Sermon: Sunday, January 19, 2020: India Travel Seminar

The following sermon was delivered at Zimmerman Memorial Centenary Lutheran Church (Trinity Parish), a congregation of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guntur, India while traveling with a seminar comprised of students, staff, and faculty from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, McCormick Theological Seminary, and Chicago Theological Seminary.

Texts: Romans 12:6-16 / John 2:1-11

Beloved of God, grace and peace be with you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is such a joy for us to be with you here, worshipping God together, and I am honored to have been asked to preach tonight. As I begin will you please pray with me.

Heavenly God, you are the host at every table and the source of every good thing. We give you thanks for loving us, for making us your children, for setting us free and making us holy, for inviting us to the wedding feast that has no end. Bless the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts so that we might hear your word and make a home for it in our lives. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I bring you greetings, first from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, the seminary where I am privileged to serve as the pastor; but also from McCormick Theological Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary, who have also sent students and teachers to be part of our group. Together, we represent just a taste of the beautiful diversity of God’s church. In our group there are Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, and Independents, and — thanks be to God — all of us belong to Christ! We, who have been baptized, belong to God, and so we belong to each other, just as we belong to you and you to us. So I bring you greetings from the church in North America, which loves you and prays for you, and when we return home I will bring your greetings from the church in India, and we will ask you to continue praying for and loving us as well. Amen.

There are also many people we wish to thank, without whose help we could not be here tonight.

  • Thank you to Rev. V. Adam, the Student Chaplain of the Institutions of the AELC here in Gunter;
  • Thank you to the Station Committee members, especially to all those who did such careful work preparing for our visit to Guntur;
  • Thank you to the Moderator Bishop of the AELC for the opportunity to visit so many different institutions and churches in and around Gunter;
  • and finally, thank you to Pastor Veronica for being such a faithful and gracious guide and companion to us throughout our time here in Guntur.

Finally, I am reminded that in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul cautions us to “not claim to be wiser than you are.” I will confess to you all that, sometimes, I do think I am wiser than a truly am. So if, as I am preaching tonight, I say something foolish or wrong, I pray that God will forgive me and I humbly ask you to correct me. We are all students of the gospel and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are all learning. Or, as Paul says later in his letter to the Romans, we are all being “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son, in order that [Jesus] might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Rom. 8:29) 

So, we’ve been in India for about ten days already and, after spending about a week in Delhi and Agra, a few days ago our group flew from Delhi to Hyderabad. Once I got on the plane and found my seat, I was greeted by a couple flying from New York to Hyderabad for a wedding. The wife in this couple was from India and it was her brother who was getting married. The husband in this couple was from the United States and was a Black man, or as we would say in the United States, he was African-American. It was very easy for me to see that these two people had a great love for each other. As we waited for the plane to take off, they held one another’s hands. When the wife got tired, she rested her head on her husband’s shoulder and fell asleep. And, when they heard that a member of our group was feeling sick, the couple asked me if we could pray together for healing and we prayed for everyone on the plane!

As I studied the scripture, preparing to preach, and read the story of the wedding at Cana from the gospel of John, I kept thinking about this couple — the woman from India and the man from America. I was remembering that, not long ago, in the United States there were laws that made it illegal for these two people to be married. Most of our laws were directed at preventing White people and Black people from marrying, but there were also laws in some states that prevented Black people from marrying anyone who was not Black. When my parents were children, many of those laws were still in place. When I was a child, most of those laws were gone, but the fear and the prejudice, the racism was not gone. 

The United States is not alone in having had these sorts of laws. South Africa had similar laws. Many European nations had laws against marrying Jewish people. North Korea had laws against marrying people from Eastern Europe. In ancient times, China and France and Spain all had laws against marrying people outside one’s race or tribe. India also has had laws against intermarriage based on caste, correct? All across the world, for most all of human history, human beings have made laws to separate us from one another, to divide us from one another, to make us feel superior or better than one another, or to feel inferior or worse than one another. 

This is why weddings and marriages are so powerful, because they bring people together and, in the process, they bring families and communities and sometimes even entire nations together. And, in the gospel of John a wedding is where Jesus performs the first of his signs, turning water into wine.

When you are telling a story it matters how the story begins. Often we find hints or clues about what the rest of the story will be about by paying attention to how it begins. Do you remember how the story of Jesus’ ministry begins in the gospel of Luke? After being baptized by John in the river Jordan and tempted in the wilderness by the devil, Jesus returned home to Nazareth, his hometown. There he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day and when they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone was looking at him to see what he would say next. When he finally spoke, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And, at first, everyone was so impressed by what he said. But then, when he continued to speak, they became very angry at him. And why? Because he said to them, “The truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a sever famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 

Who were these people? The widow at Zarephath in Sidon was a poor woman from another tribe. She was not one of their people. And Naaman was even worse, he was a commander in the Syrian army. He was not one of their people and, even more, he was a threat to their people. But Jesus speaks of these two outsiders and reminds the congregation that God elected to save them.

After Jesus said these things to them, they became so angry they tried to toss him off of a cliff and kill him! And why? Because what he said to them was basically this: I come with good news for the poor. I come with good news for the oppressed. Not just for our people, but for all people. This is what gets him in trouble, and it starts right at the very beginning of his ministry in the gospel of Luke.

