14 January 2018
There was an anniversary on January 1 of this year which we didn’t publicly mark in worship ... even though it affects and involves each and every one of us here.
January 1, 2018 was the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the denomination of which Nativity ... and the other 90 plus congregations of our NW Washington Synod ... are a part. Thirty years ago, the congregations of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church ... predecessor church bodies founded primarily by immigrants from Germany and Sweden ... merged with the American Lutheran Church ... another predecessor church body founded primarily by immigrants from Norway.
Now, it’s been 30 years, and those old dividing lines ... and the alphabet soup of abbreviations which demarcated them ... ALC, LCA, AELC, ULCA, NLCA, ELC ... even though those have largely faded into distant memory ... I’d guess that the vast majority of people here don’t even know what they stand for ... but questions still arise now and then ... primarily when someone new to the Lutheran church discovers that there are quite a few different Lutheran churches around ... but if you travel to the Midwest or East Coasts, where Lutherans are, ahem, denser, you really see this.
And so we get questions ... “What’s the difference between Lutherans, anyway? Why so many different churches?”
There are a few different directions I can take in answering that question.
But the easiest one goes like this.
It’s a story about two very hot summer days, two different congregations where I’ve served, and the beverages which were set before me.
Story number one – a hundred degree Fourth of July day on Long Island. Sticky, windy, nearly unbearable. Ray and Gail Bosch, members of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Rockville Centre, NY ... a congregation founded in the Philadelphia-based, largely of German ancestry, United Lutheran Church in America ... the Boschs had invited me down to their cabana at Long Beach for a barbecue. Several others from our congregation joined us there. I had no sooner sat down when plunk! Ray had set a cold bottle of Heineken down before me. “Hey, cool off, pastah,” he said. Fine. So I did.
Story number two – an equally hot August afternoon in South Dakota. Kathleen and I were packing up the U-Haul truck to move back to seminary after internship. Oscar Isakson, a member of the Colton Lutheran Parish ... made up of two congregations which had their start in the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America in the late 1800’s ... had come over to help us get things loaded up. The heat was stifling, everybody was sweating. About two o’clock, Oscar said, “Well, Palma ought to be here shortly with refreshments.” And sure enough, shortly after that, she appeared at the door, with a tray of cookies, cake … and a pot of steaming hot coffee.
And that’s one difference ... not very theological, but certainly, significant.
Now, I must admit, growing up with a German-Russian mom and grandma, and spending some time in one of those German Lutheran-founded congregations in Portland, alcohol was never a big deal. My great grandpa Richter brewed his own beer and paid my mom a nickel to bring him a bottle on a hot day while he was working in the fields. My grandma used to take in ironing to make ends meet, and one of my favorite pictures of her has her slaving away in her kitchen, a rack of neatly pressed shirts hanging next to her, and a stubby of beer on the end of the ironing board. We always had wine at Easter and Christmas, and small glasses for my brother and me from when we were 5 and 6. The pastors would join my dad and his friends in a glass of beer at the choir picnic or other church get togethers.
But over the years I have learned to appreciate that there are other Lutheran customs, practices and understandings about beer and wine that are just as long standing as the ones I grew up with. I married into a Scandinavian Lutheran family where alcohol was never allowed. It’s been that way with them for as long as anyone can remember, going back generations. Our wedding reception was in the basement of the church in Longview, and we had punch and coffee, that was it. The pastor was never seen having a beer or a glass of wine, and if he was going into the liquor store, he better only be coming out with the communion wine!
Two very different traditions, with two very different ideas about alcohol – beer, wine, whatever.
And maybe that’s why our Gospel reading today, the story from John about Jesus turning the water into wine … maybe that’s why this story has made some Lutherans uncomfortable for so long. I don’t think too many pastors care to preach on it – I only remember hearing one sermon on this text ever, and I’ve only preached on it four Sundays of the past twenty-five years (it’s come around in the lectionary seven or eight times in that period).
For, on the one hand, the party animals among us could see it as license to continue their free-wheeling ways. “Well, man, y’know, even Jesus liked a good party, remember that story in the Bible where he made all that wine? I’m only doin’ what Jesus did…”
And on the other hand, the tee-totalers might be offended at even the thought of Jesus being near all that booze.
I must admit … at first glance, it does look bad for Jesus. Here he is, right at the beginning of John’s gospel … he’s just been baptized, called his first disciples … and where does he go but to a wedding party! And this is no ordinary wedding party by our standards ...we’re not talking about a couple of hours at a local club or ballroom, but more like a two or three day affair, with people coming, and going, and eating, and drinking. And this party was so big and so long, that they ran out of wine.
So what is Jesus doing in the middle of all this anyway? And all that wine he makes...six jars, holding twenty or thirty gallons each? That’s 180 gallons of wine!
But, before we go off with the wrong idea about what’s happening here, we need to realize that this kind of a wedding party … which would really be exceptional today … was really, nothing out of the ordinary for Jesus’ time. A two or three day wedding celebration was perfectly normal for the Jewish people of Jesus’ home area. And Jesus was a perfectly normal Jew of his place and time, with a family and friends, someone who liked to be around people. His mother was there. Jesus and his disciples had been invited to come. It would have been more exceptional – not to mention rude - if Jesus had turned his back on his friends, his family, indeed who he was, and not accepted the invitation.
