Sermon: The God of Wine and Presidential Inaugurations
(Sermon delivered on January 20, 2013 at the First Congregational Church of Wilmette, UCC. The sermon text was John 2:1-12.)
Throughout human history, we have done a very peculiar thing. We humans have had a tendency to associate God or the gods with … wine.
That’s interesting, you may be thinking, but why should anyone care? I’m going to try to answer that question by telling you two stories. These stories were told in Israel around the time of Jesus. The first story is about the Greco-Roman god of wine, Dionysus, and the second story is about Jesus at a wedding in Cana. But before we get to the Dionysus story, I need to give you a little background so that we know why he matters. When the Greeks conquered Israel in 332 BC they built a temple to Dionysus in an important Israelite city called Beit Shan. As if being conquered and forced to have a pagan shrine wasn’t enough, the Greeks then renamed Beit Shan to Nissa-Scythopolis, in honor of Dionysus’s nursemaid Nysa. And when the Romans conquered Israel in the first century BC, they continued to use the shrine of Dionysus and turned Nissa-Scythopolis into a major Roman administrative center.
Here’s another bit of interesting information. Nissa-Scythopolis was geographically close to a smaller village in Israel named Cana, which, of course, is where our Gospel story today takes place. So, in Israel during the first century you likely would have heard stories about Dionysus, the god of wine. You also would have heard a story about the God of Israel working through Jesus to turn water into wine. But both of these stories are not simply about wine. They point beyond wine and provide us with two fundamentally distinct worldviews about the nature of the divine and the nature of human social reality. And these stories invite us to pick which worldview we will live by.
So, Dionysus was the Greco Roman god of wine and he was also the god of madness and chaos. Wine is a good thing, but too much of it can lead to chaos and madness. One story of Dionysus says that he loved to be worshipped. (The gods could be a bit narcissistic.) He traveled to Asia to establish himself as a god there and when he returned to his home city he demanded that everyone worship him. And they all did, except for his cousin, Pentheus, who also happened to be the king. Pentheus refused to acknowledge the divinity of Dionysus, and even called into question Dionysus’s divinity by spreading rumors that neither of his parents were gods. The more Pentheus refused to acknowledge Dionysus’ divinity, the more Dionysus wanted him to and he became violently enraged. He felt his cousin was insulting and shaming him, so Dionysus felt he needed to defend his honor by seeking revenge. Pentheus knew Dionysus was a threat, so he imprisoned Dionysus. But Dionysus quickly escaped the guards and then lured Pentheus up a hill on the outskirts of town where many of Dionysus’ followers were worshipping him in an ecstatic frenzy. Then Dionysus drove his followers from ecstatic frenzy to violent madness. They became a dangerous mob, and upon seeing Pentheus, they banded together and killed him.
This story, of course, is about far more than a god of wine. It’s about human social dynamics. It’s about the way the world works. It says, if someone shames you, you should defend your honor by shaming them back. That’s the way the gods work, and that’s the way the world works. We see this dynamic quite naturally in our personal lives. Dionysus and Pentheus were cousins, which is an important detail of the story because we often see this honor and shame dynamic in family systems. Siblings can get caught up in a cycle of insults and shame. Married couples – so I’ve heard – can fall into similar cycles of shaming and blaming one another. Frequently all of that shame gets redirected upon one family member, who gets labeled a term such as the “problem child.” This honor and shame dynamic exists in our politics as well. If we go back to the Dionysus myth, that myth, along with many other ancient myths, justified Greco-Roman violence against anyone who refused to honor their political regime. And every 1st century Jew knew this was how Rome worked. Many Jews felt shamed by the Roman occupation of their homeland, and many felt they should defend their honor by shaming the Romans back. Rome, of course, felt it needed to defend its honor, and a cycle of shame and violence ensued. Rome had the upper hand in this cycle, and the empire lined many Jerusalem streets with naked Jews dying from the painful and shameful death of Roman crucifixion. One modern scholar put it like this, the Romans “considered death by crucifixion to be not just any execution, but the most obscene, the most disgraceful, the most horrific execution known to man.” And the Romans used it frequently in Jerusalem. At one period during the 1st century, the Romans crucified 500 Jews a day in an attempt to shame them into submission.
Of course, the ancient Roman Empire is similar to nearly every empire, kingdom or nation that feels threatened. From family systems to political systems, the usual method that we humans employ when faced with shame and violent threats is to follow in the steps of the god Dionysus. We tend to defend our honor by perpetuating a vicious and maddening cycle of shame and violence.
But our second story this morning tells us that there are alternatives to the cycles of shame by telling us what the God of Israel does with wine. Jesus, his mother Mary, and his disciples went to a wedding at Cana. In this culture, everyone from Cana would have been invited and family members from neighboring towns would have been invited. So, there’s a good chance that Jesus was related to the bride or groom, he was probably a cousin. Weddings were a time of great celebration and joy and there was intense pressure that weddings conform to a certain standard. New Testament scholar Gerard Sloyin sums up that pressure like this, “a couple’s parents would have scrimped and saved long to do it right. Family and friends passed harsh judgments on those who could not carry a wedding off in style. Sheep and calves and every delicacy would have been served in profusion and the wine would have flowed freely.” If something went wrong at a wedding, the marriage could be marked by social shame that lasted the rest of their lives and the bride and groom would “have regarded it as bad luck on their married life.”
