It was pretty naïve of me; I have to admit. Well-meaning teacher takes boys from inner city Brooklyn to see the heart of nature in Central Park, accompanied by a feast from Whole Foods. When we left for our field trip that afternoon, it was my intention to show the boys something new, something wonderful. It was my intention to let them see what was available to them.
We started our trek from Ralph Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, riding the C train through the underbelly of the city. When we arrived at 59th Street at Columbus Circle, I grabbed Kenneth and Trevon’s hands and walked them up the stairs. When we got to the top of the entrance, their eyes slowly rose to take in behemoth buildings far glossier than the projects that faced our school. I could feel their excitement and anxiety trickle from their fingers to my own, straight through to my heart. I feared I was making a mistake, taking them so far from home. I feared there wouldn’t be any food they’d like or that they’d hate the park or that I’d lose them in the crowd.
But what I feared most was that they wouldn’t really have dinner when they got home and that I had the responsibility to feed these precious people I served. We stood at the top of the escalator that carried fretful shoppers into the basement of the Time Warner Center, crazy about getting their kale and pomegranates and local cheese. Kenneth and Trevon’s looks were hilarious as they watched people scurry with their burlap bags carrying parsnips.
We walked over to the prepared foods section to find some sandwiches. I picked over the "kid’s section" until I found something they might like. I held up a slow-cured ham with brie on wheat sandwich and said, "Do you like ham and cheese?" "That does not look like a ham and cheese, Miss Guthrie!" Trevon giggled. "Yeah, it’s the closest we’ll get." Kenneth asked for a drink. I picked up a glass bottle with an in-store label that said, "Freshly Squeezed" and the day’s date and an unfriendly-to-a-teacher’s-salary price tag of nearly $7. "Do you like orange juice?" "I like Sunny D." "This is the good stuff, buddy." Kenneth looked at me with these giant eyes that said far more than I can describe here. But he trusted me, so we went ahead with it.
Will you pray with me? Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you. Amen.
For the past two Sundays, we’ve celebrated the Season of Epiphany – of God breaking into our world in the flesh as Jesus Christ. "Epiphany" means "an outward show" or "manifestation." Epiphany is when we celebrate that we can see God in the world and that we see God in the world through Christ. From Epiphany to the beginning of Lent, we walk through this revelation of the divine on earth and try to figure out what it means. We look for signs about who this Immanuel – Christ – is.
When we meet Jesus, his mother Mary, and the disciples in today’s Gospel, they are at a wedding feast in a tiny village called Cana. In Ancient Israel, weddings lasted for seven days, a feast of food and wine and love and family and tension, exhaustion. When Jesus and his crew appear at the feast, it’s probabaly a few days in to the celebration. John starts this narrative with "on the third day," perhaps because it is the third day of Jesus’ ministry with his newly-minted disciples. Told the day earlier, "You will see greater things than these," the disciples were on the lookout. Watching every move of their new teacher, curious about what he would do next. They wonder what he’s capable of, what he expects of them. Or, maybe they’re standing in a corner whining to their Rabbi because by the time they got there, the refreshments were gone.
Mary – aware of what is at stake for the party, for the disciples’ moldable faith, for the chance her son, God-on-earth, has here – tells him the wine has run out. Jesus doesn’t seem ready but then, perhaps at her prodding, decides to perform what John calls "the first of his signs."
Jesus calls over the servants – the slaves – and tells them to fill six stone jars with water. We don’t know how Jesus did it but we do know that when the chief steward drank what he thought was water, it was wine. And here’s the thing about this wine. It isn’t two-buck Chuck from Trader’s Joe’s. It isn’t vintage Pinot Noir from a remote vineyard I can’t pronounce. And it isn’t just a few bottles, either. The chief steward realizes that this wine is fancy – special, "the good wine" and there are stockpiles of it stored in the water jugs.
I did some math to figure out how much wine our favorite winemaker produced and it is extravagant. It’s a bit absurd, really. Each jar holds about 30 gallons; there were six of them so that’s 180 gallons of wine. That brings us to about 23,000 ounces of wine or 900 bottles. If you figure there are about 4.5 glasses of wine in a bottle, that’s about 4000 glasses of wine. That means each person here would receive 50 or so glasses of wine (8:30) / 20 or so glasses of wine (11). This sign was not one to simply quench the party’s thirst but to quench their thirst for life. This was a sign of abundance, extravagant abundance.
The Gospel of John calls this not a miracle but a "sign." At my first few readings, I thought the word "sign" was a literary slip and that John meant miracle. But after praying with the text, I realize that "sign" is a more accurate description of what Jesus did at the wedding of Cana. Signs point to something else. They are indicators of what is ahead, of what is at present. Signs communicate important information.
This sign of abundance, of Jesus turning water into almost 1000 bottles of wine so that a party could continue, is extravagant. It is an extravagant indicator of Christ’s love for us, of Christ’s presence poured out for us to see and taste and enjoy. And what’s more extravagant to me, what’s more clear to me than anything, is that this was what he chose to do FIRST as his signs on earth. When I think of Jesus, I think of his birth, his teaching, his dying, his resurrection. But communities? Celebration? To believe in a God who chooses first to celebrate with us and find joy in our company – that is a strangely difficult task. But here, in this story, we hear the Good News: joy was and is important to our Lord. Christ chose this as his first sign of divine abundant care for us. Christ chose joy first.
But not everyone could see it. The text does something really beautiful here if you look at it. When the chief steward was drinking and not knowing where the wine came from, there is a phrase in parentheses that says: "(though the servants who had drawn the water knew)." The slaves, the unseen yet all-seeing, knew what Christ had done. The disciples, whose eyes had been peeled for proof of this prophet’s legitimacy, saw. The rest of the party had no idea but then again, why should they? They weren’t looking.
I think this is the real miracle – that some people saw Jesus’ extravagant act and then knew he was indeed God. The world "miracle" comes from the Latin "miraculum," (meer-ack-u-lum) the root of which is "miror." Miror – to marvel at or admire, to be amazed at. To see and see wonder.
Far away in Paraguay, there is a slum atop a landfill. In that slum lives Juan Manuel. He’s a 19-year-old cellist. He describes his instrument like this: "This cello is made from an oil can, and wood that was thrown away in the garbage. The pegs are made out of an old tool used to tenderize beef and this (pointing to the tuning pegs) was used to make gnocchi. It sounds like this…" He starts to play what I consider to be one of the most hopeful yet stirring pieces of music – the prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. The music is soon backed by a whole orchestra of teens playing violins and violas and cellos all made from garbage. Their story – their marvelous, full story – is being filmed in a documentary called "Landfill Harmonic." I’ll post the link in my sermon so you all can see and admire. What their eyes are able to see and see with wonder, with hope, with belief in a new life is a miracle.
We walked until we found a good picnic spot, underneath an old wise oak tree. We spread out our backpacks and sweatshirts on the ground and opened up the grocery bag. I broke the sandwich in half for the boys to share and handed Kenneth his juice. He popped the top and started drinking. His eyes grew in wonder as he tasted the juice. He drank it so fast that orange juice was spilling down his little chin; his cheeks puffed out in a smile filled with pulp and oranges and awe. He drew the bottle away and asked me with innocence, "Is this what real juice tastes like?" I smiled from ear to ear with joy and awe that I was experiencing this, that I had the privilege to be here, that this was my life, that when I stopped for one second and paid attention to the abundance poured out before me, I could share in his belief. "Yes, Kenneth. It is real." All praise be to God. Amen.