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January 17, 2016 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Who Has Time for Joy?
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Martin Luther King Jr.
I am going to do something I rarely do. I want to give you a particular task as we turn again to scripture and move into proclamation. I invite you to listen for and focus on joy. Where, in this biblical story, does joy make itself known to you?
Listen now for God’s Word, as I read John 2:1-12, as translated by the biblical scholar F. D. Bruner:
Now on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Both Jesus and his disciples had been invited to the wedding, too. And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus says to him, “They don’t have any more wine.” And Jesus says to her, “What are you trying to do with me, woman? My hour has not yet arrived.” His mother says to the waiters, “Whatever he tells you to do, do it.”
Now there were six stone water-jars sitting right there (for the Jewish purification uses), each holding between twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus says to the waiters, “Please fill the jars with water.” And they filled them right up to the top. Then he says to them, “Now please pour some out and take that to the head waiter.” So they did.
When the head waiter tasted the water that had become wine, (and he had no idea where it came from, but the waiters who had drawn the water knew where!), the head waiter calls over the bridegroom and says to him, “Everybody else serves the choice wine first, and then, when people are light-headed, the inferior wine. But you, for some reason, have kept back the choice wine until now.”
Jesus did this first of his signs in Cana of Galilee, and so revealed his glory that his disciples placed their trust in him. After this, he and his mother and brothers and disciples came down to Capernaum and stayed there for just a few days.
I know you only got to hear it once, but did you find joy in that strange story? Joy erupts for me all over the place. A few examples: I first see joy demonstrated through the Gospel writer John’s choice to place our introduction to Jesus’ public ministry at a celebration of covenant love, a wedding. John has Jesus move from baptism to the gathering of disciples to celebration. That speaks joy. And we hear joy radiate through the first three words of the text: on the third day. Does that sound familiar? Right here, in the beginning, John is already giving us a hint as to how the story of God’s good news in Jesus will end—with Easter resurrection, new creation, and the death of death.
We witness joy in the way that mother Mary does not let her son’s grouchiness get to her. “Woman, it is not our business” is the way one commentary translates Jesus’ response. Yet even after that reply, Mary simply turns to the servants and instructs them to do whatever Jesus says to do. There is joy in that simple movement, because it attests to the reality that Mary fully trusts that Jesus will do as she has asked and handle the problem so that the groom’s family is not shamed by running out of the provisions for the feast.
And we can delight with subversive joy at the moment we discover that other than mother Mary and the disciples, the servants are the chosen ones to witness this transformation moment—the ones who see that Jesus is responsible for the miraculous sign. The groom, the bride, their families, the head waiter—none of the people in charge saw what took place and how it happened. But the servants did. They are the ones who are typically the last and the least, possessing little power and control over their own lives. Yet here, in the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we already see God’s great reversal starting to take hold as the last and the least become the first ones to see the revealing of the joy and fullness of God that is Jesus.
Furthermore, we see joy in the way that Jesus does not just make a little bit of wine. He does not just do what he needs to do so they can get through the event without the hosts being embarrassed. No, John reports Jesus makes between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. The quantity screams abundance and extravagance. But not only that, Jesus uses something normal, the water for the ceremonial washing, to create something miraculous, the abundant wine. One medieval commentator wrote that what actually happened at the wedding was that the water in the jars recognized its creator and blushed.
Finally, we taste joy in the knowledge that what made this moment even more extravagant was not simply the quantity. Quality mattered too. Apparently the wine Jesus made was more like gallons of Chateau Margaux rather than gallons of Bota box Merlot. All in all, the more we consider this text in all its thickness and nuance, the more this text exudes joy, leaks joy, overflows with the joy that comes from God and is expressed in Jesus.
But may I tell you a secret? I admitted this to my colleagues in our morning prayers this week. I struggle with standing here and preaching joy. It sounds silly as I say it out loud, but it is true. I wondered if preaching about the joy imbued in this text and how it points to the fullness of the life offered by our God might sound too naïve for this congregation. I wondered if you might think I had not been paying much attention to what is going on in the world around us, in our own city each day; if you would determine your preacher had chosen to stick her head in the sand of sanitized and safe religion, the kind of religion about which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned his white clergy brethren in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
After all, other than decrying it, I have not made particular remarks about the epidemic of gun violence from this pulpit yet. And it has been a while since I offered a call to action in response to the crisis of police-community relations in our city. And I know I haven’t ever preached a sermon with you that lifts up the threat of climate change. Last time I checked, I had not overtly spoken from this pulpit about what we will discuss here tomorrow night in our Michigan Avenue forum—the tragedy and injustice of mass incarceration. Add to that systemic racism, the crisis of water in Flint, ongoing protests downtown—we could make a really long list. And we should. It is who we are.
As many of you prophets help me remember, the reality of being Fourth Presbyterian Church—a faith community committed to being a light in the city, a congregation whose DNA contains strains of advocacy embedded in our cells—is our commitment to being light compels us to substantively address crucial social justice issues.
For if we do indeed believe what our Book of Order states—that two of the great ends of the church, two of our chief reasons for being, are to promote social righteousness and to live as an exhibition of the reign of God to the world—then the examples I just listed are some of the tough issues and challenges that need to be on our minds and hearts as we live out our discipleship, our commitment to following Jesus, beyond these stone walls. We do indeed need to talk about them in worship, in Bible study, in adult Academy for Faith and Life classes, in youth group, and around fellowship tables so we might more accurately discern how God is asking us to get involved for the sake of God’s justice and mercy.
