By The Rev. J.C. Austin
Recently, my son Liam and I finished watching the television show Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction show from the early-to-mid 2000s that is also routinely listed among the best television shows of that era, winning considerable praise as a gritty and sophisticated reflection on the various dimensions of what it means to maintain individual humanity and human society when everything we might take for granted about that is suddenly gone.
The premise is that humanity is living in a far-away corner of the galaxy on a collection of worlds when they are suddenly attacked by an implacable enemy. Only a small remnant survives and flees, and their goal is to evade the relentless pursuit of the enemy in a ragtag fleet of starships while trying to find a new and safe home on which to begin again. It obviously drew heavily on the themes and concerns of U.S. society in a post-9/11 and War on Terror world, which was quite powerful in itself when I first watched the series.
But watching it this time, I couldn’t help but see it through the lens of the pandemic, instead, with people trying to hold the threads of their relationships and identities and society and very humanity together while enduring multiple years in difficult circumstances that they never imagined dealing with and trying to ward off a relentless and far more powerful enemy that cannot be reasoned with.
There’s a particular scene that really drove it home to me, though. It’s set about two years into the crisis, and the cumulative stress and exhaustion of what they’ve been enduring for so long in such difficult circumstances is weighing more and more heavily on all the characters. Tempers are short; resentments simmer; minor disagreements quickly explode into heated conflicts.
Two of the main characters who are both in a relationship and work together as mechanics on the main ship are laboring to repair yet more damage from a particularly narrow recent escape, and the junior mechanic is complaining the senior one about how hard they are struggling just to keep the ship together as well as their relationship in the face of the never-ending stress and overwhelming demands on them.
The senior mechanic, focusing intently on his repair work so he doesn’t have to look at her, says, “yeah, we’re just going through a little rough patch,” and it’s not clear whether he’s talking about their relationship, the starship, the crushing and relentless workload of unforeseen difficulty and responsibility, or the particularly difficult season in their larger journey, but it is clear that he’s significantly minimizing it to avoid dealing with the enormity of it. Regardless of which one it is or if it’s all of the above, though, the junior mechanic never takes her own eyes off of him, and finally says, “What if rough patches are all we have left?”
I have the sense that many of us have asked some version of that question at some point in the last two years, and particularly in the last six months or so. June seems like a long time ago, when we thought we were finally and definitively emerging from the pandemic, only for the Delta variant to arise a few weeks later and return us to masks and distancing and questions about remote work and learning.
Even then, though, the temptation and even fervent desire was to say, “yeah, we’re just going through a little rough patch,” and to say that as both a belief and a hope. And then we had a few weeks of Delta receding before we began to hear the word “omicron,” and by the week of Christmas Eve some schools and churches were going remote once again while others deliberated about what steps could be sufficient to keep that from being necessary.
And now, several weeks into January, the Omicron variant is so prevalent that it almost seems easier to talk about how many people don’t have it than it is to talk about how many do. And while we are all hoping that the models are correct that are predicting a recession of Omicron in February, it is hard not to wonder in our darker moments, “what if rough patches are all we have left?”
I think this parable of the wedding at Cana is Jesus’ answer to that question. This story is at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; before the beginning, actually. Jesus has called and is teaching a small group of disciples, but that’s about it, when he goes to a wedding in the Nazareth community because that’s what a good neighbor does and because those are crucial moments of community celebration and relationship. And while he is there, in the midst of the celebrations, the wine for the guest runs out.
Now, in our world, that would be something that would cause a great deal of concern and embarrassment to the family hosting the wedding, that the party has to end because they didn’t make adequate preparations. But it would be hard to overstate how devastating such a thing would be in the society of first-century Judea. Hospitality was not something that was just nice to offer; it was practically a sacred act.
To fail to provide sufficient hospitality to one’s guests at something as important to the community as a wedding would not simply be a rough patch to get through. Calling it such would dramatically minimize it; it would in fact be such a source of such shame that it would cause massive and lasting damage to the family’s reputation and social status, in a way that is so severe that it’s almost impossible for us to comprehend in our hyper-individualistic culture.
So, as this story opens, John doesn’t bother to narrate the level of shame and panic that would have been surging through the host family and their staff, but there’s no question it is there. Mary, seeing it, turns to Jesus. “They have no wine,” she tells Jesus. He looks at her: “What’s that got to do with us?” he replies. Despite how it sounds, he’s not being rude; he’s just indicating that this is not something for which he feels any responsibility.
But Mary has other ideas. She turns to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you,” and then turns back expectantly to her son. “Do whatever he tells you.” The way she says it is important. “Do whatever he tells you” means that she really has no idea what he can or will do, but she is convinced that he can and will do something, and that it will be more than enough to meet the need.
