Sheepscott Community Church January 17, 2010
Isaiah 62: 1-5
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
John 2: 1-11
Water to Wine
Last week I talked about the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was part of a resistance movement to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned for suspicious behavior, and after being held in German prisons for two years, was executed by hanging, shortly before the liberation of the camps at the end of World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid down his life after the model of Jesus, whom he called and saw as “the man for others.”
This week, I would like to talk a bit about Martin Luther King Jr. as cut from that same cloth. He was only 26 years old, a recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology, when he was called to his first parish in Montgomery, AL. On December 1, 1963, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, and there began the Civil Rights Movement in earnest. King was drafted to lead the protest committee and the very next day addressed the already aroused community with stirring words: “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression...If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong! If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came down to Earth! If we are wrong, justice is a lie!”
I think both of these men were prophets, called by God to stand against injustice. For Bonhoeffer, it was witnessing against the evil that Hitler represented in what he was doing. To not rise up in protest, however clandestinely, was to not stand against that evil. Bonhoeffer’s radicalization, if you will, was not a sudden thing. A lifelong pacifist, he had come to believe that the crisis of the times in Germany and abroad was so grave as to require that certain Christians willingly compromise their purity of conscience for the sake of others. He felt he could no longer escape into piety and became part of a plot to do away with Hitler.
King on the other hand overcame––as in “We Shall Overcome”––through nonviolent resistance, a political strategy he had learned from Ghandi, and from Jesus. Planned violence and nonviolent resistance. Different circumstances, different people, different strategies, both open to the Spirit of God and yet hearing in different ways in different times.
Where did these two men find the strength and courage to do what they did? Something we all wonder about: Would we be able to act courageously at the possible cost of our own lives if the occasion arose when we would be tested? Paul writes in Romans, “It is rare that anyone should lay down his life for a just man, but it is barely possible that for a good man someone may have the courage to die. It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In answer to my own question, Where did these two men find the strength and courage to do what they did? The answer: the Spirit of God, also known as the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus in the world.
With Bonhoeffer, as I indicated earlier, the move from complete pacifism to active resistance was a drawn-out process of prayer and of thought and analysis of the national and world situation, of what he was watching unfold before his own eyes. This did not happen overnight, but when he came to his conclusions, there was no denying the call to leave the safety of family and fiancee for the unknown, of participating in this group that would actively oppose the evil that Hitler did and was.
King was also caught up, you might even say swept off his feet by the momentum of his historical moment. After his first speech following Rosa Parks’ arrest, he faced violence and hatred, but it was a death threat to his family in 1957 that brought him to the limit of his strength. He went into the kitchen and sat at the table with a cup of coffee and turned himself over to God. As King himself reported, “Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice. ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” Afterward, he said, “I was ready to face anything.” And he did.
I asked earlier where these men found the strength and courage, and answered my own question, which I believe would still be answered the same way: Jesus in the world, the Holy Spirit of God. Martin Luther King was a baptized Christian, but it was the further step of sanctification that happened that night at the kitchen table. That was when he gave his life over to God and God in return gave his Spirit to this young preacher that all might be accomplished through him.
We heard Carroll read from First Corinthians this morning about the gifts of the Spirit. “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one the Spirit gives wisdom in discourse, to another the power to express knowledge. Through the Spirit, one receives faith; by the same Spirit another is given the gift of healing and still another miraculous powers. Prophecy is given to one; to another the power to distinguish one spirit from another.”
You may recognize one or more f your own gifts in this list, but for my purposes this morning, I’ll focus on the gift of prophecy. I have noted in earlier sermons that prophecy does not necessarily mean foretelling the future, although that can be part of what the messenger of God may communicate. That function and purpose, viz., being the messenger of God is what is important. How do we know that a person is speaking for God and not simply for him- or herself? I think there are at least two criteria for answering that question. In the moment, do we resonate with what we are hearing? Does it speak to our souls? It is reported that when the young Dr. King said to the people of Montgomery, as I quoted earlier, “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” When he said those words, the church erupted in applause, and cries of “Yes!” rang out. Those words resonated with the experience of his listeners. God knew their experience, knew their centuries of suffering and pain in families being asseverated, in brutal beatings, in chains on auction blocks, in lynchings. God knew it all, and in the fullness of time raised up his prophet, Martin Luther King, to speak God’s life, the living Word, back into the people, to show them the way to the promised land.
