Looking for Signs

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 17, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, and John 2:1-11.

When I was in college, we occasionally had what we called “hash runs.” Hashing is said to have originated in the 1930’s by British soldiers stationed in Malaya (later to become Malaysia). The run is patterned a little after fox-hunting except that you just have people who are jogging or running. The way it works is that a “hare” is the person who goes ahead of the running gang and marks a trail. Ours was always marked with flour. The Hare would use straight arrows to tell us which way to run. Then, at certain points, there would be a big “X” made out of flour. That meant that the whole group had to spread out in every direction and look for the next arrow. This also meant that the leader of the race, the lead “hound” might immediately become the last person, if another person picked up the new direction of the race. It was always a lot of fun, and a great way to get in a good run without it getting boring. Navigating the run had a little to do with being in shape and being able to run around, but it had much more to do with paying attention, with being awake, and with looking for signs.

In today’s Gospel, we’re told that at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus did the first of his signs. The actual miracle seems less important than the fact that this was one sign, and more would be coming. The miracle involved changing water into wine, but the real miracle seems to have been that God would be interested in giving us signs, signs to show us the way forward, the way through life, and the way (even) to God.

For those who have been following the devastation in Haiti this week, today’s Gospel may seem to be in very poor taste. In Haiti there are no weddings today. There is very little water, much less water-turned-into-wine. If, as biblical scholars often suggest, today’s Gospel is about the abundance of God’s love and mercy, the abundance of God’s ability to turn what is a little into a lot, then again—the folks in Haiti could really use some of this God’s attention.

If you can calm the seas enough for Jesus to make a point with the disciples, why not calm the tectonic plates enough to avoid catastrophe? If you can make water into wine, how about turning clean water into water than can be drunk? And, while we’re at it, if God could let Jesus give Lazarus a little more time on earth, why can’t the same thing be extended to others?

We can answer some of our own questions. As theologians like Austin Farrer have sometimes explained, God makes the creation to make itself. And so the tectonic plates shift to maintain a balance of carbon in the universe. It’s not personal. We might pray for clean water and food, but our prayer is a little like Mary’s prayer to her son at the wedding, when she pointed out to him that they were running out of wine to drink. His response to her was that “his hour had not yet come,” perhaps referring to the transformation of his own blood into wine, his own body and blood transformed into mystical food and drink for us and all who put their faith in him. We wonder about premature death and we ask God, why?

None of these answers are very satisfying. It’s not really enough to say that tragedies are a part of nature, and that God will appear in God’s own good time, and that when our bodies die, then (and only then) we’re changed and raised to new life.

The life we lead can feel like a hash run, we think we’re heading in a direction that makes sense, only to find that there’s a big “X” in the clearing, and we’re confused, disoriented, and perhaps lost. But there are at least three things that can save us: the community around us, the strength within us, and the signs that lead us on.

Disasters that happen may very well knock the wind out of us, but they also remind us how precious life is, don’t they? Going to the movies with friends finds a new perspective when we realize that we can text a word on our cell phones and send that same money to help others. We give renewed thanks for people with particular skills—doctors and nurses, but also planners and coordinators, and organizers. Hearing stories of those who are in danger and those who have died, we are reminded again that skin color, education, language, beliefs… those things don’t really separate us, after all. We know what it feels like to lose someone we have loved. We know what it is to worry about tomorrow. We (perhaps) know what it is to have to rely on others for help. And so we have each other, thanks be to God.

We also have the various strengths that God has given us. In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians he names some of the spiritual gifts that people have. Whether we are looking at those who physically respond to a tragedy, or those of us who try to do our part here, we are not without strengths—spiritual and otherwise. Some are indeed wise, and some are smart. Others can heal, and a few even seem to work miracles. Some are prophets, some gifted in language. Paul goes to highlight the work of teachers, administrators, helpers, those who can pray, those who can serve, and on and on the list goes. As we recalled last week, our Baptism begins to awaken the gifts that God has put within each one of us, and you never know when the situation may call for just your gift, your ability, your talent.

And finally, we do have those signs that the Gospel of John talks about. They are signs of God’s breaking into our midst, into our lives. Sometimes they look miraculous, and other times they are as simply as the rising of the sun. Sometimes we feel like we’ve been knocked off the path, but that doesn’t mean the signs are all gone—it just means we might need some help looking for them. And so we keep running, or walking, or stumbling, because God goes along with us. As Martin Luther King, Jr. is thought to have said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

But taking those steps can be frustrating when the symbols are hard to find. In college, it used to frustrate me when the person who marked the trail did a sloppy job, or when the wind or nature somehow obscured the marks pointing the way forward. It would make me mad and I’d want to blame someone. I will continue to ask God to make clearer marks in our world, to be bolder with the signs we’re to follow, and I’ll even continue to pray for a few miracles.

May God be with the people of Haiti and anywhere in the world where the signs of God’s presence are slim. And may God enflame the spiritual gifts of all so that we can more nearly bring his kingdom here and hereafter.

In the Burial Rite, there is a beautiful prayer that seems unusually appropriate for us on this day. It prays, “Make us, we beseech thee [O God] deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God; and in perfect charity with the world.” (BCP, p. 489).

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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