All Saints Margaret Street | High Mass – Epiphany 2 Sunday 17 January 2016

Sermon for High Mass – Epiphany 2 Sunday 17 January 2016

Sermon preached by the Revd. Dr Daniel Dries, Rector of Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney

From the Second Chapter of the Gospel according to St John we read the words of Christ to his mother:

“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

The Wedding at Cana is one of the stories. It is one of the dramatic miracles that we expect to find in a colourfully illustrated children’s Bible. We are all very familiar with this extraordinary marriage; however, we are completely misguided if we imagine this Jewish wedding to be something along the lines of Fiddler on the Roof without the annoying songs. A first century Jewish wedding ceremony was probably little more than a procession of the bride from her father’s house to her new home; that is, the home of the bridegroom’s family. Although formal or liturgical aspects of the wedding were largely absent, the banquet or the party that followed more than made up for it. Lasting up to 2 weeks, a first century wedding banquet was not for the faint hearted. Anyone who has ever organised a banquet or a wedding reception knows that tension and conflict are always going to feature somewhere in the mix. Weddings seem to be an excuse for grown people to throw tantrums and revert to the behaviour that we usually associate with toddlers. We now have the benefit of reality television programmes built entirely on this premise, though why it is considered entertaining is rather lost on me.

At first glance, the Wedding at Cana seems like a party interrupted by a minor catastrophe, followed by a spectacularly happy ending. However, there is stress and tension everywhere and on many levels. The steward or the president of the banquet is under great stress as the wine runs out; Our Lord is put under pressure by his own mother, who expects her son to save the day. The real tension comes when the Mother of Our Lord is confronted by a child who seems to be having one of those rebellious teenage moments, albeit 10 or 12 years late. 

Towards the end of the first Chapter of John’s Gospel, Christ promises “greater things” or “signs” that will soon follow. The Wedding at Cana is the first of these. However, almost most like a hint of stage fright, Christ seems rather reluctant to embark on this spectacular new career.

“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Musicians and athletes know that adrenalin or tension is a requirement of any outstanding performance. However, tension within close relationships does not always result in a good outcome. In the week now past, the Primates of the Anglican Church have met to find a way through matters of great tension and conflict that plague the Anglican Communion. We cannot pretend that the Anglican Church is completely harmonious. We cannot suggest that our denomination reflects a completely unified body of Christ.

If you will indulge me for just a moment, I will speak a little of my own context. The parish of Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney is not typical of Anglicanism in our part of the world. While High Mass in my parish includes fine music, birettas, beautiful vestments and great clouds of incense, our neighbouring parishes represent the other extreme of Anglicanism. Choruses sung from large screens, and clergy who lead worship in a suit and tie. As we observe the vast contrasts within the Anglican Communion, it is hard to imagine a more perfect example of this than two large churches on George St, Sydney. If God doesn’t have a sense of humour, we’re in real trouble.

In years gone by, there has certainly been great tension and conflict, though I’m pleased to say that the relationship is much more harmonious today. However, the parishioners at Christ Church St Laurence are tremendously encouraged by a steady stream of visitors from this parish, and others like it all around the world; visitors who remind us that we are a part of a much larger family. And yet, within the body of Christ, we are also required to relate to those immediately around us, even if the temptation may be to seek out others of the same mind and tradition. Historically, one of the great strengths of Anglicanism has been the desire and the ability to live with difference and diversity. But, of course this comes at a cost. There is always a sacrifice involved in accommodating or meeting the needs of the other. There will always be tension when we attempt to engage with difference. At the Wedding at Cana, the Mother of Our Lord calmly states, “They have no wine.” This innocuous observation is like the conductor raising the baton. Something has to happen; Christ is put on the spot. To ignore his mother will expose her to shame and embarrassment, and yet Our Lord obviously feels uneasy about the pressure and the tension of this situation.

Suddenly he is made aware of obligations to his heavenly father, as well as to the expectations of his family and community. This moment is a wonderful metaphor for the church of our time. We have obligations to our God; and we have obligations to our families, our church and to our society. Attempting to balance all of these is no mean feat. It’s not difficult to see why so many Christians opt for disengagement and separation.

“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

This seemingly uncaring statement seems to be an attempt at disengagement. It seems to be a shying away from conflict and tension. And as this young man is being pressured to embrace his divine destiny, it is a perfectly understandable human response. Knowing the pain and suffering that will follow, we would have to expect at least a moment of hesitation. At some point in our lives, we all need a gentle push from a parent or someone else fulfilling that role. A rather charming aspect of the Wedding at Cana is that mother of Our Lord (who is never named in John’s Gospel) shows no sign of being flustered or angry; she just carries on with her responsibility, and she insists that her son will do the same. We can almost hear her calmly saying, “I’m just going to pretend that I didn’t hear that!” In her grace and wisdom, Mary makes it clear that, for God, disengagement is not an option.

The theological interpretations of the Wedding at Cana are many and varied. Some Biblical scholars suggest that new wine materialising in old jars represents a turning away from Judaism. This theory is strengthened by the fact that the stone jars were for the rites of purification. In speaking of the Wedding at Cana, the Roman Catholic Theologian, Raymond Brown, goes as far as saying, “All previous religious institutions, customs and feasts lose meaning in Christ’s presence.” (1966)  

Other scholars observe that this first miracle is focussed on wine, while it will be followed by another involving the multiplication of bread – forming a prelude to the last supper and Eucharistic theology. Many interpretations are possible, but the undeniable fact remains that, in a situation of conflict and tension, there is an outpouring of grace and compassion. A situation that could have ended in shame and disaster is saved by the abundance of God’s love and grace.

The meeting during this past week of the Anglican Primates comes at time of great tension, conflict and constant threats of disengagement. Like all conferences, this meeting boasted a catchy slogan. Describing the worldwide Anglican Communion, it read:

85 million people; 165 countries; 38 provinces; 1 Lord, Jesus Christ.

Such a clumsy and disparate denomination was always going to experience conflict and tension. We did after all begin as a church in conflict. It goes without saying that the most important part of this slogan is the final segment – 1 Lord, Jesus Christ. This reminds us that disengagement is not an option; it reminds us that separation from the issues of our society and from one another is not possible.

As we work our way through the even greater conflict that plagues our denomination, we trust and pray that the abundance of God’s grace will ultimately become apparent, as indeed it did at a rather tense wedding banquet in Cana.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.