Abundance (John 2:1-11)Joan MacPherson, January 14, 2018
Part of the Sunday series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
He was full of the spirit and knew deep in his gut that he was called to preach and share the truth of Gods’ abundant providing and vision for a just world. He just knew that was what he was supposed to do. The odds were totally stacked against him. Born in Virginia, poor and with skin that had been kissed by nature’s son he couldn’t go to school except during the times when there was no farming to be done. This was just a few months a year. Not enough to graduate and not enough to get the credentials to go to seminary. The world defined who got what and what was available and for Vernon Johns there wasn’t enough time, access, money, opportunity to go to seminary.
Vernon Johns didn’t accept how culture/world divvied out access to life. Vernon Johns’ heart had been ripped open with the abundant grace and promise of God and no/stop/not possible/not available to you was not in is vocabulary. Not able to go to school didn’t prevent him from studying on his own. He learned the Greek and Hebrew necessary for seminary and set his heart on Oberlin. Johns knew the criteria for admission and he knew what was missing from his application but that didn’t stop him from applying. He wanted this, he wanted this bad.
When it came around time for decisions to be made he scheduled an appointment at the seminary. They weren’t going to tell him no in a letter. They had to tell him to his face. Before the administration could issue their finding Johns got up close and challenged them. What are you looking for/needing in students? Credits or smarts? He did not have credits. He did not have what the world had decided was the measure of capability and possibility. This poor, dark skinned man from the south - no, he hadn’t been able to go to school 9 months a year and get the credits. That didn’t stop him from learning, exploring, growing, discovering. It seems that God’s call and pull on his life wasn’t going to be constrained by human limits, at least not if he could have anything to say/do about it. In 1918 John’s graduated at the top of his class with a divinity degree from Oberlin Seminary.
Now he had credits and smarts and he was out in the world teaching, preaching, speaking. He was a force to be reckoned with. The spunk that got him admitted to Oberlin, the smarts that he developed in study and the power of God made for - for? A holy, powerful, witness to God’s abundant grace and who would not be quiet in the face of what was broken or unjust.
Forty years later he was called to serve at the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. A smart, spunky, spirit filled, African American pastor preaching in Alabama in 1958. Can you guess how this went? As I heard it told the police took a lot of notice about what he was doing and saying. There were regular Saturday night visits from the police to see what the sermon topic would be the next day. They were asking to both intimidate and to prepare for any upheaval that might come. 1958-1962 in Montgomery Alabama.
Johns was inspiring people and ticking them off within and beyond the congregation. Parishioners roiled when he told them they were more caught up in their social status then their spiritual awareness and action. Tensions rose. As a community activist Johns’ helped African-American girls who had been raped by white men accuse their attackers to the authorities. He was also involved in desegregation work, refusing to comply with racist bus policies and at one point ordering a sandwich and drink from a white restaurant, being chased out practically by gunpoint. His sermons could be in-your-face as well, with titles connecting to oppressive, violent social dynamics faced by African Americans. Johns was inspiring people and ticking them off. It was tense at the church. Multiple times resignation was discussed - and after 4 years of ministry there, his 5th letter of resignation was accepted.
What next for this church? 1962 in Montgomery Alabama. Tensions are high. The congregation is weary. Or afraid. Or inspired. Or a very human combination of all that. Johns has been preaching and sharing the abundant grace of God and it is both life giving and terrifying. The congregation decides it needs a little space to regather. This time with Johns? Powerful and hard. Lets take a breath before we get in that deep again. Let’s call a newbie. Just out of seminary. No national reputation. Let’s be a quieter church.
