The Sacred Sommelier

Sunday, May 14, 2017

This sermon was preached by Guest Preacher Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana at Foundry UMC on Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Text: John 2:1-11



On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."


Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.


When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "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." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.




When Ginger invited me to come and be a part of this Soul Food series around the topic of PLAY, I thought immediately of my friend Cindy Rigby, a professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. Cindy has been studying the theology of play in recent years, and believes that play is vital to our spiritual lives and necessary for a healthy understanding of God.


Cindy told a group of colleagues about an event where she was asked to speak some years ago. When she proposed the theology of play as her topic, the event planners balked. These are serious times we live in, they said. People are out of work; we are a nation at war. Play seems frivolous, a luxury we can’t afford.


Fine, she thought. So she tweaked the titles of her presentations and gave them impressive-sounding names, replete with plenty of fifty-cent words, to be more palatable to the organizers. And then she went ahead and presented the play stuff under these new important-sounding headings. I applaud her playful deviousness.


It’s true, isn’t it, that some people feel they are “too important to play”; they almost have to be tricked into it. These people will tell you that, like the apostle Paul in I Corinthians, they’ve put away childish things (1 Cor. 13:11).


And in a world as fast-paced and chaotic as ours, such industriousness is understandable. We’re here in one of the nerve centers of the political world, and boy does it seem like that nerve is exposed and scraped raw right now. So many of us these days, if we’re not actually working in the halls of government ourselves, are contacting those people, through letters, phone calls, and town halls… speaking truth to power, standing with the vulnerable and the oppressed… that “sacred resistance” that is in the air here at Foundry and in many other congregations. You’ve probably heard the old adage, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” We might also say, “If you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not paying attention.” The 24-hour news cycle has tired me out. There is very little energy left over for “frivolous” things.


Meanwhile Christ House still needs a lunch from us once a month, the building needs upgrades, and who’s going to teach the 1st and 2nd grade Sunday School next year? To say nothing of the various everyday tasks that make up a life. Commuting. Working. Cooking and cleaning. Paying bills. Flossing. A friend of mine who lives on Capitol Hill and in many ways embodies the type-A mindset of this area had a therapist tell her, “You know, maybe you don’t need to see your entire life as one big self-improvement project.” She responded, “My gosh, what else would it be?”


And yet just about every one of us is born with an innate sense of play.  Methodist minister and coach Chris Holmes reports a study in which a five-year-old on average engages in 98 creative tasks per day. By contrast, a 44- year-old engages in two creative tasks per day. A 5-year-old on average laughs 113 times per day; a 44-year-old laughs 11 times. Holmes says, “Where did we lose our sense of creativity, humor and curiosity?”


Now, I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many of us heard that statistic and started auditing our lives: Hmm, how many acts of creativity do I undertake on the average day…? How many times did I laugh yesterday? Did I laugh yesterday?


Or perhaps you heard those numbers and folded your arms in skepticism: Well how do you define creative acts? What was the sample size? Was this a survey or an experiment in a controlled environment? OK, I’ll raise my hand for that, which may be a sign that this sermon is for the preacher as much as for the congregation.


But it’s when things are at their most dire that play becomes necessary. Rabbi Edwin Friedman, a guru in the area of family systems, wrote that anxiety keeps people pessimistic, to the point that it becomes almost impossible for anxious people to reorient themselves toward positive change. An unwillingness to play, or an inability to do so, is a symptom of an unhealthy or anxious system. The most steadfast social justice workers I know have a certain fizziness to them, that comes from taking their work seriously but taking themselves lightly, that comes from a certain playfulness that undergirds their lives. Because play is a conduit for perspective, and for hope. Play is not a luxury right now. It is essential.


But we’re together in a church, which means we’re not just here to talk about the psycho-social benefits of play. We’re also here to explore play as an act of faith and discipleship. Our job is made a little tough, because there aren’t tons of examples of play in scripture. But if you look at today’s story, in which Jesus turns water into wine and keeps the wedding feast going late into the night, you don’t have to squint too hard to see it as a deeply play-full act at its heart.


This is Jesus’ first sign in the gospel, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:


  • Walking on water.
  • Three healings.
  • Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.
  • Raising a guy from the dead.
  • And… restocking the bar at a wedding.


One of these signs is not like the other.


Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.


Maybe he figured he was too important to tend to such frivolous things. Not when there were people to heal and tables to overturn and Pharisees to take to school and justice to proclaim.


Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.

And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so.


And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: You are needed, right now, right here.


I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.


What Jesus does here is improvise. He sees an opportunity to create something, and he uses what’s on hand to make it happen. I’ve been practicing improv for a few years now, and it’s an incredible creative exercise. You take a group of people and maybe a couple of chairs, and somehow scenes get created, and characters come to life. Together, improvisers construct entire worlds.


Now, when Jesus improvises, he creates not just decent wine, but the finest vintage the steward has ever tasted. I’m still relatively new at improv, and I can tell you that a lot of what we create is not good wine; it’s more like the wine that comes in the big jugs at the grocery store.


But the product isn’t the point. The point is to play.


In my Presbyterian tradition, we have the Westminster Catechism as one of our creeds, and much of it feels antiquated and a little stodgy, so I would never presume to foist it on you good Methodists… but let me offer you question one, if you’d like it:

What is the chief end of humanity?

To glorify God and enjoy God forever.


To enjoy God—that is our highest purpose.  


Cindy Rigby says this about the theology of play:

Too often, in our overextended culture, we conceive of ‘play’ as a ‘break’ from work that renews us to be able, once again, to work. It is a problem when we view our play as ‘merely reproductive’ rather than ‘productive’ activity. It is precisely through playing (in this specific, theological sense) that we are able to imagine God's Kingdom/God’s will in such a way that God’s desires become our desires. It is through imagination, founded in play, that we are able to participate in and even contribute to the coming of this Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.[1]


*        *        *


We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. What we do know is that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t even a really good sermon. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, to be sure, but otherwise it had very little usefulness. It was just an act of pure beauty. The celebration needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.


Jesus’ whole ministry began with a party.


About a year ago, a high school student in Nacogdoches, Texas named Taylor Ries asked if she could attend the prom with her same-gender date. School officials referred her to the student handbook, which said she could go by herself or with a date of the opposite sex. A back and forth ensued, and to cut to the chase, the school decided to cancel the prom rather than change the policy to accommodate Taylor and her date. So this year, there will be no prom at Central Heights High School.


But there will be a prom. Because members of the community decided to come together and host a “Lavender Prom”—a come-as-you-are event for LGBTQ kids and their dates and friends, a party that would be welcoming to all.[2]


This hits close to home for me because I was born and raised in Texas, and it seems like every week there’s a new state bill to restrict LGBT rights and protections. The latest is a bill in the Texas house that would allow adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ prospective parents.


In the wake of such mean-spiritedness in the Texas legislature, a lavender prom in a small East Texas town is such a small thing. But it’s a sign in the same way Jesus providing wine was a sign. Yes, people need to organize politically, and write letters, and try and elect candidates who don’t discriminate. But in the meantime, a prom for queer kids and their friends and dates can be a small act of beauty, like wine at a wedding.


These young people should be able to play.


Jesus said, "Fill the jars with water."

And they filled them up to the brim.


So may we be filled: with a spirit of curiosity, grace, and holy play.

Thanks be to God.



[2] Kudos to my friend, Heather Olson Beal, for her work on this initiative: