Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Back to Church Sunday

Yesterday was Back to Church Sunday. We engaged in the occasion at St. James with some success. The idea behind the occasion is that everyone in the congregation should invite someone to church who was not currently involved in church. If everyone did that it would of course double the size of the congregation – at least for that service. This has been practiced in quite a few Anglican Dioceses in that past few years. I heard on priest refer to it as one more occasion in addition to Christmas and Easter where you have a larger than usual number of people in attendance. Would that make the people C & E & B Christians rather than C & E Christians i.e. those that appear for the Christmas and Easter services?
The question that arises is”what is church?” Some people think of it as the building i.e the church roof needs to be replaced so we better get a building campaign going. The church of course is the community of believers and perhaps even non-believers to gather to worship God and to carry out the business of the church which sometimes or often involves the property of the church.

As the beginning of the Eucharist in the Book of Alternative Services we have the gathering of the community. The service opens with these words:

Celebrant: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

People: And also with you.

This is exactly what church is – we are the community which gathers in the name of Jesus Christ. We are blessing each other with the hope and expectation that Jesus Christ is with us as he promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he will be there. We are expressing the hope that the grace of Jesus Christ will be with each of us. In my sermon I spoke of the the grace and mercy of God. The week before I noted the definition of grace and mercy which is worth repeating, Grace is about receiving what you don’t deserve and mercy is about not receiving what you do deserve. If it is about grace and mercy it can’t be fair. Being fair is about the law. Let us know and remember that God’s grace and mercy is freely available to each of us and live in response to that.

Monday, 19 September 2011

It's Not Fair It's Grace

There is a commercial which has been on TV recently.  It presents two cute little girls about four years old – one with brunette and one with blond hair sitting in a children’s play area - at a child sized round table with a pleasant looking middle aged man in a suit.  The man asks the brown haired little girl if she would like a pony.  The girl looks surprized and pleased and eagerly nods her head enthusiastically.  The man puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out a toy pony and gives it to the girl.  She accepts it quite happily and begins to play with it.  The man then turns to the blond haired little girl and asks her if she would like a pony.  The girl of course answers in the affirmative as well after all what little girl or boy for that matter not want a pony – even a toy one. 

Well the man signals and what come into the room but a real live pony.  Well this little girl is ecstatic and begins to pat the pony and talk to it.  The camera shifts to the first little girl who is now chest fallen.  With a puzzled and disappointed look on her face she looks longingly at the real pony the other girl has just received.  She says to the man in a pained voice, “you didn’t say I could have a real pony.  The man responds in an offhand way, “Well, you didn’t ask”.  A voiceover then says, even little kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.  Why don’t banks?” 

Have your children ever said to you, “It isn’t fair!”  The commercial is playing on the idea that children have an innate – perhaps even God-given sense of fair play.  They do seem to have a radar-like sense of what they believe is fair and what isn’t.  Of course their sense of what is and isn’t fair is not always accurate because they have a very limited understanding of the world.  But what parents often respond is, “Life isn’t”

As we grow up and experience the world we come to realize that life is often not fair.  However, we still have that belief deep down that it should be.  We believe that if God is just, God will make bring fairness and justice to and unfair and unjust world. 

This desire and belief in fairness is what is being addressed in the Gospel.  Some labourers have been working the whole day – which would be dawn to dusk.  Others have been hired at various different times throughout the day.   At the end of the day that last hired were paid first.  To the surprize of all the workers they were given a full day’s wage regardless of how long they worked - half a day or a quarter of a day or even one hour.  This seems very generous on the part of the landowner.  Then it was the turn of those who had been hired at the beginning of the day.  They had great hopes that this generous landowner would give them a bonus because after all they had worked longer that those who had been hired later. 

To their surprize and dismay they find they are given the same wage as all the others who had only been working part time – some only an hour  - you can hear the cry, “It’s not fair!”

Well can you blame them?  If I was in their situation I probably would have reacted the same way.  It’s very easy in this world regardless of what you have in life to look around and cry, “it’s not fair”.  Some people seem to be have everything in life.  They seem to be people who can fall into a manure pile and come out smelling like a rose.  There seem to be people who have everything in life and everything comes easy to them.  Other people struggle all their lives and never seem to get ahead.  We have the eternal cry of’ “It’s not fair”.  Why does God allow the world that God has created to be like this?  Why is there unfairness in the world – which is bad enough?  But what is worse, why does God allow injustice in the world.  Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people and good things happen to bad people?  We hear the cry of God’s people in exile. 

Why have you forsaken us Lord?  The words of the psalmist resonates with us, “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept for thee Zion.”

Last May I spoke about an approach to understanding the Gospel which was presented to us at Synod.  The approach proposes three rules. First, the Gospel is always astonishing. The second rule is -  in the Gospel God always acts first.  The third rule is - the Gospel is not fair.

Well there certainly isn’t a problem identifying where the Gospel is not fair.  Why would Jesus be holding up this apparently obvious act of unfairness as the right thing for the landowner – supposedly God – to be doing?  Jesus gives us his apparent justification for this action.  He says to the labourers, who were unsatisfied, “didn’t you get what we agreed upon?”  Why are you begrudging those other workers the benefit of my generosity?  Well that still doesn’t sit right with them or us – it does go against our natural sense of fairness and justice.  However, the issue is not about what is fair and what is not.

When we look at the world through the lens of fairness we are looking at it as a child would.  We look at it though our human perspective.  However, God does not see the world that way.  The Gospel is not about fairness – it is about grace and mercy – God’s grace and God’s mercy.  Grace is about receiving what you don’t deserve and mercy is about not receiving what you do deserve.  If it is about grace and mercy it can’t be fair.  Being fair is about the law.  Under the law we get what is fair.  If we break the law we are given what we deserve – that is fairness.  God’s people tried living under the law - the covenant - they found it was impossible to fulfill the law.  It didn’t work.  If those labourers had all received what was owed them that would be absolutely correct according to the law. 

God responded by sending his only begotten Son to redeem us.  He did this not because we deserve it.  He did it as the supreme act of grace and mercy.  We are no longer under the law.  We have been redeemed by God mercy. We no longer are saved because of our merit – thank God. 

We are not saved by piling up brownie points and hope our gold stars outweigh our black marks at the end.  In terms of salvation it doesn’t matter if we turn to God’s grace at the beginning of the work day of our lives or at the twilight of the work day of our lives.  It matters in terms of other things but not salvation, God’s salvation is for all of us.  Jesus Christ redeemed the whole world.  That act of grace is offered to each of us regardless of our state – which is the sinful state of humankind – we are all sinners.  All we have to do is to respond and accept that grace that is freely offered to each and every one of us.  Thanks be to God.  To that we can all respond.  Hallelujah