Preaching Epiphany 2 and MLK, JR Day

January 11th, 2022

Preachers always want, on this weekend, to make note of Martin Luther King, Jr, deploying some story from his life or some of his remarkable words – especially during these days when racial inequality and White nationalism have reared their selfish heads once again.

We have great, hopeful texts this Sunday!

Isaiah 62:1-5. God’s promise of vindication feels as perilous as it is alluring. God’s reversal of suffering is a vital hope – but would we have the disposition not to sink into a nya nya nya nya nya taunting in return? And yet, after so much shaming Israel has undergone, and others in our world (to whom we don’t generally preach!), vindication is only healthy and holy.

The imagery in Isaiah 62:3 NRSV (and previously KJV) shimmers with elite 17th-century British sensibility: “You will be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Alternatively, Patricia Tull translates for the Common English Bible, "You will be a splendid garland in the Lord’s hand, a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand." You wonder if the typical Israelite, particularly during exile, ever saw a shiny crown or a bejeweled diadem. In 1953, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the heavy St. Edward’s Crown, of 22 carat gold, a foot tall, velvet and ermine, set with 444 precious stones, her scepter also of gold, with 333 diamonds. When Elizabeth knelt to receive the body and blood of our Lord, did she ponder the crown of unmatched beauty that Jesus wore as he trudged to Calvary and breathed his last?

Israel, and we in the Church, value words over things, always. The long-shamed Israelites are promised a new batch of adjectives: once Forsaken and Desolate, now they are My Delight and Married. For all its woes, marriage looms for us, not as the ideal life but as a potent image of what the divine intimacy with us can be. Ponder what theologians have done with the erotic but not pornographic Song of Songs over the centuries! The vindication might look like King’s last speech in Memphis, getting to the Promised Land, or his Lincoln Memorial speech envisioning hand-holding and justice rolling down all over the place.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11. January is a get-serious month for many churchgoers. The residual joy of Christmas, it’s cold and dark outside, New Year’s resolutions – so perhaps urging folks to think about their place within the Body and to get with it is helpful to the congregation, and to them and the world. I’m the outlier who worries that the way we talk about “spiritual gifts” might be tinged with a little paganism – which is Paul’s concern! Are my native strengths, unearthed in interest and ability inventories, really “spiritual” gifts? Do I do what I like, and what I’m good at, for God? Yes – but the spiritual gifts might be alien to my nature, surprising to my preconceived notions, something hard or uncomfortable, something I’m no good at, something noticed only in my brokenness. Remember Leonard Cohen’s line? “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

It’s all about the “common good” (12:7), the Greek sumpheron a compound word roughly meaning “bearing together.” It's an uphill battle for the clergy, persuading hyper-individualists that it’s all about the common good, the health of the Body, not me and my satisfactions. Martin Luther King, Jr. was endowed with remarkable gifts – not so he could get rich and famous, but for the building up of the community.

And in such divided times, politically and religiously. Why not just divide and go be with Christians like us? Hans Urs von Balthasar cuts to the quick: “We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him. For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth. No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fulness.” Church division impairs and eviscerates the Body, and shrinks our knowledge of God, much less our ability to do good for God and to bear witness to a divided world!

John 2:1-11. This wedding scene is profound beyond any preacher’s abilities, a mystery we can ponder forever. I might set the stage with some dumb humor. If you go to Cana today, they sell little pottery contraptions obviously equipped with some dye inside so that when you pour water in the top, it comes out red. And then there’s the kooky greeting card I’ve received too many times to count where the policeman has pulled over a priest, asking him “Reverend, have you been drinking?” Reply: “Just water, officer.” Policeman: “Then why do I smell wine?” Priest: “Good Lord! He’s done it again!”

One of our earthiest Jesus stories: so mundane, attending a wedding, with his mother. He’s a little snarky with her – and we have to notice that her words to the hosts, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5) is the best counsel ever. Wine requires time, aging, vintaging – but Jesus’ batch is ready and tasty, immediately. Is he showing off, still maturing from a Bruce Almighty-ish dazzler to a more mature raiser of the dead and healer of the blind?

Jesus’ first miracle: he’s not on stage, just one guy in a crowd of guests. Easy for the preacher to say, Be sure he’s on your guest list! Or Can you notice Jesus in a crowd? Or Jesus blesses love, relationships, commitments being made. How many of his parables touched on wine and wedding feasts? He’d been to weddings, drank and produced the wine – so he knew.

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The story begins in disappointment, in there not being enough. Isn’t this the spiritual malaise for our people? They don’t think they have enough, or that they are enough. Jesus bolts from the gate clarifying he’s not about scarcity but abundance. He doesn’t produce just enough wine, but much, much more than is required, just as he made so much bread (John 6) there were baskets left over. Sam Wells theologizes brilliantly on abundance, how there’s more than enough with God, and for us (in God’s Companions, especially). God gives us everything we need, and more. Not everything we want, but what matters. Indeed, God gives, gives, and gives, more and more, more than enough – and it’s a celebration, a party, a feast. That’s why the first miracle is at an extended festive celebration – as a hint that Christianity isn’t some dour, boring, stiff thing, but immense joy.

Rudolf Bultmann points out that John is less interested in the miraculous per se, but rather on the revelation of the glory of Jesus. And as Wells ponders things, John 2 “is a story of the inadequacy of fallen creation being transformed by the generosity of God." Can we who preach come up with a story to match the marvel here? It’s hard, in our flattened, pedestrian, dull world.

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