John 2:1-14; 1John 4: 7-16 September 8, 2019
Benjamin Zander had been teaching at the New England Music Conservatory for twenty five years when he decided to change things up. Over the years he had noticed a trend— that even though he was offering to his students everything they needed to play their best, to look at what was holding them back and work through it, to come together as a community and make great music together, their chronic anxiety about their performance was keeping them from taking the risks that they needed in order to be really great musicians. So Zander came up with a plan. On the first day of class he gave everyone an assignment. He told them they already had an A for the year. All they had to do was write a letter to him, postdated for May, and tell him exactly what they had done to get their A. They weren’t allowed to use words like “I hope” or “I plan,” they had to write it as though they had already done it and share with him the breakthroughs that they made that year to get their A.
A few weeks into the semester, Mr. Zander asked the class how it felt to start with an A. What difference it was making to have what they wanted before they proved themselves worthy. One Taiwanese student raised his hand immediately. He said, “In Taiwan I was number 68 out of 70 students. I came here to Boston and you told me that I have an A. I was very confused. I walked around for three weeks, very confused. I am number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A student. I am number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A. One day I discovered that I am much happier being an A than number 68. So I decide I am an A.”
What Zander found, is that how the students started the year, their expectations of themselves, made all the difference in the world. When he began with abundance rather than scarcity, giving them the best possible thing before they felt they deserved it, the students were able to be more creative, take more risks, and grow immensely more in their capabilities as musicians. (4)
How often has that been your experience? That when someone offered you a bit of grace, a bit of generosity, perhaps when you least expected it, you were able to rise to the occasion. Or when you were able to be generous to someone else, you saw a different side of them altogether. Whether it be kind words offered to a child that are not deserved in that moment; or a smile for a waiter that looks exhausted at the end of a shift; or a neighbor who has been driving you nuts, but you choose to enter each conversation with a deep breath and thankfulness for who they are. How we begin a relationship or a conversation or the story that we tell ourselves, often determines our interaction with one another and with the world.
In our Gospel reading this morning, which comes to us from the second chapter of John, we see that John is very intentional about how he begins his Gospel.
There are four Gospels in the Bible— the books that tell us about the life of Jesus— and each Gospel has Jesus beginning ministry in a different way. Matthew begins Jesus’ ministry with the Sermon on the Mount— Jesus as the great orator and prophet. Mark begins with a story of Jesus throwing a demon out of a person— healing him and showing his power and his authority. In Luke Jesus goes home to Nazareth and reads Isaiah in the synagogue and proclaims that he has come to release the captives and lift up the poor. And then we have the Gospel of John. John was the latest Gospel written, the one with the most symbolism; the one where everything is laden with meaning. In many ways, of all the Gospel writers, John is the dramatic one— the theater major of the group. And Jesus’ first act is no exception.
Jesus has been baptized, he has called his disciples, and then Jesus’ first act in the Gospel of John is to go to a wedding. We can assume it must’ve been a family member or neighbor of some kind, for Jesus’ Mom is there too. They have all been invited. And it is quite the event, especially for a small town like Cana. In Jesus’ day, weddings were not planned a year out or two years out as people do now. The family would begin saving from the moment they gave birth so that the celebration could be big, luxurious, and open to the whole town. And it wasn’t one afternoon and an evening— we are talking a week long celebration— a weeklong party for everyone you know, all of the relatives from far away and all of the neighbors from nearby—with wine to go with it. And here, of course, is the problem. For it is the third day of the wedding feast, and they have already run out of wine. They’re not even halfway through the week, and their supplies have run out. Perhaps more people showed up than they expected. Perhaps they were exceptionally poor. We don’t get to know the details, and the writer of John doesn’t seem to care. What matters, is that people are beginning to notice, people including Mary, Jesus’ Mom. And that’s when she gives him the Mom look. Now remember, Jesus is 30 years old. He has been to the wilderness to be baptized by John. He has people who are following him and listening to what he has to say! But he will always be Mary’s boy. She knows what he’s made of; she knows what he can do; and she knows that it’s time. “They have no wine,” she tells him, as though she is reminding him of something; “they have no wine.”
In our world today, it is so easy to get caught up in a scarcity mindset— to focus on what we don’t have or how limited our resources are. But when we do that, we severely limit the solutions to our problems. We stifle our creativity. We get so focused and anxious on what we don’t have, that we lose sight of the bigger reality. So often we get so focused on what we lack, that we lose sight of all that God is doing.
