Epiphany 2 ~ Ten Years of Appreciation
Almost ten years ago I stood in this pulpit for the first time, having arrived as your new Vicar. Some here will remember that – others won’t. And I say almost ten years ago, because those who do remember, will recall that, having been installed on January 16th, when it came to the customary first thing a vicar has to do during the service of installation, instead of announcing the services for the following Sunday, I announced that I – and lots of us - would in fact not be in church on the following Sunday. For we were all off to Launde Abbey.
Bishop Peter raised his eyebrows at this suggestion, that I would begin my ministry here with a weekend away, and John Moses, erstwhile Dean of St Paul’s thought it was bonkers, but my dear colleague Lucy Winkett thought it was a fantastic idea! Mind you, the St Paul’s Cathedral contingent had all left the City in very good time for a trek up here to the frozen north, and had arrived in very good time, and had checked out the Wheatsheaf Pub beforehand, and all declared that this certainly as a very good parish indeed.
So having been installed as what will turn out to be your very last incumbent in the proper sense of the word, we then all bunked off to Launde Abbey, where I recall we had a super time, and I Jessica and I got to know so many people readily and quickly. And then, on January 26th I stood here and the text was the same as today – the Marriage at Cana – what we’ve just heard.
So I’ve looked back to see what I said here ten years ago – what I had the nerve to say! Because this reading is extremely good – if not the best possible reading - to have on a Vicar’s first Sunday. Because now, as then, the story is all about change – changing water into wine, but also a change that marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. And I said it then and repeat it now, the arrival of a new vicar heralds change, inevitably, no matter how hard one might try to pick up where someone has left off, run with the baton, carry on as before. It would be unrealistic and probably dangerous to think otherwise. And besides, change is usually good for us. It was certainly good for Jessica and I.
But let me quote myself – perhaps I’m allowed that indulgence on an anniversary:
I said ten years ago:
And there we are – the dreaded word - change. Well – I’m not into change for change’s sake – change isn’t something that you do. Change, rather, is something that happens to you. Change is done in you, not by you. Things don’t change – but people do. That may sound the wrong way around, but I think in a Christian context this is the right way of putting it. Jesus doesn’t just go about ‘doing things’ – indeed, in the story, his mother Mary asks him to ‘do something’ and he basically refuses. No, Jesus doesn’t change things, but things are nevertheless changed by him. Jesus doesn’t touch the water or stand near it and command it to change. But it does change into wine nevertheless.
This is going to be a cheap sermon isn’t it?! All I have to do is dig out a sermon from ten years ago, and reuse it. Perhaps that’s the joy of being around long enough for folk not to remember! And here I am admitting it!
I went on to say ten years ago:
The change is quiet, gentle, invisible even. No-one notices the change until it has already taken place. So it is with us when we encounter the Christ who in resurrection brings about the new beginning to supersede all other new beginnings. We can be and are changed, but we hardly notice it as it happens, but perhaps later realise that something is different and that we have been changed. It is not therefore things that will change, but we who will change. So… it is my hope that we shall all be changed – not in an instant as St Paul once put it, but that we will be changed with the passage of time - changed by each other, and by our regular and prayerful encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have changed – of course we have. St Mary Magdalene’s is of course, the same place I came to ten years ago. It is the same place as it was fifty years ago, but not quite 130 years ago, when it as a building site, no doubt viewed excitedly by Georgiana Twells. The place looks different, but it is the same – it is a different physically, and very different personally. It is also the same.
When I was a curate, I served in a church that celebrated its fortieth anniversary while I was there. Quite a few people at that celebration remembered the foundation stone being laid by Princess Margaret. And when I returned a few years ago for the Fiftieth anniversary, some were still around. And yet, conversely, I have a friend who leads a church built in the 11th century – no-one there knows anything about what happened when the first stones were laid. We have had the good fortune recently to really reconnect with our history, to come to understand something of, even to roleplay the characters who were in here at the beginning. It is a great gift.
But this church will also be the same – but different - in ten years’ time, a hundred years’ time. And while I won’t be here in a hundred years’ time – none of us will, many of us could well still be here in ten years’ time. Be warned – I could still be here in 2023. Indeed I don’t have to go until 2036. Now there’s a sobering thought to go with the water turned into wine!
