Sunday, 23 November 2014

Water Becomes Wine

Wedding of Dawn and Simon Cole-Savidge

Saturday 22nd November 2014

John 2:1-11   On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."  4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."  5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."  6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.  8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.  9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  10 and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now."  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

There are three subjects that they say you should never preach about:
            money, politics and sex.

Well, over the years that I’ve been preaching,
            I’ve spoken plenty of times about money
            and I’ve waded in often enough on politics
but I’ve not often had a chance to preach about sex.

Which is odd, when I stop to think about it,
            because if you ask the typical person outside of the church,
            what they think the preoccupations are of those of us inside it,
the chances are that they will say
            that Christians are preoccupied with sex,
            and who is allowed to do what, and with whom.

And yet the Bible, and Jesus in particular,
            talks a lot more about money and politics
            than about issues of sexual ethics and morality.
And so I will continue to argue that our preaching should primarily address
            issues of economics, and justice, and power;
            because these are crucial issues
                        for what it means to be followers of Christ
                        in this world in which we find ourselves.

However, today is a wedding, and so it is appropriate
            for us to have as our Bible reading
                        a story in which Jesus turns up at a wedding,
            and turns copious quantities of religious legalism
                        into unexpectedly fine wine.

So today I’m not going to preach directly about politics,
            and I’m not going to preach about how we use our money.
Rather, I’m going to preach about…
            the nature of the kingdom of God.
            (But sex might get a mention too, along the way).

John’s gospel, where we find this story of Jesus turning water into wine,
            has a special word that it uses to describe the miracles of Jesus:
            It calls them ‘signs’.

These ‘signs’ of John’s gospel
            are there, as signs often are,
            to point to something beyond themselves.

Just as a road sign might point to somewhere it wants you to go,
            or a sign on a building might point to what is inside,
So the signs of John’s gospel point to the kingdom of God;
            they point to the new way of being human before God
            that is coming into being through the person of Jesus.

And the very first of these ‘signs’,
            is set at a wedding party:
            a feast of celebration: of love, commitment, and faithfulness.

And at this party, Jesus transforms 180 gallons of water
            into the equivalent of 1,091 bottles of wine
            which is, when you think about it, quite a lot of wine for one party.

I remain quietly optimistic that there will be some wine on the table
            at the reception later,
but I think even Dawn and Simon’s collection of friends
            may struggle to get through over a thousand bottles in one sitting.

But back to John’s gospel, and of course, this is a sign:
            the importance here is not the water, or the wine,
            the importance is what they point to…

The water, we are told, was there for the Jewish ritual washing,
            it was the water of careful religious observance,
            it was the water of the law of the land.

The Jews of the first century had very strict rules about rituals;
            their whole society was built on adhesion
                        to a comprehensive religious legal code
            which regulated everything from when and how to wash your hands
            to what you could eat and wear, and even who you could marry.

The six water jars at the wedding, were just the tip
            of a whole Levitical and Deutoronomic legal iceberg
            that existed to ensure that those who kept its requirements
                        could be confident that their behaviour
                        wouldn’t jeopardise their covenant relationship with their God.

So, from a Jewish perspective,
            the water was very necessary.
Without it, the people at the party wouldn’t be able to wash in the right way
            and would become ritually unclean;
                        which would rather spoil the party;
            certainly for those who were very concerned
                        about their careful religious observance

And yet Jesus turned it into wine!

After Jesus had finished with them,
            the stone jars no longer held water
                        for washing and purifying,
            but wine for rejoicing, wine for celebrating
                        wine for the enhancing of life.

The party had been in danger of failing,
            because the wine had run out,
            and all that was left was water.
And in the face of this, Jesus transformed water into wine,
            turning a concern for strict religious law-keeping
            into a free gift of fine wine for everyone.

This sign of water-turned-to-wine
            points us to the idea that when Jesus turns up at a party,
the time for strict religious legal observance has passed,
            and the time for living life in all its fullness has arrived.

And this, says John’s gospel,
            is a ‘sign’ of the in-breaking kingdom of God

We get the same theme elsewhere in the gospels, of course,
            where the kingdom of God is spoken of as a party, or a banquet,
                        to which all are invited,[1]
            not just the righteous, the self-righteous, and the sanctimonious,
                        but the ordinary, everyday people
                                    whose lives are complex and confused.
            The kingdom of God, as Jesus proclaimed it,
                        embraces those whom others might deem
                        unworthy or unsuitable.

