Borden Painter

Epiphany II
17 January 2016
Grace Episcopal Church

When Tom Phillips called me Wednesday to ask if I could celebrate Mass today he made it clear I did not have to give a sermon.  I thought to myself: “Gee does he remember my last sermon here?  Was it that bad?”  As Mark Twain once said “He charges nothing for his preaching and it was worth it too.”  But I plunged ahead anyway with a few thoughts on today’s Gospel:  the miracle at the Wedding at Cana.

Even though I was a so-called “non-stipendiary” priest whose income came not from churchly duties but teaching history at Trinity College for 40 years, I did my share of marriage ceremonies over the years.  Some were memorable.  There was the one at St. James, WH, with the wandering cousin as videographer.  As we began the ceremony, he climbed over the altar rail and circled around with his camera.  I could see altar guild members in the rear of the sanctuary staring in disbelief.  Through clenched teeth I suggested he clear out!

Then there was the wedding at St. James, Farmington, memorable not only because the bride got the giggles, but also because her maid of honor fainted!  And finally there was the illegal wedding I performed, also at St. James, Farmington.  In Connecticut the couple must obtain a license from the town clerk in the town where wedding will take place.  I always checked the license at the rehearsal — except once.  And sure enough after the wedding at St. James in Farmington, I discovered the license was from Avon.  The next Saturday we did a second ceremony in their house in Avon and that went into the town records.

That is a reminder, by the way, that the only time in this country when the church acts as an agent of the state, of the civil authority, is for weddings.  I sometimes think we should not have that responsibility.  Weddings could be civil ceremonies with a church ceremony for those who really want it.  Too often I fear couples want to hire the church for the big day and that may be the end of it.  You know, “You make arrangements for the limo and I’ll find a church.”

Nevertheless, weddings are memorable as joyous occasions; occasions of celebration as a couple begin a new life together.  Family and friends gather to join in the festivities and to support them.  So I’ve always been thankful that the Gospel of John recounts the story of the marriage at Cana as the first sign of Jesus’ ministry.  As I recall marriage preparation retreats in the Roman Catholic Church are called Cana Conferences.

Jesus blesses marriage by his presence at Cana.  And it’s in some ways an unexpected story.  For example, the way his mother gives him the news that “They have no wine.”  He responds, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  (Somewhat dark words, perhaps anticipating his death.)  Then he transforms the water into wine in a (you’ll pardon the expression) staggering amount, six times 20 or 30 gallons.  Some party.  And it turns out to be the best wine being served last, not first, with the inferior wine served after the guests are a bit tipsy!

There are, of course, all sorts of possibilities of the symbolism here, from the meaning of the six pots to the wine itself, maybe as an indication of Eucharistic wine.  But I found the story instructive and moving taken pretty much as it is told.

For even though it is fraught with meaning about Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One, it also presents him very much as a robust young man, reaching out to the wedding party and the guests, i.e. a very human Jesus.  In a sense, Jesus is the life of the party.  Not in the sense of producing prodigious amounts of wine, but in his celebration of this most important act that brings together a man and a woman to begin a new life and to produce a family.  THAT’S LIFE.

At the core of Christian faith is this sense of life, new life, renewed life, redeemed life, transformed life.  Jesus brings us a NEW COVENANT that is open to all.  Marriage is itself a covenant between two people that establishes a special relationship, but it is not required or recommended for everyone.  As you know, St. Paul had his doubts and did not marry.  And his message in I Corinthians today reminds us that there are a variety of spiritual gifts.  It is this variety that makes for a dynamic body of the faithful that works for the common good.

We know that marriage doesn’t always work.  We know that marriage can be and is a contentious issue.  Who can get married?  Can a marriage be dissolved, and if so, how and by whose authority — the state, the church?  Just this week the archbishops of the Anglican Communion have in effect put our Episcopal Church on a kind of probation for three years because we have approved of same-sex marriages sanctioned by the church.  In some ways, these disagreements are not surprising because marriage is such a basic and important part of any society.

For this morning I will not delve further into this particular controversy, but rather focus on the wonderful and positive presence of Jesus at the Cana wedding.  And to focus on his message of NEW LIFE and LIGHT that He has brought into the world and that we celebrate especially in this Epiphany season.  As the Collect this morning reminds us, He “is the light of the world.”  As a new year begins, what better resolution can we as Christians make than to renew our sense of the new light and life that Christ has brought into the world, and that through us and our witness, that light and life might brighten and enliven our world that so sorely needs that light and life.

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