Once, there was a wedding and Jesus was there. Well as a pastor I’m here to tell you that on more than one occasion there have been weddings and Jesus wasn’t there. Most likely you have attended or maybe even presided at those weddings where Jesus was not present. They’re the weddings where Jesus isn’t front and center but rather Bridezilla or sometimes worse, the Mother of The Bride, with her black belt degree in event planning, who steps into her big moment, the moment she’s been waiting for in some cases for 25 years—since the day Princess was born, actually. A moment to shine and look good and try as you might, as the officiating clergy person to snag an invitation so Jesus could be present at the wedding, could be a part of the festivities, we know who the star of the show is. You know those weddings.
Standing there detached from it all, I’ve gone looking for Jesus at many weddings. Weddings where perhaps the bride grew up in the church long ago before moving away to go to school and get a job out of town, essentially discarding the church along the way like a quaint childhood relic, before now desiring its lovely long aisle down which to parade herself toward the awaiting groom who, while truly loving her, seems too cool to even pretend much that he does in any way that might be construed as sentimental or romantic, soft, in front of his friends.
These are the weddings where obscene amounts of money get spent on the reception, the dress, the band, the limos, the designer cake. Where every detail is planned and agonized over except the service itself, which seems like a mere distraction, a necessary detail on the way to the reception. And where throughout the rehearsal the young bride and her 15 attendants (because it was so hard to narrow down the list of best friends) can’t stop giggling and talking as they struggle to walk on their ridiculously high heels, while the groom and his smug buddies, already emitting strong vapors of Scotch at 5:00 p.m. keep giving themselves knowing smirks, signaling that they can’t wait to get out of this church and back to the hotel bar.
Oh, it’s dangerous to get ministers going on weddings because all too often we’ve been present at weddings where Jesus didn’t seem to be. But there are the rare ones, where the spirit of the living Christ is very much present, like in the air everyone is breathing. Where love is palpable. Where the priorities are different and the event itself is about something radically different—where the bride and the groom actually set a tone of selflessness on the very day everyone thinks is supposed to be about them. And in the moment when those vows are exchanged you can hear it in their voices and see it in their faces and you know they mean business, and you feel as if a miracle is taking place right in front of your eyes, because it is and you’re honored to be a part of it. Like the wedding I attended one time where in a moment of surprising and breath-taking intimacy, the couple actually stooped down and washed each other’s feet.
If you look in those cheesy wedding planning books, the ones that couples usually arrive with in hand on their first visit with the pastor to plan their service, the books list appropriate scripture texts including this one from the second chapter of John’s gospel. And we all know the story. Jesus attends a wedding and the reception is in full swing when the wine suddenly gives out. So, what to do now? Jesus’ mother appeals to her son to help rectify the problem, irritating him somewhat and perhaps revealing something in the DNA of mothers who apparently have an instinctive need to control what happens at weddings, even the weddings of other people’s children. And then Jesus discovers six stone jars for the rites of purification. He has them filled with water and then somehow, the water is turned into wine. And the author of the fourth gospel says, “And this was the first of his signs and revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”
A couple of issues. First, we’re in the fourth gospel here, with its many layers of symbolism and cultural nuances to parse. But on a basic level, I wonder why this text qualifies as a good text for a wedding? It takes place at a wedding but there’s nothing in it about loving and cherishing, sickness and health. And if it’s questionable as a good wedding text, it’s perhaps even more questionable as Jesus’ very first sign, if I may say that.
Think about it. In a world of hurt and need, a world of injustice and death, a world of hunger and heartache and pain, turning water into wine so that a party can continue seems a bit frivolous, don’t you think? I mean, feed the hungry, heal the sick, raise the dead—those would be good first signs. Forgive a hardened sinner and you’ve got a first sign. But isn’t turning water into wine at a party the equivalent of leaving the fraternity house on a late night booze run?
Well, let’s begin with the realization that a wedding is not a marriage, thanks be to God! The wedding is the ceremony but the marriage is the life, the relationship. And all good and healthy marriages are rooted in covenants which, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us, are all about subverting the dominant forms, patterns and presuppositions of the culture. Covenant offers us a window into the way things are in heaven and the way they could be on earth. Because a covenant is not a contract. Contracts are based on promises and are then measured by certain behaviors to determine whether or not we’re making good on those promises. Do this for me and I’ll do that for you. It’s how the world seems to work.
But again, Walter Brueggemann insists,
Distinct from the modern-industrial-scientific view, covenantal-historical faith affirms that human existence does not exist primarily in the capacity to know and control and manage. Against a this-for-that world based on success and competence, it asserts that real life with God consists, in compelling visions, powerful memories and in risking commitments
(from The Bible Makes Sense, rev.ed.,2003).
In risking commitments… Think about it—that is what’s taking place in Christian marriage. When two people sacrifice everything and give their all to one another while promising never to look back, they are entering into a covenant in that they are promising to do something more profound than simply be nice to each other and get along. They are establishing a covenant to be with one another in the good times as well as the bad times that come along in every relationship. And it’s perhaps there, in the difficult times, in the low moments, where covenant is experienced as something far more profound than a promise. Because in marriage, promises are made but let’s be honest, it is the established covenant that will sustain those two people even when they fail to live up to the promises they make to one another.
