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Abundance Re-defined

San Williams

October 10, 2010
John 2:1-11

10-10-2010 Sermon

Weddings are rarely, if ever, simple affairs. Today we’re grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the marriage of Ara and Becky as part of the Sunday worship. Making the wedding part of the Sunday service offers a vivid demonstration that Christian marriage is grounded in worship and is properly celebrated in a community of faith. Even so, I’m sure Ara and Becky would agree that, no matter where a wedding is held, it’s never entirely easy. There are out-of-town guests to be housed, receptions to plan, food to purchase and flowers to arrange. Jan and I are beginning to get a taste of the complexity of wedding planning even though our son and his fianceé have declared that they intend to have a simple wedding. Yes, regardless of the size or venue, weddings are highly significant occasions.

It was the same in Jesus’ day. Even folks of modest means would scrimp and save for months in order to carry their child’s wedding off in style. Copious platters of meat would be set out, along with dates and other delicacies. Most importantly, the family would see to it that ample wine was on hand to ensure a festive atmosphere.

Well, as we heard in our reading, Jesus attended just such a wedding, and it was there that he offered the first of many signs indicating that he had come to bring abundant life. Accordingly, this story of a wedding in Cana of Galilee, along with today’s wedding in UPC of Austin, invites us to ask: What is true abundance?

Interestingly, our wedding story doesn’t begin in abundance; it begins with a cry of scarcity. The wedding party at Cana was just gathering steam when Mary, the mother of Jesus, cried out: “They have no wine.” Remember that in Jewish tradition wine represents fecundity, fullness and flourishing of life, joy and abundance. To run out of wine at a wedding would have precipitated a crisis, an embarrassing failure of hospitality and social obligation.

Yet the significance of Mary’s cry–“They have no wine”–goes far beyond a first-century wedding in Cana. It’s a cry familiar to many of us as we worry: Will I have enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? Safe enough? Good enough? Mary’s cry also echoes through refugee camps, urban ghettos, war-torn villages—wherever people lack food, sanitation, health care, jobs or educational opportunity we hear them cry, in essence, “We have no wine.” Even the well-off often suffer from a spiritual emptiness. Those who, in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s hymn, are “rich in things but poor in soul.” Our reflection begins, then, with a concern about sufficiency; with a cry arising out of scarcity.

And Jesus responds to this condition of scarcity with a demonstration of abundance. Students of the Gospel of John are tutored to look for layers of symbolism in John’s style, and today’s episode is no exception. The mention of “On the third day” prepares us to expect that something new and highly significant is about to happen. The wedding itself points beyond a simple village celebration to the cosmic coming together of heaven and earth, the marriage of God with creation, the bond of love that binds everything together in perfect harmony. And John is careful to point out that there are six jars of water, a number falling short of the perfect seven. In this symbolism, the long hoped-for completion of creation is taking place in the ministry of Jesus. He transforms the plain water of the present age into the wine of the new age, when all things will be reconciled and made whole. We could go on digging into the layers of symbolism embedded in this simple story. But at bottom, John’s description of the wedding at Cana has a singular theme: Jesus brings life, abundant life.

Yet what do we mean by abundance? Of course, our consumer culture conditions us to think of abundance in terms of material possessions. We tend to imagine the “good life” as a life of increasing comfort, ever larger homes and cars, the freedom to do what we want, buy whatever our hearts desire, use as much energy as we can afford. On daily walks about our neighborhood with our dog Emmett, I’m struck by how few garages actually have room for a car. Most of them are crammed from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall with stuff. Increasingly, even garages are not sufficient. Within a block of our house, there are no fewer than three metal pods planted in neighbors’ driveways to store the things that their houses and garages can’t contain. It seems that we Americans are having a harder and harder time finding enough paces to store our ample belongings. Is this the abundant life—one measured by the number and size of our possessions?

Here’s the issue for Christians: Pursuing the “good life” in terms of consumer abundance is opening an ever widening gap between the well-off and the poor of the world, as well as depleting our natural resources and endangering our planet. A woman told me this week that she was at a conference in Beijing, China, for several days before the air pollution cleared enough for her to realize that a mountain range loomed over the city. Earlier this week a river of red toxic sludge buried crops, houses and animal life in Hungary. We are in a period, writes American environmentalist Bill McKibbin, where humans are “hard at work sabotaging the earth’s biology and draining its diversity…we’re running the Genesis story backward,” he says, “de-creating.”

For this reason, we urgently need to embrace an alternative view of abundance. In her book Life Abundant: Rethinking Economy and Theology for a Planet in Peril, theologian Sallie McFague makes the case for a re-definition of abundance. She challenges us to embrace the paradoxical idea that for middle-class Americans the abundant life must take the shape of “cruciform living.” She writes, “I believe Christian discipleship for 21st-century North American Christians means ‘cruciform living,’ an alternative notion of the abundant life, which will involve a philosophy of ‘enoughness,’ limitations on energy use, and sacrifice for the sake of others.” In this alternative view, the good life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, but rather consists in limiting our consumption of the world’s resources in recognition of the needs of others.

McFague asks us to imagine all the world as God’s house, and to think of the world’s peoples as our housemates. She bids us to abide by God’s house rules, which can be stated simply: “Take only your share, clean up after yourselves and keep the house in good repair for future occupants.” Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, summed it up when she wrote: ‘I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others, too.” When we aim our view of abundance away from mere personal gain toward the flourishing of all life, especially the weak and the vulnerable, we open ourselves to the abundance that Jesus offers us.

So friends, here at today’s wedding set in worship, let’s first empty ourselves of the false notions of abundance that only add to the world’s injustice and deplete God’s good earth. Then we can raise our cups to be filled with good wine, the abundant life Jesus brings us. We’ll sing with Isaiah Jones, “Fill my cup and let it overflow.” Fill our cups with the life of Christ, life for others, life that wants less so we can give more. Fill our cups with life-styles that contribute to the flourishing of all creation. “Fill my cup and let it overflow. Let it overflow with love.”