol that unifies them.
But seated in the gathered crowd at Cana is a woman and a man who will make all the difference – Mary, and Jesus, her son. Their actions will bring people together and take things in an unexpected direction, moving them from near disaster to the beginnings of something far better, and bigger, than the gathered families could even imagine.
This was Jesus’s first miracle, his first sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world.
Jesus was about thirty years old when he rose from his seat to instruct the bridegroom’s servants to fill six empty stone jars with water. Mary watched the scene unfold as the water that had somehow been turned into wine was shared with the director of the feast. Perhaps she smiled as she saw would-be humiliation averted leaving the wedding party and their guests free to move deeper into a dance of joy, another round of toasts, and a warm, growing feeling of oneness.
And so it was in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 when another woman and another man saw not what was, but what could be, and they acted to provoke a transformation that was every bit as miraculous as if they had changed water into wine.
Rosa Parks began the dance toward the miraculous by refusing to leave her seat on a segregated bus. Martin Luther King Jr. was a 26-year-old pastor who did not feel the time was quite right to begin his work. But Rosa, as Mary did for Jesus, set the stage for a sign that would change the world. The time to act was at hand, ready or not. And King stood up.
Four days after Rosa Parks was arrested, King helped launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For over a year African Americans protested segregated seating by refusing to ride city buses in Montgomery. More than 40,000 African Americans, at least 75% of the ridership, carpooled or walked instead of riding the bus. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as a prominent leader of the American civil rights movement.
King promoted radical change, but without a call for violence. King believed that love was more powerful than force and that non-violent resistance was more effective than taking up arms. And history shows the value of his view. Like other prophets before him, King did not make it to the promised land he could see in the distance. Like Jesus, King was killed by those who clung to how things are and feared how they might change.
King offered a vision of what could be, a dream of the family that is all people, with a seat at the table for everyone. That looks a lot like the wedding at Cana to me…and surely Christ is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name. Surely, anything is possible with God.
Montgomery was a beginning, just as Cana was the start of something larger. But in both cases the brilliantly presented vision of freedom and wholeness is not yet fully realized in the world.
I think that three things may need to be in motion, moving in concert, toward the wholeness for which we long. The timing is not up to us, but our participation is.
And what are these three things? First, we need a Savior to assure us that it will all be right in the end. And we have that. John’s Gospel is full of signs from the wine at the wedding feast to the Risen Christ standing in front of his mother, after he had been crucified, died and was buried. In John’s Gospel we have a series of signs that illuminate our way from what was, through what is, all the way to what will be, for ever and ever.
Jesus will tell us elsewhere in John’s Gospel that he has lost nothing that the Father has given him – and we know that the Father has given him the whole world and all the people who dwell therein. All things shall be well…and all manner of things shall be well…we have a Savior.
I know that Jesus is bringing all things to fulfillment in God’s good time, but I wonder if now is a time in which the wine is running short again. This points to the second of three needful things. I wonder if there’s a Rosa, or a Martin, a Mary or a Jesus somewhere sensing when to remain seated and when to stand. Then I get restive wondering, “and me, what should I do? How can I lead? How can I move things along?”
And then I think of the third thing…the servants at the wedding feast. I know, from my own experience, that instructions come to those who wait, who listen, who believe…and opportunities present themselves if we are paying attention.
I had one of those experiences while I was writing this sermon. I received a text, sent in error. But its content showed me it was a person in distress. At first, I simply texted them they had the wrong number. I wanted to be sure that their intended recipient got the message. Then I realized this was NOT an error, but a holy opportunity to be a messenger. Our conversation went on for almost an hour. I didn’t seek this experience, I wasn’t in charge. I simply obeyed the nudge I felt in my spirit. “Blessed are you who offer even a cup of water to these little ones,” Jesus said. I know my words and presence were refreshing to the stranger on my screen. I know our prayers for them this morning will be like a cool drink for a thirsty soul.
Carrying a little water may seem like nothing, but would there have been wine in Cana without it?
The servants who filled the empty jars, provided the substance for Jesus’ first sign. We do not even know those servants’ names. But it was through their obedient response that they played a part in the light coming into the world.
You and I can be servants for such light. We can serve two dreams – the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the making of seats for all at the family table. These are not two separate things – they are two streams that flow into, and become part of, a mighty River of God.
There will come a time when the next right thing will be clear. You will know it by some subtle change in the quality of the light, some pull within you moving you to act outside your normal range. The Kingdom is very near us, at some nearby table, on a bus, or in your next conversation with a stranger. Go with it…and go with God. AMEN