Sunday, 20 January 2019

Water into wine: Epiphany 3 Breathing Space

Epiphany 3 2019

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wedding_at_Cana#/media/File:Paolo_Veronese_008.jpg.
Spot the miracle happening in the bottom right hand corner!
“…and his disciples believed in him”.  Well, yes, I suppose they would. Water into wine is a very convenient and wonderful miracle! But this isn’t just a story about a party being rescued by Jesus, it is also, and mainly, a story which points us to some new insights for all of our lives, and in particular for those problems which seem impossible to solve.

There was no way this family at Cana could do anything about their shortage of wine. They faced shame and disgrace in a culture where you were judged on your hospitality. They would never live it down. Jesus’ action rescued them from a situation where they had no resources to draw on.

We may never be in a situation where we need water turned to wine, but my guess is that most of us will have been, or will one day be, in situations where we are aware that our lives are watery and thin, when we know that we haven’t got the resources we need to respond adequately to the challenges that face us.

If we look around us at the moment, we see plenty of examples of that. Take Brexit. What’s the answer to the dilemmas that poses? What’s the way ahead? No one seems to know. Or the perennial challenges of poverty and injustice? It often feels like there is nothing we can do to make a dent in the sorrows of the world. In our personal lives and families too there are often problems that just don’t seem to have any solutions within our grasp. We long for a magic wand, but there is no such thing.

This story of the Wedding at Cana is the story for those moments when we have to own up to the fact that “we have no wine” – we have no answers, no resources. We are stumped, beaten.

In particular, it seems to me that the Wedding at Cana has four suggestions which might help us to cope when we come to that moment.

The first is "invite Jesus to the party". The story tells us that “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited”, and that’s just as well, because if he hadn’t been there, there would have been no miracle. It’s tempting to compartmentalise our lives, to put faith in one box and everything else – “real life” – in the other. People will often tell us that “faith and politics don’t mix,” or faith and sport, or faith and money or some such. That’s nonsense. Either our faith is about everything or it is about nothing. It is either for all times and places in our lives or none of them. Compartmentalising can also mean keeping God for Sunday best, not letting him into the bits of our lives where we are ashamed, or struggling. But that’s just where he wants and needs to be most of all. Invite Jesus to the party.

The second insight from this story is “Do what he tells you”  in the words of his mother. I don’t believe that God tells us what to do on a micro level very often – choose this parking space rather than that, shop in Sainsbury’s today and not Tesco. I don’t even think he is necessarily going to tell us what job to do or what person to marry. But there is a general sense in which he tells us how to live. “Love one another”. "Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly". He tells us that , when in doubt we should do what benefits most those who are most vulnerable and least powerful. If an apparent “solution” to our problems involves lying, cheating or stealing, if it oppresses or exploits others, it isn’t what Jesus tells us, and it will lead us into more problems in the long run. “Do what Jesus tells you.”

The third bit of guidance this story gives is in Jesus' instruction to the servants - “Fill the jars with water”.  They must have been very baffled. What good would that do? They couldn’t serve people water. That would be worse than serving them nothing. But they did it anyway. They used what they had. They did what they could, and Jesus did the rest. So often we decide that if we haven’t got what we need we can’t do anything. We see a bereaved friend and we know we haven’t got adequate words to comfort them, so we cross the road to avoid saying anything. Actually we could have just said, “I don’t know what to say, but I wanted you to know I was thinking of you” and that would have helped immensely. Fill the jars with water – do what you can, offer what you have - God will do the rest.

The fourth and final point from this story is “be the servant.” When the water that has been turned to wine is brought to the steward, he has no idea where it has come from but, we are told, “the servants who had drawn the water knew.” What a wonderful privilege they have, to have witnessed this miracle and known that it was Jesus who had done it! The guests may have got the wine, but they got the message, and that meant that, when their lives felt “watery” in future they would know where to go and who to go to. They found not just wine for a day, but wine for the whole of their lives. For us too, it is often when we take our eyes off ourselves, and do something for others that we find the presence of God at work in our midst. “Be the servants”, says this story.

So – invite Jesus to the party, let him be involved in the situation, whatever it is, that feels so insoluble to you. Do what he tells you. Fill the jars with water – give what you have, but don’t worry about what you don’t have. And be the servant.

Those are the keys to this story, the keys which enable us to find God at work and join in with him, turning the water of our lives into rich and satisfying wine that will make our hearts and the hearts of others glad. Amen

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Beloved: Baptism of Christ

Audio version here

“What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!”[1]

Those words, printed out on a scruffy scrap of paper, are stuck above my desk in the vicarage, so that I see them every time I raise my eyes from my laptop. They’re the words of a seventeenth century poet and priest, who was largely unknown until the beginning of the twentieth century. Some of his works were literally rescued from a smouldering rubbish heap by a passer-by looking for spare parts for his car. 