Well, here we are at the beginning of the gospel of John, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. What are the clues in this story that might tell us what his ministry will be about? He and his mother are at a wedding. We don’t know who is getting married, but we know that weddings were a very important moment in the life of a family and a community. People might have traveled great distances to be at the wedding. Like that couple in the plane flying from New York all the way to Hyderabad. And we know that the wedding would have gone on for days. In the United States weddings are usually very short. We send out an invitation to come to the wedding. It might be at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and done by 3 o’clock. There will probably be a dinner afterwards and some music and dancing and then everyone goes home. I don’t think that’s how weddings are here in India, am I correct? The couple on the plane told me that the wedding they were attending would last two weeks. I think the wedding at Cana was probably more like that.

So the hosts of this wedding must have been prepared to feed and entertain guests for a number of days, maybe even weeks. In the short time that our group has been in India we have been overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality we have been shown. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says, “outdo one another in showing honor” and “extend hospitality to strangers,” and that is what we have felt here. We have been showered with honor and given food and drink everywhere we have gone. We have never felt like strangers here, but like friends being welcomed home after a long time away. I imagine the hosts of the wedding at Cana showing the same hospitality to their guests, laying garlands around their necks, setting aside food and drink so that no one would ever feel hungry or thirsty. I imagine Jesus and his mother were welcomed in this same way. 

Then comes the crisis in this story. It seems as though there will not be enough wine for the wedding to continue in that same spirit of generosity and hospitality. And what do we know, from our own experience, about what happens when there is not enough of anything — not enough food, not enough water, not enough money — what happens then? People get scared, and when they get scared they make the circle of community smaller. Instead of caring for all the people they care for only some of the people, instead of talking about “our people” they begin to talk about “my people,” instead of thinking about “us” they begin to think about “me.”

These divisions are what allow the sins of racism or caste to take root in our societies. We begin to tell a story about the world in which some people are inferior to others, some people are less sacred or holy than others. We call some people unclean, or untouchable, or uncivilized — but these are lies! These are lies that make it possible for us to accept the ways that some people are forced to live with less when God has already provided more than enough for us all.

But notice what Jesus does when the crisis takes place at this wedding! He sends the servants to fill the jars with water. Do you remember what those jars were for? They were set aside for the Jewish rites of purification. The Jewish rite of purification, or mikveh, was a special kind of bath, a ritual bath, that was taken after contact with anything unclean or impure. If you touched the dead, or if you came in contact with leprosy, or following a woman’s period, if you touched anything that was untouchable, then you would need to do the rite of purification, the ritual bath.

But Jesus, here at the wedding at Cana, Jesus has taken the jars for the ritual bath and filled them with wine — and not just any wine, but the very best wine! When the steward tastes the wine he calls the groom over and says to him, “everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” You have saved the very best for last.

This little saying, “you have kept the good wine until now” or “you have saved the best for last” reminds me of the ending of the story Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Once again, in that story where people are worried that they will not get what they believe they are owed, Jesus ends the story “are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:15-16)

So, the guests at the wedding at Cana are happy, because they have more than enough wine, and in fact they have the very best wine. And the story ends there.

But I wonder what we might have seen if the story had gone on longer. What if, after drinking this miraculous wine, someone had needed a ritual bath? The stone jars were now full of wine? How would the water for the bath be brought? Would the guests or the hosts have become angry at Jesus for making it impossible for them to perform their purity rituals?

The more I think about the miracle at Cana, of Jesus turning water into wine, the more I see that Jesus not only gave the guests something, he also took something away from them. Jesus not only gave them wine, he also took away their ability to try to make themselves pure. 

It is like that moment in the gospel of Luke when Jesus finishes reading from the scroll of Isaiah and says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Here, in the gospel of John, it is as if Jesus is saying to the people at this wedding, “today, here in your presence, there is no longer any need to worry yourselves about purity and impurity, about what can be touched and what is untouchable, because where I am all things are made new.”

And don’t we know this, beloved of God? Don’t we know that we are each one of us, every single one of us, made in the image and likeness of God? You carry the image of God in you. You are a child of the most high God. You are sacred and holy and claimed and loved by the God who made everything in the entire world and looked at it and called it good.

But we forget. Over and over again we forget. Even Peter, who followed the Lord Jesus and was the rock on which Christ built the church, even Peter forgot how God in Christ Jesus is making all things new. One of my favorite stories in all the bible is found in the book of Acts, the tenth chapter, where Peter receives a vision from God of “something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.” And you remember what was in the sheet, don’t you? “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” Then Peter hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But what does Peter say? “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Then the voice says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.

Beloved of God, how quickly we forget. Even Peter, Peter who loved and listened to the Lord Jesus Christ, even Peter could not immediately understand just how fully and completely God was renewing the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But God gave him a vision, and then Peter went to the home of Cornelius, and entered his home and ate with him, all things he had been taught would make him unclean, but no longer now that God has taken away our false sense of pride in our own purity and replaced it with the communion and community of the Holy Spirit.

Friends, the wedding at Cana never ended. It is still happening wherever wine is shared and the Lord Jesus is made present. Each time we take the bread and drink the wine, Jesus is present with us and in us again. We are made a part of one another, each of us belonging to the other, all of us part of one body, Christ’s body, which takes into itself everything and everyone the world has called unclean and impure and gives us a new name. 

What does it say in First Peter? “Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.”

What does it say in First John, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

Or what does it say at the beginning of the gospel of John, at the beginning of the story, where all the clues and hints are hidden in plain sight, telling you what kind of story this will be? It says, “But to all — to all — who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humanity, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, we we have seen his glory.”

This is the marriage no law can stop, that in Jesus Christ, God has married divinity to humanity, making every single one of us children of this union, every single one of us, children of God. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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