Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Notes on a Wine-Tasting: a sermon (John 2: 1 – 11)

I often enjoy visiting a vineyard: driving on the scenic road past the rows of grapevines; arriving at the cellar door; tasting the vineyard’s wares; and then buying a bottle or two.   

But one thing I can’t bring myself to do during the tasting at the cellar door is to in any way insult the wine, even on those rare occasions when the wine deserves to be insulted. Particularly at a smaller vineyard, I usually assume that the person running the tasting room is most likely related somehow to the person who makes the wine, so I’m usually very polite about the wine. 

Even if the bouquet has the subtle undertones of old socks, or even the not-so-subtle overtones of disinfectant, I don’t say so.  I like to think I’m too kind to say so.  I fear I’m really too much of a coward to say so.

Someone who really knew how to insult a bottle of wine was Horace Rumpole.  Some of us will remember “Rumpole of the Bailey”, the TV series in which the late Leo McKern played the London barrister and sleuth Horace Rumpole.  Rumpole was never averse to a drop of wine - preferably red - but, by his own admission, he usually couldn’t afford the good stuff (a bit like me, really).  Rumpole often referred to the wine he drank by such uncomplimentary references as “cooking claret”.

Such was the opposite of the problem faced by the head caterer at the wedding Jesus attended in our gospel lesson today.  Instead, he had to approach the bridegroom and enquire why he left the really good wine for so late a point in the reception.  He may have learned at catering school that the good wine ... the vintage stuff ... the wine with the snob labels ... the expensive stuff ... that gets served first.    The cheaper wine, the chateau cardboard, the “cooking claret”, the stuff that’s well on its way to becoming salad dressing:  that wine is served later, when the guests’ taste buds have become more ... well ... tolerant.

You’ve heard the story.  Jesus and his disciples were invited to attend a wedding at a town called Cana, in Galilee.  Mary was also there.  The wine ran out. 

Mary asked Jesus if he could do something about the wine situation.  A few harsh words passed between mother and son.  (What’s a wedding without a memorable family argument?)  But eventually, Jesus being a good Jewish boy, he did what Mary asked. 

There were these six big stone jars filled with twenty to thirty gallons of water ... each.  They were there for various Jewish purification rituals ... ritual baths for various purposes and so on.  Jesus told the head caterer to draw off some of the water and taste it. 

The caterer tasted the wine, and he was impressed.  This was good wine . . . really good wine.  From there, we have his comment to the confused bridegroom about serving the good wine first and, only after the good wine is finished, does the host then break out the “cooking claret”.

Both the first and the last of Jesus’ miracles are found only in John’s gospel. 

·        The Cana miracle, with the water becoming wine, traditionally regarded as Jesus’ first, is only found in John. 

·        So also is the raising of Lazarus, at Bethany, traditionally regarded as the last of Jesus’ miracles before the crucifixion. 

However historical or however otherwise you want to regard these stories, both have an important place in John’s version of the gospel narrative. 

·        The Cana miracle is seen as setting the stage for Jesus’ public life.  John speaks of this event being the first of Jesus’ public signs, which “revealed his glory”.

·        The raising of Lazarus at Bethany is seen as setting the stage for conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities, which then in turn led to the final, fatal conflict between Jesus and the Roman political and military authorities.

As well, I believe both of these miracle stories are important for our life of faith.

·        The Bethany miracle speaks of Jesus’ triumph over death, a triumph which is later confirmed at Easter.  It communicates God’s promise of a future resurrection life, a life which is not confined by the boundaries set by physical death.

·        The Cana miracle speaks of Jesus’ call to a life marked by joy, not only in the life of the world to come, but in the life we live here and now.  It communicates God’s promise of a present resurrection life, a life which is lived joyfully and with celebration. 

As with many of the miracles in the gospels,

·        I have an open mind as to whether Jesus’ miracle at Cana happened as it was written or was essentially a metaphor for a wider truth;

·        I also have an open mind as to whether Jesus’ miracle at Bethany happened as it was written or was essentially a metaphor for a wider truth.

But still, in both cases, I passionately hope that both miracles happened as recorded, much more passionately (I must admit) than I do with many of the other miracles. 

But then again, even if (as I suspect) these stories are essentially metaphors, they speak a word of truth that goes far beyond mere factuality (as do many other stories in the scriptures).  Both the Cana and Bethany miracles speak of the life to which Jesus calls us:

·        a future life that is not confined by the boundaries of physical death;

·        a present life that is lived joyfully and with celebration.