The writer’s name was Thomas Traherne, and he knew what he was talking about in this passionate plea for a world more aware of love. He lived through one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history, the English Civil War. He was born in 1637, and died in 1674. He grew up in the midst of bitter fighting between Royalists and Parliamentarians. Families and communities tore each other apart. Traherne was the son of a shoemaker from Herefordshire, who went on to study at Oxford, and then became vicar of the parish of Credenhill at a time of fervent and often brutal religious dispute. By all accounts, though, he was a gentle and much-loved pastor. The worst criticism anyone seems to have had of him was that he was “so wonderfully transported with the Love of God to Mankind…that those that would converse with him, were forced to endure some discourse upon these subjects, whether they had any sense of Religion, or not” [2]

That rings true from his writings, which are full of love and delight in the world around him.  “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you… till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world.” [3]These are the words of someone who has seen what hatred and greed can do, and has come to value their opposites, love and generosity of spirit.

“What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be.”

That word “beloved” came up in our Gospel reading today too. Jesus is baptised in the River Jordan by John. And as he comes up from the waters, the heavens open, the Spirit descends like a dove, and God’s voice is heard. “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased”. “My son, the Beloved.” 

We might say, “but of course! This is Jesus after all! He was a great teacher and healer, a hero with the courage to endure the cross. Of course God thought he was beloved!” But this story comes before all of that, before Jesus has begun to preach, before he has started to heal people, before he has done anything to deserve God’s praise. He’s just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

Straight after this story we’re told that he’s about thirty years old, and that is significant. Thirty was the age in the ancient world when men were regarded as fully grown, independent, mature, able to take on the responsibilities of governing and leading. It was the age when Roman men could stand for public elected office. It was the age when Jewish men from priestly families started their work in the Temple. Women, sadly, were never regarded as grown ups, able to run their own lives, but for men thirty was the magic number. Jesus is just beginning, says Luke. God doesn’t call him beloved because of what he has done, or what he will do. He calls him beloved simply  for who he is, because he exists. 

That’s good news for all of us, because it’s clear from the Bible that God doesn’t just feel this way about Jesus. In the Old Testament the prophet Isaiah wrote to the Israelites in exile in Babylon.  They believed that they’d lost the love of God because of the way they have behaved, that the exile was their fault, but God tells them, through Isaiah, that didn’t matter.  “You are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you”, he says. They are beloved, whatever has happened, whatever they have done.

When families bring children for baptism here I often tell them this story of Jesus’ baptism. Names matter, I tell them.  The names they have chosen for their child matter. There’s usually a reason for the choice they’ve made. It’s a family name, perhaps, or a name with a special meaning or association for them. But whatever they have decided to call their child, I remind them that he or she already has a name, given by God. God names their child “Beloved”, because he names us all “Beloved”. We’re “beloved” when we’re newborn, powerless and dependent, when we’ve done nothing yet to be loved for. We’re beloved when we hit the terrible twos, or the turmoil of adolescence, when we strain our parents’ patience to breaking point.  We’re beloved when we’ve grown up, but don’t feel it, when we’re making a mess of life, or losing our way. And we’re just as beloved when we’re aging, losing our power, maybe going into the blur of dementia. We may look in the mirror and call ourselves useless, or even forget our names completely, but God still knows and names us as “beloved”. There are no ifs, no buts about this, no exclusions in the small print.  Our “belovedness” doesn’t depend on what we’ve done. It can’t be earned or deserved - and that means it can’t be lost either. God loves us because we are here, and we are his – for no other reason than that.

Now, I would quite understand if some of you are thinking at this point “This is all very well, but isn’t it a tiny bit self-indulgent, sort of “new-agey”, warm and fuzzy…? We’re all beloved… yes, but so what?”  And you might be right. But I don’t think the Bible goes to such great lengths to tell us we are beloved simply so we can have a nice, feel-good moment now and then. It tells us we are beloved because when we know that thoroughly, deeply, it can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that can, because when we know that we are beloved, simply because we exist, we have to accept that everyone else is too.  How much suffering could have been prevented in Traherne’s time if the Royalists and Parliamentarians had seen each other not as enemies, but as fellow children of God? How much suffering could be prevented in our own time if we could look at those around us – especially the ones who hurt or humiliate us and see the same? “What a world it would be, were everything beloved as it ought to be” said Traherne. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” said Jesus to his disciples. But we can only love others as God does, for themselves rather than for what they have done, if we have learned that we are loved like that too. If we are still trying to earn our place in God’s heart, if we’re afraid we’ll lose it if we do something wrong, then how can we possibly believe that he could love those who we don’t even like, those we disapprove of, those we think have it in for us? 

