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Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2023

A friend of mine and I were talking about grace quite recently. My friend is somebody who engages in serious spiritual practice, and for many of us, we can have this idea that we are somehow working our way to being better, better people, more loving, more patient. But during this discussion I discovered that the gospel could not really fit this structure of progressive betterment of yourself. We found ourselves engaged in a heated debate where my friend began to feel that ‘grace’ was some sort of free ride, that however corrupt, confused, lost, the human person might be, in gospel terms, this wretched person might well encounter God’s abundant and grace-filled welcome.

From childhood we are schooled in the ethic of good behaviour leading to recognition and reward, prizes for good work, for politeness, a moral structure where a child can work their way up the ladder to greater success. Now there are deep human reasons for this, we have, from childhood, an instinctive, natural sense of justice, and we are often fiercely angry when this natural sense of is violated.

Now, listen to today’s labourers, those who started working early. ‘Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.’ Natural justice is here being overturned, the gift is being shared out equally, without a hierarchy of merit. ‘And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ That complaining voice is psychologically authentic. Angry, aggrieved, righteous. It reminds me of two other voices from the gospel of Luke, voices of a humanity confused by what they see as a mysterious generosity that seems to have little time for what is fair, practical common sense.

The first voice is the busy, upset Martha, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me’ (10:40). The other voice is the voice of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal and his brother. “Listen!” the elder brother says to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you… yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (15:29-30).

The love of God is scandalously unfair, it does not behave as we think it ought to behave, it overflows the boundaries we want to draw for it. This is the point of the glorious passage from Jonah. Jonah thinks he has God’s mercy and judgement all worked out but the revelation of God’s mercy both surprises and displeases this petulant prophet. ‘When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.’ Jonah, Martha, the elder brother, the labourer in the vineyard who started early, most of us.

Say we come into a place of the blessed, at the end of time, don’t worry this is a thought experiment not a literal prediction. There we are pleased to meet good and holy and wonderful people (it sounds like a rather ghastly social gathering) but as we go further into the crowd of the blessed we are frankly horrified to discover people who have behaved appallingly, the morally lost, the twisted, the confused, the dreadful, and they are here with us, with us who have done all our good works and spiritual practices and pulled ourselves up by sheer effort of will to become better people and here is this absolute …….. (please place your word here) basking in the unearned love of God. And you want to stop the party and say, ‘excuse me, but what exactly are the rules of this game called God’s grace, how does it work?’

Listen to the words of the landowner, they echo, incidentally, the words of the generous father in the parable of the prodigal, go and have of a read of them later. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or, are you envious because I am generous?’

‘Or, are you envious because I am generous?’ We are. We are so secretly envious and affronted when all the good we have done is shown up when God greets that absolute ………. as a treasured daughter or son. That’s not fair, we say. That’s just not fair, and we are right it isn’t.

I sometimes speculate about what are the reasons I return to Christ when there are many extraordinary teachers and teachings which are so rich, subtle, varied and life-giving. And I am not saying you have to go and pick and choose here. Keep reading and learning the other traditions as well, they have so much to give. But I do return to Christ and here is one reason why. I return to Christ because I trust that Christ will love and forgive the worst sinner over the most holy saint. He will love and forgive the greatest ……. over the most pious holy person who has learned to levitate before breakfast. And I truly trust this God because I know then that this God is not controlled and constructed by my own damaged and simplistic morality but is a God of free and generous and transformative grace, where ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

This God then is not simply the projection of our desperate and human need for justice. Because this is a God who will love us and transform us when we are lost and last. This then is not a God of prize and reward. It is the God who befriends us in the ruins of our moral failure when our certainties and our clever spiritual practices have not remade us into a more acceptable image. We cannot save ourselves, because we don’t really know ourselves that well, we’re always learning. But a God who loves us when we are last, when we are lost, that God can save us


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