Gathering in Life Abundant
For most of us living in the northern hemisphere, autumn is harvest time. It is a time of ingathering, when baskets are full and cups are brimming. Here in eastern Washington, our short growing season means we wait all summer for precious garden tomatoes to ripen. Apples and pears are picked from orchard trees; pumpkins and squash bulge out from their rows. And to top it all off, the harvest comes in from the nearby vineyards of the Columbia Valley, too. Soon, it will be bottled and grace our festal tables. Harvest tastes good.
“But you have kept the good wine until now,” a puzzled steward remarks to an equally stunned groom. Jesus performs the first of his signs at a wedding in Cana of Galilee: six stone jars of water become six happy jars of wine. Any of the winemakers of Washing- ton state would surely love to be able to perform such a trick! In the context of a wedding feast in ancient Pales- tine, the meaning of this work is not that of a profitable parlor trick, but of saving a community from disgrace. Jesus prevents the wine from running out, prevents the party from stopping, and prevents a family from falling into shame. While we feel embarrassment when food or wine runs out at our own parties, the social scorn heaped on those who lacked in showing hospitality in Jesus’ day was immense. But in the presence of Jesus, this wedding feast continues without a hitch, without shame. Wine, as well as hospitality and joy, are abundant. The community lacks nothing. And in the midst of it all, God is glorified. (to top of page)
A taste of the Last Day
God’s glory and God’s desire to bring abundant life are strong themes in John’s gospel in which this wondrous story is told. Here, Jesus has come to earth to bear witness to God’s glory in the flesh, and to bring about abundant life for the world. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10) To that end, John shows Jesus performing signs. Not miracles, as in other gospels, but miraculous events that point to the life-giving intent of God. Signs. And the first of these life-giving signs is the changing of water into wine at a local wedding in Cana. Significantly, the last of the signs, bookending these works, is the raising of Lazarus at what would have been a local funeral in Bethany. Like changing water to wine, Jesus now changes death into life. In the face of desertion and grief, Jesus exhibits friendship, power, and abundant life. “Come forth” he cries, and Lazarus rises. Suddenly there is joy and abundance where there had been bitter weeping. From a wedding to a funeral, Jesus appears alongside the journeys of life and at every turn brings God’s abundance with him, especially in the face of scarcity. The community is sustained. And again, God is glorified.
The wedding story in John 2 begins with the phrase, “On the third day.” As one who is regularly leading Christian worship, I automatically want to finish the sentence with “he rose again.” Though the evangelist is not prompting us to recite the creed, the story does echo with refrains of Easter. If we go by the counting of days at the beginning of John’s gospel, a precise little travelogue of Jesus’ activity, this amazing event in Cana would be happening on the eighth day. One day more than a week. For Christians, the eighth day is an image of fullness, completion, resurrection, and new life. It is one day beyond the seven days of Creation, the beginning of our life as God’s people. We think of the day when Jesus returns in the same way, as the first day of living within the fullness of our redeemed future. It is a day to end all days, joyously. Like a wedding, and like a funeral.
This speaks tremendous promise for our last days, and all the days in between now and then. As Lutherans, we appeal to this story in our wedding liturgy to ground the creation of a new couple in the promise of abundant life. “As you gladdened the wedding at Cana in Galilee by the presence of your son, so by his presence now bring your joy to this wedding” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leader’s Edition). This prayer announces our desire for God’s abundance to be showered upon the new family, and it looks back into the story in John through the lens of a feast. Jesus comes to the feast and celebrates with the community. Jesus continues to come into the daily rhythms of our lives doing what he did that day: gladdening, enlivening, enriching, giving life and giving it abundantly. (to top of page)
Abundance and scarcity
In these days of tightened belts and swirling fears of a global economic crisis, it can be hard to rest in the idea of a God who gives abundantly. Worries about scarcity drown out the promise that God always gives us what we need. And though we may think that it is these tough times making it hard for us to trust in God, if we tell the truth about ourselves and our world, we have trouble trusting God in times of plenty, too. Scarcity thinking is sneaky and pervasive that way. It causes us to look with fear even upon the most gracious outpouring of God’s gifts. Whether we enjoy great luxury or barely subsist from day to day, we end up looking at our lives and worry that there is never enough.
