Responsible listening

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany, given in both the  “church up the road” and “the church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 2:1-11.

This is a fun gospel reading, isn’t it?  Jesus’ best party trick.  Water turned into wine, a good time had by all, and no overtones of plotting or angst.  Isn’t this the Jesus we’d all like to have around to dinner?

What struck me when I read it, though, is that the passage very carefully doesn’t quite tell us how it happened.  Look at how events play out.  The hosts run out of wine.  Mary approaches Jesus about this expecting, what?  We’re not quite sure.  Jesus seems to brush her off, but Mary still tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.”  And Jesus gives the servants instructions about jars and water, which they follow.  Then the chief steward tasted “the water that had become wine.”  And the rest, as they say, is history.

But I find it fascinating that Jesus didn’t command the water to become wine.  He didn’t breathe on it or wave his hands over it.  The text doesn’t even say that he changed the water into wine in any way; it just notes that the water “had become” wine.

That’s very intentional, specific use of language.

And while there are a number of different ways of looking at this, I think one of them is that Jesus didn’t do this on his own.  He saw what needed to be done, and provided direction to those around him; and in that collaborative effort, a remarkable transformation was able to take place.

I think that’s worth thinking about, in our own context.  Sometimes we are so stuck in our problems, or we have so much given up hope that we can make things better, that if we imagine our situation changing at all, we fantasise about someone breaking in from outside and somehow, magically, solving our problems, while we look on in astonishment.

I wonder if the servants at the wedding grumbled when Jesus asked them to fill the jars with water?  I wonder if they thought it was a waste of time and effort; after all, it was hardly going to fix the wine shortage, was it?  I wonder if they felt the request was an unreasonable imposition on a night when they no doubt already had more than enough work to do?

What I’m getting at is that for the most part, in the life of faith, signs – experiences where God touches our lives – don’t happen without our cooperating in some way.  Without our obedience.

What we have here is a pattern for the transformation of our difficulties; bringing those difficulties to God, and then being prepared to do whatever he tells us.  And then responding with praise when our difficulties are transformed, often in profoundly unexpected ways.

It’s timely, I think, for us to ponder these things now.  As our two parishes seek to work together in partnership, as we try to work out how this is going to work, and as we are anxious about protecting what is precious in each place as well as nurturing the potential for new things, there will be many difficulties.  We are aware of some of them already, and no doubt more remain to be discovered.

And while of course we should, in seeking to work with those difficulties, look at best practice in other churches, and research that has been done, and theological scholarship, and outside expertise, and all of those good things; the action which should be our starting point is taking those difficulties to God, and seeking to discern what God is telling us to do.  And then all of the best practice examples and research and so forth can inform our strategy for doing whatever he tells us.

This is all about obedience.

And that’s a hard word for us, I suspect.  It’s rarely understood in a healthy way.  To most people it means surrendering all responsibility for our actions and behaviour; and either we see it as something which no one in their right mind should do, or we embrace something like a cult mentality, believing that giving up all responsibility is the only way to please God.

And – as a result of that – our relationships which have any dimension of authority in them start to break down.  Because we rightly fear giving up all personal responsibility, we have an aversion to working with authority, knowing that obedience is integral to those relationships.

But the word “obedience” comes from a root which means “to listen well.”  As Christians, we believe that God calls each one of us into being and wills us to live and work in a community of love.  As human beings, we are made by God to be capable of growing into our full potential only in communion with others.  And we must listen well to one another to be able to do that in creative rather than destructive ways.

So rather than seeing obedience as loss of self to another, perhaps a better working definition might be something like “responsible listening.”  I have read one author suggest that true Christian obedience is always a dialogue, and that’s what we saw in our reading today; a give and take in which both human beings and God listened and responded appropriately to the other.  As responsible adults, partners with God in his work in the world, we should realise that obedience is not a power struggle but a dialogue in which we can better understand God’s will and our own capacity to embody it.

Perhaps this is the time to tell you something of my own obedience in this process.

When the vicar first asked me – almost a year ago – to consider taking on this role, my answer was a flat “No, sorry, I’m not interested.”  I knew what I wanted in my next job, and this wasn’t it!

And then there was, for me, a long process of praying about the question of a new job (because one thing was clear, it was time to move on from my old one!); and seeking God’s will about where I should go next.  And finding that the sort of job I thought I wanted seemed to just not be available, for all sorts of reasons.  And that gave me time to think about what working here would be like, and what I could learn from it, and what knowledge and skills I had accumulated that would be useful here.  And the more I did that, and talked with other wise people who knew me or the parishes concerned well, the more I became convinced that actually, perhaps this was where I was meant to be.  So that now, a few months in, I can feel settled and happily comfortable that this is right, for the time being, and already I hope that at least some of you are also feeling that it’s right that I came.

It’s a process; a process of questioning and listening and being willing to try things out, even if we’re confronted with something that’s not what we thought we wanted.  I find it interesting that in the reading, even Jesus initially seems to be reluctant to act.  And yet he is open to listening and responding!

So maybe it’s not quite such a fun, feel-good, party Jesus reading after all.  Maybe there are things here which will prompt all of us to ask the hard questions about what God might want each of us to do in the new shared community which we are creating.  But I hope that for each of you, like me, you might find that if you do that, the answers turn out to be much better than you expected.

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