Emptiness into Abundance

Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

When I was in high school I went on a two-day retreat called “Teens Encounter Christ,” or TEC. I was just beginning to take a more serious interest in my faith, and I had heard good things about the retreat from older youth in my church who had gone in years past. When I look back and think about the significant milestones on my journey of faith, TEC is one of the earliest and most important. The TEC retreat is patterned on Holy Week, leading youth through the despair of Good Friday into the victory of resurrection on Easter Morning. Throughout the weekend, other youth who have attended the retreat previously return to give talks on subjects like “Who Am I in Relation to God?” and “The Need for Community.” The talks are personal testimonies about the struggles and triumphs youth have faced and how God has worked in and through their lives. Those were all very meaningful. But what I remember most is how, in just 48 hours, I grew so close to the other youth attending the retreat, none of whom I knew at all before that weekend. That was a time in my life when, back home, I was feeling rejected by the group of friends I had been with through middle school, and I was struggling to figure out where I fit in. But at TEC, I found a place immediately. I felt embraced and accepted for exactly who I was, and there was none of the drama that seemed so inescapable back at school. Somehow, in a very short period of time, a community was created that allowed for honesty and vulnerability and a real sense of unconditional love and acceptance.

Throughout the weekend, at the church where the TEC retreat was held, we sang these silly little songs, and of course all of them had silly little actions that went along with the words. Everyone’s favorite was this song, “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep.” At the very end of the retreat, the leaders had us sing the song at the top of our lungs as we made our way toward the sanctuary for closing worship. But there was a twist. They handed around a roll of toilet paper and we all made little sheep tails that we stuck in the waistband of our pants, and the leaders said, wouldn’t it be funny if we all walked backward shaking our little sheep tails as we sang this song on our way into the church. It was absurd. And I’ll never forget that we were singing this song as loud as we could, walking backward and shaking our sheep tails as we entered the sanctuary, and all of a sudden we turned around, and we saw that the church was already full; our parents were all there and they were singing “Jesus Christ Is Ris’n Today.” We had no idea this was coming; we were completely surprised. And we were completely overcome with emotion, all at once feeling sad that the weekend was over, but excited to see our families, regretting that we had to leave this community behind but grateful for new friends and our shared experience of love and acceptance. I just remember it felt like, at a time in my life when I felt empty and alone back home, here at the end of this retreat my heart was so full, almost bursting. And I remember thinking, this must be what it feels like when the Holy Spirit is at work. This feeling of being overwhelmed by goodness, filled to the point of overflowing, must be how we know God is at work.

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I’ve always thought it’s a little strange that the very first miracle Jesus performs in the Gospel of John is turning water into wine so the party can go on in Cana. Maybe the takeaway from this story is that Jesus wants our lives to be filled to the point of overflowing with goodness and enjoyment. As Christians we often get so focused on believing exactly the right things or behaving exactly the right way, and lose sight of the fact that what God wants most for us is “abundant life,” to use a phrase that will appear a little later in the Gospel of John. Just before this story about the wedding at Cana, in John 1, we read, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Maybe water turned to wine in this story is a concrete example of “grace upon grace” received at a time when it looked like there was nothing left. This first of Jesus’ “signs” in the Gospel of John is about transforming emptiness into abundance so the people can experience joy and celebration.

As I read this story again this week, I noticed a detail I hadn’t paid attention to before. When Jesus learns the wine has run out, he spots these six jars that each hold 20 or 30 gallons of water. The author tells us that these jars are used for religious ritual purposes, but are currently sitting there empty, not doing anyone any good. That’s the part I hadn’t noticed before—that these jars were an essential part of the established order, essential to the maintenance of the religious and cultural status quo, but now in this moment, the jars are empty and useless. The jars are just taking up space—until Jesus fills them up with water that somehow turns into wine. It got me wondering if maybe those empty jars symbolize all those aspects of the status quo that aren’t serving us well anymore, those parts of the established order that are supposed to enhance our lives and help us find meaning and purpose, but that really just feel empty and useless; and it drove home for me that the work of God is taking what’s empty and useless and transforming it into abundance, overwhelming us with goodness.

Yesterday around 1,500 people from all around the state, including a few dozen from Gloria Dei, gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center for a full day of training to prepare ourselves for faithful advocacy with our elected leaders this legislative session. The event was organized by ISAIAH, a statewide, multiracial movement of faithful people committed this year to creating a caring economy that allows everyone to thrive and building a democracy that honors every person’s dignity. The crowd that gathered there reflected the emerging face of Minnesota. There were Latino Catholic leaders from Northfield and Saint Paul, Muslim immigrants from Willmar and Saint Cloud, black church pastors, women running day care centers, and folks organizing African Americans through barbershops. Of course, there were white people from churches that look more like ours, but we were no longer the dominant voice. We heard story after story from people who said that the status quo isn’t working for them and described how they have felt afraid or alone or powerless to change their situation—how they felt empty, like there was nothing here for them. And then they described how they have been empowered to claim their voices and get to work organizing to create change in their communities. They described how they were filled with courage and determination, usually in ways that were as surprising and bewildering to them as the sight of huge jars of water turned into wine. I’m convinced that this is the work of God—transforming emptiness into abundance, surprising us with unexpected goodness.

Actually, God’s surprising goodness doesn’t usually come totally out of the blue. Often there’s an instigator—someone like Jesus’ mother who recognizes the problem and says to us, “You know, it doesn’t need to be this way. I think you could do something about this.” Many of the speakers yesterday who experienced their emptiness transformed into abundance described someone in their life—a pastor, a mentor, or an ISAIAH organizer—who told them, “It could be better than this. I think more is possible for you.” Someone who helped them imagine a different future and created an opening for God to get to work. Some of us need one of those people—someone to find us in our situation of alienation or hopelessness and show us what might be possible. And some of us arethose people, called to turn to someone who thinks there’s nothing here for them and point them toward the empty jars just waiting to be filled with God’s goodness poured out for them and for the world.

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You may not be surprised to hear I’ve done the math. Six jars of wine. 30 gallons in each jar. That’s 180 gallons, or about 900 bottles of wine. There must have been some left over. I wonder what they did with it all. Maybe they bottled it up and sent some home with each of the guests who had been part of that wedding celebration, a party favor of sorts pointing to God’s abundance poured out for them. For today, let’s just imagine we have some of it here—that the wine we’ll drink in a few minutes here at the table is the wine that came flowing out of those jars at Cana, surprising the whole crowd with God’s miraculous ability to take what was empty and fill it to overflowing; wine that assures us that our own emptiness is not the end of the story; wine that overwhelms us with goodness.


Resources consulted:

Linda McKinnish Bridges, “John 2:1-11: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, #644 – Second Sunday after Epiphany,” Sermon Brainwave Podcastfrom WorkingPreacher.org, January 12, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?m=4383&pdc=3.


The featured image for this post, “Cana,” is copyright (c) 2013 Seetheholyland.net and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. Image has been cropped.


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