Grace All Around

CDSP Community Eucharist February 24, 2022

Epiphany VII Year A (Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church)

Scriptures: Isaiah 61:1-4/ 8-10; Song of Songs 3:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:1-10; John 2:1-11

The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth; and from this fullness may we receive, grace upon grace.  Amen.

A few months ago, I witnessed and blessed the marriage of two beautiful human beings surrounded by family and friends in the middle of a brewery.  Before that day, I had read and heard this Gospel passage of the Wedding at Cana many, many times.  But, context matters, and in that particular context, I became palpably aware that we were all gathered to witness and bless a holy transformation, surrounded on all sides with barrels and bunches of hops…the practical elements of transformation.  Standing in that context, everything about this particular Gospel began to take on a new life for me. 

I don’t have to tell you all that this has been a season of our lives where everyone’s best laid plans have been tentative, at best.  Will and MK wanted to be married in the parish they loved and called home. But then there was COVID, and gathering restrictions…and then a period of optimism, during which time they set a date, reserved the church, booked a brewery for their reception, and invited all their family and friends. And then there were more variants, more waves, and more gathering restrictions.  You know the arc of this story…we’ve all lived it in countless ways over the past two years. 

I was sitting with Will and MK during one of our premarital counseling sessions where all of the hopes and realities of the day were converging on those best-laid plans.  In that particular moment where I was feeling equal parts social worker and priest, the changes and changes of pandemic life were all around us. One…or both…vocations stirred through the scarcity and we began to move forward around three questions: What’s really important?  How will we honor that?  What changes, and what remains? 

I’d also like us to hold those three questions as we approach today’s good news.

When we enter this story of the Wedding at Cana, we encounter the Mother of Jesus who is present and at the center of this narrative.  We know her as Mary although she isn’t named in the Johannine text. Six large, stone jars filled with water for ritual purification are also present. (Side note: I now have a better sense of size and scale after learning that those barrels of fermenting beer at the brewery also hold about 30 gallons).  Jesus and his disciples are passively inserted into this narrative, until Mary initiates a conversation to convey that the wine has run out.

The conversation that follows is, in a word, terse.  We can go back and forth about the cultural and linguistic dynamics of the Jesus and Mary exchange, but I don’t think there is any doubt that the Gospel writer wasn’t suggesting warmth of tone.  Changes, chances and scarcity are imbued in every word: scarcity of wine, if we take in the conversation from Mary’s perspective; scarcity of time if we step into Jesus’ immediate reaction.

Our first guiding question:  What is really important here?

Everything in this text tells us that it is relationship.  The entire Johannine Gospel narrative begins with relationship, among Godself and in relationship with God’s creation.  As this miracle of the wedding at Cana unfolds, all of the separations…the changes and chances of this life…give way to relational abundance.  We see it in Mary’s invitation to Jesus to initiate his public ministry at this time, and in this space. I might also argue, we see it in her willingness to trust Jesus’s own free will about how exactly that might unfold:  “Do whatever he tells you to do” is a powerful statement of her unconditional, relational belief in Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity.

The next question follows:  How will we honor what is important? 

Time after time, relationship is centered and honored in this text.  Jesus’ response honors Mary’s recognition that the time for public ministry is here, and it begins in the sacred space of human relationships. Mary honors Jesus in her direct, trusting admonition to follow Jesus’ instructions, whatever they may be.  The servants honor the steward; the steward honors the bridegroom; the newly married couple honor their guests.  Abundance begets abundance, and this Gospel narrative inaugurates a public ministry centered in relationship where actions of faith ripple outwards from the heart of divine love into the healing and repair of human hearts and relationships.

