Sunday, January 16, 2022

It takes a community to put on a wedding

I have preached many times, over the years, at weddings and about weddings – as you might expect.  So as I sat down to write this sermon, I wondered what new insight might emerge.  What might the Holy Spirit say about this story, being heard in this time, and in this place?

At first, I was tempted to open with a cheap political joke, given the current shenanigans at Westminster.  After all, the Wedding at Cana is the story of Jesus going to social event which then turned out to be a ‘work-gathering’ for him!   

But, you’ll be glad to know, I decided not to pursue political metaphors, this week.  Instead, I felt the Holy Spirit nudging me towards a new and different metaphor.  The more I toiled at my sermonic labour, the stronger the feeling became.  The Wedding at Cana is actually a very powerful illustration for our own life together.  But before I explore that metaphor, I need to sketch out the current position of the Church.

Like our own dear St Faith’s, the Church of England is at a cross-roads at the moment.  Across the country, our membership has been reduced substantially by the Pandemic, despite the best efforts of thousands of ministers offering livestreams from their homes.  But the Pandemic has really only accelerated the trends which were already happening.  

  • Western Society has been systematically turning its back on traditional spirituality for some time.  
  • Scientism and Atheism are loud and competing voices, and many are swayed away from the life of faith.  
  • Sunday trading tempts many people away from traditional churches, towards the new worship centres of the shopping arcades, where they lay their gifts on the new altars of the checkout.  
  • Sunday Morning Clubs tempt children away from church and towards the sports field or the swimming pool.  
  • For the dwindling number of people who are interested in faith at all, there are now such a plethora of choices – internet worship, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, traditional church, house church, home church, books, spirituality courses, other religious traditions.  The Church of England finds that it is now just one voice among a cacophony of styles, traditions, and teaching which are available to the honest seeker.  

But the Church of England, like a great oil tanker at sea, is (by nature) very slow to turn itself around.  Frankly, it’s hard to adapt when the social landscape is changing so quickly.   Here’s just one example:  two years ago we started livestreaming on Facebook.  But now, the younger generation tells me, Facebook is considered ‘the network for old people’.  If you want to reach the next generation, you have to livestream on Instagram, or Tic-Tok, or any number of other platforms I’ve barely even heard of!

We see the effect of all this churn in some startling statistics.  Only about one seventieth of the nation now attends a Church of England church. That’s around 900,000 people in a country of sixty-eight million.  One seventieth of the nation has the responsibility for maintaining all the historic Christian-worship sites of the country – all the lovely old churches, like ours.   And, if that were not enough, one seventieth of the nation needs to pay for the staff to run these buildings too: the priests, Bishops, Safeguarding Officers, Archdeacons, youth workers, schools advisers, administrators, health & safety officers – all the people, in other words, which the weight of administration, good practice and law forces us to need.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the finances of the church are creaking under the strain.  This year, the tiny little Diocese of Portsmouth will spend £1million of its fragile reserves, just to keep the present structure on the road.  That’s despite swingeing cuts among the Diocesan Team of administrators, and despite a complete pause on recruiting new clergy.  If a Vicar leaves a church in our Diocese, right now, the policy is not to replace them.  We just don’t have the money to do it.  And bigger changes are coming too.  It’s just a matter of time.

But what has this to do with the Wedding at Cana?   Well, think about it…with me.  To put on a wedding feast is the act of an entire community.  Laying the tables, decorating the room, cooking the food, serving the food, welcoming guests, playing in the band, and paying for it all – all these things need to happen for a wedding feast to take place.  Only after all these things were done could Jesus attend the wedding.  Only when the community, together, had provided and paid for the space for his first public miracle could that miracle take place.  He needed jars of water.  He needed the jars to have been manufactured, in the first place.  He needed the water to be drawn from the well.  He needed people to serve the new wine of the Kingdom from the jars, to the guests at the table.  It took a community to create the space for Jesus to be known.

But what I really want you to see is this:  Jesus was not the priest of the community.  No, he was its Lord and its God.  He was the provider of the new wine of the Kingdom.  The priests of Cana, the ones who mediated the message of God that day, were the stewards of the feast.  They were the ordinary, servant-workers, probably slaves, who took the new wine which God had provided, and passed it on to all the guests.  And among them was one great High Priest.  Mary.  Mary was the one who said to the other ministers – “Listen to him.  Do whatever he tells you”.  

If the Church of England is to have a future, I believe that this is a message we need to hear, loud and clear.  We have to get hold of the idea that building the church is not the job of its ordained priests alone – it’s the task of the whole community of faithful people.   Within the Kingdom of God, everyone has a role, everyone has a job to do.  Everyone is called on to play their part.  We are, in the words of St Paul, ALL priests in the priesthood of all believers.  Decorating the building, serving the holy food, serving the new wine of the Kingdom, playing in the band, and crucially paying for the feast.  

My brothers and sisters, we are ALL ministers: priests in the priesthood of all believers.  MY role is perhaps best described as the role of Mary.  Like her, it’s my task and my privilege to stand before you and declare:  ‘Listen to Jesus.  Do whatever he tells you’. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment