In one of my previous parishes, there was a man of whom I was immensely fond, although it was all too clear that he was a deeply troubled soul. He was a sweet and kind man, but he would readily acknowledge that his personal life was a mess and that he had a long-term problem with alcohol misuse. He also had the grave misfortune to have suffered from a devastating stroke at a relatively young age, which had left him with significant mobility problems.
He was not much of a church attender, but he was a big church supporter. By which I mean that, despite the fact that he wasn’t a habitual worshipper (although he would invariably be present at Christmas, Easter, and Remembrance Sunday), nevertheless, he was always phenomenally generous if ever the church needed money for a particular project. And when I say generous, I mean it. On more than one occasion, completely out of the blue, quietly and unannounced, I found an envelope on my doormat with a cheque for £20,000 in it.
And one day he gave me his rationale for this. ‘I am not really very good at life’, he said. ‘I have made a bit of a 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 radio interview that I had heard when I was still a teenager. A well-known pop singer who had come to a Christian faith, was describing his encounter with a woman who had dedicated her life to the service of God, through working amongst the poor and the destitute. Seeing her at work, he said to her how ashamed he felt that he merely churned out pop songs for a living. In response to which she had simply replied: ‘God gave you a voice. Sing for God. Do it for God.’
Most of us will be aware of what our individual gifts are – the things that we know we can do competently and well – or perhaps things for which we have a really outstanding talent. But we may not always be very good at recognising that these are also 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 sounds 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 it?
Indeed, there are few things sadder to behold than seeing someone who has a phenomenal gift but who fails to value it properly. I was once spiritual director to a woman who was an outstandingly talented craftswoman; she was creative, imaginative, and a consummate professional.
But she was also permanently dissatisfied and miserable, because what she really wanted was to be ordained – despite the fact that most of the rest of us could see that she had neither the skills nor the personality to get beyond the first hurdle of the selection process. The tragedy was that nobody could get her to recognise that employing the astounding gifts that were already hers in the service of God might in fact be her true vocation.
And it is not merely the exceptional or unusual gifts that count here either. One of the things that I love about the ancient Celtic tradition of spirituality, is that it was deeply rooted in the basic, most essential, and most unglamorous tasks of daily life. There were prayers for every activity you did during the course of the day: a prayer for milking your goat, or building a fire, or harvesting your crops. (Remember that next time you are milking your goat!) But the point of these prayers was that they enabled each person to see the world, and their role within it, in a way that truly was revelatory. Because seen in this way, everything has the potential to become sacramental; to become an offering to God. It is all to do with the spirit in which one undertakes these tasks. Writing in 1936, the Anglican writer on spirituality Evelyn Underhill cites alongside one another, as direct equivalents, the monk or nun who rises to say Night Prayer in the hours of darkness so that the worship of God may never cease – and the old woman ‘content to boil her potatoes in the same sacred intention.’
John Keble’s hymn ‘New every morning’ sums this up perfectly:
If on our daily course our mind
be set to hallow all we find,
new treasures still, of countless praise,
God will provide for sacrifice.
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we need to ask,
room to deny ourselves, a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
That one insight is true of all the tasks of life, however mundane, however remote they might seem from the things of God. It is as true of our business dealings as it is of the way we dig the garden. What matters is the mind-set with which we approach the things that we do.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning, Paul describes how there are varieties of gift – but the same Spirit. And the Spirit enables us to be able to use that gift for the common good. The Spirit enables us to turn a task into an offering. And, as St Paul reminds us later in chapter 13 of that same epistle, in his famous passage about Love, it is not what we do that matters – but rather, what we have in our heart when we do it – because, as he reminds us: ‘If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’
And the strange thing is that, approaching tasks in this way really can transform not only the quality of our work, but our relationship with the world and the people around us.
This morning’s Gospel reading must be the weirdest miracle story in the whole of the New Testament. Just about every other miracle that Jesus performs is in response to an individual (or a group of people), in great personal need: he heals the sick; he liberates the possessed from their demons; he feeds five thousand hungry people; he stills the storm when the disciples are in fear of perishing. But to see him in today’s Gospel reading nobly stepping in to rescue a party when the booze runs out, is odd, to say the least.
And as if that isn’t strange enough, the conversation that takes place within our story is even more bizarre. The mother of Jesus comes to him and says: ‘They have no wine.’ His response seems abrupt to the point of rudeness: ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.’ The mother of Jesus instructs the servants to ‘do whatever he tells you.’ And, to cut to the chase, the servants do precisely that, filling six enormous stone water jars with water, each holding up to 30 gallons, which turns out to be the finest vintage imaginable, produced in the most ludicrously excessive of quantities. What on earth is going on here?
But note the setting – that of a wedding feast: an image that Jesus often used in his teachings when speaking about the kingdom of God. It seems that what we have here is in effect, a ‘living parable’ – an incident that is embodying and symbolising for us a very important truth about the ways of God.
God can take the most basic and sometimes unpromising of material – water in this story; bread in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand; your life; my life – and do extraordinary things with it. And so it is with the things that are ours to offer. What matters is that we use those gifts and talents, however unspectacular they might seem, in the service of God and his people – and do so with love in our hearts.
Because sometimes, when we do that, the most remarkable and unexpected and spectacular things can follow. Because that is the Holy Spirit at work. Amen.