Sermon at St James, Piccadilly
17 January 2010
The gospel reading was the story of Jesus turning dirty water into fine wine at a wedding celebration.
A nice story about water into wine; and one that invites us to reflect on transformation. And human transformation is a popular idea. We call it self-development these days; and self-development is a very big industry - though we're not always very discerning about which self we're developing. This is why some of the most dysfunctional people on earth have the largest collection of self-help books; they can be a wonderful distraction for our sick selves.
But transformation or self-development is a popular idea; even if it doesn't often work. There are publishing houses built on it; and miles of shop shelving given over to it. Everyone wants transformation! And where ever you look, there is a "tranny" merchant on hand. A stunning new book/a life-changing retreat/prestigious power point presentation/day conference in a hotel costing £70 not including lunch - they're all offering transformation.
So everyone wants transformation! But - and it is a big but - no one wants to be transformed. And this can be a problem.
"Transformation – I want it!"
"So you want to be transformed?"
"No, no, no - I didn't say that! I said I wanted transformation. You know, general transformation. Not too specific."
When it comes to transformation, we are like Darren Brown or Paul Daniels, we perform our own magic. Watch! Watch while we both run towards it, and yet at the very same time, we run from it. How do we do that? It's amazing! We want transformation; but we don't want to be transformed. We want to be new wine; but keep the dirty water! Can that be arranged?
We're reflecting on water into wine; and on transformation. And it is appealing. It starts as an idea in the head, of course; intriguing and exciting. "That's a great idea!" And then, if allowed, it moves a little, and becomes a sense or a feeling; we hear faint echoes of freedom and joy across the cluttered valleys of our inscape. It's more than idea now; it's something fleetingly sensed or felt; though if change is to become real, transformation must then move again and become a matter of the will. From head, to sense to will. Not just an intoxicating idea or a clever quote; not just a brief sense or feeling; but a steady determination; a path persistently pursued.
And what an adventure inner transformation then becomes. A daily adventure, an hourly adventure; and in a way, the only adventure. But before we get too excited, there's a problem. I've mentioned this already, we've hit it again, and it's this: we want transformation, but we don't want to be transformed. Transformation doesn't threaten anything: it's wonderfully impersonal, general; not too specific. But being transformed is different - being transformed is decidedly personal, and an exercise in which we lose a great deal.
So that's that really; things come to a clunking halt. We can still enjoy charming water into wine story; it's a great strap line and good for the kids. But as for ourselves, well, we're a bit older and wiser now. Sure, we still want to change the world; we're still up for that; still got all those slogans up our sleeve. But changing ourselves? That'll be the "lip service only" department, madam.
But before we take down the sails of hope, and give up on the adventure, a thought. The opposite of adventure is not staying at home. The opposite of adventure is self-justification. This is the problem; this is the ugly slab of concrete on the road, barring further progress. The self-justification that imagines a particular image of myself - who I am, what I stand for, my skewed perceptions - and says, "That's who I am!" I'll be self-deprecating in public, of course: "Oh, what am I like?!" But that's only for public consumption; while my imagined self carries quietly on stubbornly ploughing the same old furrow. Here is self-justification that builds a fort with high walls and says "Where I am, I will stay."
Will I turn water into wine this morning? It's unlikely. Never say never, but my track record is not good, otherwise I'd get more invitations to parties than I do. But if I could turn your insistent self-justification into openness, trust and fluidity, then that would be a greater miracle by far. If you were to become openness and trust, you'd be quite unrecognisable inside, because your negative states would blister, peel and crumble, like old paint on a sea-facing wall. I'm talking here about the unsatisfactoriness of life; how it keeps on being unsatisfactory; not what we hope for; keeps on becoming negative states like misery, sadness, depression, self-absorption, hostility, indolence, greed, fear, clinging, envy, anxiety, rage. Yet these negative states would fade like the morning mist, if I left the confines of self-justification; and came home to a wall-less openness and an unknowing trust.
But of course I don't want that - because if my negative states went, I'd cease to exist surely! Simon's disappeared! Whisper it quietly in the aisles, but take away my hostility, sadness, depression, fear, anxiety and rage; take away my goodies and baddies, demons and heroes, and what's left? What's left of me?? Well, I'll tell you what's left – happiness. That's what's left. But we don't want it; or not enough. No, we like our old patterns of emotional response. They've been with us for years. We're like that! It's a marriage – two become one! Rather lovely really - me and my negative states. I don't know where they end and I begin! Marvellous.
Portsmouth harbour at night. There's a burning boat on the mud beach. I was there; but in a negative place. I looked at the boat and thought: "That's me – everything is being destroyed." The burning boat merely reaffirmed me in my feelings of despair. And that's what it was, and that's how it stayed until a few years later, someone questioned my interpretation. "Such glory in the dying," they said. I reflected on it - yes, that's true, I thought – there'd been so much glory there. Sure things were dying, but so much glory in the dying! The wonderful flame in the dark night sky! Why hadn't I seen that? Why? Because I had a self-justifying image of myself, I was a depressed person, a victim; and everything had to bow to that; everything interpreted through that. Burning boat? Well, that's got to be negative – cue more despair. Open? Trusting? Fluid? You're having a laugh. Left in that state, I would have justified myself to hell, which is where a lot of us are for much of the time. We're such defensive people; defending our soiled perceptions. I sometimes ask people: "What is it you're defending here?" because more often than not, they're defending nothing more noble than their right to unhappiness.
The opposite of adventure is not staying at home; the opposite of adventure is self-justification; the self-justification that defends who I am; that says me and my random perceptions are a self worth defending.
Back with our story, Jesus has had a conversation with his mother: "Do whatever he tells you," says Mary in an act of surrender to her irritating son. And maybe surrender is our theme too in the end. We walk along the high walls of our self-justifying selves – and with some relief, we wave a white flag. Yes, a white flag! It's over. These walls may have been our home, but do you know what? We've just noticed something – we've just noticed they don't exist; and even as you listen now to your breath, where your imagined home was, is now free space. As you listen now to your breath, you're suddenly in a wall-less space; a little vulnerable perhaps, but extraordinarily happy.