Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday
Scripture: John 2:1-11
The following is a transcript of the sermon given on January 20. No audio is available.
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
This is the way John ends our Gospel reading for this morning- and I don’t know about y’all, but there is very little in this story that strikes me as glorious at first glance.
Perhaps it’s because I’m still coming down from the high of Christmas, but I can’t help but point out the obvious: there are no choirs of angels here, no well-dressed wise ones from far-away lands, no stars glimmering in the night sky.
Even last week’s reading about Jesus’ baptism included a dramatic speech and a guest appearance by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.
Given all of this lead-up, you’d think that the setting for Jesus’ first public act of ministry and mission we read about in John would be impressive. I’m talking the works- backup dancers, fog machines, maybe Jesus slowly rising up from a trap door with all his fans singing along.
But nope- we don’t get any of that. Not even a golden escalator.
Instead, we get a very ordinary scene: a marriage in Cana, an unexceptional place near Jesus’ hometown. Cana was not a “destination” by any means- in fact, it was probably the sort of town you would visit only for the wedding of some people from back home, maybe for some high school friends or the kids from the neighborhood. It was the kind of place you’d see on the RSVP and think: “Oh, so they did end up staying there after all.”
Indeed, what happens in this story, like most extraordinary things, takes place in the middle of utter ordinariness.
On their way to the wedding, we can imagine Jesus and his friends making small talk and wisecracks, perhaps even asking Mary how their outfits look (but pretending, of course, that they don’t actually care). John records no special greeting for Jesus from the wedding hosts in this Gospel, and no mention of him as the guest of honor either- Jesus does not give a toast or make a speech.
From what we can tell, everyone involved (Jesus included) probably expected this evening to be just like any other wedding in the sleepy village of Cana: too many in-laws, not enough food, and a ceremony that goes on just a little too long.
But then the wine runs out. And suddenly everything changes.
When most people think of this story, they think of that one, pivotal moment when Jesus transforms the jars of water into wine. I think that tunnel vision is easy for us to have, especially when we assume that the setting and other characters are so unimportant.
But let’s take a step back from this scene and look at it from another angle. When we expand the easy frame we like to put around this moment, when we leave room for more figures in the story to emerge into focus, who else can we see?
For starters, we see Mary. It is Mary, not Jesus, who first notices that the wine has run out. It is Mary who coordinates with the servants and with the wedding organizers. Most importantly, it is Mary who takes Jesus by the hand, draws him into the kitchen supply closet with the stressed-out servants and the empty wine jugs, and encourages him, in a voice both warm and firm, that the time has come to use his gifts to make a difference.
Jesus, for the record, is not very gung-ho about this idea. His response to Mary’s encouragement here seems sharp, to put it mildly: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."
In this moment, perhaps Jesus, like us, thinks that a place like Cana- and in the catering kitchens no less, surrounded by sputtering pots and cursing waitstaff- is no place for the Messiah, Emmanuel, the one sent to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth, to claim his status as the leader of a spiritual revolution.
It might be easy for us to judge Jesus’s reaction here, but I can’t help but wonder: How often do we apply this very same bias to our history, to the stories we tell about how big change gets started?
As a culture, we so often assume that change comes from a few very important people- mostly white, mostly men- who say exactly the right things at the right time in the right place. We love building pedestals, and we love putting people alone on top of them. But when we turn leaders into icons, what (and who) might we lose sight of in the process?
I think we- and especially those of us who are white- often tell this same very narrow story about another moment of spiritual revolution: the ongoing struggle for racial justice in the United States. Especially on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, as we gather together to center and remember the legacy of Dr. King, I think it is far too easy for many of us to talk about Dr. King’s story in the same way we so often talk about Jesus.
For Jesus, we usually only see the image of particular big miracles or speeches: major healings, the Sermon on the Mount, the Resurrection. And likewise, for Dr. King, how often do we limit our imaginations to specific big moments in civil rights history, like the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge or the “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington? In both cases, we often tell stories of very important men who did very important things alone in a very important place and time.
The key word there, of course, is “alone.” It’s a heavy word, and in the case of these stories, also untrue.
