“Ministry of Extravagance”
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
January 16, 2022
As a host it is your worst nightmare. You are throwing a wedding party with all your family, all your friends, all the important people in your village in attendance. The festivities go on for days. And everyone expects there to be food, and music, and lots to drink. And somehow, the wine runs out.
This is the 1st century we are talking about. No corner liquor stores to dash off to. You probably couldn’t even find enough wine from your friends to borrow. If you ran out of wine it was a disaster. That is the setting for the first of the “signs” (or miracles) in the gospel of John—which we call “The Wedding at Cana.”
It is a story that we see nowhere else. We don’t know if this was a wedding in Jesus’ family, but Jesus’s mother is there and Jesus and “his disciples” have been invited to the gathering. It begins… “On the third day”—on the third day of what? John’s gospel has just started. We have been introduced to the WORD, who was with God and who was God. We have heard testimony of John the Baptist who identifies that there is One coming whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. And then we meet, “the Lamb of God”—the one on whom the Spirit descends and remains. And Jesus calls Simon Peter and Andrew, and Philip and Nathanael to “come and follow me.” And then, “on the third day.”
It seems a weird thing to have been passed down throughout the generations. Jesus calls us and then 2 days later, “no, no” it was three days later, we were at this wedding! It also seems kind of strange that within three days these disciples are so connected with Jesus that they get invited to the party of the decade at Cana. And in the back of our minds, we might be saying, “what do I know about the gospel of John?” That it is a gospel with secret meetings in the dark, and special code words. That it was written for a community that felt it had to be cloaked from the outside world.
Given all that, what might “on the third day” mean? For Christians everywhere, it should ring a bell. Each time we recite the Apostle’s Creed, we say that we believe “in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.”
Of course, “on the third day” is the final code for WATCH OUT, this is the Messiah! (That’s if you missed the whole beginning poem about the Word, or the “Lamb of God” reference—which harkens back to the sacrifice of Isaac, and putting lamb’s blood on the lintel before the final plague). On the third day is code for a new day and a new way, for the momentous doings of God in our world, for resurrection. On the third day, Jesus begins his ministry with a sign at a wedding in Cana.
Signs of God’s appearance in our world happen when we least expect it. I’m pretty sure that Jesus did not go to this wedding expecting to be put on the spot to perform a sign (or if we were in the comic book universe, using his superpowers). Now if you are out preaching, or healing, or putting yourself out there in your official capacity as Prophet or Rabbi or Messiah, you could expect people to ask you for a miracle. But Jesus is minding his own business. He’s at a wedding. He’s kicking back with his family and his friends (or at least those people hanging around with him). He’s had something to eat. He’s had something to drink. He’s telling stories, or deep in conversation, or maybe even out on the dance floor, and Mom shows up.
I do notice that the mother of Jesus is never named. Not here, not at the foot of the cross (the other place where she is mentioned in the gospel of John). According to this gospel, we would not know the mother of Jesus as Mary. Even Jesus calls her, “Woman.” I do notice though that the mother of Jesus is someone who cares about the wine running out at this party.
And the mother of Jesus has enough clout with her son to ask for help. AND the mother of Jesus is pretty sure that he can do something about the situation.
So signs of God’s appearance in our world happen when we least expect it, and they can also mess up our time table. You see, we mortals think we have it all under control. We have made our little lists. Some have even written down five-year goals. We have dreams of what we’d like to do and where we’d like to be. And most of us do not factor in God’s surprise appearances in our world on our google calendar or our datebook. And it sounds like Jesus wasn’t really thinking that wedding at Cana was the right time or place for a “sign” to happen.
When his mother approaches him, he responds, “What has that got to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” But he clearly knows that ready or not, his hour has come. And if your hour has come, you might as well do it right. He tells the servants (the diakonia, as in deacons) to fill water jugs—and not just any water jugs, but huge water canisters holding 20 or 30 gallons, and usually reserved for a spiritual purpose, for water purification, for people to be made clean. Ooooooo, I’m on the end of my seat. This is the first time where we get to see Jesus showing off his power! What words or incantations is he going to use? Is he going to wave his hands? Will he touch the water in each canister? Does he raise some of it up in prayer? As the music swells and our eyes widen in anticipation, Jesus turns to one of the servants and says, “take some of that to the steward, the one running the feast.”
I can only imagine what that servant thought. “I’m going to be laughed out of the party for bringing water instead of wine.” Or, “is this going to be a mass delusion event?” Or, “what in the world is going on?” No matter. When the steward tastes the water made wine, it isn’t just any old wine, it is the best he has ever tasted. It is so unusual, so spectacular, that the steward has to comment on it to the bridegroom. “Most people use the best stuff first, but you have saved the best for last.”
