Sunday 17th January 2015, Epiphany 2, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the plonk when everyone’s drunk; but you’ve kept the good stuff til last’
The message of the reading today is that when our resources run out, God’s got something better in store.
It’s important to realise that the wine running out isn’t just a disappointment. It’s not just met by a groan as people realise they haven’t got what they need to move from a bit merry to truly plastered. It was a matter of deep shame. In a culture where shame and honour were at the centre of life, running out of wine at a wedding was an act of the deepest disrespect. And the gossipy shaming has begun. Mary’s noticed, ‘They’ve run out of wine.’ And Jesus response is 900 or so bottles of the best wine money can’t buy. Both in quality and in quantity this is a lavish, extravagant gesture.
Does it spare the bridegroom and the stewards blushes, does it allow them to escape the shame, the dishonour of having failed to provide? Yes. But – and this is important – only when they’ve first felt and known their failure. It’s not a ‘phew! It worked out in the end’ kind of situation. Rather it’s a ‘Good God! We failed. But, good God, you rescued it.’
The outward difference between those two positions may not be much, the inner spiritual difference is enormous. One is the reaction of those who sail through life just about coping in their own strength, or at least managing to get away with their mistakes; the other is the grace of owning and facing the reality of our poverty, our need, our failings, our sins – and discovering God’s grace in that failure.
Most of us spend our lives trying to avoid getting to that situation of running out. We have developed a wide range of strategies for keeping going. We work ever harder; we tell lies of an ever more complex nature; we move out debts around from one creditor to another; we manipulate people into doing our will; we avoid situations or people that make us uncomfortable; we try to bargain with God (‘if you make this right, I will do so and so’); we become defensive or self-justifying; we cover our tracks; we make promises to ourselves only to break them a day later; we medicate our pain by eating too much, drinking too much, or countless other compulsive behaviours; we resort to violence. Some of these strategies may be outwardly honest and some not; but they are all the same – they are attempts to cope and get by without coming face to face with the reality, with the crisis of living. In that sense they are all dishonest.
But it’s also avoiding coming face to face with God. Because God’s grace is not a way of lending support to our desperate strategies to just about get by. God’s grace starts at the point when our resources are depleted and we admit it. What does admitting we’ve run out of steam, of wine, look like? It looks like telling the truth, wisely and to the right person or people – but to somebody. It looks like accepting that our relationship has failed, and we were at least partly to blame. It means facing the need to go bankrupt. It means saying that we’re addicted and getting support. It means admitting that we can’t cope with our responsibilities, and asking for help. It means stopping negotiating with God, and surrendering to him.
These are acutely painful things to do. Our natural response is to try all other strategies before we come to this point, because admitting defeat is a distressingly uncomfortable place to be. But it is also the place of grace. In fact, it is the only place of grace.
And grace beyond anything we might expect. The best line in the reading from John is ‘you have kept the best wine until now.’ When the grace of God in Jesus rescues this party, it’s not by rustling up a few extra bottles of low grade plonk to save face. It is 900 bottles of the best wine. Our expectations of God are so low. Our vision of God is too small. The other instance of this that I love in the Gospels is the prodigal son. He just about believes that his Father won’t turn him out, ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But send me to work as a hired hand.’ But his father says, ‘quick, get a robe for him, and sandals for his feet, and a ring for his finger, and kill the fatted calf, and let us celebrate.’ Where we hope at best to be tolerated by God, God welcomes us as children, as honoured guests, as his beloved.
We should not anxiously avoid owning our poverty, our need, because in doing so we are anxiously avoiding God. When our resources run out, God’s got something better in store.
And in this context, I want to say something about the Anglican Communion this week. As you may or may not have noticed, the leaders of the 38 Anglican churches from across the world have been meeting in Canterbury. They were deeply divided before they started, and remain deeply divided at the end – at least in the sense that they don’t agree with each other – especially about gay relationships. They managed to hold it together with only one person walking out, and they finished the week by issuing a statement in which they required the Episcopal Church of the United States to withdraw in small but symbolically significant ways from Anglican structures. That, of course, was the headline in the secular press. And The Episcopal Church’s crime? To change the canonical definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage. The response of Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, was generous and gracious; someone described him as the one saint of the week.
Obviously I’m disappointed with this result. This parish is a signatory to the Inclusive Church declaration which calls for the full inclusion of gay people, and all marginalised people, within the life of the church. I can’t help feeling that this exclusion is small-minded and petty. They added insult to injury by describing it as a ‘consequence’ rather than a ‘sanction’ – as if they couldn’t have helped it; whereas actually they chose to do it and vote for it, and they didn’t have to. It was like trying to rustle up a few extra bottles to save face, rather than accept defeat and ask for God's bigger grace.
But for us, what can we do? Because that is the key question for us. We can admit our sorrow and brokenness in the face of this decision - and protest against it. We can also own our different opinions and not be frightened of them – because even here at Holy Trinity we will think different things. We must have the humility to admit we might be wrong, too. We should live by our conscience, even if it means challenging the structures. And above all we will continue to rejoice, worship, and celebrate.
That last is the main thing. The wedding at Cana ended as the best of parties. The wine flowed. Doubtless the music, and dancing, and cheering, and clapping, and laughing did too. This is the party of God’s kingdom. I don’t know what celebration, what party the primates in Canterbury shared; that kind of news doesn’t trickle out. I hope there was some. But we can celebrate – we need no excuse to celebrate other than the goodness of God, which is assured. This celebrating is most focussed in worship, of course – the Eucharist is the best party of all – but it’s also found over coffee, or in social events, or in meals with guests at the night shelter, or in washing up in the kitchen, or in a quiet conversation with one other person in which we get honest about our problems and discover we are accepted and can weep together. God’s celebration can look like many things. But in all, when our resources give out, what God has in store is so much better.