We also need to remember that the wine, in and of itself, is not evil. Like money...it's not MONEY that's the root of all evil, it's the LOVE of MONEY that causes problems...when everything a person does and thinks about revolves around how much money they do or don't have. The same with wine.
There is nothing inherently wrong with wine...for those who are of the legal age to drink it...and for those whose bodies can properly process it. When we use wine in moderation...that's OK.
Some people can't or shouldn’t drink wine because their bodies react to it differently. So they must stay away from it. Alcoholics must avoid wine … beer … those kinds of drinks. We all know what happens when they don’t. Families are shattered … careers destroyed … life itself may be threatened … all because of alcoholism.
But that doesn't make the wine evil. Some people can’t eat peanuts – their bodies react in a bad way to them. But that doesn't make peanuts evil. Nor does it make the person evil who made the mistake of eating the peanuts, when they shouldn’t have.
We use wine in communion because Jesus used wine when he instituted the sacrament at his Last Supper. Today we make accommodations for those who can’t have wine, by offering juice, and that’s fine ... in much the same way we now offer gluten free wafers for people whose bodies can’t process wheat flour bread. But please know, if you don’t want to or can’t have juice, either, that the full benefit of the sacrament is there for you if you only take the bread. Just as the full benefit of the sacrament is there for those folks in hospital or nursing home who can only have the wine, because the bread presents a choking hazard.
The first sermon I preached on this gospel text … was about this subject. The five congregations we served in NW Pennsylvania were in the “grape juice belt” and had assiduously avoided using wine for communion for over a hundred years – only grape juice and wafers, like the neighboring Methodists and Presbyterians. They had only recently – just before we got there – and at the insistence of the bishop – made the switch to wine. I knew that there was still some strange feelings in those congregations about wine being used in communion, so in my sermon, I tried to break through that mystery, that "evil" sense...in the middle of the sermon I pulled a bottle of communion wine out from behind the pulpit, and started to read all about the wine from the label … where it came from, where it was made, and so on. I wanted to make sure people understood that there was nothing inherently wrong or evil about wine.
So why does Jesus use wine in instituting communion? And why is there so much wine at this wedding in Cana?
It's because wine, when it's used responsibly, by those whose bodies can process it properly, adds pleasure...to a nice meal, to a gathering, to a special evening. The wine is a symbol for all of the good things in life that this life has to offer us, joy and warmth and celebration and happiness.
If your body processes wine differently, and you should not or cannot drink it, or if you aren't old enough yet to drink wine, then when you hear the word “wine” in this story, substitute another food or drink ... pizza or chocolate cake; ice cream or a big juicy steak...a good cup of coffee or tea. When we responsibly enjoy any of these good things, we feel good. Life is good. It's a pleasurable experience.
And now I hope you begin to see the point of this story, of what this miracle that Jesus does at the wedding at Cana is all about. For in this act, Jesus shows how lavishly God wants to bless us...here, the wine is a symbol of all those good things which God wants for us, that God has in store for us, through Jesus. The wine is a symbol ... a symbol for all the blessings of life in Jesus which God wants to give us … forgiveness, life, salvation. An end to the ways of sin and death forever. Did you notice the mention of this being on the “third day?” ... so a pointing toward ... resurrection. And an attitude of abundance; love, and time, and blessings overflowing, to be shared with our neighbor.
God is not stingy, only sending a little bit of blessing, a little bit of wine, NO...God sends gallons of wine, a flood of blessings … a huge, extravagant amount!
So what to do with all this wine? All these blessings? Well, if we keep all these blessings to ourselves ... it's like drinking alone, and that is not good. Wine is intended to be shared with others; it adds to our enjoyment....the same as a good cup of coffee, or cake, or a pizza with friends, or a good movie. If we keep all the wine to ourselves, and never enjoy it, it will go bad. If we drink it all ourselves, bad things will happen to us. The wine...the pizza party, the coffee, the ice cream...they are all meant to be shared with others.
So please, don’t be offended by this story – either way. The Bible stories of Jesus we receive during this Epiphany season ... this winter Ordinary Time ... are here for us, to show us that Jesus is neither a weekend binger off to tie one on, nor a self-righteous do-gooder.
His Epiphany ... his showing forth in these texts ... is that Jesus is the Lord – a man, fully human, a son of his mother, and a friend to his companions; but also, he is the Son of God. Here, at the outset of this Epiphany season, we receive this story of how Jesus works this miracle at the wedding at Cana, as an Epiphany ... a showing forth of himself ... to show those present, and those reading the story at a distance of thousands of miles and thousands of years, that when it comes to blessings, God is a spendthrift.
God blows it all … God spares no expense … God stops at nothing … not even death on a cross … for you and for me.
Here, God’s word for us is this simple: look at all the blessings I have for you! Won't you please enjoy them? And won’t you please share them with others? Our God says, this is how much I love you ... Come, see and hear ... receive my love, take it, enjoy it, live in it … and then, go out and tell others, so they may also share in all that I want to give to them.
So how can we refuse an invitation such as this?