So let me put this as clearly as I can:

If the church is to be an outpost of the kingdom of God,
            then it needs to be less concerned with water,
            and more enthusiastic about wine.

It needs to be less concerned about the finer points of legal observance,
            and more enthusiastic about the new thing that Jesus is doing
            as he brings life and joy to those meet him at the party.

And so, as promised, we come to the subject of sex.
            This is, after all, a wedding celebration,
                        and none of us, surely,
                        are under any illusions about what that means.

Weddings are a celebration of the joining together
            of two people in love and covenant commitment,
not only for their own sake,
            but for the sake of the whole of society.

But, and here’s an interesting thing,
            Dawn and Simon actually got married some months ago.
I remember the day well,
            because Dawn turned up for a staff meeting that morning,
            and had to leave early to go and get married.

Simon and Dawn went to a registry office,
            made their legal promises in front of some witnesses,
                        signed some paperwork,
                        and were declared husband and wife by the registrar..

In the eyes of the law, they have been married for some time.
            But nonetheless, here they are today, with all of us,
                        for something even more wonderful to happen.
Today is where the water of their legal marriage,
            is transformed into the fine wine of a covenant entered into before God.

Today, the promises made at a legal ceremony
            in a Registry Office in Camden,
become promises made in the sight of God
            and in the congregation of his gathered people.

Water is turned into wine in our midst,
            and their marriage becomes itself a sign,
            pointing us all to the life-transforming potential
            of the coming kingdom of God.

It is one of the great tragedies of Christian history
            that those inside the church
have spent so much time and effort
            obsessing over the legalities of sexual ethics.

From debates over the rights and wrongs of contraception,
            to whether it is right for divorcees to remarry in church,
            to the current discussions around sexuality and marriage.

When we make such legalisms the touchstone of our faith,
            and when we allow our concerns for purity to dominate,
we invest ours energies into maintaining our jars of water
            whilst the wine of the kingdom runs dry in our midst.

And sometimes it takes a miracle to open our eyes
            to the work of love that God is doing in his world.
Sometimes it takes a wedding
            to turn our obsession with purity
            into something altogether more wonderful.

And so here we are today,
            and a miracle is happening in our midst.

Two people are joining themselves to one another,
            in the presence of God
            and in the company of his people.

And what God joins together,
            no-one should separate,
because the new is come, and the old is passed.

The kingdom of love is breaking into our world,
            and the blessing of God is ever made real in new ways.
Water becomes wine,
            and the party of celebration begins.

[1] Luke 14.15-24; Matt 22.1-14

Sunday, 2 November 2014

"Scroungers" or "Hard Working Families"?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2nd November 2014 11.00
Living Wage Sunday

Matthew 23:1-12  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  2 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat;  3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.  5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.  6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven.  10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.  11 The greatest among you will be your servant.  12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Micah 3:5-12  Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.  6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them;  7 the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.  8 But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.  9 Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity,  10 who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  11 Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us."  12 Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

The people once described by Napoleon
            as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ are now, it seems,
divided into ‘scroungers’ and ‘hard working families’.

You’re either contributing to society,
            or taking from it.
If you’ve got a job, and you pay your taxes,
            then you have earned your right to be part of our society,
            and to access the benefits of our common wealth.
If, however, you’ve not got a job,
            and especially if you’re in receipt of some support from the state,
            you are a ‘scrounger’, and you have no moral right
            to access the benefits that are sustaining you.

I think that this is an invidious narrative,
            but it is one with huge popular appeal;
particularly among those who work hard, pay their taxes,
            and resent funding the lifestyle choices of the ‘scroungers’.

Earlier this year, the Chancellor George Osborne said:

“Where I have had the opportunity I have focussed the effort on those on low and middle incomes… That's my priority, that's where my tax-cutting priorities lie because I want to help those hard-working families."[1]

And the Prime Minister David Cameron said:

“welfare is there to help people who work hard and should not be there as a sort of life choice… That is why we need to make work pay and cut the welfare bill - cutting this bill will enable us to cut taxes for hard-pressed households.”[2]

But it’s not just from the Conservative side of the house
            that such rhetoric comes…

In his conference speech this year, Labour leader Ed Milliband asked:

“Can anyone build a better future for the working people of Britain?”.

before offering the following answer:

“I am not talking about a better future for the powerful and the privileged. Those who do well whatever the weather. I’m talking about families like yours treading water, working harder and harder just to stay afloat. For Labour, this election is about you.”[3]

Both sides of the political fence have bought into the narrative
            that we’re all either scroungers, or workers.
And both sides recognize the political capital that is to be gained
            from reducing the national burden of the benefit system,
            in order to correspondingly reduce the taxation burden
                        borne by hard-working floating voters.

