The Time Is Ripe to Do Right – January 16

A sermon based on John 2:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 16, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

For a number of years, we have centered this church’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Sundays on God’s presence in social justice efforts and actors. When I started this sermon just before Christmas I had a hard time imagining how our lesson would fit in. As I was researching, praying and meditating on it on, the carol “Mary Did You Know?” kept coming to mind. That carol asks if Mary knew Jesus would do the things he did.

The lesson answers that question. It evidences Mary knew – and it teaches too that her voice prompted and pushed Jesus to get involved and solve a concern. The concern involved a wedding that was out of wine, which in Mary and Jesus’ day was a much bigger deal than we may realize. Weddings were week-long feasts furnishing guests with enough food and drink. For most people back then having enough to eat and drink was a daily concern, so weddings did more than celebrate marriages, they were an oasis of nourishment for the hungry and thirsty. Moreover, the failure to adequately furnish the basic hospitality of food and drink not only deprived nourishment to those in need, it deprived the host of honor and heaped shame on them. So, running out of wine was big deal. It was literally shame-full and of great concern to hosts and their households.

Customarily it was NOT the duty of guests like Mary and Jesus to make sure the gathered were nourished, nonetheless Mary thought it should be their duty. Strikingly, Jesus did not. It’s striking because Jesus is known to us now as teaching that love –caring for the well-being of others– is the primary duty God calls us toward. But in the Wedding at Cana, it is clearly Mary, not Jesus, who is the first to act as God’s voice as she calls Jesus to help provide what’s needed for the others’ well-being. As we heard, once Jesus got on board his ultimate response was overwhelming. He provided an abundance of the very best wine– 180 gallons about 1,000 bottles of what we might equate today with very expensive champagne! 1

This is one of those Bible stories modern folks can get all tied up arguing about ways to understand it. Some insist it must be read literally and understood as Jesus actually turning water into wine. Others insist it must be read literally and understood as unbelievable since turning water to wine is impossible. There is, of course, a third way to read it, as a story with truths and deeper meanings than whether Jesus could literally turn water into wine. Like many Biblical accounts getting bogged down debating the nature of a reported miracle misses the point. What ought to be our primary concern as Christians is to find how God is still speaking in the story in meaningful ways. That’s the point, that’s the everlasting value of Scripture.

Changing water to expensive wine would be nice to learn to do. But I can say with some certainly that our call as Christians does not include doing that. Nor does it include solely being impressed the story says Jesus did it. So, the story must have other meanings. Sure enough, it’s often understood to be about turning scarcity into abundance, repaying hospitality or providing for the needs of others without fanfare all which Jesus seems to do. 2

Those meanings are fine and good, but they tend to gloss over the first part of the story, that jarring part where Mary has to get the Body of Christ up and running. I want to focus on that part and suggest a way to understand it is to remember there’s a long tradition in our faith of referring to the church as the Body of Christ; and that it is not unprecedented to understand Jesus as sometimes representing the church in Gospel stories. In addition to suggesting that Jesus can be understood as a metaphor for the church in today’s reading, I want to suggest that Mary can also be understood as a metaphor for the voice of God when she calls on Jesus, a surprisingly reluctant Body of Christ, to act. Mary said to Jesus “they have no wine . . .” Jesus initially replied “Woman what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” The Body of Christ in the lesson gives two excuses, it’s not their concern and it’s not yet time to act. While it is hard for us to imagine Jesus himself giving such excuses, sadly it is not hard to imagine churches giving them.

Which leads me to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who famously called out churches for giving such excuses in anti-racism struggles. In 1963 liberal clergy in Alabama had publicly asserted that local civil rights protests over segregation were unwise and untimely. Incarcerated at the time for being in the protests Rev. King responded with a “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In that letter he can be heard, like Mary in the wedding at Cana, prodding the Body of Christ to act.

See, like Mary, Rev. King knew that when the Body of Christ goes into action miracles can happen. Specifically, he knew and hoped and prayed that the Body of Christ would do the work needed to help end the awful unjust lawful segregation that existed in America. So, Rev. King prodded the ministers and their churches– the Body of Christ– to act. He and other civil rights activists were in Alabama opposing its “segregation ordinances,” laws on the books that kept Black Americans separated from rights that were provided to White Americans in everyday life. The rights at issue included equal access to, among other things, voting, justice, housing, jobs, schools, entertainment, hotels, parks, relationships, restaurants, restrooms, and (believe it or not) drinking fountains.

White clergymen who had those rights did not think that the hour had come for the Body of Christ to work to change the laws for those without such rights. White clergymen who had those rights did not think it was the Body of Christ’s business to help make the change from watery rights for Black Americans to the full-bodied “champagne” of rights White Americans held. Their general approach seemed to be just wait, give it time racism will cure itself. In his letter from jail Rev. King responded by first noting that “time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” Then he added these words through which we can hear the voice of God still speaking:

“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” 3.

After those words were published and Dr King and others continued to protest more and more churches started responding! The Body of Christ got animated and got involved – and so did other faith communities and entities and people. The result was that eventually a miracle happened, segregation ordinances were outlawed. But –sadly– the injustices of racism did not end. And Martin Luther King fought those and other injustices until the day he died.

While Dr. King helped awaken churches and the country to end lawful Jim Crow laws, racism has not ended. There’s a lot of backlash and bristling when that fact is brought up these days. I have even heard arguments that local churches should not be involved in opposing racism. I’ve heard racism in not our concern in places like this where the population is 95% white. I’ve heard it’s not our time to act. I’ve heard there is no racism going on that’s our concern. Those sound a lot like the excuses the Body of Christ initially gave at Cana.

Thankfully this church as a whole has not bought into the excuses. In most of my time here I have observed the Body of Christ, represented by this church, involved in overcoming racism, working hard with other faith communities and entities. And miracles have happened. Well attended, discussions and panels on overcoming racism have taken place annually in Knox County for six years; a Knox Alliance for Racial Equality was formed; a historical marker went up honoring Dr. Elamae Simmons, a Black daughter of this city who faced and overcame racism here and elsewhere; a public outdoor honoring of the underground railroad and anti-slavery efforts in this town now exists on that wonderful bench outside the church; Dan Emmet, the primary founder of black face minstrel shows is no longer honored with a festival or on “welcome to our town” signs; a year ago the City of Mount Vernon produced its first ever webinar on racism; and just a few months ago a band that honored the confederacy was challenged by a network of anti-racist citizens and the band’s appearance was cancelled. Around the same time the first ever Mount Vernon civil rights walking tour took place starting at the bench I mentioned and ending up here at our beautiful stained-glass windows portraying Biblical heroes as Black men. This church and others worked to make all that happen. The Body of Christ animated and in action was a part of all those wonderful local miracles.

Mary and Martin Luther King were right to push the Body of Christ in to action to address pressing concerns. Racism remains a pressing concern. May we continue to act as the Body of Christ to overcome it without excuse, by actively seeking justice and loving kindness as our God requires, and we are called toward. AMEN

1. Lewis, Karoline, John p. 38-39.
2. See e.g., Newsom, Carol, and Ringe, Sharon, editors, Women’s Bible Commentary, p 383.
3., King, Martin Luther, Jr, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Setting out “The Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”) p. 296.