Exodus 16:11-15, 31-35 & John 2: 1-11
Alisha Fung ~ Northwood United Church ~ December 3, 2017
Good morning! It’s so lovely to be back with you after my short contract with Northwood in the summer. Before the summer I didn’t even want to work in a church and now here I am preaching to you. I don’t know what you did to me, but now I can look forward to an uncertain future in ministry. So I guess I should thank you? ----------------------------------------------------------------------
So, here we are, somehow finding ourselves at the beginning of Advent. I couldn’t help but notice how December births new senses. Every store, community centre, café and bank are starting to play songs of Santa Clause, reindeer hooves, and Christmas trees. And every household and school, have begun to decorate their window panes with frosted snow, lights and mistletoe. If you’re like me, any of these rituals before December 1st would be blasphemous but if you’re also like me, as soon as it hits December 1st, you’ll be frantically turning every station in your house and car to the notorious Christmas station: 103.5. You’ll be putting out colourful lights and cinnamon-scented candles around the house and can’t wait until the end of this sermon to go and get your Christmas tree. But these are only some of the traditions December awakens. For others, preparing for Hanukah becomes the anticipation. Maybe leaving the cold, altogether, to be somewhere sunny and warm. Or even for those who have to work, anticipating triple time can be just as exhilarating… unless you’re a pastor, in which case there’s no such thing as triple time I’ve been told. But in all the ways Surrey enters this season, we find ourselves in the wonder of a mystery. -------------------------------------------------
In fact, we are placed here today because of this mystery: the mystery when God birthed Godself into the world, in the form of a baby, wrapped in his mother’s clothing and resting in a manger. This is our Christmas mystery, one that, if we’re being completely honest, sounds ridiculous and still leaves the wisest of theologians stumped at the joy, beauty and hope God inhabits in a baby. In fact, if we look at the whole of Jesus’ life, we find a bizarre mix of joy, beauty and hope all wrapped up in everything he seems to do. And our scripture starts somewhere between these intersections, years after his bizarre birth, at a wedding in Cana. -------------------------------------------------
Jesus, his mother and his disciples are all invited and I’d like to imagine this Jewish wedding to be saturated in tradition. I see trellises with arbors, and Hebrew blessings carved into the wood.There are humble but elegant Galilean plants surrounding the space with candles that illumine a subtle glow over the joyous guests’ faces. You can … smell the rich olive oil and bread wafting in the air and, in the background, humble, haunting Jewish music lifting the hearts and feet of all the guests to sing, dance and clap with great enthusiasm. But just to the side of the celebration, past the children stumbling to the music while stuffing their little cheeks with all sorts of Jewish treats, we find a table where most of the appetizers have been eaten. On this table we also find the most expensive amenity: a jar of wine. In fact, the only jar of wine that has now become completely emptied. The bride and bridegroom pray secretly that no one has noticed and that enough people have drunk enough to carry on in their delight into the rest of the wedding, singing, dancing and clapping … not noticing the failure and shame that has befallen on this joyous occasion. But these anxieties are met when Jesus’ mother, who happens to be a mother after all, brings the embarrassment to light, whispering into Jesus’ ear, “they have no wine”. ----------
A couple years ago I was invited to a friend’s wedding and they decided to have it on an island in the middle of the Howe Sound. I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to spend the whole day in wonder and beauty on this island, celebrating my friend’s marriage. I could just imagine the magical atmosphere of being surrounded by the magnificent roar of the Pacific Ocean, with no distraction of traffic or city life. And when we got there, it was everything I had imagined: the ceremony was breath-taking, with the vows being exchanged on the edge of a forest and the ocean in the background. The reception was elegant with beautiful champagne flutes, bouquets of purple flowers lining the tables and ferry lights hanging from the ceiling. And with champagne in hand, I took a sip… but it was fruity… too fruity. And I quickly realized why: it was sparkling apple juice. Sparkling apple juice. But no matter, I settled myself by thinking that we would surely toast to the couple’s health and happiness with wine when we were seated. And as we were seated, my anxiety started to climax. There were bottles and bottles of sparkling apple juice. So I leaned over to my partner and asked, “have you seen any wine?” He uttered in dismay that he didn’t think there was going to be any wine. Then I chatted with other guests at the wedding and they confirmed and shared in my fear and dismay. I looked to the bride and groom for my one last chance of hope and, sure enough, they were pouring the sparkling apple juice into their own glasses. ….I didn’t realize it at the time but the symbolism of wine at a wedding was engrained in me. For me, this subtle change in ritual didn’t say ‘congratulations’ the same way wine could. And let’s remember, it’s not like I could quickly run to the nearest wine store. We were, after all, in the middle of the Howe Sound, surrounded by water. So there we remained: stranded at a wedding, without wine. ----------------
