Acting When Your Hour Has Not Yet Come
Pastor Vicki preached this sermon on January 17, 2016, in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
People are totally creeped out when I tell them I’m a pastor.
There are three stages of emotion when someone finds out you’re a pastor.
The first stage is shock.
A woman? A young person? Leading a church?
It’s like when you see those videos of the lion who has made friends with a duck. Can it be true?
The second stage is Regression.
I can see it in peoples’ eyes.
There is this moment when they retreat back to whatever good or bad experience they had with Christianity as a child, which can bring up feelings as varied as excitement, shame, and anger.
And then the final stage, if they are still talking to you with respect, is Intense Curiosity.
There is often this question, “So…what do you do all day?”
I think a lot of people either draw a complete blank when they wonder what pastors do or they imagine that we sit in an office and just pray and read the Bible and maybe do things with smoke and oil and visions or something like that.
But it’s a good question because pastors do really different things.
Some pastors spend all their time visiting people in the hospital and in their homes.
Some spend a lot of time writing and protesting in the streets and going to jail.
And I found out this week that some pastors spend time providing wine to people.
We have a United Methodist pastor among us named Ron,
and Pastor Jeff and I were hanging out with Ron and his wife, this week.
Ron and his wife were missionaries for many years
serving a Methodist church in Argentina in a town called Mendoza,
Which, I am told by much more sophisticated wine people like Pastor Jeff,
that this is a town famous for their awesome wine.
And Ron was telling us that a part of his ministry as a pastor in that community
was to fill up his peoples’ wine bottles during the week while they were at work.
So people would bring their empty bottles
and lay them outside the church on Sunday mornings,
and he would go fill them up from these wine barrels in town,
and the next week his parishioners would pick up their bottles
full of amazing wine.
And that being part of a pastor’s job seems kind of strange to us,
especially in the United Methodist Church on this corner of New York City.
Because wine means different things to different people.
For some of us, wine means something like
what it probably meant in Ron’s community in Argentina.
It means a compliment to a daily meal.
A piece of healthy, everyday community making.
For members of the AA groups who meet in this sanctuary on weeknights,
wine may have a completely different meaning.
It may mean relapse, painful memories, struggle, and even death.
It’s strange for us to hear in a Methodist Church because we are a dry church.
United Methodists’ attitudes toward alcohol
were forged in the temperance movement,
and today our tradition is not to have any alcohol in our churches
out of solidarity with those who are negatively affected by it.
So, for Methodists, wine means going against tradition.
Being kind of rebellious.
In that way, and I’m sure in many others, Ron is a secret rebel and radical.
But he was also performing real old school Jesus.
Did you know that the very first miracle Jesus performed in the gospel of John
was providing wine to people—
filling jugs with wine for people to drink socially?
You’ve probably heard of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana?
This is the assigned scripture text for this day,
and I thought it would be a fun text to preach on.
But then…this is also weekend we remember the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
So, while it might be a fun text,
is it really appropriate for this particular day?
When we take intentional time to meditate on the achievements and continued work of the civil rights movement,
when we remember those who gave their bodies and their lives
to end segregation and voter intimidation and to make a better world…
when we recall one of most significant human rights movements
in the history of the world,
is this really the right day to talk about the day Jesus
kept the alcohol flowing at a wedding?
I wrestled with several possible themes…
Martin Luther King: Let’s Keep the Party Going!
Red and White Together, We Shall Overcome!
But it’s hard.
Because I feel like Jesus and Dr. King and civil rights are so in sync…
but this party trick confused me.
And it was his first miracle!
It was his coming out statement,
the first time he would reveal to people that,
“Surprise! I am actually the God of love and justice,
and I will bring salvation to the world,
and I will begin…
by turning up this party so as to continue the inebriation!”
So I took some comfort in the fact that Jesus didn’t actually want to do this.
He was actually cajoled by his mother, Mary, to do this thing.
So then I was like,
Maybe this is like one of those things that you never wanted to do, but your parents made you do it and EVERYONE remembers it.
Like when your mom made you wear that crazy hideous sweater
Grandma got you for Christmas
that actually matches a sweater Grandma also got your mother,
which she is also wearing in the moment,
and she made your brother take a picture of you and your mother together
that 15 years later found its way, without your consent,
to Facebook and went viral.
I know that’s really specific…but you know what I mean.
I wondered if this water to wine miracle was kind of like
Jesus putting on that holiday sweater.
And I wondered if Jesus just rolls his eyes 2000 years later
when people are still talking about it
and trying to read some meaning into it.
Ok—so I got over that thought, and then I tried to read some meaning into it.
It’s a pretty funny interaction that Jesus has with his mother here.
Jesus was with his mom and some of his new disciples at this wedding in Cana,
and they’re doing what religious professionals do at weddings…
politely consuming a little wine and hoping to leave
before anyone asks them to dance…maybe that’s just me.
But they’re doing their wedding thing there,
and then Jesus’ mom sidles up to him and just says these four words.
She says, “They have no wine.”
And the gospel doesn’t say this, but it doesn’t need to.
Along with this statement,
there must have been a look.
Like this—“you better do this” look.
I’m working on this look with my child.
It’s that look that says,
“I know you’re having fun right now with your friends,
but it’s time to get in the car right now
or I will bring out the thumb-sucking baby pictures
I have in my purse right now.
And you know they are there.”
I don’t know. Is that how you parent? I’m trying to figure it out.
Anyway, I imagine Mary has developed this look
and is giving it to Jesus right now,
because he reacts in this over-the-top way.
He’s not like, “Oh no! Out of wine! That sucks.
We’ll try to have a positive attitude about it until
someone else fixes that situation.”