God’s appearances in our world may happen when we least expect it. They may not happen on our preferred schedule. But most important of all, they are extravagant. It’s not just water into wine, but water into the best wine. It’s not just a couple of bottles, it’s 120 to 180 gallons of the stuff. It’s not just a sign, but it “reveals Jesus’ glory.” No wonder the writer of John has it happen, “on the third day.”
Here’s what struck me today. We often talk about a world of scarcity (made oh so concrete when we were all scrounging around for toilet paper!), and we might even contrast that with a world of abundance—where we share what we have to meet everyone’s needs. This story goes past that. This conjures up a world where there is more than enough, and more than enough of better than we could have hoped, more than enough of the best we could imagine.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, we are reminded that we need to hear a word like this again. In Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” he doesn’t pretend that all is right with the country he lives in. He names the poverty and the racial inequality and the downright meanness that is happening. But looking that square in the face, he “dreams,” he lifts up what could be, what should be, what must be, if we are to “make real the promises of democracy.”
This is a time of deep division and almost unbearable disappointment in one another, in the institutions that we have held so dear, and in the country that we all say we love. What does God’s extravagant love mean for us? What does it require of us? What is God calling us to do, right here, right now?
I believe we are called to a ministry of extravagance. Now, I know, that budgets are tight, and everyone is wondering what the church is going to look like after having to be splintered and virtual and away from each other for so long. And what does extravagance even look like in our world? This isn’t a convenient time, God. We’re dealing with other issues. We’re just trying to stay afloat.
Ok, maybe we can think about not letting ourselves think in scarcity terms, maybe we can think about abundance, but extravagance? Over the top? More than is needed? Really?
And I remember the story of 5000 followers stuck on a hillside, needing to be fed. And there were a few fish and some bread, and there were baskets and baskets left over.
And I remember the story of Jesus and his disciples at the table when a woman opened a flask of oil, and didn’t just dab it on Jesus’ feet, but poured it lavishly and used her hair to clean the dust off, and wash away his heavy burdens, and anoint him for what was to come.
And I remember the story of that last night, sharing a meal that would start but never end, praying for the cup to pass but being willing to give the ultimate gift to the world, and as a writer in Seasons of the Spirit puts it, “The truth poured out of how expensive love is. Not just this once, but every time it is done: the extravagant cost and calling of love for each of us.”
That is what God intends for each of us, and for us as a church-- To participate in the extravagance of God’s love. Maybe this will mean doing some rethinking about our priorities. Maybe this will require figuring out what being extravagant means in our own lives. Maybe this will push us to dare to do some things that are out of our comfort zone as a church, maybe even a little out of our budget zone!
What might it look like? Dr. David Chancey tells this story (in “The Citizen” “God’s unique, extravagant love” 2/16/2020). “A man decided he wanted to show his love for his wife. He usually left his factory job sweaty and dirty, arrived home, went in the back door, plopped down in the den and watched TV until supper. But today was going to be different.
He showered, shaved, and put on clean clothes before leaving work. He stopped at a florist and bought some flowers. He went to the front door, rang the doorbell, and waited for his wife to answer. When she opened the door, he held out the flowers and said, ‘These are for you, honey! I love you!”
She looked at the flowers, and then at her husband and burst into tears. “I’ve had such a horrible day. Billy broke his arm, I rushed him to the emergency room; I got back home, and your mother called to tell me she was coming tomorrow for a two-week visit. I tried to wash clothes and the washing machine broke. There is water all over the floor and I can’t get the repairman to call me back. And now to top it all off, you come home drunk!”
Figuring out how to show extravagant love may take some practice. It is hard to change how we view the world. It is hard to rework years and years of habits. But that is what the story of the wedding at Cana is all about.
It is about “on the third day.” It is about God needing us when we least expect it. It is about sharing something that explodes what we know of the world. It is about a new way of being. It is an invitation to a celebration that invites not just friends and family, but scours the highways and byways to try to make sure there are no empty places.
It is the beginning of the story, yet it is tightly tied to the end of the story. It is Jesus’ story, yet we are included, as we hear, as we remember, as we try to put its message into practice.
So today may we be nudged into living lives of extravagant love.
May we as a church be on the lookout for and in the business of God’s appearances in our world.
And may we drink deeply of all God has to offer, knowing that even if our cup overflows, there is more to come, and it will be the best ever.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.