Ron McCreary, UMC pastor in Florida, asked me to post this old sermon so he could link to it. It's on the Gospel reading for this Sunday.
January 18, 2004
One of the best stories Tony Campolo tells has to do with a time when he was in Hawaii for a speaking engagement. Now, since he lives in Pennsylvania, there was quite a time change when he went to Hawaii, and he found himself up wanting breakfast at 3 a.m. So he went out walking to see if he could find someplace that was open, and the only place he could find at that hour was a place that gave new meaning to the term "greasy spoon." He ordered the safest thing he could think of in a place like that—coffee and a donut—and as he ate, a group of prostitutes came in. They talked pretty loudly, and so Tony couldn’t help overhearing their conversation.
One of the women mentioned the next day was her 39th birthday. Another one said to her, sarcastically, "What do you want, a party?" And the first one, far too calloused for such a remark even to sting, said, "No, I don’t need to have a party. No one’s ever given me a birthday party; why would I want to have one now?"
Well, after the women finally left, Tony said something to the fellow who ran the little diner, "Do they come in here every night?" The guy said they did, and so Tony asked, "Why don’t we throw her a birthday party tomorrow?" Well, as they talked, they both got really enthusiastic, and then the woman in the kitchen—the wife of the owner of the diner—got involved too. They planned decorations and stuff, and the fellow said he’d set the grapevine in motion to get the word out about the party—it was going to be a surprise—and insisted on making the birthday cake himself.
So the next night, Tony went back to the diner, a little earlier, and they decorated it up and waited. Didn’t take long before what seemed like every prostitute in Honolulu showed up; and then when the guest of honor arrived, they all yelled, "Surprise! Happy birthday!!"
The diner guy brought out the cake, with 30 candles all lit up. And she just stood there and cried. "No one’s ever given me a birthday party before."
They urged her to blow out the candles so they could cut the cake. But she said, "Do you mind if we don’t cut it right away? I’ve never had a birthday cake before. I’d like to look at it a while longer. Can I take it home?"
Well, sure, that was fine—there was plenty of other things to eat—so she took the cake home. While she was gone, and all the folks standing around not really knowing what to do in the meantime, Tony said, "What do you say we all pray for her while she’s gone?" They didn’t see why not, so he led them all in a prayer that she would come to know Christ, that her life might be transformed, that God would bless her.
When the prayer was over, the diner guy asked Tony, "Are you a preacher or something?"
Tony said yes, he was.
"What kind of church?"
Tony says, "The kind of church that throws birthday parties for hookers at 3:30 in the morning."
And the guy says, "There isn’t any church like that. If there was, I’d join." In that filthy diner in Honolulu, in the middle of the night, it was Epiphany.
That’s what the story of the wedding at Cana is really about, you know. Epiphany. The wine ran out, and Jesus made some more. We can talk about how he met the needs of the host—because running out of wine in the middle of a wedding celebration was a major social faux pas that would haunt him the rest of his days. But that’s not why Jesus did it, and to leave it there would cause us to miss Epiphany just like the chief steward missed it, just like everyone in the story but the disciples missed it. We can talk about how Jesus was one who loved a good party, and so he changed the water into wine to keep the party going. Well, that gets us at least pointed in the right direction, but still we haven’t gone quite deep enough.
In the other three Gospels, Jesus starts his ministry by preaching. Mark summarizes his message like this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." But John’s way of telling the story is a lot more poetry and a lot less proposition. Instead of having Jesus make a speech, he puts him at a party and has him turn a bunch of water into about 800 bottles of wine. Jesus could have figured out just how much wine would be needed for the number of guests there were for the rest of the party, and made that much. But he didn’t! He made a ridiculously extravagant amount of wine, far, far more than was needed.
