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The Life of the Party

January 20, 2019

A Reading from First Corinthians

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore, I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

A Reading from the Gospel of John

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So, they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast is famous for these large multi-character tableaus that get at something of the anxiety and self-doubt that can lurk underneath modern life. One of her most famous — and one of my favorites — depicts a raging Manhattan rooftop filled with interesting-looking people having fabulous-sounding conversations — the caption, in large letters over the night sky, simply says “The Party, After You Left.” The dialog bubbles fill in the details. One man says “Thank God she’s gone!” to which his date replies, “Now we can really have some fun!” Over in the corner, another man offers up, “I have the most scandalous piece of gossip to share.” Another makes an offer to a small circle of devotees: “Would anyone here like to try this very, very safe, short-acting, non-addictive, extremely fantastic new drug?” The bartenders have also gotten into the swing of things, “I think it’s time we served the really good champagne,” one of them says, to which the other replies, “Yeah, I’ll pour the rest of this swill into the toilet.” What is unmistakably clear is that you have left at precisely the wrong moment.

I think we all have a bit of this anxiety hard-wired, that sense that the really extraordinary things happen when we’re gone, maybe they can only happen when we’re out of the room. H.L. Mencken famously said of Puritanism that it was the haunting fear that somebody somewhere else might be having a good time; I’m not sure that’s true of Puritanism but it does seem to get also at something about that anxiety of modern life. The Instagram folks call it FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out — that fear first and foremost that if you go home or you stay home that you might miss something extraordinary, but also that fear somewhere underneath that maybe the extraordinary things can only happen when you’re not there. Maybe everybody was just waiting for you to head out the door before breaking out the good stuff. Who knows what jaw-dropping events were just around the corner. Like you might head home for the night and then and only then. Back in the cartoon, one man is staring off towards the entrance, with a shocked look on his face, “Hey everybody! Look who just walked in! Yo! Jesus! Over here!”

We all know the party really starts when Jesus shows up. That’s the story in scripture this morning, of this famous wedding in Cana where the wine gives out and then Jesus shows up and sees some water jars and turns the water into wine and then the party gets back on its feet. Actually, the party gets better — just like the bartenders in our cartoon, the stewards here admit that the wine Jesus conjures out of the water jugs is far superior to the swill they’d been serving all night. We don’t have a lot of details about this party — we don’t know who’s gotten married; we don’t how Jesus has gotten involved except that his mom is also there; we don’t even know to what extent all of this is pretty normal behavior for a wedding in Cana; this text gets read at weddings all the time; it was read at our wedding; but there’s nothing in here about a wedding at all except that it’s a party and the guests are going hard at the wine and then they go a little too hard and the wine goes away. All we really know about this wedding is that Jesus shows up and rescues the party. Call it the first resurrection in John’s Gospel. The party was dead. And Jesus brings it back to life.

What makes this story I think most extraordinary is that in John’s Gospel this is the first major act of Jesus’s ministry. There’s a reason that we read this text on this day in the church calendar; last week Jesus got baptized and now he’s off to ministry, and in Mark’s Gospel that looks like preaching in the temple, and in Luke’s Gospel that looks like preaching in the temple, and in Matthew’s Gospel that looks like…preaching in the temple. But here in John’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus does after getting baptized and recruiting a few followers, the first sign of his divinity — the first miracle he performs — the first reason anybody takes him at all seriously — the first reason anybody ever believes in him, as his disciples begin to do here at the end of our text — the first instance of any the stuff that ends up gathering us here this morning is that Jesus shows up at a wedding reception and gets the party going. Which means that the opposite is also true; yes, Jesus gets the party going. But also, the party gets Jesus going. From here, right to Jerusalem — John’s Gospel has its own rhythm — and the pace of Jesus’s story begins to hasten, and the plot begins to thicken, and now Jesus’s work has really started. Beginning with a party.

Imagine leaving that party too early. Imagine the phone call the next day. “You will never guess what happened after you all went home last night — I mean, I totally understand, of course, it was late, I get it — but still, it was unbelievable, I mean, you saw, they were running low on cabernet before you split, right? And then they ran out entirely. And then that new rabbi from Nazareth showed up — Mary’s kid, right, I don’t even think he has a congregation — he just showed up and waved his hands or something and bam, the water jugs turned into wine, and it was, you know, good wine — whaddya mean it must have been good wine? You don’t think I saw what I saw? Look, I didn’t make you go home. I’m just telling you what happened. You can ask Mary. Ask the servants! They saw it!” Because the real texture of this story isn’t just that Jesus shows up and makes miracles happen. The real texture of this story is all the characters hanging out, watching it happen. The real texture of this story is the whole community of this wedding that has gathered to unexpectedly watch Jesus’s acts of wonder. The real texture of this story are the party guests who have stayed long enough to give birth to Jesus’s ministry.

