25 January 2009 - Sermon preached by the Revd. Ally Barrett after the ‘Ely Diocese 900 Service’

As most of you will have picked up from earlier in the service, 2009 is a special year in the life of the diocese of Ely, as we celebrate 900 years of witness to the people in this area. The anniversary year was well and truly launched this weekend, with a special service in the Cathedral yesterday afternoon, at which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, presided and preached. It was good to see Buckden so well represented at the service, and those who were there will, I know, agree with me that it was a thrill to hear Rowan speak, and to see him at close quarters. The message he brought to the churches in this diocese was one of real hope and encouragement, and real challenge, too.

There are just a few things in what he said yesterday (and at the talk he gave to the clergy on Friday evening) that I wanted to share with you this morning.

On Friday evening Rowan spoke about the idea of a broken society (a phrase beloved of certain parts of the press) and how when you scratch the surface of a broken society, what you find, actually, are broken individuals. It is not so much society that is broken, but it is individual people, who by the experience – what they have done and what has been done to them – who experience that brokenness.

Reflecting on today’s gospel reading, it struck me that the wedding at Cana might offer us similar wisdom: when the wedding feast runs out of wine, it speaks of a lack, an emptiness. We might look around us and see not only a society that is broken, but also a society in which there is a lack – of spiritual nourishment, perhaps a lack of truth, of love, of hope, a society in which there is an aching emptiness. When Christ turned the water into wine, he quenched the thirst of the wedding guests, but not just with the inferior wine that they had been drinking – he gave them a new wine, extraordinarily and miraculously better than what they had ever tasted before.

Rowan spoke of the church’s call to speak ‘words of life’ into all situations of brokenness. In the language of today’s gospel reading, that might mean asking ourselves: How can the church work with God to bringing that new wine to a society that is so thirsty for it? What will that wine look like? How can we carry it out of our own private wedding feast in church and share it more widely?

Do we feel, even, that we have that new wine, or are there times when we feel just as dry and thirsty as the rest of society?

At the service yesterday, the gospel reading was the wonderful passage from the Sermon on the Mount: “A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Rowan invited us to think about how we could inhabit that city so that it sheds light on all around it. How can we do that? When we know our own imperfections, our own darkness, our own failure to shine with God’s light?

Rowan’s call to the church was to speak words of life to all who have no hope, and to shine as a beacon for all around us. And I suggested that we might see that as bringing the new, miraculous wine to those who are thirsty. But we cannot do that if we ourselves do not speak words of life to one another, unless we ourselves have tasted and shared this new wine, unless we ourselves have been lit from within by the light of Christ.

Rowan suggested that we can, because God is with us, is with his church, and where he has promised he will be, there he will always be found. What we are celebrating this year in the Ely 900 celebrations is not our faithfulness to God, but God’s faithfulness to us. Fortunately, what we are trying to make visible in this city on a hill (or what we are trying to make available in this new wine) is not our own holiness, but the presence of God himself. God is made visible when we are faithful, said Rowan.

At the wedding in Cana, Jesus took what was plain and ordinary, and transformed it into something glorious and special and wonderful. But never forget that it started as water. And it started as water that some obedient but confused servants probably grumbled about having to pour into those six stone water jars. Jesus worked with what was there – and with the willingness of those who engaged with him, and were willing to trust him – to take what they had and make it better.

God is made visible when we are faithful. And faithfulness, said Rowan, can be witnessed in a combination of passion and stillness.

Passion is what we see at Calvary: the love of God nailed to the world so firmly that we know he will never let it go, never give up on it. Rowan challenged us to think about whether our love (as a church) for the world around us, or perhaps just for the village our church serves, is as strongly fixed to that community as God’s is? Is our Passion for our community and for the world as loving and as all-embracing as Christ’s?

Stillness is what we see when an individual or the church can witness to peace between earth and heaven, which opens up a space for others to enter into the loving presence of God. If our churches’ activity, or our divisions and internal arguments, mean that we do not witness to that peace between earth and heaven, then it is hard to see how others can experience the presence of God here in church where the received wisdom is that it might be found.

Rowan spoke of the Christian community as one that is imperfect, but as one which must be in the process of becoming transformed; a community in which people (in his words) speak words of life to each other, within which the light of God is shared; but also a community in which all the members and the institution itself are works in progress. Our witness is not so much how holy we have become, but more the fact that – this side of heaven, anyway – we are not there yet.

We show glimpses of the transformation that Christ longs for us to know, but our chief witness to those around is that we are redeemed sinners – we are the living testimony that God will not let us go, even when we fail to be glorious new wine, and keep acting like water.

This is true for the church and it is true for us as individuals. We worship in a church that is imperfect – this particular church, the church of England, the Anglican Communion – and we ourselves are imperfect people, not fully transformed.

Rowan said that if they ever revised the Creed (not that he was encouraging anyone to embark on such a project!) he would be tempted to add a word to the last few lines: We believe in One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Penitent Church.

But this is the church that we are, and this is the church that God works with – we are the people we are, and we are the people he works with - in his witness to the world, as redeemed sinners. So let us continue to pray for that new wine, for ourselves, and more to share; let us continue to pray for the light of Christ to set our hearts on fire, so that we can illuminate this dark world; and let us glory not in our own faithfulness but in the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ, who is the same Yesterday, Today and For ever.


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