Recently a group of researchers began to study what happens when people get stuck in a scarcity mindset, and what they found, is that all of us, when lacking something that is a perceived need, can get deep tunnel vision. One example was of med students who work 80 hours a week and often stop making good decisions about their health, their relationships, their wellness, precisely because they become fixated on how little time they have. By focusing on what they don’t have, they begin to give up the things that give them joy in the time they do have. They begin to focus all of their attention on the decisions right in front of them and lose sight of their long range hopes and dreams. When we get in the habit of having a mindset of scarcity, whether because of our physical circumstances or because our world is constantly telling us that there isn’t enough, we all can get tunnel vision. A scarcity mindset robs us of insight, of creativity, of the ability to problem solve and think long term. (3)
But God desires for us to know that we are abundantly loved. That we are cared for. That we can trust that God has given us what we truly need. The lies of this world tell us that we are not enough, but God tells us something else entirely.
The writer of 1John reminds us that the reason we can love is because God first loved us. And that’s the whole point of this wedding story in the Gospel of John too. We do not worship a stingy God, this is a God of abundance.
Mary looks at Jesus and says, “They have no wine,” which may sound like scarcity thinking, except that she doesn’t say it in a worried way; she says it to Jesus, whom she trusts will do something about it. This is Mary, who sang about God’s dream of abundance for the lowly and who knows God’s heart. Jesus seems to know exactly what she means too. He tells her that his time has not yet come, but Mary ignores this comment. While the wedding party is being notified that they will now be the joke of the town for generations to come, and the guests are beginning to talk, and the servants are panicking, Mary, who once had enough faith to say, “let it be so,” to the Angel Gabriel, just turns to Jesus, with great faith, and tells the nearest waiter, “Do whatever he tells you.”
And within a few minutes, six 30 gallon jars are full of wine— not cheap wine, as we are told is often served this late in the week, no it is the best wine. 180 gallons of the finest wine. Extravagant abundance. Over the top generosity. That’s what we get from God.
This is how John chooses to start his Gospel about Jesus. With extravagance. With abundance. With extreme generosity. Because John doesn’t want us to miss that this is a God of love bigger than you might have ever imagined. John wants you to know that you are loved. That God so loved the world.
And there’s one more thing that I think is important in this story, something we often overlook. This miracle, this sign of God’s character, is not meant for show— it blesses the whole community.
Abundance, when kept for ourselves, is just excess— it’s not a blessing. I don’t know how many of you were here last week, but last week we read another story of Jesus at a dinner. You know in all my years of preaching, I have never preached these two stories back to back, but because of that I began to think about this wedding differently. You see last week, which was actually later in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus was at a dinner party of a different kind. It was full of The Who’s who of Jesus’ world; the religious and political leaders; the wealthiest of the town. And while he is at the party he says to the host, “When you throw a wedding feast, do not invite your friends and those who can repay you, instead invite the poor, the blind, and the lame.” And I began to wonder this week, if perhaps as he sat watching these rich people, who would never run out of wine, if he remembered this wedding at Cana. If he was pondering how the couple had invited him and his friends even though they had nothing to their names. And how they would’ve never expected that Jesus could repay them.
God’s gifts are abundant; but of course not everyone in the world experiences them as such because we’re often so focused on what we don’t have, that we forget to share what we do. The writer of John wants us to see that God’s abundance is overflowing— not so that some people can have an excess, but so that all of us will have enough.
We love, because God first loved us. We give, because God has given so graciously to us. We serve, because God so often has served us. God has given us everything we need and more in this world, and there is enough for all.
When will you be as bold as Mary, inviting someone who says it’s not the right time to practice abundance?
How, this week, will you like Jesus, choosing to act with abundance, even when you don’t know if it’s the right time?
What next step can you take to have a life devoted to generosity, so that God can work through you to bless others?
Resources Consulted/Quoted: 1) Lewis, Karoline. workingpreacher.org 2) Sloyan, Gerard. Interpretation Commentary Series. “John.” 3) Vedantam, Shankar. Hidden Brain Podcast. “You 2.0: Tunnel Vision.” August 5, 2019 4) Zander, Rosamund Stone and Benjamin. The Art of Possibility.