When the Wine Runs Out

Sermon on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday

by Nancy Hastings Sehested
Text: John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana

It was Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and I was preaching at the prison. There was a shortage of officers that day, so I was on my own with 70 inmates for the worship service.

All was going well. The choir singing. The prisoners praying. The chaplain preaching. The gang members whispering.

It was a predictable sermon, with my words reminding the men that Martin Luther King’s dream for peace and justice came straight out of Jesus’ dream.

I started reading a passage from King’s book The Strength to Love. It was the poignant story of the time when King felt like the wine had run out on his strength and courage. He’d received a late night threatening phone call. He was overcome with a sense of powerlessness. He prayed to God at his kitchen table and received the sense of a divine presence like he’d never known before. So I read his words:

"After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the phone rang. An angry voice said, ‘Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’"

Just as soon as the “n” word came out of my mouth, I knew I’d made a terrible mistake. The gang members on the back row jumped up, yelled “You can’t get away with this, Chaplain.”  Six of them stormed out the door. They hadn’t heard one word I’d said, except that one word. Then three officers came in the door.

I ended my sermon quickly. The choir to lead us in singing a closing song, “Precious Lord.” I offered a benediction and the service ended.

First thing Tuesday morning, after the Monday holiday, I was in the administrator’s office answering questions.

“Yes,” I said, “I did use the “n” word. Yes, it did happen in the worship service. Yes, I did know it was against policy to use derogatory language. Yes, I did understand there were racial tensions in the prison.”

It was a kitchen table despair time, a time when I had failed, when I felt that the wine had run out on my strength and ability.

What do you do when the wine runs out on your vitality? What do we do when the systems we swirl in have more power to change us than we have to change them? What do you do when weariness sets into body and soul?

The prison was a large canvas for seeing the way humans can be, the good and the bad, the conniving and the creative, the powerful and the submissive, the kind and the cruel. Every day the tables could spin around. The kind could become the cruel. The cruel could become the kind. I was never clever enough to predict human behavior, even my own.

A day could start off with a renewed sense of commitment, a concerted effort to see and encourage the good and by the first coffee break I was sinking down. A new policy would arrive similar to the old policies that made for additional punitive rules.

Or there was the inmate who arrived in my office smiling and asking for a phone call to his girlfriend whose great aunt was sick. When I said it didn’t constitute an emergency phone call, his face contorted and he yelled: “You don’t care about us. Stop acting like you care. You’re nothing but a damn babysitter.”

Those were times when the wine ran out, and I was overwhelmed with my smallness. A sad place got sadder.

There were days that I was not prepared for the little crucifixions…hurtful or humiliating words that were hurled my way. Or my exasperating inability to protect and control my reputation. And there were the little deaths to my ego needs of feeling like I was making a difference that could be seen.

The little traumas added up, leaving me drained and wondering, can I go on? And if I go on, who am I becoming?

Who are we when we feel our resources are depleted? How do we restore vitality?

There are many things we know for restoration of body and soul. How to stop, look and listen. Breathe. Walk. Pray. Call a friend. Listen to music. I offer one of my practices in the prison.

I looked for a map, wanting to orient myself again to where I was. I saw many lines. W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote in 1903: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (The Souls of Black Folk). And we know that it is still a horrifying problem of the twenty-first century, along with the gender line, the sexual orientation line, the immigration line, the religious line, the economic line, the class line. The lines are drawn along the ancient human problem of entitlement, with one group feeling entitled to have power and control over another group. The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the past centuries, the problem of the power line.

I’ve found myself on both sides of that line, at once powerful and then powerless. But in prison, it was clear that I was on the side of the line of privilege and power.  

How could I understand these power lines, and what they do to us? And what is the power available to us that is life-giving and hope-bearing?

I kept three books within reach near my desk. The Bible offered me psalms of lament to pray, the imprecatory psalms when the wicked prosper, as well as the story of Jesus to ponder. 

I also kept my worn and tattered copy of Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, who faced her violent world of the concentration camp with a beating heart of love.

The third book was one that Martin Luther King Jr. carried with him throughout his life, Jesus and the Disinherited. In this thin volume famed theologian Howard Thurman takes up the question of what Jesus’ teachings have to say to “those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.” (As you can see, my copy is tattered and stained and so well worn that it's coming apart.) The book examines power lines, and what happens to the people who are experiencing the relentless pain and humiliation of being disinherited.

Thurman was my teacher. He wrote that there are three “hounds of hell that track the trail” of the disinherited people: fear, deception and hatred. I needed to be reminded that people who are pushed to the limits find ways to not feel so limited.

Thurman described fear as a climate that closes in like a fog. “It is nowhere in particular and it is everywhere.” Living in fear has always meant living with the real possibility of cruelty or violence at the hands of the powerful at any moment.

He named deception as the oldest technique by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong. “The weak have survived by fooling the strong.”

The third hound of hell is hatred, born out of great bitterness, bottled and distilled. Hatred is understandable. It can be an effective fuel for the work of justice. But, writes Thurman, “it can dry up the springs of creative thought.” Furthermore, “it ultimately it destroys the core of the life of the hater.”

Jesus rejected all three responses, wrote Thurman. “Jesus message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life, and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. . . . To revile because one has been reviled, this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.”

He placed Jesus ethic of love at the center of transformative living. King vividly and courageously embodied Jesus’ witness of love in powerful and courageous ways in the face of horrors and heartbreak.

In the story at the wedding at Cana, back in the kitchen where the wine had run out, where the problems seemed insurmountable, where the emptiness was evident, the Spirit in Jesus was doing improvisation. Jesus improvised with the materials at hand, ordinary water held by ordinary people. He took what was available, what was right there with them. Through the ordinary an extraordinary transformation happened. The wine of courage, strength and hope was poured out. And it was the servants that participated in it, that helped make it happen. It was a communal effort. The servants were the first to see the miracle happen. They were the first to proclaim the power in the water turned to wine.

It confirmed for me that I want to hang out in the kitchen with those who can see and taste the miracles first.

Life is poured out, plenty of life in love, plenty to keep our hearts beating with compassion, with more than enough to go around.

So drink.  Drink deeply of this love. And let’s pass around the joy!

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Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC, January 17, 2016

Sehested is co-pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation, interim chaplain at the Swannanoa Correctional Institution for Women, and was for 13 years prior a chaplain in medium and maximum security men's prisons.

©Nancy Hastings Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org