As Jesus might have put it, in one of his more cynical moments,
            “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
                        and lay them on the shoulders of others;
            but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

And so we find ourselves at our Gospel reading for this morning.

Come back with me, for a few minutes, to the world of first century Judea,
            as we start to unpick Jesus’ damning indictment
                        of the religious and political leaders of his own day,
            before coming back to our own world,
                        to consider how his critique might speak
                        to our contemporary situation.

The first thing to say, is that our passage from Matthew 23,
            which we had read to us earlier in the service,
cannot be read in isolation from something that Jesus says
            a few chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew 11:28-30   "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

We often encounter this saying as a comfort for troubled souls;
            I’m sure you know the kind of thing,
            you’ve heard it in sermons before:

            Are you weary? Weighed down by the trials of life?
            Are you finding the burden of your troubles too hard to bear?
                        Then come to Jesus, like Pilgrim in Bunyan’s famous novel,
                                    and lay down your heavy burden at the cross;
                        because Jesus is gentle, humble, meek and mild;
                                    rest in him and your soul will be restored.
                        His yoke is easy, and his burden is light…

Except, this was not really the point
            of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11,
and it certainly wasn’t what he was talking about
            when he spoke of burdens too heavy to bear
            in our reading for this morning from chapter 23.

The burden that Jesus had in mind,
            was not the sense of soul-weariness
                        that afflicts us all from time to time.
            Nor was it the burden of persistent sin,
                        damaging and destructive though that can be.

Rather, Jesus was talking about burdensome systems of oppression,
            that had kept people enslaved and ensnared,
                        to the service of the unjust regime
                        that held political and religious power.

The Judea of the first century
            was an occupied country.
The Romans held ultimate political power,
            but it was exercised locally through a permitted network
            of puppet kings and religious leaders.

This devolved system of governance had local responsibility
            for administering taxation, legislation, and social care.
And as long as the Roman Empire received what it required,
            the details of how the rest played out at a local level
            was something for the indigenous rulers to sort out.

For the average person, in an average Jerusalem street,
            the “hardworking first century family man”,
                        just “trying to make ends meet”,
            the system was a burden from dawn till dusk.

Taxes were exorbitant,
            and the system for their collection was rife with corruption.
The political leaders were out-of-touch,
            and motivated primarily by self-interest and self-aggrandizement.
And the religious leaders were utterly compromised,
            and thoroughly enmeshed in the preservation
                        and legitimation of the status quo.

The Judean equivalent of the man on the Clapham omnibus
            was over taxed, under paid, and put-upon at every turn.

By the same token,
            those in need society’s help,
            the widows, the orphans, the extreme poor, and the disabled,
were having their legally enshrined right to support
            cut back at every opportunity.

Isaiah may have told the people of Israel that they should
            “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
            defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:17  

But the reality of Israel at the time of Jesus
            was a long way from this ideal.
Beggars lined the streets,
            women were vulnerable and defenceless,
            and the sick were pushed to the margins of society and beyond.

So, when Jesus says,
            ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens’
he is speaking to those who are put-upon and done-unto
            by an economically oppressive and destructive system,
            borne out of a combination of Roman Imperialism
                        and unethical localised administration.

The yoke that Jesus invites people to throw off
            is the yoke of the oppressor,
            it is the yoke of tyranny.

And his invitation to take up an alternative yoke,
            is an invitation to start living by a different set of rules,
it is a call to start living
            as citizens of a different empire,
            as those who belong to different kingdom.

Once again, Jesus sounds like a dangerous revolutionary,
            and his words of challenge no longer sound so warm and comforting.
This is no gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
            comforting the tired and weary with platitudes and clichés.
Rather, this is Jesus the radical,
            calling the oppressed to a new world order,
and challenging the self-interested powers-that-be
            by unmasking their hypocrisy
            and exposing their indifference to the plight of the poor.

The empire to which Jesus calls people
            is a kingdom of mercy, justice, and compassion.
It is a new world-order where those who wearily toil
            are liberated from the burdens that tyrannize them.

