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Saving the Best for Last

My 105-year old Grandma Edna died in March after a remarkably long life. Our family reunion at her funeral in tiny Rio, Wisconsin was a celebration of her witness to the power of family and faith.  Grandma has asked me ten years ago to preach at her funeral and it was a privilege to bring the Word to those gathered to mourn our loss and celebrate her life.

Scripture: John 2: 1-11

“So, let’s get this out there right off the bat.  When we remember Grandma, often the first things to come to mind are the donuts, the sugar cookies, and the lefse.  Food to feed our bodies and our souls.

Oh, and then there was her steel-trap memory and mind – she could recite birthdays for great grandchildren when I sometimes have trouble remembering my own. A memory that reflected her love for what was so important to her – her family, sons Jerome, Erwin and Dennis, and all of us who knew her as Grandma and Great Grandma and even Great Great Grandma.

And oh, by the way, Grandma was a faithful member of this congregation for her entire adult life and seldom missed a Sunday service wherever she was even when she needed to tune in electronically.  Grandma loved Jesus and the community gathered in his name.

And, of course, she did live to 105 years old, witnessing first hand remarkable events and transformative trends in our world that most of us must read about in textbooks. Grandma was wise in the ways of the world.

The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman – mother, wife, sister, grandmother, great grandmother, great-great grandmother, friend, and citizen – who loved her family and loved her Lord.

So why, you might ask, on this day when we gather to celebrate Grandma’s life and mourn the fact that she is no longer among us, have I chosen a gospel story about a wedding? A good question that takes us deep in the familiar story of Jesus’s first miracle at Cana – a story that features another remarkable woman who loved her family and her Lord.  I want us to pay attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the role she plays in the story of the wedding miracle.

As an aside, I visited the purported site of this miracle a couple of years ago during a trip to Israel and was struck by how out of the way, down narrow alleys, in the midst of an ancient neighborhood, it was.  Not a grand place at all, and here was where his ministry began – here is the ordinary setting for an extraordinary event.  Imagine then, Jesus and his mother, Mary, in the midst of this family celebration…

I’m sure we all recognize the broad outlines of the miracle story.  At the beginning, Jesus is with his mother and disciples at the wedding, when the wine gives out.  The story ends with this surprising act as Jesus turns water into fine wine.

It’s the interactions that happen in the middle of the story that I want to focus on.  It’s Mary who comes to Jesus with news that the wine has run out. And Jesus’s reply is where I want to pause: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”  Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always heard this reply as a rebuke of Mary.  Go away, Mom, this is not my problem – I’m all about bigger and better things.

But I want to suggest that there is a deeper and more nuanced meaning to Jesus’s response.  Mary does not make a request, she simply states a fact – there is no more wine.  Jesus responds with a question that gets at the heart of his entire ministry – a question that proclaims the truth that we are inextricably bound up with each other.  What concern should we have for each other? Jesus points to the fact that to be concerned is to be truly human.

And the interesting thing is that Mary seems to get it.  Instead of responding with some sort of moral argument for why Jesus should be concerned, she turns to the servants and instructs them to do whatever Jesus tells them.  She understands that the concern Jesus has for the needs of others demands obedience, not arguments.

This, I think, is what Grandma also understood about what it meant to live a faithful life in the world.  Grandma loved Jesus and she lived as a disciple called to obey and walk as a child of God. And she followed her call in all of the ordinary ways she loved us – in the donuts and sugar cookies, in caring for us for a lifetime, in remembering even to the end important days in our lives, in her active engagement with her faith community, in being a good neighbor.

And here is the lesson for us in this story – here is the vocational challenge for faithful people.  The gift of faith from our gracious God carries with it both Mary’s statement that the wine is gone and the response Jesus gave to his mother: “What is this to you and me?”

Roman Catholic theologian Michael Buckley challenges us with this lesson for our contemporary lives in the world.

“Those parents who watch their children grow up without education, without much hope for a better life…they have no wine.  The millions of aged, hidden away in our cities or in dreadful convalescent homes…they have no wine.  The despised or feared or uneducated, whose lives are terrorized by the violence on our streets…they have no wine.  Women demeaned and threatened by violence and their disproportionate level of financial insecurity…they have no wine.”

Jesus calls all of us to grapple with what concern this is to you and me, to recognize our common human experience, and to get to work as those called to follow him.  Obedience, not arguments.

I love how this story is told at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, because from here – from this claim that being concerned is at the heart of the life of faith – we then are offered lesson after lesson of what Jesus calls us to be and do.  We are called to heal the sick, to free the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to comfort the heartbroken, to fight for peace and justice for all God’s creation.

What Grandma taught us in the example of her life is that a calling to follow Jesus is not simply a personal possession, unencumbered by the demands of others, an upwardly mobile life trajectory.  She taught us to be concerned – for ourselves, for each other, for our neighbors, for the world.

The message we faithful must proclaim for all to hear is that your vocation, your calling, is never separated from the needs and aspirations of the families and communities and organizations and neighborhoods in which we live and work.  Grandma spent 105 years living out the call she knew to be faithful.  Like her journey of love and peace and grace, our callings are an obedient response to those who have no wine, because we are called by our Lord to be concerned.  No arguments, follow Jesus.  We affirm the fact that at the core of our lives together in the world, our gracious and loving God intends for us to love each other as God loves us, to be concerned for each other as our God is concerned for us.

And here’s the cool thing about all of this as we return to our gospel story.  Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars with water, to draw some out and take it to the chief steward, who then exclaims to the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”

The story ends with this powerful lesson.  For those who follow Jesus, for those who are called to be concerned and do God’s work in the world – for those like Grandma, faithful to the end – the best, the very best, is yet to come – “one last surprise” as hymnwriter John Ylvisaker proclaims. The very best.  Thanks be to God for Grandma Edna, for all those who are concerned, for the great cloud of witnesses to God’s gracious and loving presence in our lives.  And God’s people proclaim together: Amen!”