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Bare necessity

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, 24 January 2021

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Bare necessity

Posted By : Robert Titley Tuesday 26th January 2021

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, 24 January 2021

Reading John 2: 1–11

If Jesus were to do a miracle here and now, which one would you suggest? What would meet our needs just now? Healing the sick, as in chapters 4 and 5 of John’s gospel? Perhaps feeding the hungry, as in chapter 6, or even raising the dead, like Lazarus in chapter 11. Any of these would speak to us in these days of sickness, deepening poverty, and mounting deaths. Instead, we have John chapter 2, turning water into wine at a wedding reception – an act that doesn’t cure sickness but avoids social embarrassment. Is that what we need, just now?

Back in the 1980s the city of Glasgow was due host the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow. Costs had overrun, however, and the city council was debating whether to try to find more money or cancel the event. One councillor, who represented an impoverished part of the city where many people lived in sub-standard housing, gave his view. ‘Just now,’ he said, ‘it’s bathrooms we need, nae ballet dancers.’ Ballet – a nice idea but beside the point, frivolous even, in the face dire need. So for us, you may say – just now, it’s gallons of vaccine we need, not vino.

I wonder about the first people who heard this story. Like the guests at a small town wedding in Galilee, most of them were probably very poor. For them, ‘a good year’ would describe not a nice bottle of red but twelve months when they kept hunger just about at arm’s length. What did they make of this story? Did it sound to them like a beside-the-point fantasy? And why does John, among just seven miracle stories he has in his gospel, have this one at the head of the procession?

John’s business, he tells us in the opening lines of the book, is glory, and where to find it. And here is the first sign of the glory Jesus reveals – at a wedding. Glory, the radiant presence of God, is about transforming the things that stop life from flourishing – illness, injustice – but it seems that we shall get it wrong unless we realise that it begins with delight and joy. In the revolution he brings, in saving the world God so loves, Jesus begins at a party, with exuberant generosity so that people can enjoy themselves. We need some of that as we tackle the deep needs of the world.

Here in the Cathedral we have stumbled afresh upon this truth, just this last week. Yesterday was the third day of large-scale vaccinations here. There are certain practical things in favour of doing jabs in a cathedral: cloisters provide a handy covered queueing facility, the interior is adequately ventilated (draughty, in other words) with sufficient space for a distanced recovery area. But a well-sited warehouse would do just as well – better in some ways – and the staff and volunteers would be just as friendly.

What they got here was like Jesus’ excessive gallons of wine at the wedding (over 700 bottles of the stuff) – vastly more than was strictly required: extravagant arches, sunlight cascading through stained glass, extraordinary modern art; and music, live music played on that most more-than-is-strictly-needed instrument, the organ.

None of it was necessary, but God has created us for more than bare necessity. Those who came for a medical procedure spoke of celebration, joy. One of the hospital staff said he was a bit concerned about too much of a party atmosphere.

In this winter of pestilence we are not just machines made of meat that need a chemical injection – like antifreeze in a car – to get us through the cold months. We don’t just function or malfunction. We can feel so much: physical illness, but also loneliness, fear, sadness, despair, that unpindownable sense that you're losing your grip – and we can feel joy. We know how to mourn and lament. We also have a need to rejoice.

President Biden at his inauguration talked about ‘cascading crises’ confronting us – a health crisis of course, but also an economic crisis, a crisis in politics, a climate in crisis. How to face them? With determination; with sacrifice, with those who have more than is strictly necessary sharing with those who have less, whether that is giving to a food bank or paying all your taxes. All that is necessary. But all our efforts will wither without joy. We shall, for instance, work best for the welfare of our planet if we are fuelled not just by fear but by delight in its extravagant beauty and by wonder that it and we exist at all.

But how can we tell today’s story of joyful plenty in a time of shortage? How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? So much is denied us at present that makes for joy. (Less danger of running out of wine when there’s no-one to drink it with.)

While we wait for the day when we’ll meet again, let’s ask God for help: for inspiration, to kindle our imaginations for reaching out to one another, even as we are separated, in ways that can lift us above bare necessity; and for fresh signs of glory, signs of the radiant presence of God among us, to show us that – despite all this – we have a right and a reason to rejoice.

In the days ahead, dreadful choices will confront us, as life needs to be rebuilt and debts need to be repaid. The bathrooms vs ballet dilemma never went away and is here with a vengeance now. How can you justify time or money going to anything that is not directed at meeting bare necessity?

Some of those Glasgow councillors would have heard of the feminist, anarchist, atheist activist Emma Goldman, who died in 1940. In 1973, a printer was looking for a pithy Goldman quote, literally to go on a tee-shirt, a fashion staple of that decade. A friend, who knew Goldman’s work, sent him a piece which talked about ‘everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things’ and told him how a comrade had once ticked Goldman off for going dancing: not to the done thing for a serious political activist. From these he came up with words Goldman never quite said, but which capture her well. They also (though she would not have agreed) testify that God, who so loves the world, has made us for much more than bare necessity: ‘If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution.’