Chaos in the kitchen

I was invited to preach at St Mary Lewisham for their Patronal Festival when they celebrate Our Lady of Lewisham. Those who know the area will know that the church is very close to Ladywell, a popular place to live and the site of a mediaeval holy well dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a great spot to visit. So, I thought I’d share the sermon I preached there. The readings they gave me where these – Ecclesiasticus 24,1-4,8-12,19-2; Galatians 4: 4-7; John 2: 1-11.

Often, when you’re invited to a party, the best place to hang out is in the kitchen. For some reason it’s where many of the guests gravitate to. Perhaps it’s because that’s from where all the food is emerging and those in the room get first choice of what’s produced. Perhaps it’s because that’s where all the drinks might be kept – the big bottles of Coke, the cans of beer, the bottles of wine – it’s much easier to help yourself to another drink when you’re there in the kitchen. But sometimes for the host it’s the worst place – if something goes wrong, something burns, something’s spilt, the dirty pots pile up, it’s the very place where you don’t want all the guests to be – seeing behind the scenes, witnessing the chaos that you’re busy creating in the kitchen.

John doesn’t tell us about the layout of the place where the wedding in Cana was happening. It was perhaps a big tent into which people were crowded; or it may have been a more permanent structure. But whatever it was actually like, there would’ve been a corner from where the servants appeared with more food and more wine. The steward who’d be overseeing it all, would be making sure the guests were all happy and that, above all, the bride and groom were happy with all the arrangements.

Then disaster happens. Someone beckons for the Steward to step into the kitchen. Rather than a place of festivity it’s a place of anxiety and no little chaos. The wine had all run out and the party was still in full swing. Someone had made a mistake on the ordering front, or the guests were more thirsty than usual, or the party was better than would normally have been the case – but for whatever the reason the worst thing had happened – no more wine and there’d be red faces all round.

John tells a wonderful story at the beginning of his gospel, the first of the signs that he highlights which reveal just who Jesus is. But who’d have expected the first sign of divine nature to take place in a kitchen, to be given at a wedding party, to be about wine when the guests were already drunk? There’s something remarkable about this whole story – and for me that remarkableness makes it even more special.

Mary, Jesus and the disciples had all been invited. They hadn’t come far, just over the hill from Nazareth on the road that’d lead eventually to the Sea of Galilee and the great city of Capernaum, the place that Jesus used as his base. Mary, like the good mother that she was, that she is, was noticing everything going on and must have seen the Steward, the president of the feast dashing off, ashen faced towards the kitchen. Mary hears what’s being said and she goes to tell Jesus – ‘They have no wine’. Even to Jesus at that moment it seems like something that he needn’t get involved in – ‘What’s it to do with me’, ‘What do you want from me’ is his initial response. But Mary knows there’s more to Jesus, she knows there’s more to God, than this. ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

The resulting miracle is spectacular and outrageous. Those stone water jars standing around, used so that all the guests could purify themselves for the feast, were refilled with water, right to the brim, just as Jesus told them to do, just as Our Lady said they should do – ‘do whatever he tells you’ – and when the Steward drew from the jars, there was wine, good wine, the best wine and in a mind boggling quantity – as much as 180 gallons of wine, more than any party could ever need, more than any host could ever imagine, more than the bridegroom could have wished. And this, says John, is only the first of the signs – there is much more yet to come!

Into the chaos of the world, God sent his Son, says Paul to the Galatians, ‘born of a woman, born a subject of the Law’. Into the poverty and darkness of so much life, a star shines in the night sky and a young woman gives birth to a child in a stable. And Mary says ‘Do whatever he tells you’.

The best place at that party was certainly the kitchen, for as the jars were filled and then the wine drawn out those there witnessed something of the life changing generosity, the overflowing love of God who makes sure, as the First Reading at this Mass says that

They who eat me will hunger for more, they who drink me will thirst for more.

that we will be constantly surprised and satisfied by the overflowing, overwhelming love of God, yet always wanting more, hungering for more, thirsting for more of this kingdom reality. Mary knew that it was true, she’d already experienced it in her own self and out of that deep down knowledge she says to us ‘do whatever he tells you’, this God who is made flesh in the turmoil, not just of the kitchen but of the world.

I know that you’ve been using this month as one of ‘Thanksgiving and Generosity’ and you’ve been finding that all around you in creation. At a time when we’re all anxious about the cost of living, the cost of heating, about how this new Government will begin to effectively address the fundamental issues and challenges that are facing our society and our way of living, we need to look across the chaos and the uncertainty to Jesus – and it’s for this reason that he gave us this sign and gave us this sign in this both mundane and slightly frivolous place.

Jesus represents in himself the generous love of God. ‘God so loved the world’ as John will say in verses that follow this Gospel reading today, ‘that he gave his only Son’. It’s all free gift, all abundant free gift. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, God steps into the frantic chaos in the kitchen and produces the new wine of the kingdom and in abundance.

There’s a name for this God, a name the children of Israel used – Jehovah-Jireh – which simply means ‘The Lord will provide’. It was the name Abraham gave to God when God provided a ram for the slaughter and saved Abraham’s only son. And then God gave his only son, provided for us, in abundance. Jehovah-Jireh – the Lord will provide.

‘Do whatever he tells you’ says Our Lady to us today. The Lord will provide and God’s generosity inspires our generosity. This Mass is the daily miracle of feeding. Each of us, hungry and thirsty, exhausted by the chaos, the change, the emotion, the utter uncertainty of what we’re going through, comes to the altar with empty hands, to simply receive, always hungry for more, always thirsty for more and the Lord provides even more than we need.

