The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
A Sermon for Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend
Happy holiday weekend! I feel a certain solidarity with those who are here with me on holidays (especially such wintry holidays) since I don’t have much of a choice. We may be a small group, but I hope you’ll also join me after church for the forum on race in America, part of our series called “Conversions That Matter.” I obviously timed this to coincide with this weekend and the Martin Luther King holiday. We’ll be discussing together the topic of race in our country, while practicing the art of listening and respecting one another’s opinions. That’s why Susie and I came up with this series. It’s more important than ever to create spaces where we can listen with open minds and hearts. Because there’s not a lot of that going on in our culture right now.I have come to think of this as one of the most important and relevant holidays of the year for our national life. King in the last year of his life was not the King of the I Have A Dream Speech in 1963. His last speech, given at the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis in 1968 just days before he was killed, is hard to read. You can feel the foreboding, the heaviness. And other of his writing from that period has this same, beleaguered feel to it. He sensed by that point that the struggle would be long, longer than he thought that sunny day on the Washington Mall in 1963. He sensed that, even far out into the future, the shadow of racism in this country would be dark, and long. And that wore him down.
King was a prophet not just in the Biblical sense of seeing the present time clearly and honesty, but in the popular sense of seeing the future. Same as 50 years ago, black people are still trying to tell white people you must look at us.
We must look at our history – not just your history. Our history, too.
We must be honest about the effects of our shared history still today.
We are not post-racial.
We are not done with this conversation.
We have not reached the Promised Land, and the dream is not fulfilled.
So we need to honor King’s legacy each year, with thought and action. As long as I’m a priest I will do everything I can not to miss this Sunday. It’s too important.
The readings given for today, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, are not selected to go with this holiday (King has his own feast day in our church, which is dated to the date of his death as we do with people we venerate–April 4.) Today’s readings for the second Sunday after the Epiphany were here long before Dr. King, before America itself–centuries before. The Gospel story of the Wedding at Cana is an old reading for this season we’re in, alongside the story of the Wise Men and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
However, probably the vast majority of Gospel readings we hear each week have some sort of link to King’s life and work. And so it’s not too difficult to see in the story of the Wedding at Cana a connection to this weekend.
Cana was a small village outside of Nazareth, about seven miles northeast. If you go there today you’ll find there the usual array of religious kitsch: clay jars filled with wine for sale, town fountains with water spurting out of decorative pots (I know. I sound like a boring Protestant Episcopalian who likes my religious sites factual and historical). At the center of the town is the location where this story is supposed to have taken place. A fairly new church now sits on the spot (though an original fifth century Byzantine Church lies beneath, at least closer to our Lord’s time. And that is something to see.)Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, he called together his first few disciples, and “on the third day” of all this activity, he and his new disciples are up in Cana, at a wedding of a someone they know. This would have been (as weddings were then) a multi-day affair, requiring a great amount of food and drink.
At some point in the festivities, the wine runs out. Mary, Jesus’ mother, is the one to notice this. She tells her son. Roman Catholic theology sees in this story a basis for Mary being viewed as mediator between us and Christ. Here, she intercedes on behalf of the bride and groom, whose wedding this is and on whom the shame of running out of wine would fall. Also important in that tradition (and to some extent in ours, too) is what Jesus calls his mother: Woman. It’s not a put down but rather an exaltation of her role, maybe even an allusion to her role as the “New Eve,” the perfect woman who redeems the sins of the first.
More prosaically, what I like about Mary’s role in this story is that she says something. She notices a problem, and she says something rather than just look away. That awareness, looking out for others and taking action is her lesson to us in this story.
Jesus, prompted by her concern, instructs the servants to fill six large stone jars with water and to draw some out for the chief steward. He tastes it, and marvels. It’s not only wine; it’s the best wine yet. “Everyone,” he says to the bridegroom “serves the best wine first and saves the inferior wine for after the guests have become drunk, but you have kept the good wine for last!” (In the vesting room where the clergy and Eucharistic Ministers get ready for the service, I’ve put up a little picture, picked up in Italy, of this wine steward painted by Giotto. He was a favorite in Renaissance art for some reason, where he’s usually a portly bon vivant. In this painting, he looks like he’s administering the chalice, so I keep it there to humor our chalice bearers. There are, by the way, loads of Eucharistic overtones to this story, you might have guessed.)
Scholars estimate Jesus produced eight hundred bottles of wine that day. To any early listener of this story, it would have brought to mind the Old Testaments prophets, such as Isaiah, who said that The Kingdom of God is like a great banquet where the food and the wine never run out. The Kingdom of God is a way of saying the world as we wish it to be. In that world, everyone has a glass and will drink his fill. Everyone has what the other has. We share in our rights and privileges, and in our joys. Maybe the reason the second wine tasted so much better is that there was enough to go around. Life is sweetest when others have what we have, and joy is felt most deeply when it’s shared.
This weekend we celebrate the life of a man who tried to teach this country that lesson, that joy shared tastes sweetest. That there’s a place at this banquet for all of us. That there really is enough to go around. So may we honor Dr. King’s legacy and bring the Kingdom of God just a little bit closer to earth, in our time. As he did, in his. Amen.