I keep telling people that you get a lot more out of the New Testament if you have a good grasp of the Old Testament, and this is one of those times. Because wine is a very theologically loaded substance. At the end of the book of Amos, which is a brutally pessimistic book, there is a short proclamation of a hopeful future. And one of the things that is said there is that there will come a day when the mountains will drip sweet wine, a time when there is abundance and what is ruined will be rebuilt with much celebration. There are other passages like that in the prophets, and in some of the later Jewish writings that didn’t make it into the Bible—by the time of Jesus, abundance of good wine was believed to be a sign of the messianic age. When the disciples saw Jesus turn water into fine wine—better than the wedding host had served even at the beginning of the party—they remembered this, and a light came on in their minds.
Instead of having Jesus say, "The kingdom of God is at hand," John has him make wine, which is a sign that the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s a lot more subtle—but it points to something important.
The story I told at the beginning of this message comes from Tony Campolo’s book called The Kingdom of God Is a Party. Tony was looking for a new image to describe the kingdom of God, one that was both scriptural and understandable to modern people. We who count ourselves as citizens of the kingdom are supposed to be party people, Tony tells us. We follow the Christ, whose first miracle was at a party, the sudden appearance of an extravagant amount of the best wine. And so whenever two or three of us are gathered, it’s supposed to be a party!
But our minds rebel. We’ve seen parties—we’ve been to parties in this world, parties of the sort that we’d really like to keep our kids from going to. Parties where people’s clothes come off when they should be staying on. Parties where too many intoxicating substances are consumed. Parties where people go home feeling worse than they did when they came. Parties that cost way too much and create more stress than they do enjoyment. That can’t be what the kingdom of God is like. We don’t want to go to a party—we want to go to heaven. And if that makes us partypoopers, then so be it.
We’re like the mother of one of the online pastors, who came home from mass on Christmas morning. When her daughter asked her whether she had fun at church, she said, "Church isn’t supposed to be fun." It’s not fun—it’s work, and reverence, and quiet.
But if that’s really what God expects, why do the mountains drip sweet wine? Why does Jesus perform his first miracle at a party? Why is keeping the party going a sign of God’s glory?
One reason: Tony is right. Ever read the end of the book of Revelation—where we have the beautiful poetic images of what it will be like when evil is done away with? Once the world is remade, and the light of God’s glory shines forever into all the corners of that world, everyone is invited not to work, not to quiet and meditation, but to a wedding feast—a party. It’s a different kind of party from most of the parties of this world.
Cana is a preview, a foretaste—a glimpse of that glorious day. It’s Epiphany—a thin place where the barrier between this world and God’s glory gets a little tear in it. And Cana reminds us that we are surrounded by thin places like that, if we’d just open our eyes and watch for them. They don’t just happen in church, and they don’t just happen when times are good.
On an episode of the TV show Joan of Arcadia, Joan and her mother attended the funeral of a little boy Joan had babysat. The little fellow was like nine or ten years old, and he had cystic fibrosis. After he’d said what he needed to say at the graveside, the priest invited others to speak and remember the boy.
Joan got up and began to talk, and began to laugh as she remembered things he had said and done. Her mother was appalled—this wasn’t what was supposed to happen; Joan wasn’t behaving right at a funeral; she was going to upset the little boy’s family. The priest stood there looking uncomfortable. But the boy’s mother also began to laugh, and she and Joan hugged, laughing and crying at the same time.
Maybe that was Epiphany.
Many years ago, you probably remember hearing about a woman who’d paid a fortune for a lavish wedding reception, but her fiancé dumped her at the last minute. It was too late for her to get her deposits back for the hall, the band, the food, any of it. Now, she could have slunk off in shame, tail between her legs. But she didn’t. Instead, she said, we’re going ahead with the party. She called up the local agencies that worked with homeless people, and invited all the homeless people in town to her party. They had a wonderful time, made something beautiful out of the mess that woman’s fiancé could have made by dumping her.
Maybe that was Epiphany.
Maybe Epiphany happens somewhere every day—but like at the wedding in Cana, only some of the people see it, only the ones whose eyes are open, who know what they’re looking for. It’s the party people, not the partypoopers, the ones who have fun in church, not the sour-faced saints, who can see Epiphany when it breaks in.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be one of them.