Minister's Sermon - Sunday 20th January 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 20th January 2019

1 Corinthians 12.1-11

John 2.1-11

I wonder how you imagine today’s Gospel story? Or maybe you don’t even bother! It might be a lovely story, but how, in our rational, scientific age, can it do anything other than point to just how irrational faith is? And yet, it’s a story that has captured the attention of many people, and the way it’s been painted in different times and places, expresses the joy, the generosity and abundance that’s at its heart. Look at these…

This morning, I want to read it as a story about the way we see the world, because through it, Jesus invites us into a way of seeing and acting, that could make such a difference if we were to embrace it fully. So, I wonder how you see the world. Is it rich and fruitful, where there would be enough to go around if only human beings cooperated with each other? Or is it a world of scarcity, where everything is in short supply, so every person and each group needs to grasp what we can before others get a hold of it? This question isn’t directly addressed in either of today’s readings. Yet Mary’s request, Jesus’ actions and Paul’s conviction, suggest a world overflowing with abundance. An abundance of generosity, gifts and grace. All expressed in these words from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. “…The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1.14&16) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. But I know this isn’t how the world feels to many people. And Ann Morisy, the writer of a book called “Bothered and Bewildered,” suggests that “the idea of scarcity is deeply embedded [in our lives.] The evolutionary journey [for humans] is characterised as a battle against shortage, resulting in a deep-seated assumption that the good things of life are in short supply.” (1) A battle which means we grasp what we can, and then cling onto it for dear life, just in case someone else gets hold of what we think is ours. Whether that’s jobs, homes, food, power, or wealth. And austerity, which reinforces the scarcity, has made it worse. As I see things, it’s one of the reasons for Brexit, ‘though I realise that’s a contentious view. But it’s a story we share with the rest of the Western world, as nation after nation erects barriers against refugees fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty. And each country grasps the abundant resources we are blessed with ever-more-tightly.

The wedding at Cana begins with scarcity. When the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother goes to him and says, “They are out of wine.” In first century Palestine wedding feasts lasted for several days and having enough food for the guests was essential. The lack of clean water, and the large number of guests, meant that running out of wine was a serious problem. Anthropologists aren’t absolutely clear about who would have been held responsible. Some say it was the family of the bride and groom. But others suggest that the burden of feeding large wedding parties, was shared by all the guests, who brought food and wine as wedding gifts. And if this was the case, the lack of wine might be because the community was poor, or the family weren’t very popular. Whatever the reason, not offering hospitality as expected, would cause deep, deep embarrassment to the hosts. And their shame that would have been remembered for years, perhaps even generations. John doesn’t tell us whether anyone else noticed that the wine was becoming short. Just that Mary – who he refers to as “Jesus’ mother” – does. He doesn’t say what connection she had to bride and groom. All we know is that she’s one wedding guest among many.  “But even in the midst of celebration she… sees what’s amiss.  And recognises the… scandal and humiliation” the family would have been facing. So, she does something about it, she tells her Son.

In her lectionary essay for this week, Debie Thomas likens Mary’s words, to the words people say when they’re feeling helpless. About their own situation or someone else’s. I don’t know what to do… There is a 6-month waiting list... He doesn’t qualify for the housing list… She doesn’t have any money… They’ve been living in a refugee camp for 3 months and the first date they could get for an asylum interview is in 2020… Thomas says, “when I feel helpless, when I have nothing concrete to offer, when Christianity seems futile, when God feels a million miles away. Words like Mary’s insist against all odds on the mysterious power of telling God the truth in prayer… I have no idea how to turn gallons of water into gallons of wine.  But I do know how to say what Jesus’s mother says. Sometimes, it’s the only thing I know how to say. ‘There is need here.’ ‘Everything is not okay.’ ‘We’re in trouble.’ ‘They have no wine.’” (2) Noticing may not seem at all useful. Because it leaves us feeling helpless. But it is the beginning of the end of scarcity. When someone sees, when they don’t turn a blind eye, or close them all together, there is hope.

