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Wine and Wild Space

John 2. 1-11, NRSV

by Michael Usey

Even the Messiah had to adjust his schedule when events took a surprising turn. The story of Jesus’ coming-out in John demonstrates two crucial concepts: Jesus’ spiritual flexibility and divine abundance.

“My hour has not yet come.” This suggests that Jesus had hoped for a more carefully chosen setting for his first presentation of himself. In the political turmoil of first-century Judah, the way one called attention to oneself could be a matter of life or death. Jesus wanted to take on the heavy mantle of leadership in a considered manner. He did not want to stumble awkwardly onto the public stage.

Then came unexpected circumstances. He attended a wedding; the celebration went on and on; the wine ran out. A host family faced serious embarrassment. Mary, put in the rare role of a stage-managing mother, was confident her son could redeem the situation. Jesus objected. “My hour has not yet come.”

The story fails to mention one of its most surprising but covert features: the ease with which Jesus surrendered his preplanned strategy and embraced a new possibility. He surely preferred whatever had been plan A; but he moved smoothly into plan B—the opportunity presented by unexpected circumstances.

In the NT, the Greek word for hour, hora, is more often used in reference to kairos time than to kronos time. Hora is used in many gospel stories of mighty works to identify the moment of healing, and in those cases it is usually translated “instantly.”

Kronos time measures ordinary occurrences, events that creep in this petty pace from day to day.  Kronos time leaves the false impression that we can control it, can enter it into our phones and deal with its events on our own terms. Kairos time, by contrast, represents discontinuity, when an unexpected barrier forces one to move off a planned course and adjust to new realities. Jesus had one schedule in mind. Circumstances pushed him in another direction. His hour, his kairos moment, appeared before he wanted or expected it. Kronos is clock time; kairos is the exact right moment, felicitous time.

This story shows how the disruption of kronos time can be transformed into kairos time. Jesus had been expecting an introductory moment that he could identify and control. Instead, his hora came upon him unexpectedly, pushed on him by circumstances and by his persistent mother.

The destruction of our carefully constructed schedules can cause us either to despair or to seek deeper sources of strength. When Sarah Cummins called off her wedding a week before her July 15 ceremony, she was left with a nonrefundable contract for a 170-plate dinner. Though there wasn’t going to be a wedding, she realized it wasn’t too late to throw a party.

After contacting local shelters, 25-year-old Cummins welcomed dozens of homeless to feast on a meal consisting of bourbon meatballs, salmon, goat cheese, roasted garlic bruschetta and cake. The soirée was held Saturday at the Ritz Charles event center in Carmel, Indiana, and Cummins was there to welcome her guests on the day that was supposed to be her wedding.

This event represented more than a simple effort to find consolation in a tragic event, more than the tired shift from lemons to lemonade. In her personal tragedy, the young woman recognized the possibility of a significant witness. Kronos was transformed into kairos.

I’ve seen many such transformations; I’d bet you have too. A job reversal forces a reevaluation of someone’s basic goals, causing a move into work that is more productive and satisfying. A chronic illness closes doors so rapidly that every element of a worthwhile life seems beyond reach. Then the ill person makes the psalmist’s question her own: “From where will my help come?” (Ps 121) and finds new avenues of meaning and connection. Kronos into kairos.

One’s hour comes—a kairos moment presents itself—at the intersection of mangled plans and spiritual openness. Jesus demonstrated a creative response to a disconcerting surprise. The demonstration did more than launch him toward his goals; it embodied his goals.

“They have no wine.” No Merlot, no Malbec, not even a Shiraz. I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. I hear a question that I carry deep within myself, a question familiar to many of us:  Will I have enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? Safe enough? Good enough? Will we go over the budget?  Can we put dinner on the table and keep the wolf from the door?  During covid, most of us have wondered about this daily. It’s a question of scarcity I hear in Mary’s voice, and Jesus answers it, as he always does, with abundance.

This story is one of the fourth gospel’s “sign” stories, one of the ways John presents Jesus as one who offers abundance. Jesus, as the one who embodies God, who shows us God, is one who shows us abundance. John’s story about the wedding feast at Cana is a story about the discovery of true abundance.

Abundance. How much is enough? This is a critical question, not only as we might look at our own checkbooks, but as we make our way in our world and in our Christian faith. The question of abundance is an economic question, the question of quantity, one that demands the calculations of dollars and barrels and percentage points.

Now, the expected Christian response to the calculations about amounts could be that abundance, real abundance, ought rather to be measured in terms of quality, not quantity, that the good life, the life of salvation–that is, the life lived with God–is a life that cannot be measured in mere numbers.

But that’s not entirely true, and the theologian who asks us to look again at the question of abundance is Sallie McFague. She says that if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, if we care anything at all about the spiritual life, the good life, the life lived in and with God, we need to get out our calculators and take a look at what abundance means in our world today.

In her book Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril, McFague makes the case for a theology of a different kind of good life. The Christian good life, she says, is marked by sustainability, self-limitation and inclusion of all, “especially the weak and vulnerable.”

