Saturday, January 19, 2013

Good Water, Better Wine

The Second Sunday after Epiphany
20 January 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11

Click here to hear the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. Eucharist at Saint Faith's.

            Few texts are as difficult to preach in our time as miracle stories.  We have lived through the scientific revolution that began at least four hundred years ago and that revolution has taught us to be suspicious of explanations that rely on the supernatural or on faith.  Perhaps our difficulty lies in what we think a miracle story is trying to tell us.

            For some people miracle stories are the theological equivalent of the ‘Hail Mary’ pass in North American football.  The game seems lost; only a last-minute pass of considerable length through a mass of defenders will result in the winning touch-down.  The quarterback backs up, lets the ball fly through the air and we all hold our collective breaths to see if the receiver down the field will catch the ball to win the game.  Most of the time such efforts are not rewarded with victory, but we can still hope.

            The miracles told in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament are read by some Christians as reminders that the possibility exists in the midst of unbelievable difficulties and tragedies that maybe, just maybe, God will intervene and make everything right again.  Even the editor of the biblical book we know as Job gave into this temptation.  Job has three parts:  (i) the beginning where we hear how Job ends up losing everything he has; (ii) the longer middle section made up of conversations between Job and three other persons where the incomprehensible mystery of ‘why bad things happen to good people’ is explored with greater and lesser success; and (iii) the conclusion where God gives dear old Job everything back and more to make amends. 

            We all want things to turn out well when we are faced with what seem to be insurmountable challenges.  We cannot rule out God’s mysterious transformation of tragedies into stories with happy endings, but this is not why miracle stories have been collected and re-told in our Scriptures.  Miracle stories are signs that point to what God is doing in the world in the here and now.[i]  In other words, miracles are vivid reminders that if we have the eyes to see, the hearts to embrace and the minds to explore, we shall discover that all of creation, every moment of our lives are filled with the glory of God and with the evidence of God’s desire to heal creation and bring us into abundant life.

            In today’s reading from John’s gospel we hear the familiar story of the miraculous transformation of water into wine by Jesus.  Like the steward of the feast we are tempted to look only at the vast quantity of wine that appears just at the right moment in the feast and conclude that this is the meaning of the story.  But it is not.[ii]  The miraculous transformation of the water into wine is a sign of what God has begun to do through Jesus of Nazareth and what God continues to do through the body of disciples who have eyes to see, hearts to embrace and minds to explore the mystery of God’s transformation of the ordinary stuff of our lives into agents of God’s saving purpose.[iii]

            Let me also say that this story is not a story about Jesus’ repudiation of Judaism.  Some commentators have suggested that the fact that the water was in containers intended to be used for the Jewish rites of purification is an indication that this story implies a rejection of Judaism.  On the contrary:  this is a story about something emerging out of Judaism and rooted firmly in God’s promises made to the people of Israel and to those of us, as the apostle Paul says, have been grafted through Christ into these promises.[iv]

            So what do I think this story says to us?  First, I think that this story reminds us to look around us expecting to find signs of God’s activity in our everyday lives.  Most of our contemporaries live in a world which they believe to be filled with signs of God’s absence; we, on the other hand, have the eyes to see, the hearts to embrace, the minds to discover the signs of God’s presence in all places and in all times.  While I am the first to admit that I do not know ‘why bad things happen to good people,’ I am also the first to admit that, even in those situations, I am always surprised to find signs of God’s presence, signs of God’s transforming love.  A Palestinian physician loses children to an Israeli shell and then writes a book entitled, I Shall Not Hate.  Children are killed in a small town in Connecticut and their parents and others commit themselves to the Herculean task of challenging the gun-culture of the United States.

            I also think that this story encourages us to remember that God uses what we have and who we are to achieve extraordinary things.  Our culture is driven by an advertising environment geared to generate feelings of envy and scarcity.  We are rarely shown images of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  No, we need this car or this technology or this cosmetic or this fashion accessory.  But at Cana in Galilee Jesus takes ordinary water and turns it into the best wine the steward has ever tasted.

            It strikes me that the Christian tradition has understood this for a very long time.  Even though this story has nothing to do with a theology of Christians in marriage, it is regularly read at weddings.  But actually there is something to this:  two ordinary people begin a relationship that has the potential to become something more than the sum of its parts.  If the couple is open to the power of God’s love to transform their water into wine, then they have the opportunity to do, as Mother Teresa was wont to say, ‘something beautiful for God’ and, I should add, for us and for all the world.

            What is true of a couple beginning their married life is also true of congregations.  For sixty-five years we have been a sign of God’s loving presence in this community.  Over those decades our society and our neighbourhood has changed.  We face challenges that the founders of this parish probably did not envision.  But they have bequeathed to us good water in good jars and God seems to be transforming jar after jar into the best wine.  One of our tasks is to offer God and our founders continued thanks for the gifts we already have and to pray that God will give us the wisdom and the will and the perseverance to see their transformation, to embrace the opportunities and to discover what shape our ministry shall take.

            So, my sisters and brothers, let us open our eyes, our hearts and our minds so that we can give glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  Amen.

[i] “. . . the miraculous abundance of good wine is a sign of God’s presence among.”  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, IX:540).  “. . . in the abundance and graciousness of Jesus’ gift, one catches a glimpse of the identity and character of God.”  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, IX:540).

[ii] “John uses the term sign to refer to Jesus’ miracles, because for John the significance of the miracle does not rest solely in the act of the miracle itself, but in that to which the miracle points.  That is, the deed reveals the doer and points to the significance of the deed as an act of eschatological salvation and God’s significance.”  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, IX:539).

[iii] In this text the word ‘first’ (arche) should be understood to mean ‘the beginning’ rather than ‘the first in a sequence’.  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, IX:539).

[iv] “It is inaccurate to describe this miracle as Jesus’ rejection of the waters of purification and hence a symbol of Jesus’ rejection of Judaism.  Rather, jars stood empty, waiting to be filled.  Jewish vessels are filled with a wondrous new gift (cf. 1:17).  This miracle is thus neither a rejection nor a replacement of the old, but the creation of something new in the midst of Judaism.”  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, IX:538).

No comments: