When I was in the eighth grade this old fellow at my church named Harvey Mook taught me how to make homemade wine. He grew muscodine grapes along his back fence and used them to make wine, and he said he’d show me how. The next week he gave me a little booklet about how to make wine and a note about where to find yeast and a stopper that would fit on a milk jug. And after a trip to the grocery store, I was off and running. Peeling the grapes was the hardest part, but after that everything came together easily, and I left the jug in the workshop to age a few months, like any good vintage.
A while later I saw Harvey at church and he asked me how my wine looked. And I told him everything was great except for one weird thing. I used red grapes, but somehow I’d made white wine. And Harvey said, “Well what did you do?” And I started telling him about peeling the grapes and mashing them with the sugar and the yeast and putting in the stopper. And he stopped me. “Who told you to peel the grapes?” Well that was my mistake. And there was no way to unring that bell.
A few weeks later my parents were gone and I was home alone and I thought I’d give it a try. I didn’t like it. I didn’t know what wine should taste like, but I didn’t think it should taste like that. But I put the stopper back on and put it back in the workshop and figured maybe with a few more months it would be better.
Not too long after that Harvey comes up to me one Sunday with a big grin on his face. “Have you tried your wine yet? You should try your wine.” I told him I had and that it wasn’t any good at all.
“When did you try it? Did you try it this week? Maybe you ought to try it again, maybe it’s better now. In fact I’m sure of it.”
His confidence made me a little curious. So after church I went into the workshop and took a look at that milk jug of wine. And wouldn’t you know it but that white wine had turned to red? I didn’t try it. My previous milk jug moonshine experiment had made me a little gun shy, so I didn’t try it or any wine again for quite some time. But eventually I found out Harvey had gone and “fixed” my wine by replacing it with some he’d made. He’d taken away my messy failed experiment and replaced it with something good.
Quite simply, this is what God does with our lives. He takes the broken pieces of our lives and he changes them into something good. The dregs, the mistakes, the failed experiments, the messy homebrewing disasters that we try to make on our own. In Jesus, we become fine wine. When we use words like redeemed, made righteous, and saved this is what we’re talking about. God takes our failures and turns them into something good. It’s like when you wake up in the morning and snow has fallen in the night, and all the mess of your street is covered, and everything looks smooth and clean and peaceful. God covers our failures with God’s righteousness. It’s not our ability to be perfect; it’s God’s ability to love perfectly that we depend on.
This miracle story is a little bit about that. Running out of wine at a wedding was a mistake, and it might have been a costly one. A wedding was a big social event that could last for days, and an important way to build up your family’s standing. So an embarrassing incident for the family was one that had more than just social costs. But Jesus took that mistake and turned it into something good. A coming out party for his ministry, through which not just water but the whole world would be transformed.
Tomorrow is the day the nation celebrates the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is one of the greatest prophets the nation and maybe the world has ever seen. Every year I try to read something from Dr. King and take some time to listen and learn from it. This year I ran into a couple of recently rediscovered recordings that Dr. King gave to Presbyterians in North Carolina, at Charlotte and Montreat, one of which is quoted in your bulletin. You’ll find a link on facebook if you’re interested in hearing them. And I was struck once again by Dr. King’s disappointment in people like me. “I am not only worried about the violence of the bad people. I am gravely disturbed about the silence and indifference of the good people” he said to Presbyterians in Charlotte. In his speech to Montreat, he talks about the pastor who is afraid of losing a good job or good friends or getting hurt and so keeps silent on issues of justice as being “as dead at 36 as he will be at 80.” In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (which I would put right next to Paul’s letters in terms of spiritual power and significance), he declares that the white moderate who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice is the greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom.
This is the story of race in America, and race is a defining part of the story of everything in America. It is a story of declaring victory before the battle is over, because we’d rather not admit that we aren’t interested in fighting or committed to winning. The great sin of our society is that so many of us are comfortable with how unjust, unequal, and down right harmful it is to so many, and Dr. King’s words call us to acknowledge our own failures and recommit ourselves to be transformed in faith.
And the good news for me, is that Jesus can fix me. The good news is that I can be transformed. The good news is that Jesus can take my mistakes and turn them into fine wine. The good news is that Jesus can take me, and you, and anyone else in all creation, and transform us into people who are redeemed, justified, sanctified.. The better news is that there is a sure-fire, proven recipe to receive it. It’s hard, but it’s simple. It isn’t the cheap grace of pretending everything is alright when it isn’t. In fact it might cost you your whole life. But there is a sure-fire, guaranteed way to get made right. And Jesus’ mother knows what it is. She only says two things in the story. She gives a perfect synopsis of the problem. “They have no wine” And a perfect synopsis of the solution. “Do whatever he tells you.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”