In both cases, Christ promises us that he will be uncorking, not the “cooking claret”, but wine of a good vintage, wine of the best vintage possible.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

“Solidarity forever”: a sermon (Matthew 3:13-17)

Comments before the lessons:

Today’s service has the theme of the Baptism of Jesus.  We remember Jesus being baptised by John in the River Jordan.  We give thanks that, by participating in that public act of repentance, Jesus identified with the human condition in all its brokenness.  In this light, my sermon today has the title “Solidarity forever.”

Today’s service is a good chance for us to reflect on the significance of Christian Baptism at a time when we don’t have an actual baptism going on.  This way, we can reflect on the meaning of Baptism without the parents of the child being presented for Baptism thinking we’re having a go at them while they’re a captive audience.


In our gospel lesson today, we hear of the Baptism of Jesus.  Jesus went to the Jordan River, where John the Baptist was baptising people.  There, Jesus was baptised by John.  After Jesus was baptised, a voice from the heavens said:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In our lesson from Matthew’s gospel, there is a brief exchange - perhaps the outline of a much longer argument - between Jesus and John before the baptism.

·        John said, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”

·        Jesus replied, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”

And after that exchange (or the longer argument which it represents), they proceeded with the baptism.

The issue was over what John’s baptism was about.  (And let’s be clear that John’s baptism was different to what the Christian Church does when we baptise.) 

·        The gospels spoke of John’s baptism as a sign of repentance, while, in contrast, the Christian Church sees baptism less as an act of individual repentance and more as an act of identification with Christ, and with the worshipping community.

·        As John’s baptism was associated with repentance, it was an act for adults.  As the Christian Church baptises as an act of entry into a community, most Churches (although not all) baptise children as well as adults (and appropriately so).

·        As John’s baptism was associated with repentance, it was an act for those who had made a radical and often counter-cultural decision about their faith and spirituality.  As the Christian Church baptises as an act of entry into a community, most services of Christian baptism represent (and appropriately so) a far less radical and less counter-cultural step of faith on the part of the candidate or the candidate’s parents.

·        The Christian Church baptises in the name of God as Trinity (and appropriately so), while this language - and the ideas behind it - would have been unknown to John.

So, John’s baptism was not the same thing as what the Christian Church does when it baptises.

As I said, the gospels spoke of John’s baptism as a sign of repentance.  The question that would seem obvious to us may also have occurred to John:  “What, if anything, would Jesus have needed to repent of?”

For us, we have been taught in Sunday Schools and Confirmation Classes, about the perfection and sinlessness of Jesus.  As the old hymn says:

                   A perfect life, of perfect deeds,
                   once to the world was shown.

Obviously John would not have operated from anywhere near so highly developed a theology, but he would also have had some expectations about the Messiah.  As Jesus began to seem more and more like the one who would fit that particular bill, John became understandably reluctant to baptise the person he felt should baptise him.

But still, the baptism took place.  Jesus, the individual least in need of repentance, voluntarily participated in an act of profound repentance, saying “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”

In seeking John’s baptism, Jesus expressed his solidarity - and by extension, God’s solidarity - with the whole flawed human race:

·        in our brokenness,

·        in our disunity,

·        in our alienation,

·        in our sin.

This word “solidarity” may just seem like a bit of jargon to some.  (“Solidarity forever!” as the old protest song goes.)  Or it may remind others of the recent history of Poland.  Despite its jargon-ish sound, it is a useful word:  “solidarity”.  It speaks of a person - or a group - so completely identifying with the needs and aspirations of another person - or another group - that it is as if the two were one.  In a sense, the two are “solid”.  (“Solidarity forever!”) 

This is an extension of the whole message of the incarnation - of Emmanuel - of “God-with-us” - that we celebrated at Christmas.  “... [T]he Word became flesh and lived among us ...”.  In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the one living God dwells in our midst.  Our human life is intimately known by God:

·        in its joy and its pain,

·        in its wholeness and its brokenness,

·        in its hope and its despair,

·        in its celebrations and its crises,

·        in its certainties and its paradoxes. 

Our human life is intimately known by God.  (“Solidarity forever!”)

By seeking John’s baptism, a baptism that recognised the reality of our human brokenness, Jesus expressed his solidarity - and God’s solidarity - with all our human condition:

·        not just the noble bits,

·        not just the pretty bits,

·        not just the presentable bits,

·        not just the “religious” bits,

but the full monty, brokenness and all.  (“Solidarity forever!”)

And Jesus, who was baptised in solidarity with our human brokenness, calls the Church - calls us – all of us as a community and each of us individually - to live in solidarity and in fellowship with all God’s world.

