A sermon preached on the fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Sunday 29 January 2017 by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
Gospel Reading John 2.1–11
Christmas - the figures were bad for Primark, good for Tesco - and not bad for the church. Many report that numbers were up, year-on-year. Why? One theory is that people are anxious - and we can list the reasons. Now I am in favour of more people coming to church, but it would be wrong to welcome the anxiety that brings them, if it does. Instead, let’s ask: If you do come here feeling anxious, what help might you find? Is all this just escapism, La La Land at prayer? Escape is no bad thing in itself, but I think that we - like the film - have more to offer than that. The gospel reading suggests that what we offer are glimpses of glory.
So what does ‘glory’ mean to you? Think of a glorious morning. Think of Vivaldi’s Gloria, or Mozart’s this morning. Think of Danny Blanchflower: ‘The great fallacy,’ he said about football, ‘is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style.’ What makes you say, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, ‘There’s glory for you’?
Glory is a bright and shining thing. It brings delight. When Lady Gaga sang that she was on The Edge of Glory you may think it was a quite particular kind of glory she had in mind, but she says she wrote it about the death of her grandfather, and the song has a universal application: in a moment of glory you don’t think about what you ought to do, you don’t dwell on bad things you’ve done or good things you haven’t; you delight in the moment. Glory is something bigger than you are, but get caught up in it and it makes you a bigger person than you were before. All of which helps us to get a grip on the story of the wedding at Cana.
Water into wine – how could that happen? How can anyone turn simple H20 into (what a scientist in my last parish assured me is) C2H5OH + CO2 + other stuff? This is a real question, and how you answer it will say something about how you see God and the world. You might say, ‘This is a physical miracle. It shows that Jesus is Lord of creation.’ Or, you could say, ‘No, not a physical miracle. Why would God override his own creation?’ ‘How?’ is an important question, but John’s gospel gives no help in answering it. He says nothing about the mechanics. If we say, ‘This story describes a miracle: how could it happen?’ the gospel says, ‘This story describes a sign: what does it point to?’ And what it points to is – glory.
On the face of it, though, it looks rather frivolous: water into wine isn’t like feeding hungry crowds. But remember - this is at a wedding, and a wedding has the raw materials for glory. Whatever the budget, a wedding should be a bright and shining thing. It’s a ceremony about what two people ought to do, but much more it’s about delight, the sheer joy of two people giving each other the gift of their lives through those extravagant all-or-nothing promises, ‘for better for worse…till us do part’. (To digress: something missing from the House of Bishops’ new report on same-sex marriage is how those relationships might be enriched by these glorious promises.)
The Jewish prophets were struck by the extravagant character of marriage. They talked of God and Israel as husband and bride, and the day of the Lord, when the world would be put right, as a wedding banquet awash with fine wines. Vats of symbolism here, because of what wine stands for. Do you need wine to survive? (Honestly, you don’t.) Cana’s wedding guests won’t die of thirst if the bar runs dry - there’s plenty of water available – but wine says that life is about more than survival, and Jesus lays on the equivalent of 768 bottles of it. Then the head waiter tastes it. He has a Marks & Spencer moment (if you remember the adverts) and purrs, ‘This is not just wine…’ So it’s not just the quantity; what Jesus brings to the party is vintage stuff. This is not just life, but life in all its fullness. So - there’s glory for you.
The task of the church is to bring us to the edge of glory, and it has different ways of doing this. This morning some of our congregation are guests of our neighbours at St Paul’s, who do this very well in their own, pretty exuberant way. Here we do it - well, look up: did they need to make the vaulting quite so high? Of course not, any more than the Cana wine needs to be so good and plentiful. This space invites all who come here to go beyond the water of mere necessity and drink the wine of God’s extravagance.
The building, though, is just the theatre set waiting for the cast to come onstage. We are the cast, and John’s wedding story gives us the stage directions. The catering staff see what Jesus does to the water, but they don’t taste it. The head waiter tastes the wine, but doesn’t see where it came from. It’s both together that yield the true glory: to have the experience but not miss the meaning, you need to ‘taste and see’ as the psalm puts it (Psalm 34.8).
That means, first, being there in the first place, gathering with others in the Lord’s house - here or somewhere - on the Lord’s Day - or another day if need be. Is there anything more important to do at some point in the 168 hours of our week? So, come - but in what frame of mind? Seeking escape, perhaps, from the world’s anxieties; but also looking for signs of glory. It is a thing to ask myself each routine Sunday morning: am I going to church really looking to encounter God? If I am, then how might it happen?
Here I can be ambushed by God anywhere: in a word of scripture; in an instant of exquisite sound from voice or organ; in a hymn sung or a prayer said as if people really mean it; in the Holy Communion, with its own miraculous wine. Such a moment brings in the end not escape but blessed assurance and a foretaste of glory. It is a sign that each of us is the object of the extravagant love of God: you, me, the refugee detained at an American airport - God delights in each one of us.
If ever we catch such a glimpse of glory, it makes us bigger people than we were before, and better at facing down the anxieties of the world: more brave; more angry (when that’s needed); more generous, more willing to experiment with extravagance ourselves, with the time and the money and the energy that we have - that God has been pleased to give us. in such a moment you want to give of yourself, ‘not from a sense of duty but from an overflowing of joy’. And when you do, then you have some small share in God’s life, in the action of God’s ‘redeeming and recreating love’.
The Edge of Glory Lady Gaga said of this song
['The Edge of Glory'] was about how when my grandma was standing over my grandfather while he was dying. There was this moment where I felt like he had sort of looked at her and reckoned that he had won in life. Like, 'I'm a champion. We won. Our love made us a winner.' They were married 60 years. I thought about that idea, that the glorious moment of your life is when you decide that it's okay to go, you don’t have any more words to say, more business, more mountains to climb. You're on the cliff, you tip your hat to yourself and you go. That’s what it was for me in that moment when I witnessed it. Wikipedia
Wine making I am indebted to the late Professor Jane Plant for this chemical guide: C2H5OH is ethanol; C02 is carbon dioxide. Making wine usually depends on the action of yeast on the natural sugars (glucose and fructose) in grapes. It also usually involves maintaining acidity using C4H5O6 and C4H5O5 – tartaric acid and malic acid present in good grapes.
Not from a sense of duty… From ‘Christmas Gifts’, a sermon by Bishop Rowan Williams
This is what it all comes down to: all the useless, pointless beauty of our music and our ritual, our words and our acts, our struggles in prayer, all the great achievements of Christendom, every cathedral, the B Minor Mass and Rembrandt and all the rest of it…All we can do is offer God playful gifts, the gifts of our celebration, our playing. He does not need it but he wants the hearts that will and can rejoice, gratuitously, uselessly, pointlessly and beautifully, in what he has done. It is only when we learn to give, not from a sense of duty but from an overflowing of joy, that we can have some share in the action of his redeeming and recreating love. Open to Judgement DLT 1994 p 30.