Both of the world-changing movements these men helped bring into being did not begin on lonely pedestals. For Jesus, the movement began in a crowded and frantic kitchen in Cana, surrounded by average people, right in the middle of everyday life. For Dr. King, the movement began during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the historic protest against Jim Crow racial segregation on public transportation from December 1955 to December 1956.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott brought Dr. King (and the movement that he helped galvanize) into the national and international consciousness of white supremacy and anti-Black racism. Our history books often like to boil down the Boycott to a specific set of easy-to-digest images.
Think, for example, of the many grainy photographs of Dr. King at major press conferences or in the pulpit, or Rosa Parks, radiating courage and a quiet dignity on the bus seat she refused to render to a white man.
These images are worth cherishing, to be sure. But lost to our popular story of the Boycott are the dreams, fears, and daily acts of courage of the black community and their allies in Montgomery, the everyday people who looked into the eyes of their children and grandchildren, took a deep breath, and decided that they were worth fighting for.
Lost to our popular story are the many phone calls, the cups of coffee brewed for strategy meetings, the reams of paper filled with handwritten carpool schedules, the meals delivered to struggling families impacted by the Boycott.
Lost to our popular story are the aching feet sore from miles of walking to work, the lips joined in hymns of resistance and struggle, the hands clasped together by the Montgomery roadside.
Lost to our popular story is the daily work of women just like those featured in the photograph on the cover of today’s bulletin.
These women were the matriarchs of Mt. Zion Church, the homebase of the Boycott organizing in Montgomery. They never delivered any speeches or posed for any magazine covers. Their faces and names do not greet us from any stamps, movie posters, or calendars.
And yet, their daily acts of courage and love- the risks and responsibilities they assumed every single morning as they put on their worn shoes in the light of the rising sun- sustained a movement that would change everything.
Spiritual revolutions do not begin in the spotlight. They begin in church basements, on the bus, around kitchen tables. They begin between and among everyday people, people like you and me, who put their faith in the belief that, despite all evidence to the contrary, something better is possible. Spiritual revolution began in a quiet church in Montgomery, Alabama, a dream shared between people who would never have a day named after them.
Spiritual revolution also began in a kitchen in Cana, where the glory of God was not revealed first to kings or to movie stars, but to servants. It began when a woman was bold enough to declare that the work starts here and now, not sometime when it is easier, more convenient, or less intimidating. It began when ordinary people decided that they, too, had a place in something extraordinary.
The Gospel of John often refers to the acts of Jesus as “signs” rather than “miracles,” and this distinction really matters.
While “miracles” are simply surprising or awe-inspiring, “signs” tell us something about the nature of God. They tell us about where and how God shows up.
In a back kitchen in Cana, the sign is clear: spiritual revolution belongs to each and every one of us. In the mission of love and justice to which we are called, there are no pedestals. At Cana and in Montgomery, we can see that the glory of God is not fundamentally about thundering trumpets or rousing speeches.
Instead, we see that the glory of God is revealed when we show up in our everyday lives and promise every morning that we will leave this world better than we found it.
Our Epistle reading tells us that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Everyone. Not just Jesus or Dr. King. Not just the people you see on TV or honored on federal holidays. Each and every one of us are called to live into Christ’s glory and King’s dream. We are called to live into the world that Mary imagined and that the women at Mt. Zion Church worked every day to achieve.
This is the “glory” that Jesus reveals at Cana. It’s the everyday glory of a baby born in a feed bin, of a man baptized in muddy river water. It’s the glory that is revealed when we see every single moment and every single person, no matter how ordinary, as the place where a revolution can begin.
I want to invite all of you to take a look around the sanctuary right now. Look at the people sitting behind you, in front of you, beside you. Maybe you have known some of these people for years, others for just a few minutes.
Regardless, I want you to look- really look- at their hands and faces, into their eyes, and imagine that you are looking at a community responsible for starting a spiritual revolution. In a world that feels so full of despair and fear, full of the continuing curses of oppression and white supremacy, what would it mean to imagine that this place- United Parish, on a quiet, snowy morning in 2019- is where something starts that will change the world?
Glory is not something we can reveal alone. We can only find it within one another. It will take every single one of us, bringing whatever we have- even if it is just a little water.
And it will be the work of a lifetime.
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, at United Parish, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Let’s get started. Amen.