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Title: May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, our strength, and our redeemer
Preacher: Canon Dr Eve Poole, Chapter of York Minster
Readings: Genesis 14:17–20, Revelation 19:6–10, John 2:1-11
Date: 21 January 2024, Third Sunday of Epiphany
My favourite bit of today’s gospel is Mary’s eye-roll in the middle of it. “When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to me and to you? My hour has not yet come.” CUE MARY’S EYEROLL, as she says to the servants [no doubt in a rather weary voice], “just do whatever he tells you.” Every mother of every son can identify with that kind of bumptiousness. Sons, eh?
Talking of which, some of you have got people pregnant; some of you have been pregnant; and all of you have been born. Babies are a source of such wonder. How extraordinary that an egg and a sperm, themselves distinct, combine, then split; splitting and changing, exchanging cells with the mother’s body, until all these cells combine again; to create skin and organs and teeth and hair; and even, in female babies, a full set of egg cells for their own babies in the future! Why are we then even remotely surprised by such an ordinary miracle as water into wine? Even in adulthood, when I broke my knee ski-ing, they took a hamstring from my thigh and used it to secure my femur to my tibia, knowing that in the laboratory of my body it would soon be transformed from hamstring to ligament.
We’re all completely extraordinary, you know. Congratulations on being here today. What are the odds? It’s been estimated that the chances of you being born are 400 quadrillion to the power of 150,000, which is a ten followed by 2.64 million zeroes. You’d have to run the length of the Minster sixteen and a half times to read all those zeroes; it’s a number as long as the first 4 Harry Potters, or three sets of New Testaments. And in a universe that extends tens of billions of light years in all directions, containing over two trillion galaxies, and more stars than all the grains of sand on all the beaches on planet Earth, here you are. Living on the Visited Planet, the one chosen by God, who send his only son here; sitting in York Minster, or watching at home, busy being a very particular, unique and special miracle.
But will we still be here to mark the Minster’s next millennium? As a species, I mean? Because of late it seems Sci Fi is not very ‘fi’ anymore, it’s creeping into fact, via ChatGPT and advanced robotics, and making us wobble about jobs and reality. For many people, that’s a good thing, if you believe that evolution is just a narrative of improvement, with an end game of perfection. Because if AI would make us perfect, surely we should hand over the keys, and exit stage left. But for Christians, we’re not at liberty to be quite so cavalier with our own design, because God made us in his own image. That means we’re fearfully and wonderfully made, perfectly designed by God for God’s perfect ends.
But we’re so used to hearing about human shortcomings that I think we’ve lost confidence in our design. Burdened by our manifold sins and wickednesses, we feel ashamed of being such miserable offenders. And it’s true that current worries about AI running amok have nothing on what humans have already done both to each other and to the planet. But we’re not actually designed to be bad, we’re just wayward; but we don’t HAVE to be. So when we worry about all the bugs in our system that seem to ‘make us bad,’ it’s salutary to remember that they’re not really bugs, they’re features, and we could all get better at using them.
Take for example mistakes. We all know about trial and error, and we’ve all watched toddlers learning how to walk by falling down and picking themselves up again. But in our design, mistakes also have a moral purpose, because when you make a mistake, people around you react to it. They get upset or hurt, and you feel bad. You don’t like that feeling, so you learn not to do it again. Over time, this develops in you a healthy conscience, which future-proofs your decision-making against this kind of error and hones your moral compass. Mistake-making looks like a design flaw, but it’s vital for our learning and development. And if we do learn from our mistakes, we really have little excuse for all that sinning.
I think we’ve become rather too used to rubbishing our own design, and blaming it for our own bad behaviour. But now that AI is trying so hard to copy it, the extraordinary sophistication of that design is becoming much more apparent. So while we celebrate the miracles of Jesus today, please remember that you’re one too. Maybe we should find more time to celebrate the miracle of human design, and to take it a lot more seriously. So, as the poet Mary Oliver says, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
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