Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany.

The Epiphany Theme of Glory

The account in John’s gospel of Jesus’ first miracle at the Wedding at Cana, speaks of glory – a golden thread running through the season of Epiphany; the bright star which lead the Magi; the riches they offered and their unexpected encounter with the glory of the infant king; the voice of God heard at Jesus’ baptism; John the Baptist’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah; and, today, the water turned to wine at the wedding feast. These are all wonders, things to make you gasp, things to move you with their beauty. They are all things to do with life and generosity, blessing and abundance. These things glisten and shine, like dew drops on grass, or frost on the leaves of winter – they are jewels of life and signs of God’s loving presence. 

A Church without joy

Fast forward over centuries to a church which has gained a reputation for being disapproving, mean-spirited and joyless – this is often how we are portrayed in the media, the clergy especially so. Sometimes this is unfair – we are not all religious fanatics, mean, miserable and negative. But as a denomination the Church of England is still good at denouncing, excluding people and pronouncing judgement.

For many years the spotlight was on women priests, and then on women bishops, but the debate was really about who women are, their status before God, their intrinsic worthlessness or worth, their place in the story of human sinfulness and salvation. The debate revealed a deep suspicion, amongst the status quo, about womankind – people who needed to be kept out. Even though we now have women as both priests and bishops, the Church of England has seven special bishops whose job it is to look after clergy and parishes who won’t accept ordained women. The Church of England is exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act, so this discrimination is both legal and official. I still find this painfully shocking.

I was there, a member of the Church of England General Synod, when the vote to ordain women as priests went through. I remember feeling full of joy – it was a momentous and historic occasion, but I also had a terrible sense of dread. For it seemed inevitable that now women had broken through the barriers, it was inevitable that the debate would shift to homosexuality – a new group would be found to exclude and denounce – and indeed it has come to pass. So, currently, there is a whole process taking place in the Church of England about homosexuality. Some churches have added being anti-gay to the descritptions of their churches on their websites – it has become almost a part of their creed. I know some still struggle, quietly, personally to accept homosexuality; but the Church of England has been very noisy in its opposition. 

I wonder, when this struggle is over, who the church will find to object to next? It seems there always has to be someone. All this has been damaging and hurtful – to those who are excluded, to the church which is now so often portrayed as bigotted, narrow minded and mean, and to the Christian faith itself which is now seen as joyless and irrelevant. How very far we have travelled from that momentous day when Jesus turned water into wine – a day of joy, celebration, miracle, transformation, glory.

The need to denounce others

What is this need to be against people? I suppose it might make you feel good: you are OK, in the ‘in group’, you are one of God’s chosen ones, one with a life beyond reproach, you are saved – as opposed to people how are not OK, who are not in the circle, whose lives you designate as immoral or unhealthy, who God is against for whatever reason, whose salvation is in doubt. We can all do this: it is the foundation of racism and all manner of descrimination: ‘you are not like me’. If we feel the need to reject others like this, we need to stop and look at Jesus: he didn’t spend his life with the religious people, the moral people, the in crowd – he was out there with the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the poor – those whom society deemed ‘not OK’, but whom he loved and accepted and healed. 

Or perhaps this need to reject others stems from a lack of faith in the scope of God’s love, as if this is a limited thing, over which we have to squabble in order to win our bit. But Jesus transformed gallons and gallons of water into wine – there was more than enough to go round. And so it is with God’s love – there is more than enough for everyone. There’s no need to fight over it!

Or perhaps it is to do with a denial of our own flaws and sins: if we make enough noise about the unrighteousness of others we distract ourselves and others from our own personal faults, or those of our group – people like ‘us’. This, again, seems to limit God – this time God’s forgiveness, as if this too, is in limited supply. When we stop to look at the lengths God went to to show us we are forgiven, we know that divine forgiveness is not a limited resource – it too is generous, abundant, more than enough. And Jesus did once tell us to take the log out of our own eye before we point out the speck in someone else’s.

Or perhaps it’s a distraction from deep seated fear about the world and the future? If we pour all our energy into discussing gender and sexuality, we can ignore the greater sins of humanity which are truly frightening – war, climate change, environmental destruction, weapons of mass destruction, global poverty and economic injustice. But, as we know, avoiding these things, which threaten the survival of life itself, will not make the problems go away. They have to be faced, and the voices of faith should be there in this arena – at the moment they are marginal. Why so, if we truly believe that this is God’s world, God’s creation?   

A problem of theology

I think that, at the root of the meanness that has come to dominate the church, is a problem of theology; a problem about our understanding of God. The western church, which includes the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the protestant denominations of Europe, has cultivated an image of God as the divine ‘Thou Shalt Not’. This is a hostile God, who is fundamentally against us unless we submit and allow ourselves to be taken over until we cease to be ourselves – almost as if we need to be erased. We say ‘God is love’, but we live as if God hates us. 

These ideas are powerful because, if we are honest with ourselves, we all know that we’re not perfect, that there are things about us that need to be healed and coaxed back into life, we know that we are worn down and battered, subject to jealousy and self destructive habits. 

A better way

What the miracle at the wedding at Cana shows us is that God is waiting to heal and bless, not to obliterate us in rage. Whatever we are now, whoever we are, we are objects of God’s love, God’s beloved upon whom God longs to pour healing, generous, transforming love. We are of God’s making: when we were made, God saw that we were ‘very good’. Yes, sin came and messed things up, but at our core, we are still God’s ‘very good’ creation. And that goes for all humankind, indeed, all of creation. We are OK and, with God’s help, we can be glorious. There is not just enough, there is plenty. There is blessing – always: every day we can be blessed. God is love, not hate, is creation not destruction, is blessing, not curse. We are God’s beloved – God delights in us! 

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