And of course, there is plenty to do. The organ splutters far more than it should and needs a rebuild. The garden outside the Hall is a mess and we really must deal with it. The stonework on the south side is crumbling, and the swifter we act the better and cheaper will be the work. And there may even be a school to be built. But let me tell you, I intend to see this stuff done – these are the projects for the next few years, and by God’s grace and your generosity, and hopefully a bit of clever grant applications and publicity, we will achieve even more than we have done last year when we unveiled our Chancel to a new generation. And this year, we are going National on that.
‘Songs of Praise’ are coming…. And it is a great piece of serendipity to be able to tell you that today, because what I’ve agreed to do for them, and the way it will done will bring prominence to our town and this church as the jewel in its crown. But I should say, it’s not the conventional ‘gather a congregation here and all sing the best hits of the hymn book’. Sorry about that. I probably shouldn’t say any more at the moment, and we all ought to keep a bit quiet about it for the time being, but it is rather exciting, and it will show the nation our wonderful chancel. That’s the point.
And the point from that is that that will bring people to us, and that is what we’re are all about. Back in that story at Cana, people – his own mother even, came to Jesus, and he showed them something wonderful. Well, people who come here can see something wonderful, and it is our job to do the same thing. People may come here to see the walls, but t is our job to show them Jesus. For this is his place, we are his Church, and through us, his Word is preached, his gospel lived and his praise forth told.
That’s why we are here, it’s why the building was built, and it’s why the walls are so beautiful. All so we – custodians and missionaries that we are - can show forth the real message of the possibility of change in our world and in each person.
For that is what faith is ultimately about: change. Jesus came to show us that by living it. Resurrection is the greatest change conceivable – greater than birth even. In life, in death, we are changed. In the last ten years, I have had the privilege to share with you the farewells and thanksgivings for dear beloved of our number: Sybil, Mike, Muriel, Peter and Dorothy, Roy and Rosemary, John, Doris, Sheila, Carole, Janet, Joan and many others, going all the way back to Peter Pritchard who I never knew, but whose funeral was the first time I attended worship here. But these, and all whom we love but see no longer, have been changed, changed, as the hymn puts it, ‘from glory into glory’. And our eternal hope of resurrection life, brings us hope of reunion, restoration and salvation.
These are the changes that matter – these are the changes that are real for us, just as they were for Georgiana Twells’ generation and for those at the wedding feast in Cana. Like us they faced all the chances and changes of life and death, but they, like us, had the presence of Christ in their midst. Christ in each other and Christ in the Eucharist.
The idea of changing water into wine, has to remind us of the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is the showing of Christ that we have week in, week out. The Eucharist is about thanksgiving, and it is about presence. In it we give thanks for the presence of Christ in our lives. His presence to command us, to comfort us, to control us, to claim us, and of course, to change us.
Today I have a little treat for us all – I have a bottle of wine from Cana which I brought back a couple of years ago. Today seemed like a very good day to use it. So today we shall use wine made in Cana, as we celebrate the miracles of water made wine and wine made Christ’s blood. Do not be surprised by the taste!
And yet, as we put a little water in the chalice of wine for communion, we are reminded that wine is water. It is water that has been changed, changed by the forces of nature into something wonderful and powerful, symbolic and real. A good wine is like a string quartet or a finely composed painting, a classic sonnet or a photo of a wonderful sunset; a mosaic of taste and colour, a sonata of taste and smell. It is nature – God’s creation – framed, and beautified and enjoyed by humanity. And like all these things, it carries with it a fellowship of appreciation.
And that is what we are: a fellowship of appreciation. All who gather around the wine of the Kingdom on God’s table of love, are a fellowship of appreciation. We appreciate what God has done for us in Christ, by sending him to be our saviour. We appreciate his pain, suffering and sacrifice. We appreciate the gift of Georgiana Twells, and the wonderful art around us. We appreciate that not everyone wants to be with us under this roof – we understand that. Yet we appreciate that under God, it is our duty to do something about that. And we acknowledge that while we are unworthy, we are called to be here.
Appreciation is about being thankful, about understanding, and about acknowledging the increasing value of something. We use the word to mean all those things:
Gratitude, understanding, acknowledgement of the truth, and the increasing value of something. We are here to appreciate change and changelessness: The change that is inevitable for us, and the changelessness of God, who in Christ brings them together in equal tension.
And, of course, through all the changing scenes of life, we appreciate each other. We have travelled a mere ten years together, in fellowship and love. Long may it continue.
But it is to God whom we give the glory, who in changing us throughout the course of our pilgrimage through and beyond life, gives us grace to truly appreciate all his great gifts.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 20/01/13