Today I returned to Oldham Unitarian Chapel to lead worship there. It was really good to see all the regular faces and catch up with them - as Christmas now strangely feels a long time ago. I put this in part down to my frenetic day job and to the daffodils arriving early in our garden, giving a false sense that spring is here.
The service focused on the story of the wedding at Cana, as found in the Gospel of John. It also drew on 'The Vinegar Tasters', as touched upon earlier this week on this blog.
What I like about Oldham Unitarian Chapel is the feeling that I am 'comfortable in my own skin' there. This is testament to the each and every person who attends their regularly and makes it the warmly welcoming place it unfailingly is.
The video I used to accompany the readings was David Attenborough reading lyrics from Louis Armstrong's 'What A Wonderful World' to a montage of nature clips.
It's perhaps all a bit cryptic at this stage but hopefully if you have the time to read my sermon, you will see how it all threads together!
Friends, let me first wish you again a good morning. It is great to see you again since the services I led at Christmas. I know you have been in the good hands of other worship leaders since then. Having not been here, I do feel in some ways I am coming into unknown territory. So I just hope I’m not going over old ground with today's service. Instead I hope the benefit you get from different visiting preachers is a tapestry of views on similar themes - which, we should remind ourselves, is encouraged by our Unitarian and Free Christian tradition.
Today we heard the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. This miracle, taken from the Gospel of John, is quite an interesting one because it is regarded within the Christian tradition as Jesus’s first public miracle. We also heard a reflection on the ‘Vinegar Tasters’, a relatively famous piece of art from China, which we will come to later.
There are a variety of approaches - as you know - to reading the Bible. For some Christians, theirs is a more literalist approach – taking most, if not all, of Biblical scripture to be factually true. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, we perhaps find the ultra-rationalist approach of the likes of Thomas Jefferson – the American president who had some links to Unitarianism. Thomas Jefferson took it upon himself to re-write the story of Jesus - producing what is now known as 'The Jefferson Bible'. He believed the very reasonable moral and ethical teachings of Jesus were being clouded out by outlandish miracles - and as a result, he stripped all the miracles away.
I should be clear, before I go any further, that I probably do sit on this spectrum somewhere nearer to Jefferson than to out-and-out literalists. However, I cannot simply dismiss the miracles like Jefferson did. Instead I take the view of liberal Christian scholar Marcus Borg that the miracle stories of Jesus are rich in metaphor. And like any metaphor, whilst not being literally true, if we can get behind the imagery we can nonetheless find truth. Truth arguably more powerful than surface-level fact.
So, to be clear, I speak to you today as a liberal Christian with an eye for Biblical poetry rather than Biblical science. And I speak to you personally, with no greater claim to spiritual insight than your good selves. Again, let us reaffirm to ourselves that this is our Unitarian and Free Christian tradition.
So what are we to make of the Cana miracle? What truth can we find with today’s reading of this well-known story? For me, I go back to Marcus Borg who says, "The point is not to believe in the Bible, but to see our lives with God through it.”
The first basic observation is that Jesus is at a wedding, which in his time just like ours, would have been a huge celebration – a party. The wedding marks the coming together of existing creation in the form of a young man and woman. And according to the traditional view of marriage, the readying for new creation in the form of children. It is a setting that exudes joy and hope.
The setting reflects our reality today that we too live in the midst of an ongoing work of creation - the ongoing creation of the earth, the universe, and life within it – with humanity seemingly at a central point.
From there we might also observe the significance of the wine running out. In Ancient Jewish society, a wedding would run on for days with the groom and his family expected to provide food and wine for the duration. To run out of either wine or food at a wedding was a disgrace and embarrassment for the groom and his family – it could even result in a lawsuit on behalf of the bride and her family. It all sounds a bit Jeremy Kyle! But there is a serious message here - when the wine runs out, it is not just the dry end of the party, but a potential catastrophe.
In this drying out, we might reflect on our fluctuating condition as human beings – the sense of emptiness we may sometimes feel, the sense of emptiness we might sometimes reap on one another through our words and actions.
At the point of the wine running out, we read also that Mary beseeches Jesus to act. Jesus, there with a small band of newly recruited disciples, appears to be reluctant to get involved – “My time has not yet come.” He says.
Yet he ultimately feels compelled to act and, on instructing the servants to fill the jars with water, transforms the contents into wine. The transformation is not just a small one either – it is one of magnitude, six stone jars each holding twenty to thirty gallons. If you’re wondering what that looks like, imagine two large pallets of wine!
How do we interpret this transformation? Perhaps in this we can see our own potential to be transformed? Perhaps also, we might recognise in ourselves the reluctance to get involved in the wider transformation of the world, particularly when the situation seems hopeless – it’s not my job we might say, there’s nothing I can do about it we might say. Or like Jesus initially, we might even say, “hey forget this small stuff, I’ve got bigger fish to fry...” It would seem there is the message of interconnection and humility here - I cannot be brought into being if I do not bring others, no how matter small my act of bringing is.
And finally, perhaps most significantly, we can find significance in the fact Jesus upsets the prevailing order with his first miracle. The servants take the wine to the master of ceremonies who is startled after tasting the wine, remarking “A host always serves the best wine first. Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!”
The first become last, the last become first. Just like the stories of the manger we heard a few weeks ago, it is made clear that we must abolish any hierarchy of deservedness for the wine – and for life itself – for we all have a rightful share.
So, having reflected on the jars of wine, how does this tie in – you may wonder – with the jar of vinegar?
As we heard in the reflection earlier, the three vinegar tasters – an ancient and highly symbolic piece of art – is viewed as a reflection of the three ancient spiritual traditions of China. The Confucian monk tastes the vinegar and finds it to be primarily sour - reflecting his belief the beauty of the past has been lost. The Buddhist monk similarly tastes the vinegar and recoils, finding it to be bitter, reflecting his understanding of the world as one of suffering. The Daoist monk, unlike his fellow travellers, tastes the vinegar and smiles – reflecting his interpretation of the world as one that is ultimately sweet.
As a side note, we should acknowledge that this reflection is reportedly a Daoist perspective - it may well be that some Buddhists and Confucians will take issue with it. Although I have also read that this apparent tension in views is also a representation of the whole Chinese mind.
Reflecting on the story from the Gospel of John, let us consider what a fourth figure - a Christian monk – would do on tasting the vinegar?
It strikes me that our vision, rooted as we are in the Christian tradition, would ultimately be similar to that of the Daoist monk, one of joy. We see the world as one in which there is a fundamental goodness - the goodness of a wedding in which there is an ongoing act of union and creation. The goodness of a world infused with God.
Yet it’s also not as simple as that – we are not simply here to passively get drunk on life, to consume without consequence, to consume without making our own contribution. Indeed, if we do, we too may well find ourselves run out – spiritually dried up and empty.
Instead we are called to taste the sweetness of vinegar with the one hand, and offer it outwards with the other. The turning of the water into wine is the first major act of Jesus’s ministry and within it we also see the founding truth – and task – of the Christian life. Life is at heart good, but this goodness is only made manifest through the open hand of generosity to others – particularly to those most in need. In both his teachings and the stories of his miracles, Jesus points us the way, let us each be transformed by his truth, and truly become who we were made to be.