Listen to the sermon from Sunday, January 29, 2017 titled “Out of Juice” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
I’ve been around a lot of burned up, feeling-burned, and burned out people lately. Still depressed about the election. Alarmed about developments this week. Afraid of what may be ahead. Hurling invective because they feel helpless to do much else. We’ve worked so hard for so long to see progress in justice and civil rights with regard to gender, race, orientation, and economic status, not to mention creation care – only to see that work evaporate so quickly. The negativity is contagious.
There are so many challenges, it’s hard to know where to plug in. It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. It’s enough to render a long term activist inactive. After so many years of fighting the good fight, we’re out of juice.
During Lent we will interrupt a long run through the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary to hear those great stories from the Gospel of John: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, Lazarus… Today, we get a timely preview with the story of Jesus’ first miracle in John, where he turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana.
Strange isn’t it, that John would begin his story of Jesus’ ministry with a party? I mean, how often do you think of church as a party? But the wedding feast is one of the most prominent images of spiritual community in the Bible. Joy. Celebration. Fun. Feasting. It’s a communion image. It’s an image of heaven. And it’s a party.
In John, the Jesus movement starts with a party. You know the story. Jesus and his Mom and Jesus’ disciples are invited to a wedding party. They run out of wine. Mom comes to Jesus, says simply, “They have no wine.” Jesus actually invokes a Hebrew curse: “Woman, what is between you and me?” He says, “It’s not my time.”
But you know how it is. We don’t control our time. Stuff happens that means now is the time, whether we’re ready or not. The women often know when the men are clueless, especially the moms! Mary doesn’t argue, just tells the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Six giant jars stand nearby for the Jewish purification rites, which suggests what Jesus does is not a departure from but stands in close continuity with his historic Jewish faith. He says: “Fill them with water.” They fill them to the brim.
He says, “Draw some and take it to the head waiter.” They draw some and take it to the head server. He doesn’t know what Jesus has done, though John reminds us the servers under him all know. John shows us the nature of privilege here. The servers, that is, the people on the lower rungs of the social ladder often know more of what’s really going on than the privileged do. Privilege offers the luxury of not having to know, not having to see, turning a blind eye to what’s happening in the world.
The head server goes straight to the bridegroom, says: “Most people serve the good wine first and save the sour stuff for when the guests are drunk. But you have saved the best for last.” Only wine ever rated 100 by Wine Spectator! The disciples are amazed. And they believe.
Is the point of this story as trivial as Jesus makes the best wine to keep the party going? Or does John want us to hear something deeper? That Christ keeps the church going? That Christ renews and resupplies, rejuvenates and reenergizes when we run out of juice?
Years ago the inimitable James Forbes preached a sermon on this story at a time when certain forces in our nation were attacking the poor and cutting programs designed to assist the needy. He wondered what had happened to our country’s good history of caring for one another. He said he had thought about this long and hard, and he decided: “The wine has run out.” It wasn’t long before people started using the term “compassion fatigue” to describe this hardening of the hearts of Americans towards those in need.
I think the wine of human compassion has run out for large segments of our society who feel no concern for the other, but are angry and fearful and protective of their own. But I am also afraid that those who have worked so long for justice and compassion have run out of juice and need recharging.
The biblical message is unambiguous about justice and mercy and God’s inclusive love. You have to ignore large sections of both testaments to call yourself a Christian while excluding God’s other children. The equality and dignity of women. The civil rights of all races and ethnicities. The equal protection of LGBT persons and their families. God’s love for the poor. Access to affordable healthcare. A livable wage. Welcoming the refugee. Religious liberty for all. Our Christian faith compels us to take a stand on these matters, to speak out, get involved, and make a difference. In a democracy of the people, we the people have a responsibility for what our nation does.
But I get tired just listing all these issues. And we are a small congregation. Our resources and our energy are limited. Spread thin across so many concerns, we not only get compassion fatigue but activism fatigue. We get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.
We are tempted to lash out, to revel in ugliness, to burn continually with negativity. We are tempted to give up, hunker down, and anesthetize our feelings. Of all things, now is not the time to self-medicate. Now is a time for self-care, not self-destruction!
For us who are out of juice, John’s story of the wedding at Cana is just the medicine we need today. It calls us to the Source we will need to fight the good fight for years to come. It reminds us of the party to which God invites us, which is joyful and fun and continuous. And what do we do when we run out of juice?
Get back to the party, first of all. Practice sabbath. Get your rest. We are in a marathon, not a sprint, but we are nearer to the goal now than when we first started. That not only means resting your body, but resting your mind by turning off your electronics and avoiding the news occasionally, resting your soul by focusing on the positive instead of a steady diet of the negative.
Stay connected to a life-affirming, fun-loving gathering of the faithful.Rather than feeding each other’s negativity, let us create a positive community doing good work with a loving spirit. You can’t make much of a difference by yourself, but together we can. And together we care for one another.
But the most important word for this moment we can take from John’s story today is what Mary tells the servers: “Do whatever he tells you.”
“Do whatever Christ tells you.” And what does he tell us? He tells us to love God with every bit of our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He tells us to love one another, and to love our enemies, too. He calls us to pray, to serve, to care for the least of these.
“Do whatever Christ tells you.” The long list of burning issues are controversial political issues, and we are a spiritual community. And while our faith compels us to be actively involved in all these justice issues, our faith will sustain us for the long journey ahead. If we try to go it alone, we will burn out quickly. It doesn’t take long to get to the end of your energy, to burn out and give up. That’s what the Enemy counts on. The journey ahead, the work before us, will take spiritual stamina.
Before we work harder, we need to pray harder. Before we do more, we need to pray more. Before we organize better, we need to pray better. We may ally with other organizations along the way, both political and spiritual, but our involvement and our sustainability in doing Christ’s bidding depends on our staying spiritually focused and Christ centered.
A few years ago Gina was invited on a spiritual pilgrimage a few Seton leaders take occasionally to remember their roots as an organization. I know, ironic that an ordained female Baptist would be the Director of Pastoral Care for a Catholic hospital system. In Paris they visited the Mother House of the Daughters of Charity, the order of nuns to which Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton belonged. During the anti-religious phase of the French Revolution, the Mother House was closed and the Order disbanded. As they were sent out, the Mother Superior advised them they needed to do three things to survive the hard days ahead.
First, she said you need to remember who and whose you are. Stay centered in god. Second, she told them to look for the sacred in everything and everyone. God is still at work among us. Third, she said, “Do the work.” The work will find you, and when it does, do what you have been called to do. The Daughters were the first clerics called back to service by the French leaders because they needed them to care for the sick and the poor.
Brothers and sisters, we have a long journey ahead. Times may get worse, or they may get better, but essentially nothing has changed. We are called to embody the love of Christ together, day after day, as long as God gives us life. So let us be renewed by Christ, and keep the faith one day at a time in his name. Amen. May we pray?
Keep our minds staid on you, O Lord. Give us rest and peace. Renew our spirits to do your work, day by day as we are able. Help us to see the sacred all around us and let the work you have for us to do find us ready. And let us never forget you have called us to the feast of life in the name of Christ. Amen.