The story needs every one of them. Jesus actually himself seems pretty unwilling to get involved at the start of this. His mother tells him the wine has run out, and Jesus says, “That’s not my problem,” and Mary’s the one who has to kick him into action, even though we don’t know from John’s Gospel how much Mary is supposed to know about who Jesus is. The servants, of course, we don’t know who Mary is to them except that she’s this wedding guest who has decided for them that they are going to listen to her deadbeat son when it comes to filling up several hundred gallons’ worth of water in the middle of a party for which water is not the obvious solution. And then of course we have the steward who gets presented with fancy fine, origin unknown, and instead of asking what might have been important questions about its provenance, he just runs up to the groom — look, y’all were holding out on us, you saved the good wine — no thought to whether or not they might be saving it for their one-year anniversary, but here we are — we’re doing this thing now. The thing is that nobody, not even Jesus, has all the pieces they need to make this story go. Nobody, not even Jesus, makes a decision fully-informed by all the best information. But it takes every one of them to get the party started. I’m so glad none of them left early.

I think churches know better than most that the best parties need some characters at them. At this little Trenton church I worked at during seminary, one of our characters was named Roger, and Roger had very strong feelings about the Lord’s Prayer. Roger, I am sure, was not from the same Scottish-Presbyterian background as much of that congregation; Roger came from a background where we ask God to forgive our trespasses instead of our debts; Roger also had a bit of a rough edge to him that for whatever reason seemed to manifest during that moment of the liturgy. And so the thing was that during the Lord’s Prayer, Roger not only would make sure that his enunciation of “Trespasses” was heard throughout the congregation; Roger would actually say the entire prayer about a half-a-beat in front of everybody else, like, he needed to hear his own voice distinctly above the crowd; or, he needed the crowd to hear his own voice distinctly above the crowd. So, there was no missing it or mistaking it — when Roger was in church, the prayer took on its own rhythm, with this almost aggressive stutter-step underneath it.

To this day I don’t know whether Roger had some psychological issues that were just part of his daily reality or whether we were all just seeing the jagged edge of his relationship to church itself. To be honest, I am not sure in the end whether that question weighed too heavily on the body that was gathered up for worship. Because what I realized — after a few months of feeling that jagged edge in my own body, after a few months of having it kind of grate against my sense of the worshiping moment, and a few months of wondering how it was that anybody put up with it in the first place — what I realized was that Roger’s prayer was in some ways the beating heart of that congregation. Whatever minor annoyance it once engendered had long since given way. By time I arrived, they had so grown accustomed to his own special rhythm that it became part of the signature of their worshiping life. It made the prayer come to life. It made the liturgy come to life. And by time my internship was over, I had come to realize — when Roger wasn’t there, I missed him. We all missed him. The truth is, when he couldn’t come to church, the party was a little dead without him.

The USA Network used to have this slogan, “Characters Welcome.” But what John’s Gospel gets at is something more than that, it’s not just characters welcome; it’s “characters necessary.” This little party needs all its characters to get Jesus’s ministry off the ground; just like this little church needs all its characters to get Jesus’s ministry off the ground. The truth is that, for those of us who gather up for worship every Sunday, the beats of this story sound really familiar — somebody has to put out the communion wine, and somebody has to make sure we have enough, and somebody has to run around looking for a miracle if we run out, which doesn’t even get at all the other many things that go into making Christ’s ministry come to life here in this sanctuary every Sunday, where somebody has to stuff the bulletins and somebody has to check the sound system and somebody has to tune the organ and somebody has to figure out how to park despite the four-lane-wide mobile crane taking up the street in front of the church, and the Gospel is that it takes all these characters to make Christ’s ministry come to life. It takes these servants who might rather be somewhere else. It takes this steward, who doesn’t know a miracle when he sees one. It takes this mom, who has to kick her son into high gear. It takes every one of them.

It takes every one of us. And I am so glad you have come to the party, especially on this day when getting here was just about as complicated as it possibly could have been. But even more, I am so glad you have to come to this party in the life of this church in the year to come. Because the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in this place needs every one of you. We need you to pour the wine and stock the water. We need you to stuff the bulletins and check the sound system. We need you to pray with the voice that you have and sing with the voice that you have and lead with the voice that only you have. The Gospel is that each of you, distinctively, precisely as you are, precisely for who you are, the Gospel is not only that each of you is welcome in this house, but each of you is necessary to this house. It wouldn’t be the same without you. I hope you will come. I hope you will come back. I hope you will stay. I hope you will lend your distinctive voice to the glorious holy cacophony that resonates at the center of the household of God. The party there doesn’t really get started until after we all show up.

Thanks be to God.