Varieties of Gifts - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Varieties of Gifts

John 2: 1-11

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And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:

And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.

And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.

His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.

And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.

Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.

And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.

When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom,

10 And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.

11 This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

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Back in April, at the annual dedication service we hold here for the Worshipful Company of Marketors, I recounted the following story, from my days as Vicar of Edgbaston.

I had a parishioner there of whom I was immensely fond, and whom I got to know very well.  He was a sweet and kind man, but he was also a rather troubled soul.  He would readily acknowledge that his personal life was a mess; he had a long-term problem with alcohol misuse; and he also had to struggle with serious health issues, 

He was not much of a church attender, but he was a big church supporter.  By which I mean that, although we seldom saw him at services, he was phenomenally generous if ever the church needed money for a particular project.  And when I say generous, what I mean is that on more than one occasion, completely out of the blue, quietly and unannounced, I found an envelope on my doormat containing a cheque from him for £20,000. 

And one day he gave me an explanation for this. 'I am not really very good at life', he said.  'I have made a real hash of it.  In fact, there is only one thing that I am good at, which is making money.  So I might as well use that one gift that I have as well as I can, and then put the proceeds where they can do some good.'

Strangely enough, when I heard him say that, I was suddenly reminded of a quotation that I had heard, when I was still a teenager, from Mother Teresa of Calcutta; something that she had said to, of all people, the singer Cliff Richard, when he first met her. Seeing the way in which Mother Teresa had dedicated her life to the service of God, through her care for those who were dying on the streets of Calcutta, he had felt ashamed that he was a man who merely churned out pop songs for a living, and he had said this to her.  But in response she had replied quite simply: 'God gave you a voice.  Sing for God.  Do it for God.'

Many of us will already be aware of what our individual gifts are - the things that we know we are good at.  But we may not always be very good at recognising that these are gifts that we can put to the service of God, particularly if they are gifts that we would not normally associate with discipleship, because they don't feel very 'holy' (if I can put it that way).  Making money might sound to be the direct opposite of anything remotely godly: but doesn't it all rather depend on how we are doing it, and what we are doing with itAnd the same must surely be true of the way in which we approach the tasks of each day.

In our second reading this morning, there is a marvellous egalitarianism in St Paul's assertion that that 'there are varieties of gift but the same spirit': because it challenges us to set aside any idea that some gifts are more important than others in the life of faith - to focus instead upon the source of the gifts that we have, and the use to which we put them.  Now, in this context Paul is referring primarily to 'spiritual' gifts: wisdom, faith, healing, prophecy; but it seems to me that what he says is also directly relevant to the more mundane gifts that each of us has.  Whatever it is that you can do, do it for God.

Today's Gospel reading tells of the famous and rather bizarre miracle in which, at a wedding feast at Cana, when the drink runs out, Jesus very helpfully solves the problem by turning water into wine.  Now, the true significance of this miracle is not, of course, that Jesus rescues a party which had run out of booze.  Rather, it is about the way in which Jesus takes something so utterly ordinary and mundane that nobody even notices it is there: water; and against all the odds transforms it into something utterly extraordinary: not just any old wine, but the very best wine - and does so it in truly prodigious quantities. 

That is what happens in the life of faith: if we surrender our gifts to his service, however paltry, or unimportant, or irrelevant to the life of faith they might seem, God will take that most unpromising of material - and do something extraordinary with it - perhaps in ways that may not be immediately obvious to us at all.

But what of those of us who feel that we have no particular gifts at all?  This is where it is helpful to turn back to our reading from St Paul, which reminds us that we should not think of 'gifts' simply in terms of 'abilities' - the things we happen to be good at - whether that is singing, or teaching, or baking cakes, or even making money; because the gifts of which he speaks include things that we can develop simply by striving to live a life with God at its centre: the gift of faith; the gift of wisdom.  Those gifts are open to all.

When I was a Curate in Oxfordshire, I got to know two very elderly ladies, one in my own congregation, the other who attended a local Methodist church, both of whom had lived pretty ordinary and unspectacular lives.  One was a widow, the other had never married; neither could drive a car; neither had had anything that one might describe as a career; neither had travelled much beyond the place of her birth.  And yet, both of these women were human beings of such transparent goodness, and holiness, and faithfulness, and compassion, that every time they entered a room, it was lit up, simply by their presence.

It always amused me, in relation to one of these ladies in particular, that whenever I made a pastoral visit in the parish to someone who was unwell, I would arrive at the front door and meet this woman on her way out, because she always got there before me, such was her awareness of the needs of others.  And more wonderful still were the names of these two excellent ladies - because (and I promise you, this is absolutely true) - one of them was called Faith, and the other was called Grace.  They displayed in their lives the things that truly matter, because they had been transformed from the inside out; water into wine.

Last week I chanced upon a rather wonderful poem by Caroline Ackroyd called 'For I am meek and lowly in heart', which is relevant to the theme I have been exploring with you, because she reflects on the theme of gifts in relation to the life of Jesus himself.  As you will hear, she observes that as the Son of God, he could surely have exercised any gift he wanted in order to grab people's attention - but the problem with gifts when understood in the sense of skills, or abilities, is that if we are really good at something, it can attract adulation.  So Jesus chose other things instead - and it is the things that he chose that makes his life truly radical; truly revolutionary.  I shall leave you with her words:

'For I am meek and lowly in heart', by Caroline Ackroyd.

Presumably, as the only Son He could have chosen
Any gift, any means of persuasion.
He could have had beauty, forcing attention;
He could have been Mozart,
David the musician,
Singer of the psalms amid the tribal slaughter
Turned the harp gut to water, to a singing stream.
He could have been a sculptor
Carving the cedar
Gold-coating the creature -
Achieved for the Temple, the temple splendour;
Or a poet
To send words forth like fishing boats
On the blue pages of the water.

But He chose none of these things
Leaving each gift for some other
And took for Himself healing, humanity;

Only God could be so proof against glamour.

This act of Divine humility,
Does it not make renunciation the true test
Of the revolutionary?


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