“We love because God first loved us”  says the first letter of John,(1 John 4.19) and it’s the truth. It is the knowledge of God’s love which sets us free to love those around us.

Traherne said that we are “as prone to love as the sun to shine”[4], that loving is in our deepest and truest nature, but it’s often a challenge to believe that in the face of so much that undermines it; the brutality and oppression and simple carelessness that poisons our world and seeps into our souls.
Jesus heard a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved”. We may not have any such obvious reassurance, so it matters that we keep our ears, and our hearts, open for the messages we do hear that tell us of our worth to God; the messages of the Bible, the messages of those around us who carry on loving us whatever we do, the moments of blessing in our lives, the moments when we see God at work – even if they are just moments. It matters that we recognise the ways we drown those messages out too, by putting ourselves down, convincing ourselves that we are unlovely and unloveable. To do that is like pulling the plug out when you’re trying to fill the bath – the love just runs away down the plughole.

Believing in our belovedness, and the belovedness of others, doesn’t mean that we don’t need to take seriously the things that are wrong in our lives or that we don’t need to challenge what is wrong in the world around us – to be truly loving means to do both of those things - but we need to know, and affirm, and trust that nothing we, or anyone else, can do can destroy God’s love, for us or for them.

“What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!” 

This season of Epiphany is a season of revelation – that’s what the word “Epiphany” means.  The stories we hear at this time are all about the love of God being revealed in Jesus; revealed to the Magi, revealed to wedding guests at Cana when Jesus turns water into wine, revealed to Simeon and Anna in the Temple in Jerusalem when they see in Jesus the light of the world. But all those stories happened long ago and far away. The most important revelation of God’s love we need in this season of Epiphany is the one we find within ourselves and within each other, the discovery that we, and all the world, are called beloved. That’s what transforms us, and when we are transformed the world around us is transformed too. 

Amen




[1] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, 2:66-8.
[2 “Happiness and Holiness” by Denise Inge, p 9.
[3] Centuries of Meditation 1.29, 30
[4] Centuries of Meditation 2.65.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Ultima Thule and beyond: Epiphany Sunday





It’s been a good week for astronomers, this first week of 2019. A few days ago the Chinese landed an unmanned spacecraft on the far sideof the moon, and earlier in the week, on New Year’s Day, NASA scientists successfully flew their New Horizon spacecraft past an interplanetary object which they’ve called Ultima Thule, after the land which the ancient Greeks thought lay at the northernmost end of the world – off the north of Scotland in case you’re interested. This new Ultima Thule is the most distant object that we’ve ever been able to get a close up look at in space – yet.

Those scientific teams haven’t really got much data to analyse yet, so it’s too soon to tell whether either mission will tell us much that is new, but that didn’t stop them being really excited. I expect you saw the scenes on the news of them rejoicing and hugging each other in their control rooms. Whatever the scientific significance of these missions, they were obviously of great human significance to those who were part of them. They’d seen things no one else had ever seen, done something no one else had ever done. They weren’t celebrating lumps of rock as they whooped and high fived; they were celebrating human ingenuity, curiosity and perseverance. Ultima Thule and the far side of the moon were signs to them, and to us, of hope for the future, of new possibilities.

In the Gospel today we meet astronomers from a very different age, but they too found meaning in the stars which went far beyond the mere scientific facts. The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel were probably from Babylon, the place where much of our modern astronomy was born. Babylonian scientists gave us the sixty minute hour, the 24 hour day, the seven day week, among many other things.

They were ardent stargazers, even if they started from a very different set of assumptions to our modern scientists, and had a different purpose when they looked up into the sky. They assumed that what they saw conveyed messages from the gods. In particular they would have taken for granted that if a new star appeared, it meant that a significant person had been born.  According to popular legend, stars had appeared when the Roman Emperor Augustus was born, and Alexander the Great, and many others. When a story started with a new star, those who first heard it would have known exactly where it was going. It was going to be a hero tale, with armies and glory and a golden throne. Matthew sets up his hearers to expect this when he starts his tale.   

The idea of visitors coming from the East to Jerusalem would have been familiar too. Five hundred years before, the people of Judah had been in exile in Babylon, convinced that their story was over. But the prophet Isaiah told them of God’s promise that one day the situation would be the other way round. Those who had enslaved them – people from this powerful Eastern kingdom – would be queueing up to bring their tribute to Jerusalem. “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”   It’s this prophecy which prompted Medieval Christians to turn these wise men into kings with camels to ride on. Matthew doesn’t say anything about that, but his story of wealthy visitors bringing gifts and looking for a king to give them too is certainly meant to evoke Isaiah’s imagery of the oppressors  bowing down, just as the people of Jerusalem had once had to bow down to them. 