It is a vision of the world where justice is fairly administered
            for both the rich and the poor alike (Lev. 19.15; Deut 1.17),
and where each member of society is of equal value
            in the eyes of the law, as well as in the eyes of the Lord.

This is the empire of God,
            and Jesus invites people to start to experience it in the here-and-now.
Not as some longed for future,
            or as some vision for the afterlife,
but as a reality that transforms human society
            as the values of eternity break into the present.

It is in the light of this vision, first spelled out in chapter 11,
            that Jesus turns his attention in chapter 23
            to one of the main stumbling blocks to the realisation of the new world.
And so the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees,
            become his particular target.

The thing that seems to particularly offend Jesus
            about the scribes and the Pharisees
            is that they ought to know better.

They, after all, are the custodians of the laws of Moses.
            They are those who have read Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
                        and have taken upon themselves the task
                        of applying the ancient laws to the first century world.

The scribes and the Pharisees know the commands
            to exercise fair and impartial judgment,
they know the commands to care for the weak and the vulnerable,
            they know the commands to exercise taxation with probity.
They know this stuff, and they teach it easily enough;
            but, says Jesus, they don’t live it out.
It is not real in their lives, and so they are hypocrites.

They should be at the forefront
            of challenging the oppressive practices of the Roman Imperial system.
But instead they have become complicit in its abuses,
            and are profiteering from its corruption.

Instead of lifting the yoke of oppression from the shoulders of the poor,
            they are tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
            and laying them on the shoulders of others,
while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

They have betrayed the vision of the prophets
            and have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.[4]

They have accepted the bribe
            that the empire offers to all who might challenge it,
and have exchanged their call to transform the world
            for the more immediate lure of power, status, and wealth.

And, I have to ask,
            are we any different?

The followers of Christ down the centuries
            have demonstrated a ready capacity to align themselves
            with promises of power, wealth, and status.

We have silenced ourselves, and shut ourselves up,
            all in the cause of self-preservation and self-interest.
Time and again we have lost the vision of the prophets
            for a world transformed and a world renewed,
because we have set our sights on the things of this world,
            and not on the revelation of the new world that is breaking in upon us.

But the call and critique of Jesus echoes down the centuries to us, today,
            challenging us to consider our relationship to power, wealth, and status,
and asking us to look long and hard at the complicities we bear
            in the treatment of the poor, the vulnerable, and the disabled.

The people of our country cannot simply be split
            into “hard working families” and “scroungers”,
            to “givers” and “takers”,
and to do so is to imbibe a narrative of domination
            where the poor are squeezed,
                        the vulnerable are oppressed,
                                    and the weak are heavy-laden.

The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us all to engage society
            in ways that are transformative, and not entrenched.
It calls us to see Christ in the face of the stranger,
            and to see God-given humanity of each created person.

There may be no such thing as the undeserving poor,
            but any of us who look at our own wealth
                        and tell ourselves that we deserve it,
            may well find that we are closer to the Pharisees and the scribes
                        than we are comfortable admitting.

This coming week is Living Wage week,
            and there will be a lot of publicity
                        about the importance of paying people an hourly rate
                                    that is sufficient, not only for subsistence living,
                                    (which is the premise of the minimum wage(,
                        but a rate that is capable of lifting people out of poverty.

The Living Wage foundation believe
            that work should be the surest way out of poverty.
Work should not be a burden on the shoulders of the poor,
            but a means of grace and dignity.[5]

As a church, we are part of the Citizens UK movement,
            which aligns us with other community groups,
            ranging from churches, to schools,
                        to synagogues, to hospitals, to mosques.[6]

And in this way, we are directly involved
            in the process of community-organising to effect change
            in some key and vital areas in both London and the wider UK.

So, through the London Citizens group,
            we are aligned with campaigns relating to, amongst other things,
            the governance of the UK,
                        improved social care,
            child health,
                        affordable housing,
            treatment of asylum seekers,
                        employment and training opportunities,
            credit unions,
                        and the living wage.

If this kind of direct involvement in the transformation of society,
            at a non-party-political level
is something that you are interested in,
            please do speak to me, or Dawn, or Ruth,
and we will talk with you about how you can get more involved
            on behalf of Bloomsbury.

This, it seems to me,
            is where the rubber starts to hit the road
in terms of our faith taking shape in our society,
            to transform the world in the name of our saviour Christ Jesus.

[4] Genesis 25.29-34