King was a prophet in the truest biblical sense, who proclaimed to his generation the justice and mercy of God, remaining true to his mission, even to the laying down of his life. In 1965, just three years before he died, he said in speaking of how long it takes for justice to be realized––and indeed there were those who asked How long, O Lord, how long?––Dr. King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In this time of the administration of the first African-American president, it’s worth quoting those words and considering that it was a mere 45 years ago that King spoke them.
He also said in a speech the night before he was killed, that like anyone else, he would like to live a long life. “Longevity has its place,” he said. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will... But I want you to know tonight,” he continued, “that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” It’s reminiscent of Moses, isn’t it? Moses was the prophet and leader God had chosen, but like King, he did not himself set foot in the promised land. He had only seen it from afar.
Let’s excerpt Dr. King’s line, “I just want to do God’s will.” That was true for both Bonhoeffer and King, but each of them had to discern the best he could what was God’s will for him in the situation. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in again, with the gift of discernment. What is the practical application of that when we are trying to discern what to do, what decision to make? We use our reason, our common sense, ask for input from one or two trusted friends, our spouse perhaps, sleep on it, then make a decision and go with it. God will always bring good out of a decision thus made, the best decision we can make at any given time.
Worth noting about King in this context is something he said about himself. “I want you to know,” he said, “that I am a sinner like all God’s children. But I want to be a good man. And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, ‘I take you in and I bless you, because you tried.’” King struggled to be more than his weakest self, and he challenges the church and all of us to do the same.
Fine for Dr. King, you say. Fine for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These are extraordinary men in extraordinary times. I don’t deny the prophetic dimension of their lives and characters. Inspiring, yes, but that’s not me.
I encourage you to try thinking about today’s gospel in such a context. The water and the wine. To briefly review, Jesus and his friends are invited to a wedding in Cana. His mother Mary, who was also there, knew that they had run out of wine, and turned to Jesus. He said in essence, “What’s that got to do with me? It’s not my time yet.”
But Mary knew her son and told the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them. Which was to fill six water jars to the brim. When the master of the banquet sampled the water made wine, he chided the groom for not serving the best wine first. What I want to suggest out of this story is that we, you and I, are that water in the stone jar. Not by any action of Jesus––no magic wand, no powders dissolved, no dyes added––but by his word, the water becomes wine.
No less than we, no more than we, were Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. water in those jars. It was by the Spirit of God, the Living Word, Jesus the Christ, that they were changed into the finest wine and so were able to do what they did. They could not have done that on their own, but God called them forth to meet history head-on, and they agreed, they acquiesced, and they had everything they needed to do what they did, which was the Spirit of God. That Spirit that changes water into wine is with us also, always, as Jesus said he would be, until the end of time, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against.
They were able to become men for others, as Bonhoeffer characterized Jesus as “the man for others” The writer of the book of the prophet Hosea has God saying, “It is love or mercy that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.” If God does not call us to be offering the blood of bulls and goats, of sheep and lambs on the altar of sacrifice, he nevertheless does call us to identify with Christ’s death to himself, his surrender of his will, that we may be able to offer our lives to God, a sacrifice in that sense.
Yes, God asks us to be a living sacrifice, to let him have all our powers, our gifts. This is the acceptable sacrifice to God, where the regenerated soul deliberately gives up its right to itself to Jesus, to the Spirit of God. Thereby does that soul identify itself entirely with God’s interest in others. We have these gifts of the Spirit in us. Why not lay them at the feet of God? If we hoard our gifts to ourselves, they will turn into spiritual dry rot. Let us give back to God what we have been given that it might be made a blessing for others. Thereby do we become the finest wine given to others to drink. Thereby do we become the finest wheat, the finest bread, broken and given to others to eat.
I was at a friend’s funeral yesterday, and one of the mourners offered the following quotation from George Bernard Shaw as a tribute to the one who had died. It seems fitting here.
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
For some there is a fear of loss of personality if they ever do so surrender themselves, their lives with all their gifts. In fact irony is at work here because, as I have mentioned before, it is when we let go to God that we truly discover who we are and are empowered to create the most useful and beautiful life we can. John 12: 24: Amen, amen, I say to you”––Jesus speaking––”unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” If we die to ourselves. Amen.