Can you blame them? How hard was it in the south in the early 60s? How much were folks threatened and sacred and oppressed in every day life? They were hurting and weary. They thought the balm for their pain was distance and retreat. They weren’t bad people. They were people. Trying to get their hearts and minds around how to be alive - in a culture that crushed and decried so much of God’s abundant grace. How do you do that? They discerned that sometimes you just need to step back and regroup. So they sought out a new pastor to help them do that. Freshly graduated, newbie. Welcome Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
They had no idea what was going to be in this vessel of a new graduate coming to them. Well, they had an idea it just wasn’t what was. They had been listening to their exhaustion and fear and turning inward to find safety and distance. God had been listening to their exhaustion and fear and responding with abundant grace that was working on the heart, words, preaching, prayers, ministry of newbie Martin. God was pouring out enough hope, enough love, enough grace for people to enter in to the reality of their culture, the reality of the world. God was saying/doing/being God. Giving us abundant grace assuring we have all we need to be in the world with hope, with trust, with passion, with conviction, with love. Thats what God does. Thats what we are given. This is a truth that the church can claim and let shape us. Beyond human weariness, casting out human fear, providing generously and stomping on scarcity. Full of risk. Infused with abundant grace.
Which is what Jesus’ inaugural teaching in John’s gospel proclaims isn’t it? Jesus’ ministry is just beginning. A few guys have joined in with him. For what? Doing what? It’s not defined. Its underway though. Then the first thing he teaches publicly/the first sign he shows is at the wedding in Cana. The first thing he does is turn everyone’s very human fears and limited expectations upside down. There they all are at wedding celebration which were differently big deals in those times. People gathered for days of joy and feasting. Jesus and his mom were right in the midst of it all. Its going along swimmingly until there is a perceived supply issue. It seems that the wine has run out. If you are hosting a gathering and run out of supplies it doesn’t feel good right? Panic, embarrassment, racing around. Fix it. Do something. Do something humans. Get active. That’s what we do right?
But this story suggests that there might be something that we pay attention to first. A truth and a hope and a generous providing that is present and accessible for every part of our life and the ministry of the church - that isn’t about what we do, fix, order, stock - it is about what God does and offers and infuses and won’t be limited. Jesus shows us this at the wedding. The panic has set in. Jesus responds. Get water and put it in the jugs. Get the ordinary and collect it for use by God. Go ahead. You know how to do that. Gather water. Gather basics. Gather what you have. And offer it to God. The story tells us that when the stewards drew from the purification jars, the very jugs that had been filled with common, every day ordinary, accessible to them, water, what came out was a wine of stellar quality. What came out was better then what they had had before. What came out was more than enough. What came out was something they had never, ever imagined, dreamed, believed, trusted.
Truth be told I wouldn’t complain if that happened literally - that we run out and fill up all these jugs and have tasty wine to sip or sell for a fundraiser - that would be ok. But limiting this to a literal story of the wine that serves the people gathered at a particular party limits the abundance and the power of the story. What Jesus is doing with the water into wine is visibly and powerfully demonstrating that there is no time, no place, no circumstance where we will run out of God’s grace. God provides consistently and abundantly. God provides better and more then we can ever imagine. It likely will look different then what we had anticipated. It might surprise us totally. The truth is that God is pouring out grace upon grace, hope upon hope, love and a future. God is present and active with healing and justice. God is going about it. God is not stopped by lack of credentials or human fear. We can use our energy to push it all away or let it pour in and take over.
Vernon Johns wasn’t filled with the “right” stuff when he wanted to go to seminary - except he went and he excelled. Dexter Street Baptist Church thought they would bring comforting/gentle/meek leadership to the congregation except King was filled with the spirit of God’s prophetic love and justice and there was nothing safe/gentle/meek about that. The wedding guests knew scarcity when the wine ran out except Jesus provided more then they needed in response to their fear and doubt.
Might it be that Main Street Church is like one of the stone jugs at the wedding feast? Serving in a world of scarcity and fear but filled with abundant grace and hope of God? Open to be filled with the ordinary, everyday things of life, anticipating that God will work in what is and bring forth what is needed for healing, hope, justice? Might it be wonderful? Might it be scary? Might it be shocking? Pour your abundant grace over our fears and limits that we might join in with you God - who will not be stopped, who will see us through. Amen.
Main Street Congregational UCC
January 14, 2018
Note: This manuscript was prepared for oral delivery only.
It contains excerpted material not properly cited.
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