And, as we know, something went wrong at this wedding. In the middle of the party, the wine ran out. Mary, who only makes two appearances in John’s Gospel, here at Cana and at the foot of her son’s cross, tells Jesus that he needed to act. She had faith that her son could stop this event of social shaming. At first, Jesus refused to help, saying that it wasn’t his time. But his mother pushed back at her son, because apparently, even Jesus needed a push from his mother. Jesus then performed his first miracle. He told the servants to fill six giant jars with water. Each jar contained about 25 gallons of water. The God of Israel worked through Jesus to transform 150 gallons of water into really good wine. The party went on, with a superabundance of wine.
Now, if you read the Gospel of John, you will notice that the author never actually used the word “miracle” to describe these events. When Jesus turned water into wine, when he healed people, when he fed the 5,000, walked on water, and raised his friend Lazarus, John didn’t use the word miracle. He used the word “sign.” Signs point beyond themselves to a great truth. In our case, the real point of the sign is not transforming water into wine. It’s to transform our understanding of God and to transform the way we relate to our fellow human beings.
Unlike Dionysus who perpetuated a cycle of shame to the point of orchestrating the violent death of his cousin, Jesus stopped his relative from experiencing shame. According to the story, this is how Jesus first revealed his glory. He revealed the God of superabundant love; the God who stops our human propensity to shame one another. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus stopped similar moments of shame. In the face of a violent mob of men with stones, he risked his life by standing with a woman accused of adultery. When another mob shamed a man who was born blind by accusing him of sinning, Jesus told the mob to be quiet and then he healed the man. Throughout all the Gospels, Jesus stands with those on the margins of culture, the weak, the vulnerable, those accused of being immoral, and those shamed by the larger culture.
The theologian Peter Wick argues that sign at Cana “was intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus.” If that’s true, it’s because Jesus not only stops the cycles of shame, but he replaces social dynamics of shame with social dynamics of abundant love, forgiveness, and the hope for reconciliation. The story of Jesus at Cana is superior only in that it reveals God has nothing to do with shame and violence, but, as John would write in one of his letters, God is love.
I mentioned that Jesus’ mother, Mary, only appears in two scenes in John’s Gospel. She’s here, at the wedding in beginning of Jesus ministry, and she’s there, at the end, when Jesus hangs on the cross. Next Monday we will begin our adult education series of James Alison’s DVD The Forgiving Victim. James says that there, on the cross, Jesus took upon himself the shame and violence of the world and he refused to retaliate. Like at Cana, Jesus stopped that cycle. He didn’t pray for revenge against his enemies, instead he prayed for forgiveness. And in the resurrection, Jesus didn’t incite his followers to shame their enemies in a violent rebellion; rather, he invited them to participate in the divine life that seeks to embrace all people in God’s peace and love.
Tomorrow we will witness the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, and we will celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (It is January 21st, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.) Obama plans to take the oath using King’s Bible and Abraham Lincolns’ Bible. Both men stand as amazing, almost superhuman, figures in our culture. But both men made a conscious decision that any one of us can make. Both men decided to challenge the social dynamics of shame. Near the end of the Civil War, Lincoln delivered his own second inaugural address. He ended his speech hoping for reconciliation and the end of cycles of shame when he said we would move into the future “With malice toward none and charity for all.” King lived into that spirit. He refused to shame even those who shamed him. King called his ultimate vision “The Beloved Community.” It was not an idealistic utopia, but rather a consciously disciplined approach “that was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy of nonviolence.” King knew that conflicts were inevitable, but if we avoided shaming one another we could resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner. Ultimately, like Jesus, King and Lincoln were both murdered while witnessing to the spirit of love, justice, and reconciliation. But both also knew that if the cycle of shame and violence that infects our relationships from our family lives to our political lives was going to stop, we need courageous people to consciously say no to shame so that we can say yes to love.
I’ll end with a famous quote from King’s 1967 Christmas sermon. Just a few months before King was assassinated he stated “Returning hate for hate only multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
May we make the conscious decision to stop the cycles of shame, darkness, and hate. And may we live into the alternative of God’s superabundant love. Amen.
 Gerard Sloyan, John, Interpretation Series, 36.
 Sloyan, John, Interpretation, 36.
 For more on Dionysus and Pentheus, see Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, 126 ff.
 See John J. Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C, 22-24.
 Sloyin, John, 36.
 Tom Wright, John for Everyone: Part One, 22.
 See the section “Parrallels with Christianity” in the Dionysus section of Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysus
 See http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy
 See http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr#Strength_to_Love_.281963.29