Finally, we are left to see what changes, and what remains

Our attention tends to focus on the transformed wine in this public miracle.  But so much else has changed, too: relational understandings between Mary, and Jesus and the disciples; public acknowledgement of Jesus, whose glory is revealed and in whom the disciples believe.  Like the servants who knew the source of the water-now-wine, we are changed, too: what we’ve now seen, we cannot unsee.  What remains in this scene of transformation is tangible evidence of divine love and grace, the abundance sourced in relationship that now overflows in tangible and sacramental form.  Our hearts open to change when we recognize the elements of transformation all around us: substance and people. Whenever we gather as Eucharistic community, we are called on to remember this in our hearing of the word, our prayers of the people, our Great Thanksgiving.  Ordinary transforms to extraordinary, and when we leave we are never the same.

On Will and MK’s wedding weekend, what emerged was also an abundance of love and trust about how things would unfold: we scrapped the customary rehearsal in favor of celebrating a simple and lovely wedding eve Holy Eucharist for parish family and friends in which we intentionally honored the love of God that draws all of us to each other.  Then, we preempted the big brewery reception by exchanging vows and blessing their marriage in the midst of all present: literally, affirming their love surrounded on all sides not only by barrels, but by the family and community that formed and supported them. We didn’t do these things in spite of a pandemic: we creatively lived into the intention of the sacrament of marriage, bearing witness to transformation. 

Will and MK, surrounded by the love of their families and witnesses, confronted the pandemic scarcity and at the same time, embodied the abundance that is love.  We embodied it in the language of liturgy, scripture and prayer. We were able, in all these things, to name for those who gathered safely in large, open spaces in the late, exhausting days of a global pandemic that love wins.  In all the ways that we could, including living it out step by step, we proclaimed that the abiding and abundant grace of love is present and transformative, right here and right now.  Plans may be disrupted but the Love of God is undeterred.  God chooses to stand with us, Creator eternally abiding with creation. I can tell you, the presence of God was palpably present. I also have to say, I may never preside at a wedding the same way again.

So, why tell stories about a wedding on a day when our hearts are heavy: for the people of Ukraine; for trans youth and healthcare workers offering gender-affirming care; for those who teach critical knowledge and history from the vantage point of the marginalized and not just the rich, white and powerful; for those who experience the daily microaggressions and macro oppressions of life in this country and around the world; when we see ourselves hurtling toward environmental devastation and climate disaster?  Yes, our hearts are heavy today and with good reason.  And why did Jesus inaugurate public ministry at a family wedding turning water into wine, during a politically occupied time where fear, imprisonment and disruption were palpable?  What is really important here? 

Oh yes, that question again.  Oh yes, God’s repeated answer: Relationship. Love. Grace.

Those are the lessons, in the midst of the changes and chances of this life that Mary knows, viscerally.  Knows like her own body, her own heart, her own child.

Grace, we are told repeatedly in John’s Gospel, has come to us through the person of Jesus Christ.  In the fullness of the mysteries of incarnation and love, we have received grace upon grace.  Grace is undeserved, unwarranted, irrational.  Grace sources in unconditional love and opens up the possibility of seeing ourselves as beloved even when we aren’t ready to think of ourselves that way. 

Grace is a doorway to transformation, and in that invitation is the encouragement to lay down our fears and insecurities in favor of possibility: we get to see it; to experience it; to be it.  We are compelled through relationship, love and grace to declare good news to the oppressed; to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberation to the captors and freedom to the prisoners.  We are led in that prophetic way because God transforms us

God is the source and the action of the transformation of which we are a part. Through the relationship, love and grace of Christ, we are the water that transforms to wine.  And even if we feel like those immovable stone jars sometimes, we may still find ourselves compelled to cry out. And when we do, what good news we will find spilling forth when we recognize the One through whose hands our ordinary materials have been transformed.

We come to this Eucharistic feast filled with the potential to encounter all of the overflowing abundance that is conveyed in this story of the wedding at Cana.  We are all invited to participate, fully, in the transformation that is about to take place, the elements of transformation all around us. And as ones who are transformed and renewed, evidence of that transformation is within us and moves through us, like an abundance of the best wine saved for last at the wedding feast ready to be poured out to the world, a world we know to be thirsting and yearning for divine relationship, love and grace.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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