This is how the priest poet Malcolm Guite begins his poem commemorating, celebrating this miracle

Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.

This is a party worth being at, where bread and wine are enough for all, and where love never runs out, a spring of love ‘rich, abundant, free’, given for you, given for me.

God of generous love, satisfy my hunger, quench my thirst and draw me deeper into your life-giving kingdom. Amen.


It’s not fair!

To be honest this has been a rather frantic week with three ordination services to organise, shortlisting of a Canon Precentor and some other things beside. The upshot is I haven’t had time to prepare a blog. So, please forgive me. I had to write a sermon for the Cathedral this morning – and this is it. Please accept it as my offering to you this week. The readings were Jonah 3.10 – 4.11, Philippians 1.21-30 and Matthew 20.1-16.

Its not fair!
Not fair at all!
I really want a pet unicorn!
I would name them PrettyStorm
It would be my bestest best friend for sure!

The opening lines of a poem by Matty Angel, an autistic poet, writer and painter from Christchurch New Zealand.  It’s the cry of childhood though that, I suspect, we’ve all made at one time or another, especially if we have siblings. ‘It’s not fair, she’s got more than me.’  ‘It’s not fair, I want one.’ ‘It’s not fair, he did it as well, why I have I got to go to my room? It’s not fair.’ ‘It’s not fair, I really want a unicorn!’

I was the eldest of three and so was allowed to stay up longer than the other two.  As they left the sitting room, often in tears, that was their cry.  It’s not fair.

In that rather dreadful film, ‘Mommie Dearest’ staring Faye Dunaway about Joan Crawford raising and abusing her adopted daughter, there’s the immortal line as Mommy dearest has dealt out more punishment

‘nobody ever said life was fair.’

It was the cry at the gate of the vineyard as the workers left.  Night had fallen, they could work no longer and so they queue to collect their wages.  Some had been working all day, through the heat of the day, back breaking, hand chaffing work of collecting the grapes from the vines; others had joined them when the sun was at its highest, just glad to get some work, and some had come as the sun was declining in the western sky, unable to believe their luck in getting just a few hours paid employment.  And they wait for their wages.

Those who’d arrived last are called first and receive a full day’s wages.  There must be some mistake – or had the daily rate gone up?  Those further back in the queue were getting excited – bonanza time!  So you can imagine their reaction when they’re handed the same amount, back broken, work worn, heat drained, exhausted workers – just the same – it’s not fair.

What we’re given in this parable is a wonderful piece of social history.  If you needed workers in the days of Jesus you knew where to find them.  The employer, or his manager, would go down to the agora, the market place, and there would be the people who were looking for work.  For many people work was what we’d think of as being casual labour.  You took what was on offer and that included the pay.  There were plenty of other people available so you hadn’t much in your hand as far as negotiating your rights was concerned.

You have to feel some sympathy for these men.  Natural justice would suggest that those who worked longest, through the worst conditions, should get paid more.  It’s only fair after all – what the owner of the vineyard is doing is not fair.

Yet in his eyes his actions are entirely fair.  He was clear about the conditions on which he was hiring each person when he called them from the market place and they all readily agreed to it.  He isn’t diddling anyone, but simply being true to his word to each one of them.  He’s giving no one less so that someone else can get more.  He’s treating everyone equally, with equality.

Now the thing to remember is that this parable was not told by Jesus as a kind of exposition of good employer practice, nor as a political statement of how to run a nation.  It’s very easy in one sense to see it in these terms.  But that’s forgetting the very first words that Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’.

This is one of the kingdom parables and so it’s teaching us something fundamental about the nature of the kingdom, not making superficial points about the practicalities of politics or employment practices.

Nevertheless the kingdom is not about ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – relying on justice in a heaven that’s a long way away.  The kingdom is about here and now; about the way in which we live with one another; it is about a radical readdressing of justice, of life – and drawing all of that into the everyday.

We’re still in the ever increasing mess of this pandemic and things are getting worse.  What has become very obvious to many of us however, as a result of all that has happened, is the depth and the undeniable reality of social inequality in this country.  Why is it that northern communities are suffering so terribly at the moment?  Is it just that they go to the pub more, go to the mosque more, do any of the stereotypical things that we might think about people in the north?  Or is it something to do about community and opportunity, about housing, about the nature of employment, about the starving of community services during years of austerity?

Why is it that so many of our sisters and brothers from BAME communities have died compared to their white neighbours?  Is it about the jobs that people can get, the opportunities that people have, the conditions in which people live and work? How is it that some of us have been able to save money during this period – because we haven’t been to the theatre and restaurants and the Maldives – and some are literally on the bread line?

It just isn’t fair.

St Paul says to the Philippians in our Second Reading

‘Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.’

Live the kingdom now, live according to kingdom values now, says Jesus to the people.  And what is that kingdom like?  It’s like a landowner who is unstintingly generous, who gives more than we deserve.  It’s like the God that Jesus reveals to us as he gives himself equally, to you and me, and the person alongside you today and the person watching this online from home, and the person who isn’t even here.  God is more than generous, God is love.

Covid has presented us with many challenges, but part of the challenge is what kind of society do we aspire to be in the future.  Do we want more of the same, or one in which all people come to the same table and are fed with the same bread and each goes away satisfied?

After all, that is what we, here are modelling today.  The kingdom of heaven is like …. this.

God of justice, give us the courage to witness to your kingdom, here, now and to live the life to which you call us. Amen.

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