A couple of weeks ago, I got together with D H, N H’s son, and his wife B to prepare for N’s burial and to talk about her life. Now I already knew that N had a big heart and that it was her nature to take people under her wings. But then D shared a story with me that made me cherish her even more.
It was in the year 1968. D was 16 and a student at the high school here in San Francisco. On April 4th that year, Martin Luther King Jr., the most prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated. Of course many were shocked and grieved his death – but then there were also those who felt anger and rage. In many places, San Francisco among them, there were violent protests. Now King himself abhorred violence and most likely would have condemned those who perpetrate it.
The young D H experienced the tensions and violence of those days firsthand. One day, he came home, confused and agitated, and asked N, ‘Mom, why do these people want to hurt me? I haven’t done anything to them?’
And in the ensuing conversation, N taught D a life lesson that has stuck with him to this day. She said, ‘D, don’t judge a whole group of people by what a couple of them do.’ Don’t judge a whole group of people by what a couple of them do.
Don’t let yourself be drawn into the violence. Make an effort to get to know each and every person you meet. Don’t judge prematurely. And it seems like Norma very much lived according to this philosophy.
And as D was telling this story, I was reminded of the words and teachings by Martin Luther King Jr. himself. In his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, he says that he is longing for the day when people will not be judged according to the color of their skin, but according to their character.
King also refused to counter hate with hate.
Now King’s words ring with passion, and often with a righteous anger. He sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets in that regard. But he never said anything hateful, at least as far as I know. King was a pastor in the Baptist tradition, he strongly believed in Jesus Christ, in Christian love and hope, and in non-violence. King understood quite well that changes that are motivated by hate and fear and forced through violence are prone to fail. Only love can overcome evil, he said, quoting the Apostle Paul. Only love and forgiveness can truly turn all of us into brothers and sisters; this just cannot be coerced or forced. On the same token, he said, quoting Gandhi: an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
However, King didn’t propagate resignation or inactivity. In his book ‘Stride toward freedom’, he writes: ‘Non-violent resistance is not for cowards. It is not a quiet, passive acceptance of evil. One is passive and non-violent physically, but very active spiritually, always seeking ways to persuade the opponent of advantages to the way of love, cooperation, and peace.’
King is right: that’s not for cowards, this is exhausting, it takes courage. Because even nonviolent resistance is seen as a threat by some – maybe even more so than counter-violence. King’s assassination is proof of that.
Now much has changed since the 60s, but many of Luther King’s words still ring true today. We still deal with racism today. We still have a long way to go before true justice and equality for all is achieved. As a nation, we are divided and polarized, and violence against minorities in on the rise. There is the mongering of fear of ‘the other’. It would be good and wise to heed King’s words still today, it would be good and wise to continue to dream his dream.
As MLK would point out, even today: true transformation can only happen through non-violent protest, through fearless love and compassion. And: transformation rarely comes without some sort of sacrifice. It still isn’t easy.
Believe it or not, but today’s gospel story is all about that. Today’s gospel story is the story of the wedding at Cana and water turned into wine. We only find it in the gospel according to John, who is not known for telling parables or whimsical stories, but whose writing is heavy with signs and symbolism. And, according to John, the miracle of water turned into wine is the very first miracle Jesus performs. Not a healing, not a miraculous multiplication of bread and fish. It also sounds like an accidental miracle – he is just present as a wedding guest at a wedding party, and he just wants to have fun. It is his mother, Mary, who pushes him to reveal who he truly is. Jesus, they are running out of wine, she says, and of course, what she means is, do something! And Jesus replies: my hour has not yet come.
What cryptic words! And yet, they make sense if we look into the symbolism – it wouldn’t be a story told by John if we didn’t have some of that – of the nature of the miracle of water turned into wine.
But let’s backtrack a little. Just last Sunday, we talked a lot about water. We talked about baptism, which symbolizes purification, cleansing, refreshment and new life. The water Jesus turns into wine in today’s gospel story is water used for Jewish rites of purification, which means the ritual washing up before and after meals, or even for foot washing, which was offered to every guest entering the house. Jesus doesn’t turn just any old water into wine, but he turns this water, meant to purify, into wine. Now we could just read the story on the surface and say, great, Jesus saved the party. But – what comes to mind when you hear the word wine? In our Christian context, we understand the wine we take during communion to be the blood of Christ, shed for us.
The wine symbolizes the blood of Jesus, poured out and given for all, purifying us from sin and evil – for example, the evil of ignorance, complacency, and inaction. When Jesus says that his hour hasn’t come yet, he alludes to his ultimate sacrifice – his death on the cross for the sake of the world. But his turning water into wine is a sign that points at the things to come. The hour of Jesus’ death hasn’t come yet, but his death is inevitable and foreshadowed, right at the beginning of his ministry. We know how the story is going to end. Jesus hints at it from the very beginning.
Transformation rarely comes without some sort of sacrifice.
God made the ultimate sacrifice by dying for us and for all. But this death truly turned reality, a reality full of violence and suffering and death, on its head. God has overcome death. God has overcome our death. We need not fear. We need not be afraid. And so our actions need not be driven by fear, but they ought to be driven by love. This is how Jesus Christ transforms us. Our new lives, given to us in baptism and affirmed by the cleansing blood of Christ we receive whenever we come together in communion, are not just a metaphorical thing, not just a symbol – no, this new life we are given is lived in the promises and the light of God.
God has a dream, and we can read about it in various passages of the Bible. It is a dream of God and creation reconciled. A dream of a New Jerusalem, where no one needs to fear, but the gates of the city are always open, to anyone. A dream of a world where the lion and the lamb, and human beings of different color, different opinion, different identity, and different creed will live peaceably next to one another. A dream of a world truly transformed. And we are part of this dream.
Many others, like Martin Luther King Jr. and N H, have picked up that dream, and dreamed it as well; but then there are those have not only dreamed it, but they also have worked hard to push it a little bit closer to become a reality. The world can be transformed. We sometimes see these little miracles of lives turned around, people reconciled, horrible crimes forgiven, love conquering all. Thus transformation happens. My hope is that we here today will not stop dreaming God’s dream, but live our new life in Christ as those who dream – and act in order to make this dream come true, one kind deed, one forgiveness, one fearless and courageous action for true justice at a time.
Picture by Brian Kraus on unsplash.com
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