·        The Baptised Christ calls us – those of us who are comfortable and well-fed - to live in solidarity and in fellowship with the poor, the hungry, and the homeless; with the indigenous people of this land and with those who seek a safe home within our shores.

·        The Baptised Christ calls us – those of us who are healthy - to live in solidarity and in fellowship with the disabled, the addicted, and those suffering from diseases, whether physical or psychiatric, whose very names frighten us.

·        The Baptised Christ calls us - we who honestly seek to be people of ethical integrity - to live in solidarity and in fellowship with the moral failures of our society.

·        The Baptised Christ calls us - we who seek to be people of authentic faith - to live in solidarity and in fellowship with those who find it difficult to have faith . . . and with those who find it difficult to put the faith they have into any meaningful level of practice.

·        And I also believe that the Baptised Christ calls us - we who place our faith and our confidence in the living God who reveals Godself in Jesus - to live in solidarity and in fellowship with those who place their faith and confidence in the same living God ... but who name that God with other names.

Jesus sought out John and asked him for baptism.  In so doing, he expressed the solidarity of the divine wholeness with our human brokenness.  He calls us, as people who have glimpsed his light, to continue to express - on his behalf - his solidarity with the world he has so completely embraced.  (“Solidarity forever!”)

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

"Don't stand in the doorway; don't block up the hall.": a sermon

For those from a Methodist background, the annual Covenant Service, normally held early in the year, is a significant occasion of faith renewal.  

As I was preparing a Covenant Service for another congregation a few years ago, I felt it was appropriate to "tweak" the language of the service somewhat, for two main reasons:
  • One reason was to underscore the fact that, in the Uniting Church and in many other denominations, we have come to believe that the relationship God has had with the Jews since well before the emergence of Christianity is still an active and vital one.  Our covenant with God as Christians should never be a denial of the covenant which Jews continue to enjoy with God.
  • The other reason was to deal with a word whose meaning has changed radically since the days when John Wesley first led a congregation in renewing their covenant.

The word was "to suffer", as in Wesley's phrase "Put me to doing; put me to suffering."

The way we use the word "suffer" now means to experience pain.  Now, there are some religious people who believe that God causes us to suffer, whether as some sort of punishment, or as some sort of test, or to teach us some sort of cruel "lesson".  While some people on the fringe of Christian faith believe this, and while some people in the churches believe it, no mainstream Christian church teaches this. 

Many people outside the churches, in the wider community, are under the impression that we believe this, however.  In fact, in my experience, it's this false impression - the notion that Christians believe God is the source of human suffering - that's one of the really, really big reasons why you'll find people who grow up as part of families of worshipping, committed Christians who then later opt to become convinced, committed, angry and aggressive atheists in adulthood. 

In Wesley's time, and in earlier centuries, alongside our current meaning of "suffering" was another meaning.  The word "to suffer" meant "to allow" or "to let".  So, for example, the translators of the old King James Bible (about a century-and-a-half before Wesley's day) translated the Greek of the gospels so that Jesus was quoted in English saying "Suffer the little children to come unto me."  What he was saying was "Allow the children to come"... "Let the kids meet me".

So what I've done was to paraphrase Wesley's words "Put me to doing; put me to suffering" so that they say "Enable me to make things happen; enable me to let things happen", so as to minimise the confusion.  The Richard Dawkinses and other "secular fundamentalists" of this world have enough ammunition without our adding to it.

And let me say that the art of letting things happen can be a profound ministry.  In both the church and the wider community, there are times when we need to allow something positive to happen even it's not our first choice (or second, or third, or fourth, or even our eighteenth choice) as a way forward.  Sometimes, we need to cultivate the fine art of letting things happen.   

In the Christian church in our own day, the mentality of "Over my dead body!" has proved fatal for many congregations.  If you remember the TV comedy "The Vicar of Dibley", the character of David Horton, played by Gary Waldhorn, was an exemplar of the "Over my dead body!" mentality:  "A female vicar:  over my dead body! ... Blessing animals in church:  over my dead body!"  In many ways, one of the main story arcs of "The Vicar of Dibley" over a number of seasons was David's transformation from an exemplar of the "Over my dead body!" mentality to something far more positive. 

The singer-songwriter Bob Dylan said something similar in his song "The Times They Are a-changing":

"Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call,
Don't stand in the doorway; don't block up the hall."

"For the times, they are a-changing!"

And now, having referenced John Wesley, Richard Dawkins, "The Vicar of Dibley", and Bob Dylan in the same sermon, I think I'll quit while I'm ahead and remind us that when, in a few minutes, we pray "Enable me to make things happen; enable me to let things happen," we're praying that God will lead us to reject the whole destructive attitude of "Over my dead body!"