I’m here today so I obviously have lived to tell the tale. But there was something missing from this celebration. For me, a glass of wine binds friendships and family. For me, a glass of wine unifies across divides. For me, wine is something that can’t be changed or understood with apple juice, no matter how sparkling. --------
But this event illumined a larger question of the need for ritual in our lives. I think about the rituals we do in Church: lighting of the Christ candle, pouring the baptismal water, bringing the Bible to the table, laying a prayer shawl and taking part in communion. How these rituals connect us to God and to one another. And this also reminds me of my Jewish friend, whose ancestors were persecuted and then dispelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. She tells me that the reason why her family is still here today, on top of 2000 years of diaspora, of persecution and expulsion from country to country, is because their rituals followed them wherever they went. Their rituals reminded them of abundance and connected Jews who were ripped from their families to form new families by participating with others in the same rituals their ancestors taught them. These rituals cultivated their spiritual lives, gave them an identity and provided meaning. In them, they remembered God’s deeds of the past, embraced God’s abundance in the present and fostered expectant hope for God’s redeeming transformation in the future. Rather than using the ritual to escape the pain and suffering of their lives, ritual opened them up to God’s love and forgiveness, even love and forgiveness towards enemies. It became a place where the generosity of God’s abundance formed – and transformed – them. From there they could go forth into the world in joy and in hope, affirming life as a gift to embrace, treasure and share. And, perhaps, this is how songs like Silent Night, White Christmas, Silver Bells and many, many more have become so deeply engrained in our Christmas tradition: they were, after all, written by Jews. ---------------------------
And somehow, Jesus knows this power. When the ritual of drinking wine at a wedding in Cana became depleted, he intervened. He knew the impact of what the ritual of wine meant during Jewish weddings. It brought joy, beauty and hope. But above all, it brought community together. Rituals became not only a marriage between bride and bridegroom, But a marriage between bride, bridegroom, community and God. And so Jesus acts. He turns water into wine. In fact, he turns water into 180 gallons of the best wine. And Jews know the importance of this type of abundance more than most. In the beginning of their Sabbath, their Shabbat, they always share two loaves of bread, what is called “hala”. This double loaf compared to a single loaf, commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert, living on nothing but the miracle of this heavenly sustenance. Even if abundance isn’t felt during the week, this double loaf allows them to experience the abundance of God through their ritual. At the end of their Shabbat, they participate in the “besamim”, the smelling of spices, as a way of sending forth into the week. And as you came into church this morning, I hope you were all able to pick up a satchel of spices yourself. Will you smell with me now these spices of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and let it become a blessing of sweet fragrance as we go into this Advent season, remembering the abundance God gifts through all our senses. ----------------------
What we learn from all of this is God comes close, abundantly close. God enters into the celebration, the mazel tov of our lives when we gather with intention in ritual and with community. It is in these moments we can begin to see how close and abundant Jesus is, how we can see him, taste him, touch him, hear him and indeed… smell him. We may not be able to see abundance in our lives, but in these ritual moments infused in community, we can enter into a hope-filled abundance. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
As we go into this season of Advent, in joy, beauty and hope, we do so in ritual. Our rituals of lighting the Advent candle, caroling, praying, playing dreidels or lighting menorahs become a portal to our experiencing God. And when we commune together in tradition-enriched settings, living rooms or the wild of creation, we experience our sight, taste, touch, sound and smell through a God who became all our senses in a baby in a manger. My hope for us this Advent, is that we may lean into our rituals, journey towards meaning, and enter into the marriage of the Holy through the joy, wonder and beauty we find in Jesus and in water turned into wine.
 Guseka H. Kreglinger. The Spirituality of Wine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. Pg. 5.