Monday, 28 January 2013

Epiphany 3 (2) sermon

Isaiah 62: 1-5
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
John 2: 1-11

IT DAWNED ON ME THIS LAST WEEK, that I have now been a part of the life of St Peter’s-in-the-Forest parish for a year.  [Whilst I was not Instituted as Vicar, formally, until March 1st last year, you may recall that we had some 7 weeks of informal lead-in, and I first presided the Eucharist and preached here on the third Sunday of January 2012.]
So, after a year in this place – new for me and my family, and more familiar to many of you (!) – I have regarded it as an interesting learning curve, to be  discovering what people want and expect of an ordained Christian minister in this community.  The life of a Vicar is one I have known for a few years now, so I am used to some elements, though with new faces!  Complete strangers stop me in the street for more than the price of a cup of tea.  (Well, all right, they also often still ask for the price of a cup of tea, too, but let’s not get hung up on details!)  People adopt the habit of making grand metaphysical statements and waiting for me to respond.  I find I enjoy the long pause – people mistakenly take it for depth, whilst I am really just feeling blank!
In particular, and especially in pastoral visits, people are always saying things like "God has a plan for us" and "everything happens for a reason" (like "God took Carl for a reason").  And this has set me pondering.  Is there a scriptural basis for saying things like this?  And how does the Church view life purpose?

Incidentally, I’m glad that people are only asking the easy questions, right?  The problem of evil?  No problem!

And that's where this question is headed.  If you say that God plans everything, then the next sensible question is "So does God plan genocides then?"  Ack.  (Is "ack?" a scholarly word?  Oh well.)

I think there's an important distinction to be made between a view of God as choreographer and of God as redeemer.  God does have a plan for us as a people - "plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11).  I don't believe, though, that God traces out every step we should take for us - whether I have Weetabix or toast for breakfast, whether I take the car or the bike to get about town, or even necessarily whether I become a priest or a social worker or a car mechanic or a fishmonger.  Many of the choices we make aren't choices between "in God's will" and "out of God's will," but are choices between two or more potentially good things.  Almost always, any given choice will have things about it that are good and life-giving and other things about it that are unhelpful, so we've got good and bad coming no matter which option we take.

That's one of the reasons that the view of God as a choreographer who spells out every step we take doesn't work for me.  Another reason is that some things - atrocities and tragedies - are rightly described as "senseless."  Bad stuff happens, and I don't believe it was all choreographed.  I don't believe in fate; I believe in redemption.  The image that comes to mind for me most often when I think about this is of gravity.  Gravity is a force so constant and so powerful that, although we can build things like airplanes to defy it for a while, eventually the plane will need to refuel and land.  Even if it can refuel in midair, sooner or later the plane will wear out, and gravity will win out against anything on earth.

God's power to redeem is a little like gravity.  I believe that evil exists, and pulls against God's redemption, but evil is finite and redemption is not.  God's love for us and for the good world God created is so powerful and so constant that there is no power that can stand against it forever.  "The universe arcs toward justice," as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and no matter how rotten or senseless something is, God's redemption will keep working on it until healing and reconciliation and justice win out.   "For Zion's sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch," as our reading from Isaiah says. 
For once the lectionary for the day lists four texts [including the Psalm, which we don’t recite here at St Peter’s, regrettably], all of which have something in common. All 4 are visionary texts, loaded with symbols for fragile souls, freighted with more meaning than meets the eye. Each of the 4 pictures makes its own emphasis: here our vision of God (in the Psalm), there God's view of us, here the Church's vision of Jesus glorified, there our vision of "the common good." In every case it's theological imagination at work as if our very lives depend on it.
The emphasis of Isaiah 62 is God's view of the People of God. Here a prophet confronts us who "will not keep silent." Why not? "...for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch."
Forget the legendary long-bearded man who walks in sandals and carries a sign to proclaim: "The end is near." Forget hell's damnation and death's destruction. What this prophet sees is vindication and salvation, that "you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God." How would synagogues and churches be changed if all their people came to worship with such a God-given vision of themselves?
"But," we say to ourselves, "in reality we are nothing like that." Our self-image denies God's vision of us as having been created in His own image. Our words - "in reality we are nothing like that crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord" -show that the alienating judgment came from no mouth but our own. The dehumanizing desolation is of our own making.
What the vision targets is that mis-definition of what it "really" means to be human. The message of the vision is: "You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married."
The New Testament portrait in today's exhibition of theological imagination deserves more attention than time now allows. It's the apostolic vision of "the common good" as portrayed in the familiar Pauline image of the body and its members, with Christ as the Head of the Church. Truly spiritual gifts & genuinely-charismatic persons all are "activated" by the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." Personal faith is never private, for it exists only in a public body "for the common good."
The Gospel's product of theological imagination for today is the Church's vision of Jesus glorified, as portrayed by the Fourth Gospel. Let's be careful to notice that it's not the fourth history, nor the fourth biography, but the Fourth Gospel. A gospel is visionary by definition, especially when it has in it a Book of Signs as this one does, for a gospel claims to tell us "God's spiel" or good news.
Now let us imaginatively join first-century hearers of this gospel who, like us, had been prepared by worship before they heard "the sign" about water being turned into wine. Further, they knew about Jesus' resurrection "on the third day," and they had been to Eucharist where wine has special meaning.
John's story about a "sign" opens with the words "On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee ..." Immediately our memory bank recalls that "he was raised on the third day," and we suspect that this story has to do somehow with Jesus' resurrection. The story then relates the changing of water into wine, and we recall the wine that is used at the Lord's Table.
This change from water to wine, then, is really about Jesus' identity as the One who initiated the transition from Judaism to Christianity. As the story concludes: "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him." In other words: "The story ... is not to be taken at its face value. Its true meaning lies deeper." (C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p.297) It "signifies" more than appears on its surface.
A truth of Epiphanytide is that we don’t get what we see: rather, we get what God places in our imagination.  Let us all spend the week to come imagining all the incredible ways in which God’s spiel - God’s good news - will transform and redeem the world we know. That's the wave we get to ride as we live into our Baptismal promises to "renounce the deceit and corruption of evil" and "repent of the sins which separate us from God and neighbour".

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