The conversation Mary and Jesus have is a strange one. After she’s told him they are out of wine, he says, “You must not tell me what to do… My time has not yet come.” But Mary simply ignores him and says to the servants. “Do whatever he tells you.” What is going on? This is the first time that Mary appears in John’s Gospel, and the only other appearance she’ll make, is as he’s dying. As she and the beloved disciple, John, stand together at the foot of the cross. This helps us to understand why, Jesus says, “My time has not yet come.” He seems reluctant to do something about the dwindling wine supply, because he knows the countdown to his crucifixion will begin, as soon as his identity is known. Maybe he’s reluctant to start the clock ticking.  Maybe he thinks wine-making shouldn’t be his first miracle.  Maybe he’s having fun with his friends and doesn’t want to be interrupted.  Maybe there’s another timeline he prefers to follow. Whatever it is, Mary doesn’t give way. It’s as if she’s saying, “I don’t care about your ‘hour.’ This is what matters now, so hasten the hour, and help!” Debie Thomas says, “Given her thirty-year history with him, she is as certain of his ability and his generosity as she is of the need itself.” (2) 

I may be reading too much into this short phrase, but it reminds me of the very understandable reluctance, many of us have of getting too deeply drawn into other people’s lives. We worry about the time, the emotional cost, the energy it’ll demand of us. Especially when their situation is complex or we don’t know what to do with. This isn’t wrong. Just real. And is why we should weigh up how we can respond to the demands other people make on us. Many of us have been taught that the Christian thing is to do what they ask. But it is OK to ask whether it’s the best thing for them. To ask whether we have the capacity to do what they want. And to recognise that not every demand can be met. ‘Though if we find our eyes are continually being drawn towards something, whether it’s a particular person, role or special issue, it may well be that God is drawing us in. And like Jesus, when faced with his mother’s persistence, we may discover that our next step is to draw closer in spite of our concerns.

Mary doesn’t wait to hear whether or not Jesus will do as she asks. Since she hasn’t a clue what he’ll do, she doesn’t pretend to know the details, she simply communicates her trust in Jesus’s loving, generous nature and invites the servants to do what he says. In Debie Thomas words, “she invites them to practice the minute-by-minute obedience that makes faith possible.” (3) “Do whatever he tells you.” Their task wasn’t an easy one. The six stone jars used for “ritual washing” were huge, each “large enough to hold between twenty and thirty gallons.” Jesus said to the servants, “Fill these jars with water.” There was no running water, no hose pipes, in 1st century Palestine. So, filling each, will have involved a number of trips to the well, significant physical strength, and a commitment to doing what was asked of them despite their bewilderment. But perhaps encouraged by Mary, and the faith-filled atmosphere she fostered, the task was completed.

After the jars had been filled to the brim, the miracle is discovered, when Jesus tells the servants to “draw some water out and take it to the man in charge of the feast.” When he received it, the man in charge of the feast, called the bridegroom” and interrogated him about why he’d kept the best wine to the end. John doesn’t tell us how the bridegroom reacted. Both were in the dark, as bemused as many of us would have been, by the appearance of six stone jars of wine. They didn’t come to the immediate conclusion that water had been turned into wine, that it was a miracle, and there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t have been as sceptical as many 21st people are about it. Gail O’Day says that, the man in charge of the feast “tried to reshape the miracle” to fit his understanding of the world, and concluded that the bridegroom had kept the best wine to the end. And that’s what many of us do with miracles. Because if we believe they’re true, the boundaries of the world we live in are shattered, and we’re taken into unknown territory. So, what are we to do with this miracle? Do we reshape the miracle to fit our understanding of the world? Or are we with the disciples who allowed their understanding of the world “to be reshaped by this transformation of water into wine, so that they ‘believed in him.’ as the revealer of God.” (4)