Matthew sets up this story quite deliberately to play into these well-worn, familiar expectations; the star that indicates a royal birth, the destination – Jerusalem – the visitors, representatives of nations that had once oppressed Israel now coming to pay homage and give tribute.

But then, all of a sudden, the story takes an unexpected twist, because they discover that no one in the great city of Jerusalem, no one in Herod’s palace, least of all Herod himself, has any idea what is going on. Baby? What baby? King? What king?

Herod’s Jewish advisers, who are meant to be his own “wise men”, offer the suggestion that the Messiah might be born in Bethlehem, the birth of King David, but, very significantly, not one of them goes to look for themselves. Bethlehem’s only a few miles from Jerusalem. You’d think that they might feel curious. Perhaps they feel it’s too dangerous, though. What if they find this king? Herod is hardly going to be pleased  to hear he  has a rival. Best to stay well away. Ignorance is bliss.

So the story of the Magi starts with lots of familiar elements, but it ends up being a story of confusion and bafflement, a story which turns people’s expectations upside down. They expected a king like the great king David, a kingdom like the one he’d ruled over, and Matthew sets everything up to play into that. The royal star. The travellers from the East. The precious gifts.  And yet that’s not what happens. Instead, the Magi find themselves in an ordinary home, faIling to their knees in front of an ordinary family.

And after they leave, it goes from bad to worse. If we read on a bit, we would find the Holy Family on the run, desperate refugees from Herod’s massacre of the children in Bethlehem. The star is a sign of God’s blessing, but maybe that blessing doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, says this story. That’s going to be important later on because this child will grow up to favour the outcast and the powerless, and will end up dying on a cross, so anyone who is expecting a re-run of King David is in for a surprise.

My guess is that most of us are not engaged in interplanetary space exploration, and never will be. Nor are we likely to be packing up gold, frankincense and myrrh and trekking across the desert chasing a star. But we all have a journey to make. We are all called to be part of God’s work. The summons to that work isn’t likely to appear in the heavens. God’s sign to us is more likely to take the form of an awareness of a need around us, someone who is lonely who we might be able to help, or some wider need in our community which we could answer. Or it might be something in our own lives or family that needs sorting out. Or it  might  be a hunger for something – meaning, forgiveness, purpose - which nags at us. It might be an inner sense, or the prompting of others to make some commitment that we’ve been hanging back on -  to baptism, to confirmation, to ministry of some sort.

Like the star that shone on the Magi, it’s often pretty obvious when we finally acknowledge it. My experience is that people usually know there is something they should be doing, something that needs to change. It’s naming it and acting on it which is the challenging bit.  We may struggle to believe that God could really be calling us – surely he means someone else - or, like Herod’s advisers we may feel the journey is too costly, that too much might need to change for us to make it. But if we shut our eyes to the starlight, we miss the joy it leads us to, the awareness of the presence of God in our lives.

When the Magi kneel before Jesus, they don’t  just fall down in wonder; they also “pay homage”, we’re told. Homage is a word that shares a root with the French “homme” – man- and with the word “human”. When you pay homage to someone you are putting yourself into their hands. You are saying, “I’m your man, your woman, yours to command” it says. It’s about commitment , about recognising and affirming where you belong, and who you belong to.

The Magi thought they would be paying homage to a king when they set out. That’s why they took the kind of gifts a king would expect and headed for the palace. They didn’t expect to be paying homage to a carpenter’s son. And yet there they were, putting themselves, lock stock and barrel, into his hands convinced that he was the only one they could give their trust and loyalty to, just as later, people will put their lives into the hands of the adult Jesus, following him through hardship and death, yet finding in that commitment, joy and purpose and true belonging.

Matthew tells this odd, incongruous story because he wants the people who hear it to lift up their heads and see the star which shines for them, for us, the star which represents God’s call to the journey he has for all of us, a journey he wants us all to take into greater love, compassion, justice, deeper faith, stronger  community.  Unlike those space missions we heard about this week, this journey really isn’t rocket science. It’s about seeing where God is at work around us and joining in. But the simplest things to understand can be the most difficult to put into practice, and as the Magi found, the journey can be challenging, leading us to people and places that weren’t in our plan, disrupting the script we thought we were following for our lives. God’s promise is, though, that it will be full of unexpected blessing and transform us utterly.

Whether our journey this year is to Ultima Thule and beyond, or just around our own backyard, in the orbit of our own family and neighbourhood, may we embark on it in faith, walk it in the company of Christ and one another, and find at the end of it the same overwhelming joy that the Magi did.  
Amen