A sermon preached by the Reverend Deacon Jason A Burns at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on Epiphany 2: 16 January 2022: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11; Psalm 36:5-10.
A few months ago, I talked about gifts from God and the importance of cultivating those gifts because it is through them that God is able to reach others. Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”, which I take as a confirmation that we all have things we are naturally good at and if we cultivate our relationship with God, we will find ways to use those gifts. A few days ago, I asked, on Facebook, what water, wine, God, goodness, peanut butter cookies, and a winter hat have in common? Several people ventured a guess, some even came close. The truth is that I didn’t have a clear answer at the time, but as I have pondered the question and read the responses an answer has emerged.
We just heard about the wedding at Cana of Galilee, at which the wine ran out, which is never a good thing. One thing leads to another, and presto, Jesus turns water into wine. We all know this story, and some of us even know it is called the first miracle. I could have written an entire sermon about that, but I didn’t because we don’t need to talk about Jesus performing miracles, we already know he’s the son of God, so we don’t need to be convinced. Instead let’s shift our focus to one of the miner characters in this story, the Chief Wine Steward. He has experienced a miracle but doesn’t know it. He is shocked that the host has saved the best wine for the end of the wedding feast. He doesn’t know that this wine is different, that it comes from God, nor does he know its meaning. He doesn’t know that through the power of God something as mundane as water has been turned into a thing of beauty, namely the finest wine he has ever tasted. He doesn’t know that the wine is a gift from the Spirit and that is indicative of all of us at one point or another. We can all, at least occasionally, recognize the good gifts, the goodness in ourselves, in each other, in the world; but we rarely acknowledge that those gifts are from God. Why? Because we don’t know how, and we are told, from a young age, that it is our hard work that leads to good things and nothing else. Sometimes we don’t acknowledge gifts because we don’t see how they could be gifts, which goes back to the idea that we don’t see the mundane as a gift, let alone as good because our culture only celebrates the extraordinary. And because of that we ignore so many things, so many gifts, and in doing so we ignore God, we ignore the goodness of God, and we ignore the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Before time existed, God made a choice. That choice was to create a universe governed by one thing, and that one thing is relationship. Whether you look at the natural world or human relations the one common element is relationship. Animals naturally group themselves and eat other portions of creation for survival. Plants rely on the nutrients created from long dead biological organisms and the warmth of the sun for survival. Humans rely on the sun for warmth; plants and animals for survival; and one another for companionship. At a cosmic level there are forces that exists because of the relationship between elements in the universe. All of this came into being because of the goodness of God; because God wanted their creation to be rooted in symbiotic relationship, a relationship that stems from the Spirit of God, who was there at the beginning and who continues to be present today.
What appears to be the trickiest part of creation is humanity. We are willful, stubborn, hateful creatures that continually deny the goodness of God and attempt to do everything on our own. For example, for the past 42 years I have resisted wearing a winter hat when I go outside. I always had an excuse, usually it was simply ‘I’ll be fine, its not that cold out” or “I’ll only be outside for a few minutes.” Of course, my mother, grandmother, and my wife have all been reminding me that I’m dumb and that I need to put a hat on so I don’t get sick, but I continued to ignore their advice. Well, on Christmas I got a new hat. It is a Star Trek hat and I happen to have it right here (put on your hat). I love this hat. I love the colors, the references it makes, the pompom and the fact that it was a gift from my wife. So, after 42 years of stubbornness I now wear my hat when I go outside, and you know what, my ears love it. You see hats are mundane and being told to wear one for all these years felt like a threat to my individuality, which our culture has taught me to safeguard at all costs. It should be my choice to wear a hat because I am in control, not anyone else. But, because of my stubbornness I failed to recognize the gift from God that was present all these years. The gift of love. God’s love is not the hat, it is the bond of affection between myself and the three most important women in my life, who have all been telling me to wear a hat, not because they want to control me, but because they love me and want me to be safe. The ability to experience love through something as mundane as a reminder to wear a hat is the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Another good example of this is the gifting of peanut butter cookies. Peanut butter cookies are themselves mundane, but the joy you bring people when you give them a batch of fresh peanut butter cookies, that my friends is an act of love. The bonds created between two people who share a baked good run deep and are a sign of God’s love, not because of the cookies themselves, but because of the willingness to share them.
If we want to experience God, then we must be willing to let go of our control; and that even means control of the mundane. Doing so is an act of humility, which I recently discovered means “the acceptance of what is”. For me, that means accepting that God called me to be a teacher and a deacon. I have also come to realize and accept that experiencing God does not require me to do some fancy, daily spiritual practice, it simply requires me to accept the fact that God is present at all times and in all places and that if I want to experience God then I simply need to acknowledge God’s presence. After doing so I often see God in the mundane conversation I am having, in the decision to order dinner because I know my wife had just as long a day as I did. You see, God is in the relationship, not the actions and spiritual practices, whatever they may be, are about quieting all the stuff we want to control so that we can discern and accept that God is already present in our lives, we are just too busy worrying that we don’t do enough to notice.
So, what do water, wine, God, goodness, peanut butter cookies, and a winter hat have in common? They are all a part of the equation necessary to maintain and spread the kingdom of God.