A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer on the third Sunday of Epiphany.
In the world of work, watch out for the day the boss comes back from a course, determined to tell you all about ‘systems theory’ and ‘shifting the workplace paradigm’ and other stuff. And don’t panic: it will probably wear off.
The church equivalent is the preacher’s first sermon after coming back from the Holy Land, determined to tell you where Armageddon actually is, and to describe the three most dangerous points on the road to Jericho in the story of the good Samaritan, and other stuff you never realised you needed to know. As Nick our Dean said last week, I have just been on such a visit. I shall try to restrain myself, though as we welcome friends from St Osmund’s today I’m glad to say what a privilege it was to encounter the Holy Land through our guide Kayed, a native of Nazareth, an Arab and a Catholic.
Kayed took us to Cana in Galilee, scene of the gospel reading, and to its church – there is one on every site associated with any significant moment in the story of Jesus. We went down to the crypt, which contains a huge and very old stone water jar. We got there just as a group of Nigerian pilgrims were finishing their prayers. ‘Jesus,’ said one, ‘make our country happy again.’
Among the many things that will stay with me, two stand out. First, it was good to experience what the Anglican Dean of Jerusalem called the geography of salvation: to look at a line of hills that Jesus would have seen and realise afresh that it was a particular, local life that God inhabited when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus.
Secondly, it was also good to realise afresh the truth of what the angel at the tomb says to the women on Easter morning – ‘He is not here.’ You don’t need to go to the Holy Land to find Jesus. In an important sense, he is more fully present here this morning, as we break bread in his name than when we walked in his footsteps in Galilee. If the point of Christmas is to say to Jesus, ‘Be born in us today’, so the point of this morning’s gospel is to say, ‘Turn our water into wine,’ which is I guess what those Nigerian pilgrims were praying for their country that morning.
Turn our water into wine. What are the parallels between us here and the Galilean village wedding? The Cana story is one of the moments in John’s gospel that the writer describes as signs of glory, and this has not been a glorious week for the United Kingdom. It may be that we are witnessing a recasting of our nation’s life, such as happens every century or so, but the shape of things to come is murky. What we see more clearly are unsquarable circles, and people struggling to be the equal of the tasks before them.
The Cana story tells how the glory of Jesus is revealed in plenty. The quantity of wine Jesus produces would give a good three bottles to each of us here this morning, and what we see among us is a shortage –
shortage of ideas and imagination in some, shortage of resolve on the one hand and of caution on the other; shortage of time. And for some of us, there’s what we could call a shortage of self-respect; an embarrassment (to put it no more strongly) that we have allowed this to happen.
All of which should help us recognise the family hosting the wedding in Cana. Such an event brings together the whole village – and people like Mary, Jesus and friends, from further afield – so to run out of wine is beyond embarrassing. It is a matter of shame, probably for years to come. How, people will ask, did they allow this to happen? Were they inept, or did they just not care? Some will be saying, no doubt, might that such an inauspicious start must taint the marriage itself. But that may be unfair. The story doesn’t hint at incompetence or meanness of spirit. The family live in a fertile area and they are not the poorest – they can evidently afford catering staff – but it may be that even so, though they’ve done their best, events have just overwhelmed them.
Into this moment of failure and lack comes Jesus and his glorious plenty. So, if we recognise the crisis of shortage in the wedding that Jesus transforms, what shall we ask him to do for us? Part of that answer depends on what you make of the story itself, how much event you think underlies the gallons of meaning in this story, and how therefore you see God acting in the world. But even if you take the most literal line on ‘what really happened’, I don’t think you should ask God in Christ simply to overwhelm and overrule our present national confusions. That is not God’s way with us in our common life.
St Paul knows that when he writes to his divided and confused congregation in Corinth. He knows that God wants grown-up people who take responsibility for their life together. He says that, to that end, God gives not solutions but gifts: wisdom, discernment, the ability to interpret, to make sense of what others are saying. As our MPs resume their labours tomorrow, let’s pray that any of those gifts that are present among them are realised and exercised. used (as Paul puts it) ‘for the common good’.
And yet, we can’t ignore that scene in a Galilean village when, thanks to Jesus, God’s glorious profusion swamps human deficiency, a moment of glory contained not in a public political act but in a hidden piece of generosity. The God that Jesus shows us says, ‘There’s plenty! There’s enough and to spare.’ How can God say that? The answer lies in the occasion within which the story is set.
A wedding day is – or should be – a day of uproarious, overflowing joy, whatever is happening in the wider world, which is why the wine shortage poses such a problem. So, we need joy; and those of us who are out of the habit need to be shocked by joy, to let joy break open the shells we build around ourselves, because joy shared makes it easier to surrender a bit of ourselves to one another and to God and savour the gallons of grace that God wants to serve among us.
Often, of course, the world is less of a wedding and more of a hospital or a refugee camp. That is why the other signs of Jesus’ glory in John’s gospel see him tackling sickness, and hunger, and death. But joy is where it begins. Men and women and children who delight in God make the best disciples, for from joy comes energy to go out and be Christ’s hands in the world, to overturn the tables of its injustice and to bind up its wounds. Our aim here, where the Lord again provides miraculous wine, is to let God set our joy free. And then – whatever the headlines say – good and great things will be possible.