Sermon, Parish Eucharist January 20th, 2019
Reading: John 2.1-11
I went to a party just before Christmas that had Europe as its theme, with a requirement that we come in fancy dress. I rather despair of such things but Belinda had the brainwave of me going in my cyclist’s “high vis” vest and thus as a French “gilet jaune” protestor. It was the sort of party that conservative-minded folk like my now dead parents would have imagined go on in north London all the time, full as it was of right-minded, liberal, metropolitan people. As it turned out - this being north London - lots of others had come as “gilet jaunes” as well and I fell into conversation with one of them. It turned out we both read English at University at the same time and we had a huge amount in common: we’d both started to reread the classics and found them much better the second time round; we both loved Jane Austen with a passion; and we’d both recently discovered Homer. But then, just as we were getting on so well he told me that he had at last read the bible, albeit in an edition that an atheist like him would find palatable, in other words one that saw it entirely as literature, treating talk of God as so much mumbo jumbo. “You know” he said, “the kind of thing Anglicans wouldn’t have problem with”.
At this point declared my interest, telling him that I was not just an Anglican but a priest tool, adding that I would indeed have a problem with such an edition of the bible. Suddenly a great gulf had opened up where until then there’d previously been a lovely, creative interchange. I found this immensely sad. As I reflected on this it seemed to me that the gulf was about much more than the question of God’s existence. Whatever church may mean to us, to many it is weighed down with baggage from the past, especially from the Victorian and early 20th century eras. It’s still widely seen as putting respectability in terms of personal morality above everything else to the point of being repressive and judgemental.
To be a church member until quite recently was to be a respectable member of society – part of the in-crowd, a church with apparently not much room for those at the margins.
The church was seen – rightly in many respects - as part of the Establishment, that formal and informal set of networks that constitute the elite, ruling class. It says something that for all its great, pioneering work in the anti-slavery movement, the Factories Acts, the foundation of the welfare state and the anti- apartheid movement – to name but a few great causes - the church still suffers from the perception it is on the side of the powerful rather than the powerless. This, I suspect, as much as anything else, was in my new friend’s mind as he recoiled in shock at my coming out as a Christian priest.
It’s hard to see the church as part of the establishment now, except for a few bishops in the House of Lords. We are increasingly at the margins of society but the legacy I’ve just described lives on and sits at odds with the Jesus we know from the gospels. Consider today’s gospel reading in which Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Consider the quantities involved – the amount created was around 150-180 gallons. Even the most ostentatious wedding would have trouble consuming that amount, but we’re talking about a poor people’s village wedding here. And it wasn’t any old wine – we’re told it was extremely good wine – much better than the previous plonk. Finally – crazily – we are told Jesus does all this when people have already drunk lots, indeed, rather too much.
This is not an isolated incident of generosity. Consider the feeding of the 5,000. Remember the starting point for that feast was five loaves and two fish, yet by the end of the meal there are twelve – twelve! – baskets of food left over. Jesus didn’t just provide enough – but way, way more than enough.
Whatever your take on the literal nature of such miracles the Gospel writers are telling us something about the nature of God here, something about God’s surprising, extraordinary, at times reckless, generosity. More widely, think of nature, think of the cosmos and the stars above and the billions of galaxies of which ours is but one and there is a clear theme of startling, divine excess. In all of this we are touching on the at times wild and unstoppable, creative nature of God as expressed in Jesus and his Holy Spirit. Jesus was anything other than predictable or, by his society’s standards, respectable. He mixed with those at the margins, being one of them. One moment he was blessing and healing, the next, in a show of violent, righteous anger he was overturning the tables of the money changers and driving them out with a scourge.
As you can see, we are very far here from the staid, respectable, unambitious conservatism of the church that exists in the popular imagination and that, I fear, exists too much still in practice. Here at St. Mary’s we like to think that we break that mould a bit and so we do.
I’m amused and delighted by how many people are surprised that we should have our own brewery, as if it’s something rather transgressive for a church. Our brewery may not be doing anything as dramatic as miraculously turning 180 gallons of water into beer – but it’s a start. As for our youthwork, I’m delighted to say the police now value it, but not so long ago it faced real resistance and opposition from them, convinced as they were that Jason and his team had no business working with local at-risk youth and that this was properly their job.
As you know, 2022 will mark our 150th anniversary. There is a lot of work going on at moment on plans for renewing this church and we will be reporting back fully on these at our Annual Church meeting on April 7th. This anniversary provides a great opportunity to take stock and ask ourselves the question: what more can we do to express Jesus’ dynamism and at times crazy generosity? What more can we do that will surprise, even shock and cause people to think afresh about the church, a church that, as it becomes more marginalised, may be in a better place to speak for those on the margins and be heard.
If we are to do this we will indeed need to be filled with the Holy Spirit, for when we are we will discover, in those great words from the letter to the Ephesians that God will
“accomplish abundantly far more for us than all we can ever ask for or imagine”.