Abundance thinking sees whatever is before us and knows that there will be enough to go around. Changing our vision toward an abundance outlook is not about the amount of provisions around us. It’s not that we also have to have six enormous jugs of wine. Rather, it is that our spirits become tuned to see what is here and give thanks for it. The miracle, or rather the sign, is that this gratitude is also a gift of the presence of Jesus. Our stone hearts, feeling only lack, can brim with gladness and hope again. When that change happens, it is a gift of the Spirit (with a capital S).
Giving thanks for what is here is what we do each week in worship. The posture we take at holy communion, hands up in thanksgiving to hands out in receiving, is one that slowly shapes us to be people of abundance. We are given only a piece, just a sip, yet it is plenty and we rejoice our neighbor receives some too. I don’t know why the wine ran out that day in Cana, but I do wonder how our present-day wedding rituals would be different if we made arrangements thinking about God’s abundance and the sharing of hospitality. I have known many a bride or groom who experience great stress around the task of planning their wedding, worrying they are making choices that will disappoint others, fretting that they will go over budget. In essence, trapped in scarcity thinking.
What if the first pastoral act of wedding planning or marriage counseling with a new couple was a sharing of the Eucharist? Mothers and fathers of the couple, perhaps other witnesses and friends, would meet with the pastor and couple to share Holy Communion. Only then, after experiencing the gifts of bread and wine given away for their sake, they would begin making plans to celebrate the giving of their lives to one another.
Gordon Lathrop, Lutheran pastor and liturgical scholar, reflects on the act of blessing a married couple by reading about blessed bread in the Bible. He notices that in Scripture, bread that is called holy or blessed is always bread that is given away. Holy bread is bread shared, given away. Certainly the same is true about the miraculous wine at the Cana wedding. It is holy because it is a sign pointing to the glory of God, and it is given away joyously to all who are present. What if it we thought that way about marriage itself? What if that’s what we meant when we speak of being “given away” at weddings? In fact, our liturgy already points us in that direction. Prayers and blessings at weddings have their root in the prayers and blessings around the table of communion. As we bless a couple and pray for them, we are giving them away like bread or wine, given back into the community as a sign of God’s abundance and God’s love for the world. And with the presence of Jesus spoken into the lives of the newly married, scarcity of any kind is banished. The community rejoices, and God is glorified. (to top of page)
O taste and see
This month, I am lucky enough to be presiding at a wedding of two friends. The Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, we (family, friends, neighbors and the congregation) will gather in the sanctuary and pronounce blessings over them as they, with their promises, bind themselves together.
What began as a practical idea to hold the wedding after a national holiday so that loved ones could travel has grown into a theological anchor: a feast. It is an emphasis already present in the wedding liturgy, even as it points ahead to the celebration of a funeral: “And gather them on the last day into the marriage feast that has no end.”
Jesus performs his first sign at a wedding at Cana right on the heels of recruiting his first disciples with invitation, “Come and see.” John’s gospel uses this as another refrain, echoing through the narrative with metaphors of light and sight. Interestingly, the “seeing” happening in Cana is that of the mouth and tongue. “You have kept the good wine until now!” Apparently, Jesus not only makes wine from water but makes good wine. What the newly minted disciples and all the wed- ding guests see of Jesus is what they can taste: abundance, gladness, goodness. God’s glory, like a good harvest, tastes really good.
There is no lack at the wedding feast of the Savior. We celebrate this abundant promise every time we come to the table, in worship, at weddings, beside the dying, and in our homes.
When Christ returns and ingathers us all to the bountiful table of God, the community will at last be whole and God’s glory will be fully shared. And I happen to think it will taste something like autumn in eastern Washington.
Liv Larson Andrews lives with her spouse and young son in Spokane, Wash. She is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in the West Central neighborhood and enjoys hosting friends and strangers at the table. (to top of page)