No, Jesus is all like,
What concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
So obviously Mary’s look was communicating,
“This is your problem. Fix this, now.”
And Mary doesn’t just take this “Woman! My hour has not yet come!” nonsense as a final answer.
She calls the servers and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”
She’s just like, “You’re doing this. Now.”
And he does it.
He creates some really good wine and the party continues.
So reading this over and over,
I started thinking about Ron and his wine ministry.
I started thinking about the meaning of wine.
How it means different things to different people.
To some, it’s an everyday social part of life.
To some, it’s poison and addiction.
But then I started thinking, what does wine–and what does water—
mean in this story and in the story of Jesus?
The gospel of John is full of symbols and deeper meanings.
This miracle symbolizes something.
So I started thinking about our sacraments–baptism and communion.
How our Christian journey begins with water,
but if we truly follow Jesus,
it leads to sharing the cup of wine,
the cup of suffering,
the cup of risk and sacrifice with him.
It means committing to an uncomfortable life
that does not let evil and injustice go unchallenged.
On the last night he spent with his disciples,
Jesus held up a cup of wine and said, “This my blood.”
He couldn’t have been more clear.
The wine is blood–A life offered doing good in an evil world.
That is what wine means in the Christian story.
So Jesus turning water into wine wasn’t some over the top party trick.
It symbolized the beginning of his journey to the cross.
It symbolized his coming out to the world as who he was—
God come down to show us love when we hate
and to show us beauty when we are ugly,
God come down to risk and sacrifice
for what God believes in—us.
Mary was saying to him,
“It’s time for you to start this work, Jesus.”
Her words and that look were a prayer to God
from an oppressed, impoverished, colonized female, speaking—
not just to her son—but it was a prayer to the divine in him,
saying, “People are suffering.
This IS your concern.
There is no perfect hour for you to start this journey.
Your hour is now.”
Mary appealed to the divine in her son,
and said it with four symbolic words. “They have no wine.”
Martin appealed to the divine good within each of us, especially those of us who say we can care about equality and liberation,
and he said it in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” to white liberal pastors
who urged him to wait for legal changes.
Hear these words in Mary’s appeal to Jesus:
Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well-timed,’ according to the timetable of those who ave not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’…Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience…
As I continue, I want to remind you not only to think of Mary imploring Jesus,
not only of Martin imploring white liberals,
but I want to remind you to think of yourself.
Of the people and issues you say that you support.
Of the situations in your life
in which you are waiting for the right moment,
the right circumstance to take action, to risk something,
to make that effort for liberation and justice.
Mary and Martin speak to you in these words:
I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
I want to say this hard and challenging truth—the truth of Mary and Martin—
If you think you’re in a movement or you’re supportive of something,
including the Jesus movement and what we try to do together here,
but you’ve never risked or sacrificed anything for it,
you’re probably not actually a part of that movement.
Reposting things on Facebook that only your like-minded friends can see
is not making real change.
Watching a progressive documentary and nodding your head in agreement
is not making real change.
I give those examples because because that’s what I do.
I do not know what exactly God is calling, urging, each one of you to do.
I do not know what group of people—or maybe yourself—
that God desires to liberate partly through your actions.
Perhaps you are being called to join a civil rights campaign of your own—
to call President Obama to end the recent ICE raids
of immigrants and refugees.
Maybe you’re called to join United Methodist efforts
to accompany immigrants through deportation hearings.
Perhaps you are being called to join the next Black Lives Matter protest
or struggle for your own right to mental healthcare or addiction services.
Maybe you are being called to leave an abusive situation
or to come out in a new circle as gay or as progressive or as Christian.
Perhaps you’re being called to give financially
to send LGBTQI equality activists to the international gathering
of United Methodists in Portland
to protest our discrimination and hate speech.
Or maybe you’re just being called to have a hard, honest conversation.
Whatever it might be that God is prodding you to do,
there are two things you need to know.
Real, significant transformation will always require you to risk something.
And it will never feel like the perfect or the right time.
And I believe Mary and Martin are speaking to us today.
Like they spoke to Jesus, like they spoke to God,
like they spoke to the divine spark that lives within good-hearted people.
They are saying, Stop waiting for some perfect hour.
Stop acting like the suffering around you is none of your business.
Risk something today.
I want to end with words from the civil rights veteran, Vincent Harding,
from an interview he did recently,
when he talked about these freedom songs we sing and refer to,
especially on days like this one.
He reminds us that these songs are not just sweet,
“Let’s all live together with puppies and rainbows”
kinds of songs—
that these are songs that gave strength to people
when they were risking and sacrificing their lives for justice.
When they were turning water into wine
and drinking from the cup of sacrifice and struggle.
Harding is going to talk about the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964,
when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
invited hundreds of largely white college students
from around the country to go to Mississippi
to live in the homes of poor Black folk,
to try to give people in Mississippi enough support and courage
to risk their jobs, homes, and churches
to register to vote
and to make it impossible for the rest of the country
to turn away from what was happening in Mississippi.
Before they went South, the students and SNCC leaders
met in Ohio for two weeks of training.
Three men, two white, one black,
Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner
were among those at the training,
but they left early to go to Mississippi.
During the second week of training,
it was announced that the three men had gone missing.
And it was on that day that the students and the organizers realized
what the Black population of Mississippi had known all along—
that making any change in Mississippi meant
incredible danger, risk, and even death.
That, if they went to Mississippi,
they would be turning water into wine,
embarking on a journey that could lead to the cross and death.
And it is that moment that Vincent Harding describes in this clip,
May his words remind us
that freedom isn’t free or inevitable,
that changing the world is grounded
in the risk and sacrifice of regular people like us.
Photo credit: Jon Sullivan