Frankly, one reason why I am deeply glad to be your pastor is because of this piece of who we are—our call to be holy troublemakers. Therefore, given that this congregation is not one that sticks its head in the sand of sanitized and safe religion, maybe you can understand why this pastor was feeling apprehensive about sensing the call to preach about the joy that comes from God. It feels a bit Pollyanna, sounds a little naïve. Who has time for joy, even God’s joy, in a world, in a national culture, that appears so broken?
Sisters and brothers, we do. And if we decide we don’t have the time to experience the joy and fullness of life given to us by God, embodied by Jesus in this miracle at a wedding, then we might not make it. We simply will not last for very long on the lengthy haul of discipleship, and all our hard work for justice and mercy might just fall flat because it would only be rooted in “shoulds” and “oughts,” rather than rooted in the joy of living out our faith, the joy of knowing Christ’s love.
Without that kind of rootedness in joy, that kind of foundation, our discipleship might not be all that sustainable. This is why, even in a world and nation that seem so broken, God calls us to have joy; calls us to remember God is God and we are not; calls us to rest in God’s joy and to trust we live under God’s providential care. For this spiritual practice of noticing and resting in God’s joy—something Mary did that day at the wedding—will keep us vibrant and able to be faithful for the long haul.
This past summer, Greg and I had the great privilege to meet civil rights pioneer John Lewis and to hear him speak. In addition to telling all of us that it was time for the church to get in trouble again, he also spent quite a bit of his address discussing the powerful influence of deep joy in his life. This joy, he reflected, came directly from his faith in a God who is still active and who has not given up on any of us. Even when Congressman Lewis acknowledged we, as a nation, still have much work to do in the quest for racial justice, he also exhorted us to follow his example and to regularly root ourselves in the joy that comes from our faith. “We serve a God of love, mercy, and grace,” he preached. “So don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. Keep the faith and move on continuing the story. . . . Be hopeful, be optimistic, never become bitter, and never hate,” he concluded.
After he spoke, the 1,200 of us in that room offered him a rousing standing ovation. But the applause was not just because of what he had said. Rather, we stood in gratitude, because we knew we were witnessing a leader who refused to give into the very evil and hate he had spent his life striving against. He had resisted that temptation of bitterness and hate in part because he regularly recognized moments of and rested in God’s joy. That spiritual intentionality kept him supplied with courage and grounded in a deep sense of joyful freedom, no matter what happened to him. So much meanness had indeed happened to him, but his faith did not let it take hold.
Congressman Lewis’s tenacious joy mirrors the character of the joy we see bubble up in this text from John. It is the kind of joy we hear in mother Mary’s voice when she expresses a deep trust that Jesus will do what needs to be done, even if she has no idea how, what, or when. She just knows that Jesus will take care of it. That is the joy that comes from deep trust and an assurance that God is in the middle of this chaos with us.
Noticing, reclaiming, remembering the gift of God’s joy might just be one of the most critical spiritual practices of our day. Yet I imagine it was just as important for those who gathered around Jesus, as well. Perhaps one reason Jesus went ahead and changed that water into wine was not simply to make his mother happy or to save that household from shame, but because he knew that particular kind of a sign would give his mother, those disciples, and the servants that crucial experience of the joy in knowing that God was in the chaos with them. For in Hebrew scripture, the scripture of Jesus’ tradition, the abundance of wine was a consistent symbol for the joy that would come when the messiah arrived and all was finally being made well. The prophets Amos, Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah all used the image of abundant wine as a symbol for that time of messianic joy—the time you knew God’s healing of the world had begun.
All those at the wedding on that long ago day would have been steeped in those prophetic promises. So we can imagine that when the servants, his mother, and those disciples saw what Jesus did, they, like those jars of water, found themselves filled to the brim—not with wine, but with the joy that comes from deep trust in God’s ability to be God and the real assurance that God is in the midst of all of life with us. With this miraculous sign, the servants, those early disciples, his own mother, were given their first glimpse that this Jesus might just be the one for whom they had been waiting. And that recognition, even if it just lasted a moment, would have poured joy into their hearts.
Our new colleague here at the church, Nanette Sawyer, brought a poem to us this week. She, too, has been focused on the spiritual practice of joy. The poem is called “Tripping over Joy,” and it was written long ago by the mystic poet Hafiz. Listen:
What is the difference
between your experience of Existence
and that of a saint?
The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a Fantastic Move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over Joy
and bursting out in Laughter
and saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves.
Hafiz, “Tripping over Joy,” I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy
As we continue in worship this day and contemplate the thousand of serious moves we still have yet to take, I do hope we might learn from the saint in this poem, that we might hear wisdom in the counsel of Congressman Lewis’s words, that we might surrender to the joy and fullness of our God that we see embodied in this strange wedding story. Might we be able to join those first disciples, those servants, and mother Mary in their spiritual practice, their experience of being glad and rejoicing, taking joy, in God’s ongoing work of saving the cosmos?
Taking the time, making the time, to drink in the joy of our Lord might just be the only way we will have the spiritual stamina to keep doing what God calls us to do and being who God calls us to be in our messy, complicated, broken, and chaotic yet shimmering-with-joy world. Amen.