She writes: “I believe Christian discipleship for 21st century North American Christians means ‘cruciform living,’ an alternative notion of the abundant life … For us privileged Christians a ‘cross-shaped’ life will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others. We do not need so much to accept Christ’s sacrifice for our sins as we need to repent of a major sin–our silent complicity in the impoverishment of others and the degradation of the planet.” (p. 14)

This is radical stuff. Living this cruciform life is not about easing into a comfortable relationship with a benign God. It’s not about a private peace or a personal path to enlightenment. But it is about the critical connection between the personal and the political. The cruciform life means that we live out the love of God in every choice we make, choices about food and clothes and cars and recreation and water and heat and light.  This is something Chuck Joyce talked to us about on Xmas eve.

These choices are about numbers. They are economic. They are also spiritual. It’s God’s intention, as we see in the life of Jesus–the one who turned water into wine, the one who sat down to table with all the wrong people–it is God’s intention that all life should flourish. And so our task is to tend to this flourishing in the place that God dwells, that is, our earth, our world.

To help with our task, I’d like us to borrow 3 tools from Sallie McFague: first, living those “cross-shaped” lives. As alternative a vision as the beatitudes of Jesus, McFague’s image of the cruciform life offers the same kind of invitation to a transformed way of living. Cruciform living offers abundance through the practice, she says, of “enoughness.” We limit our consumption of the world’s resources in recognition of the needs of others.

Secondly, she offers us some new house rules. We recognize the world as God’s home, the place that God became and still becomes incarnate, as McFague puts it: “the ‘glory’ of God is not just heavenly, but earthly.”   So if the world is God’s home, we should abide by God’s house rules.

God’s house rules are not the rules of the neo-classical economic model for individuals: i.e., you are free to amass whatever material goods you lawfully can. If we see ourselves living in an interconnected global village, the rules of God’s house are the rules of housemates. Housemates, operating by an ecological economic model, abide by basic house rules: “Take only your share, clean up after yourselves and keep the house in good repair for future occupants.” (p.122)

Watts St Baptist senior pastor Dorisanne Cooper, whom many of us know, remembers her two brothers, Johnny and Richard.  Once when their mother Thelma baked cookies, Johnny licked his thumb and touched each cookie, saying “Mine. Mine. Mine, Mine. …” So his brother Richard then licked his thumb and touched each cookie, saying, “Yours. Yours. Yours. Yours.”  This is how we can be: taking more than our share or ruining what we don’t take. It’s not easy to jump on board and start living with such house rules. Getting there asks of us nothing less than transformation. The key to this transformation is our third rule, our “wild space.”

Wild space is that part in each one of us that does not fit our consumer culture’s definition of the good life. Here’s how it works: on the back of your announcements is a circle. Within that circle is the dominant cultural model: white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, educated, able-bodied, Western, successful, etc. (I’m not saying any of these dominant definitions of normal are bad; but they are privileged in our country, and in doing so we undervalue uniqueness.) Now, put your own model of yourself over that circle. Some parts may fit, maybe almost all, some may be different. (I’ll pause here for two minutes while you do this.)

The part of us that falls outside the conventional circle is our wild space. The parts that do not fit may be obvious: race or sex or physical characteristic. Other parts that do not match up with the successful conventional model may not be so obvious to others: surviving the death of a loved one, a lost job, the struggle with addiction or depression, the vague disappointment about not “making it,” or our refusal to buy into the conventional model. Anything that causes us to question the false cultural definition of success is our wild space. Wild space is our divine window of opportunity to see a different vision of the good life. Being a Christian, McFague says, means having a wild space. This different vision is counter-cultural. It is based in the radical, generous, abundant love of God and God’s desire for abundant life for all. It’s the vision of John, telling that story about the good wine at the wedding in Cana. It’s a vision that starts with a recognition of need, of emptiness.

It was that wild space in Jesus that allowed him to pose an alternative to the status quo of his day. It was that wild space that allowed him to say that everybody, really everybody, is welcome at the banquet table. It was that wild space that set him apart as a divine wisdom teacher, offering the beatitudes as a new way of living. It was that wild space that allowed him to say that the meek are blessed, along with the poor and the mourning. It was that counter-cultural wild space in Jesus that cost him his life and that gives us ours. It was the wild space that MLK Jr discovered that allowed him to question the status quo and gave him the freedom to pursue the same radical vision of love and justice that led him, like Jesus, to the cross.

It’s the wild space in each of us that allows us to question the patterns of our lives so that we might begin to break free of the conventions, addictions, protections and consumptions leave us feeling filled to the brim but empty deep inside, that keep us from recognizing our deepest need and the deep hunger all around us. It is our wild space that allows us to question the consumer model of abundance and imagine alternative ways to use the earth’s resources. It is the wild space in each of us that allows us to question the patterns of our lives so that we might begin to live in such a way that cares for our planet and our neighbors.

So, four things this morning:

  • We can emulate Jesus’ spiritual flexibility, changing mangled plans into spiritual openness.  Kronos into kairos.
  • Two, we can begin to practice cruciform living–cross-shaped living; 
  • Three, we can try out some new house rules, such as enoughness; 
  • Four, we can look for, and live into, our own wild spaces.

And then our questions will change: from “I’m not ready” to “How can I channel Jesus here and now? –from the fearful scarcity of “will we have enough?” to a new one: “How shall I live this new life, how shall I live a life of simple abundance, where there is enough for all?”