Saving the best for last: Jesus and Dr. King- teaching time for Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, January 14, 2018

This July, Lexie and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. (We each needed special permission to be married, since we were 12 years old at the time.)

We were married at one of the churches where Lexie was the minister, in southern Manitoba. Lexie had friends and parishioners in at least 3 or 4 little towns. I lived and worked about 5 hours north and west, and had friends and parishioners in as many communities.

Rather than make a list of who to invite, and who not to invite, and risk hurting the feelings of folks in the churches we served, we took ads out in local newspapers, in which we published the day and time of our wedding service, and the evening party, and made a general invitation.

There was no way we could afford to put on a big dinner for heaven knows how many might turn up.  We held a catered lunch for our family and closest friends, most of whom had travelled from other provinces and countries. After we ate, we posed for photos. Which explains why my suit looks snug in the wedding pictures.

After that, we went to the largest of Lexie’s churches, in the little village of Baldur, Manitoba. One of Lexie’s close friends from seminary was the officiant, and one of my minister friends came back from doctoral studies in Boston to be the preacher. They were both great.

After the ceremony, we were toured around the village in a convertible, and little kids from Lexie’s church took turns riding in the back seat with us as we were driven around. Those little kids are all grown up now! Then we snuck back to Lexie’s manse in the neighbouring town of Belmont, and relaxed for a few hours before the evening party.

We’d rented the community hall in Belmont for the dance, and hired a local country band. We also had my old friends from Swan River, Lloyd and Linda, who are champion square dance callers, teach the crowd, and lead them in square dancing. It was a hoot. Lloyd and Linda’s daughter Jodi, was here last summer, and came to Trinity for worship.

At around 10:30-11:00 pm we followed a prairie tradition, and offered a “night lunch”, of cold cuts, cheese and buns,vegetables and fruit, and baking, catered by a group of Sunday School teachers.

When we booked the hall for the wedding dance, we did not get a liquor license- for two reasons. One was you had to put a number on the form of how many people would be at the party, and we had no idea. The other was we figured if it was a dry wedding, more families would bring their kids. They did, and it was wonderful.

There was no worry about running out of wine, and there was more than enough food and drink for all who came.

Our gospel story today describes Jesus and his mother at a wedding where the host ran out of wine. The celebration of a wedding in Jesus’ time would go on for about a week, and involve many gatherings, and meals. The social customs of the time required the host to invite not only the family and friends, but the whole community- all the neighbours. Rich and poor, well dressed and those in rags, popular and unpopular, all would receive hospitality.

That does not mean they would all receive the same hospitality. Favoured guests got the best seats at the banquets, were served the finest food and drink, and were served first. The hangers on, the neighbours and distant relations and common folk would be served last, in many cases literally being served the dregs, and leftovers from the good tables.

Some of the “guests” would not even be in the building, but would gather around the back door of the kitchen. It was an accepted form of charity to feed the poor the crumbs from the tables of the rich. An early expression of trickle-down economics. Make sure the wealthy are well fed, so there can be good leftovers. Makes me wonder if the kitchen staff and servers were paid minimum wage! Could they support their families on what they earned, or would they be waiting for a handout at the end of their shift, of some crusts to bring home for the kids?

The story in John’s Gospel reads like a parable, except the parable is about Jesus, instead of being told by him. It doesn’t give a lot of details. We can’t tell where Jesus, his disciples and his mother were seated, or if they were even at a table. Since they were essentially homeless wanderers, I doubt they were sitting with the bigwigs.

We hear that Jesus’ mother, who is not named in this story, told Jesus there was a problem with the wine. The problem was it was running out. My guess is this would not be a problem if they were sitting in first class.

Jesus said, “Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.”

She went ahead anyway, telling the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.”

The story then describes Jesus asking the servants to fill 6 big stoneware water pots with water, and then to fill the wine pitchers. When the pitchers are brought to the host of the party, he calls out to the bridegroom,

“Everybody I know begins with their finest wines and after the guests have had their fill brings in the cheap stuff. But you’ve saved the best till now!”

The editor/author of John’s Gospel includes this story as the first of what are called “signs”, that point to the identity and character of Jesus. This suggests the miracle, the wondrous turning of water into wine is not the focus of the story.

John begins his chronicle with this story, that involved Jesus, and his mother, and water and wine. The original audience would already know another story about Jesus and his mother, and water and wine. They would hear the wedding story, but remember the story of the crucifixion. Jesus was hung on a Roman cross. His side was pierced with a sword, and water poured out. A sponge was raised to his mouth that had been soaked in cheap, bitter wine. And his mother was there watching.

Once this is pointed out, it’s hard to read about the wedding, without thinking of Good Friday.

I feel that way when I watch videos of Martin Luther King Jr. Especially the famous “I have a dream” speech. When I hear King’s powerful voice say, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”, I cannot help but imagine the sound of a single gunshot, ringing out five years later.

King was not “whining” about the state of things in his country, and to be honest, in ours as well. He was holding up a vision of something better. A vision of how things are meant to be.

King’s speech at the march on Washington solidified for many the message, the promise, and depending on your perspective, the threat represented by the faith-based, non-violent civil rights movement. People were marching for a better, different world. They were crashing the party, and in a calm and dignified manner, asking, to borrow an image from the Jesus story “Where’s our wine?”

When Jesus acts to provide wine for the guests, the good news for the host is that there is more wine. Was it also good news for the bridegroom, and his special guests, that the last to be served were now getting the best wine? How would that news be received by the big-wigs?

When Jesus took over the catering, and did a better job than the host, he was not so subtly pointing out that things were not the way they should be. Should certain people get the best seats, the freshest food, the best wine, while others wait outside the back door?

This is not just a story about wine at a wedding. It is a story about a world in which every person, every child of God, is treated with respect, and dignity, and kindness, and no one has to beg.

In 1960, at a conference hosted by then vice president Richard Nixon, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to speak on the role religion should have in correcting discrimination and injustice in hiring and employment practices. He spoke powerfully about the nature and purpose of religion:

“Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate men with God, but to integrate men with men and each man with himself. This means, at bottom, that true religion is a two-way road. On the one hand it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood.”  Amen

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