I spent some time this week considering the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine. Well, if truth be told, as I considered the miracle, I thought about how terrific it would be to turn ordinary Harrisburg tap water into something suitable for communion wine: neither too sweet nor too dry, neither so deep in tone that it stains the linens, nor so pale that it tastes bitter, and of course, less costly than the usual stuff bottled by the distributor.
It is interesting that after Jesus tells his mother that the time has not yet come, he still performs a miracle that saves the dignity of a young groom! Jesus intervenes and protects someone who clearly didn’t have the financial means to provide enough wine for a culturally required celebration. What a brilliant first sign of the identity of the Christ: Jesus offers sacred wine to ordinary people at a wedding ceremony in Cana of Galilee.
And while the wine is really fine wine, it is more than just wine, isn’t it? This story evokes Isaiah’s vision of a holy banquet provided on a holy mountain by the Lord at the culmination of history, with fine foods and wine (Isa 25.6). What would happen if we were able to drink of this sort of sacred wine? Would we be able to keep silent about the power that can also transform human life into something fine and holy? It seems to me that there is power in the name of Jesus, which does a lot more than turn water into something more complex. Jesus can transform the ordinary into something extraordinary, breaking every chain that binds us. Jesus offers us the splendid nourishment that changes our relationships.
The whole story of God in the Bible, and in particular the story of Jesus, is about the inclination of God to intervene in ordinary human life. By the power of Love, God transforms our finite human life into something sacred. Jesus as a human being is a radiant counterpoint to the human story, which so often includes moments of sin, brokenness, ugliness, and generally unfortunate behavior.
As people of faith in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, we say that all human beings are invested with dignity by our creation. In the eyes of God, no one is worthy of devaluation. Yet, how often does the human drama involve powerful people trying to take from others the sacred wine of life, seeking to replace it with tap water, because someone decides that others (“they”) do not deserve the wine? This is, of course, a metaphorical statement – I am not talking about literal alcohol consumption. I am talking about sharing the sacred wine of unity and equality.
In the olden days, I remember growing up in a home that embraced the equality of all. Remember my mother was a social worker. Politically conservative and simultaneously egalitarian. Although we were very Irish, we did not use derogatory words for people from other cultural backgrounds. From my family’s Irish perspective, America was the land of equal opportunity for all. A generation after the Morkans and Fannings emigrated from Ireland, where we were treated as less than human, my family owned property, had good jobs, and were educating their children in private schools.
Imagine my surprise when I grew up to realize that in the world some of us are more equal than others. I find that I am offended that we continue to live in a world in which some people are appraised as “less than” other people. Yet I feel comfortable using my privilege to call it out.
The very notions of racial inequality and white supremacy are morally repugnant to many White people. We decry racially-motivated incidents of bias and exclusion. We do not want to be racist. Not long ago, we were talking about a post-racist world, because we had elected a Black president. What is especially difficult for us to perceive is that racism transcends discrete or individual acts motivated by prejudice. It is manifest in the very systems and policies that define our society and culture.
Economic system. Do you know that in the USA, the average household income is demarcated along racial lines, with the average White household earning about 23,000 more than the average Black household ($58K vs 35K). Wealth inequality is currently at the greatest level in our nation’s history. The average White family has seven times the accumulated wealth of the average Black family. These disparities cannot be explained by educational achievement alone. With all other factors being equal, it is more difficult for Black people to get hired, and more difficult for Black people to buy homes, just because they are Black. Don’t believe me? Try to apply for a job using a name that “sounds” Black, like Taquan or Tomeka.
Legal system. I never had to talk with any of my children about how to respond when they are followed by department store security or pulled over by a police officer. As an adult, I was shocked to learn that many of my friends of color have to do this. According to several different studies, Black men aged 15–34 are nine to sixteen times more likely to be killed by police than other people.[https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/fryer/files/fryer_police_aer.pdf] Please note that I am NOT saying that law enforcement officers are inherently racist. I do think that they are fearful, because our culture teaches us to be fearful of Black men.
The educational system contains structural inequalities. Children who struggle to read in third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school, and are 63 times as likely to be imprisoned as college graduates. Children educated in under-resourced city schools, where the population is largely Black, are most affected by this. There is also something called the school to prison pipeline. Black children are three to five times as likely to be suspended, arrested, or expelled for the same infractions as White children. Zero-tolerance discipline policies and the decline in juvenile correctional institutions mean that arrested adolescents are often incarcerated as adults.
Can I just say as a White woman that when White people talk about being color blind, we are not telling the full truth? Because you know and I know that we can all see difference. Racism is not about seeing the color of someone’s skin. Racism is about judgment of worth and about fear.
As a nation, we have gotten drunk on the dyspeptic wine of systemic racism and our judgment is impaired. Racism is not only in the desperate actions of fanatics in white hoods, sins committed in ignorance, or in overt incidents of bias. These things are wrong, and so are some of our policies and unconscious assumptions about people of color. A sinking moral tide is compromising our spiritual health. I have come to believe that the unconscious belief in supremacy is not advantageous to White people. It is a chain that binds us to a way of living that degrades the goodness for which we were all created.
How does Epiphany, which marks the revelation of the Messiah to all peoples, invite us to explore being radiant examples of the glory of God in Christ?
Carolyn Helsel of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary suggests that the beginning to addressing systemic racism is difficult and must be relational. This necessarily involves conversation, listening, and respect. The more we can help one another understand the complexity of the problem, the closer we can get to addressing it.
Because the cathedral is one of the more diverse congregations in our diocese, we are in a good position to consider an intentional approach to dismantling the systemic racism that infects our interactions. This is not about guilt. This is about celebrating the grace of God, which has been showered over all of us, and which invites us to drink of the holy wine of our universal adoption as children of God. Watch for a Lenten program, which will invite us to explore the blessing of our diverse identities, and to build spiritual relationships across the boundaries we have allowed to separate us one from the other.
Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son, who is the Light of the world: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy D. Welin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on January 20, 2019, for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany & Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. The texts for the day, which can be found at this link, were:
- Isaiah 62:1-5
- Psalm 36:5-10
- 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
- John 2:1-11
- Nicki Lisa Cole. “Visualizing Social Stratification in the U.S..” Thought Co. March 6, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/visualizing-social-stratification-in-the-us-3026378
- Olga Khazan. “In One Year, 57,375 Years of Life Were Lost to Police Violence.” The Atlantic. May 8, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/05/the-57375-years-of-life-lost-to-police-violence/559835/
- “Police kill about 3 men per day in the US, according to new study.” August 6, 2018. http://theconversation.com/police-kill-about-3-men-per-day-in-the-us-according-to-new-study-100567
- Carolyn Helsel. “Ten myths white people believe about racism.” The Christian Century. December 27, 2018.