Sermon preached January 17, 2016
Texts: Nehemiah 8:8-10; John 2:1-11
Well, Powerball fever is over for now. None of the winning tickets was sold anywhere near Duluth, so I’m not expecting a huge infusion of cash into our Capital Campaign. Of course, the United Methodist Church discourages gambling, but I bet if I were to ask, some tickets were purchased by some of you here. It’s probably not the best $1 or $2 or $5 you ever spent, but…
So amid the Powerball fever, someone posted on Facebook that if you took the $1.2 billion prize and divided it up among 300 million Americans, every person in the country would receive $4.33 million. Wow – except the math was all wrong. Divide the prize among 300 million people and you would give each $4.33. $1.2 billion is a huge prize, but it is not as much as you would imagine. It is not as abundant an amount as you might think.
That image is very different from the gospel text in John. Here wine runs out, and Jesus’ mother calls his attention to it. His initial response is a little cold, but she thinks he can help. Six stone water jars, twenty to thirty gallons each – that would be120 to 180 gallons – we want to be better at math than that fuzzy Facebook post about the Powerball. The jars are filled with water at Jesus’ request, and the water is brought to the steward who finds it is wine. This is an image of great joy and overwhelming abundance. The story as it is told is rich with symbolism. A sign occurs on the third day. Jesus time, it seems, has arrived, even if his mother needed to nudge him into it a bit.
This is a wonderful story in many ways, but bringing together text and context, our context today on this weekend when we are celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., makes this text seem rather odd. We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. as a person who grappled with the difficult issues of his day. In the preface to his book, a collection of sermon called The Strength to Love, published in 1963, King would write: In these turbulent days of uncertainty the evils of war and of economic and racial injustice threaten the very survival of the human race. Indeed, we live in a time of grave crisis. (ix). King worked to alleviate racial injustice. He spoke out about the war in Vietnam. He marched with sanitation workers, fighting for economic justice. King worked in a time when those struggling for racial equality, for an end to segregation were sometimes beaten, and a few even killed. He worked at a time when African-Americans were systematically denied the right to vote in parts of our country. Black Americans marched during this time with placards that read simply, “I Am a Man,” because for too long there were those who denied their humanity.
What does this story of Jesus turning water into wine have to say to a turbulent world? What might this image of joy and abundance have to say to us today, in a world still marked by war and marred by racial and economic injustice?
This story reminds us of the importance of joy even in troubling times, even when our lives are a struggle. Joy.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was a dream filled with joyous images. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and moutain made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is a dream filled with hope and abundance and joy.
In one of his sermons (“Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”), King preached about life in relationship to God. But with him, we are able to rise from tension-packed valleys to the sublime heights of inner peace, and find radiant stars of hope against the nocturnal bosom of life’s most depressing nights. With God there can be joy.
Even in his final public speech, King would speak of happiness. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
King’s dreams and visions for life and for the United States are dreams and visions of joy. They recall for me the words of a hymn, a more recent hymn and not one we’ve done a lot – “A Place at the Table.” God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!
As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are drawn toward visions of the world that are joyous. Even more, joy gives us energy for living toward those visions. In that sermon he preached on the three dimensions of a complete life, King preached: Set yourself earnestly to discover what you are made to do, and then give yourself passionately to the doing of it. Discover what you are to do, how you might contribute to God’s work, be about the work of justice and joy, and do it with joy.
King’s words pre-shadow words later written by Frederick Buechner. In writing about “vocation,” that is, what God calls us to in our lives, Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking, 119). I know when there is a certain lack of joy in my life it is an indicator that I need to pay attention to something. I need to recalibrate in my relationship with God and with life.
I think we hear something of this importance of joy in the very ancient story of Nehemiah. Returning from exile, rebuilding Jerusalem, we hear that both Ezra and Nehemiah encourage the people. This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep…. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
The joy of the Lord is our strength. No matter the challenges in our world or in our lives, joy is to be a central part of who we are. We work toward a joyful vision. We are energized by joy.
The poet Rumi wrote, “The soul is here for its own joy.” (“Someone Digging in the Ground” in Bly ed., The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy, 166). The Christian spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen wrote: Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it everyday. The joy of the Lord is our strength. No matter the challenges in our world or in our lives, joy is to be a central part of who we are. We work toward a joyful vision. We are energized by joy.
Joy is not a shallow “happiness” where one ignores the difficulties of life or the pain in one’s life. Joy sees truthfully, yet also sees that God continues to be at work. There is joy in knowing we are loved, beloved. There is joy in knowing that we can work with God toward God’s joyful vision for the world. There is joy in making a difference. I think of the movie that some of us watched last Sunday afternoon, a Twin Ports United Methodist Ministries youth event – the movie “Inside, Out.” One of the lessons of the movie is that sadness has its place in our emotional palate, that sadness and joy are not antithetical – and it is an entertaining movie.
When we can lighten up, that is, know joy – the joy of being loved, the joy of working with God in the world – when we can lighten up with joy, we lighten up the world, we shine more brightly with God’s love.
When we lighten up, we lighten up.
I would like you to help me wrap this sermon up. Turn toward someone and encourage them – “Let your light shine with joy!”