When two people enter into a covenantal relationship it means that they have between them something far deeper and more lasting than anything they may experience as a result of a petty squabble, a difference of opinion or even a hurtful, regrettable, careless act. And Christian marriage is rooted in covenant because our God is in the covenant making business. In God’s relationship with Israel, in God’s ongoing relationship with humanity, embracing a life partner is not an after-thought for God, rather it fundamentally defines who God is (see Walter Brueggemann, “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm,” The Christian Century, 11-12-1980).
So the question then, it seems to me, is this: Why would anyone want to stand in the way of two people who love each other and who want to pledge their lives and all that they are to one another? Why would any person want to prevent them from doing that? Since when did one of the chief aims of the Christian faith become opposing the establishment of covenants?
Conservative columnist David Brooks, writing already back in 2003 in The New York Times, writes about the marriage crisis which he argues is a result of a culture of convenience and contingency, meaning that marriage vows, which are supposed to be sacred and till death do us part, are now seen as easily cancelled contracts. And he questions why it is that everyone in the United States has a chance to aspire to something better than that, by entering into legally recognized, religiously sanctioned and supported relationships with the ones they love—everyone that is except homosexuals.
You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity. But instead, many argue that gays must be banished from matrimony because gay marriage would weaken all marriage. A marriage is between a man and a woman, they say. It is women who domesticate men and make marriage work. Well, if women really domesticated men, heterosexual marriage wouldn’t be in crisis. In truth, it’s moral commitment, renewed every day through faithfulness, that “domesticates” all people.
And then Brooks continues,
We are not animals whose lives are bounded by our flesh and our gender. We’re moral creatures with souls, endowed with the ability to make covenants, such as the one Ruth made with Naomi: Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried (“The Power of Marriage,” November 22, 2003).
Back to that wedding at Cana for a moment, and that odd first sign of turning water into wine. In turning into wine not just water but that water, that ceremonial water with a purifying purpose—water used in religious ritual to make one’s self clean and presentable to God, water that in many ways represents all of the religion’s rules and requirements, some 600 in all, Jesus, in an instant, made that water disappear by turning it into really good wine and the people who tasted it wanted more of it.
And here’s something else that is true. Those who take the stories of Jesus, like this one, and make them their own, and who allow their lives to be shaped and formed by those stores and by his teachings, will no longer be bound by previously held assumptions, conventional norms or worldly classifications about traditional behavior. And when that happens, when people embrace the living Christ fully and freely, then suddenly those whom the church discerns as gifted enough to be ordained to office won’t be discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation or practice, and neither will those things determine who gets to be married in the chancels of their own churches.
Where does all this talk about the need to defend the institution of marriage come from? Listen, if your marriage is threatened by the marriage of Adam and Steve, then might I suggest that you’ve got a problem with your marriage and it has nothing to do with Adam and Steve and their marriage.
But you know what gets said. Oh no Adam and Steve, you can’t get married—not at the courthouse and certainly not in the church. It’s not normal. You pose a threat to society. It goes against the “traditional, biblical” understanding of marriage. If we allow the two of you to marry then pretty soon people will want to marry chickens—and just think how long those session meetings will last in discussing that! No, we can’t have any of this, we’ve got to defend Biblical Orthodoxy at a time when our values are under attack and the church is selling out to the culture. It’s an abomination that we’re even having this discussion. We want to go back, back to the Good Old Days when times were simpler and the church knew right from wrong—back to the days when everything was clear—like water. Can’t we go back to the days when wine was wine and water was water, and the religion is once again relevant in that it tells us the rules we need to obey?
Declaring that two people you’ve never met and know nothing about, are not allowed to enter into a courthouse, their own backyard or worse yet, are not allowed to enter their own church, where in the presence of God, their families and all there present, they seek to invoke God’s love and blessing as they establish a covenant with one another that will sustain them their whole life long—to say “no” to that—to presume to know with absolute certainty what pleases God and what doesn’t, and that something loving and honest and authentic and self-less most definitely does not—to declare such a thing for Christ’s sake, that’s an abomination.
But here’s the good news: the water has already been turned into wine and not just wine, but really good wine and way more of it than the occasion that day in Cana required. Jesus has ushered in a whole new way of living and loving and of being faithful. He’s ushered in a way of life overflowing with grace and goodness and who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t need that?
And so maybe it’s not surprising at all that according to John, the first of his signs took place at an occasion where human love and intimacy were being expressed. Where a covenant was established and where a party was underway to celebrate such a miraculous thing—like two people becoming through the power of love and God’s blessing, different people than they were before. Because anytime something like that happens, something so mysterious and holy, and between whom ever such a covenant is established, you’re honored to be a part of it and it makes you want to celebrate.
People of God, until that day when the whole church drinks together of the better wine, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with us all.
A sermon by The Rev. Dr. David A. Van Dyke, Pastor
The House of Hope Presbyterian Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Preached at St. Philip Presbyterian Church
Covenant Network of Presbyterians National Conference
November 6, 2010