So, what about you, are you open to the possibility that this was a miracle? Are you willing to have your expectations about the world works, challenged, and turned upside down? Are you open to feeling the dissonance between the world as we know it and the abundance and generosity at the heart of this story? I’m a natural sceptic. I’ve been one since I was a young child. Some of you know that I wasn’t confirmed with my other classmates when I was 7, because the nuns in my school through I asked too many questions and wasn’t inclined to believe the answers they gave. So, it is not in my nature to accept this might be possible, let alone that it happened! Yet, as I’ve struggled with this story this week, I’ve concluded that I need to be open to believing that it did happen. And my reason? It’s Mary’s role that convinces me. She reminds me that miracles happen when someone notices. When someone persists. When someone trusts. When someone inspires. When someone is willing to hold the promise of God’s abundance up against the agony of scarcity, loss, and need. Regardless of who that someone is.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired by a number of people’s persistence and courage. One is Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman, who campaigned for education for girls and was shot by Taliban gunmen. As she’s continued to challenge the limitations placed on the education of girls throughout the world she’s become her country’s most prominent citizen and inspired people all over the world. Another is Donald Eadie. He’s a Methodist minister who had to retire 10 years early, because a serious back condition prevented him working, in the way ministers are expected to. Over the last 20 years, he has supported many ministers struggling with ill-health or challenging work, gently reminding us of God’s generosity and abundance even in the midst of situations in which these feel scarce. A few years ago, at the height of the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya, there was a group people living on the Greek islands, who helped refugees arriving on their shores. I know their support was contentious, but for me, it was a recognition that those of us who live with comparative abundance have a responsibility towards those who lives are plagued by scarcity. And there’s one, very ordinary person, for whom life is one of scarcity. I’ll call her Kate. It’s not her real name. She had a connection with the church, ‘though rarely came, and mostly had negative things to say. One day the phone rang and my heart sank when I realised it was her. I expected to be in for a long, difficult, conversation. She’d been in hospital for an operation. And now, church members were knocking on her door, asking if she wanted help. Why she demanded? I was quiet for a while, and then her voice changed, she sounded less certain. Hesitant. More open. And eventually, she asked whether it had anything to do, with God’s love. It was a profound beginning to a journey, that a few years later, found her sitting at the bedside of an elderly woman with no family. She was dying in a hospital 100 miles from her home. And Kate had driven around the M25 – something that terrified her – and stayed until the woman died. Holding her hand, praying with her, because she didn’t want her to die alone.

The story of Jesus turning water into wine is a challenging one. But however, we see it and whether or not we believe it, it speaks of abundance and generosity. The abundance of the gifts God has created. Gifts given to all. For all. Which is what Paul said, and what he goes on to say more about, in his letter to the church in Corinth. But it’s also an act – a miracle - of extraordinary grace and generosity. By Jesus and by Mary. And it’s their grace and generosity that God longs to draw us into as well. For when we see the abundance and graciousness of Jesus’ gift to the couple and their family - a gift that will have saved them from shame and embarrassment for generations to come - we catch a glimpse of who God is. And of who God wants all those God has created to be. Before I finish I want to return to the last picture I showed you. At the heart of the miracle at Cana, at the heart of God’s generosity and grace, is the cross. And I don’t know whether you saw it, but I glimpse it, in this picture…

The moment Jesus turned water into wine was also the moment when his destiny was revealed. Mary is the reminder of that. Yet, in John’s Gospel, the cross isn’t only about suffering. Christ is glorified on the cross. Everything he is, has done and will do, comes together in that moment. His humanity, his divinity, his life, death and resurrection, is held together. And it begins here – in this first sign – which is what John calls miracles. The sign in which he and Mary - his first disciple - demonstrate the abundance and generosity at the heart of the Word becoming flesh and living among us. For in this sign “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… [And] From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

References

(1) Bothered and Bewildered, Ann Morisy, 2009, 62

(2) Adapted from https://www.journeywithjesus.net/index.php

(3) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/index.php

(4) Gail O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IX, 1995, p540