“Do whatever he tells you.” That’s actually a powerful statement of faith. It is based on a conviction that when our own power falls short and our own plans fall apart, Jesus is capable of doing something that we can’t know or imagine, but which will be more than enough to meet the need. But “do whatever he tells you” is harder than it sounds; Jesus tells people to do some pretty strange things.
Like here, for example. He tells the servants to fill up the water jars provided for people to wash up. They look the large jars over. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to get 120-180 gallons of water poured into them. But whether out of faith or desperation or just a desire not to go back to the chief steward empty-handed yet, they shrug and start doing what he tells them to do. When they’ve finally poured the last of the water in, they turn to Jesus. “Now draw some out and take it to the chief steward,” he says. They look at each other again, shrug again, and again do what he tells them to do.
We don’t even know when the miracle itself takes place. All we know is that by the time they give it to the chief steward, the water has become wine. And not just any wine: the best wine of the whole event. But he’s still not happy; his eyes widen in surprise, then anger. He can’t believe he’s working for a fool like this bridegroom, and calls him over, seething. “Everybody serves the good wine first, but then once the guests are drunk, you can save it and bring the cheap stuff out, because they won’t even notice. Don’t you know anything?”
The question, of course, is really directed to Jesus. And it’s the right question because Jesus doesn’t do miracles haphazardly or only to address the problem that they answer, whether that’s an illness, a demonic possession, or social shame and ostracism, as in this case. John specifically notes that this is “the first of his signs,” and by definition, a sign is a message that communicates something important.
In terms of Jesus’ signs, they are always a sign of what God is up to, of who Jesus is, and of what he has come to do on God’s behalf and the first one is particularly so because it announces the theme of his ministry in a very real sense. And that theme is that God’s abundant grace is always bigger and richer and better than the extent of the world’s scarcity. Now, we might be a little surprised about that. Most of the world’s great religions and moral philosophies and even Hollywood entertainment is some version of the basic theme that good always triumphs over evil; almost none of them focus on abundance triumphing over scarcity.
And yet most evil ideas and deeds and powers arise as an answer to perceived scarcity. The Nazis gained power, conquered Europe, and conducted the Holocaust all as a response to scarcity: that the German people had been denied their rightful place and power and lands, and that the Jewish people were most to blame for that. The Rwandan genocide was so sudden and so brutal because the Hutu leadership convinced their people over years of radio propaganda that the Tutsis were “cockroaches” that had infested their country and seized the power and influence and privilege that rightfully belonged to the Hutus, and they needed to be exterminated.
And white supremacy, in all its forms, is an evil ideology based on a conviction of scarcity: that there is only so much power and influence to go around, and white people need to either remain supreme or regain their supremacy against the people of color who are seeking to take it away from them.
And so on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Weekend, it is fitting that we remember that Dr. King worked for the vision of a just abundance that Christ articulates in this miracle: a future in which Black people and everyone else can be treated equitably without forcing white people into scarcity, whether that meant equal and equitable access to public transportation, or the vote, or the economy, or life and liberty and self-determination.
He did so not simply as a public organizer but as a Christian pastor and preacher and theologian who both tried to do whatever Christ told him to do AND who asked himself at times during the campaigns in Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma, “what if all we have left are rough patches?” King even said, after the Montgomery bus boycott and the dozens of death threats that he received on a daily basis that he broke down one night in his kitchen, wondering if now he could take a step back in public leadership without appearing to be a coward, but because he courage was faltering.
And in what he called the most important event of his ministry, when he prayed to God in his loneliness and anguish he felt the presence of God wash over him and heard a small inner voice tell him, “stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” “Almost at once,” he said, “my fears began to go; my uncertainty disappeared, and I was ready to face anything.” Three days later, that very kitchen shook with the force of a bomb intended to kill him, but the abundance of God’s grace kept him steady and strong even in the face of that, to do what he was called to do in God’s name.
Dr. King was driven by the conviction that when we do whatever Christ tells us to do, we follow the Jesus who could and would turn water into wine even when it wasn’t this time to start doing such things so there would be an abundance of welcome and acceptance; who could and would heal someone on the Sabbath because there was an abundance of grace to ensure that someone wouldn’t spend a single day longer in illness when healing was available; who could and would die on a cross and be raised again because there is an abundance of life in and through Jesus Christ that washes away the powers of death like the branches of a dead tree carried away by a mighty river.
And that ever-flowing and mighty grace is capable of irrigating the driest desert, of breaking through every dam built against it, of smoothing every rough patch that seeks to obstruct the way of the Lord in coming to us and claiming us and saving us for abundant and eternal life. That is the promise that Christ ladels out to us in the richest of refreshment to allow us to drink our fill, quench our deepest thirsts, and ensure that there is far more than enough to welcome everyone to the feast.