Sunday 11th January 2015, evening
Isaiah 42:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10
Revd Kate Tuckett
I wonder what your favourite sin is. The one that brings you the most pleasure. And I wonder if it has or ever has had a bearing on any New Year’s resolutions you have made. It seems to me that there is no quicker way to discover the extent and depth of someone else’s self-loathing by asking them what their New Year’s resolutions are. The yearly list of 329 personal failings is probably something we have all put together at some point in our lives – and perhaps some of us still do.
Of course the gyms and the diet companies are having a field day at the moment. They are playing on the subtle and not-so subtle influences that tell us how we should behave, what we should look like, what we should eat, those murky parts of our minds that tell that us that whatever brings us pleasure is probably bad, and whatever feels like hard work is good. And in our faith as well, it’s very easy to seek God’s favour by giving up all the things we enjoy and doing what we feel we ought to but we actually find rather tedious.
We’ve just heard an epistle about grace, the very heart of the mystery of our faith, the great thawing of logic and reason and worthiness, the almost unbelievable promise that we are loved whatever we do, that nothing we can do can make God love us more, and nothing can make God love us less. This is a very different god from the one that I have been frightened by in the past, who is rather like some sort of monster, who creates us but tells us we are bad because of something that happened in the Garden of Eden, and who we have to try very hard not to displease in order not to be punished.
Paul was a faithful Jew and he was writing in the context of the Jewish Law. Salvation had come to Israel through the observance of God’s commandments. Rules and structures are necessary. We begin our lives by being told what to do and what not to do. Children need them; we all need them to put limits on our natural selfish tendencies and desires. They give a basic order to society, a framework within which we can live our lives. They may be a good and helpful place to begin, but they are not a place to stay and surely not a place to end.
Law can be something good. It can come from God and it can give life. The Torah was an ordered way of life that was so much better than the bitterness of slavery. The laws the people of ancient Israel received taught them how to honour God and respect one another. But what if people just obeyed the law? There is no law to say you have to make friends. There is no law to say that you may fall in love. There is no law to say that you should be fulfilled or content or satisfied. There is no law to say that when you are suffering, people should care about you. And such prescribed morality can in itself fail to discern real good and evil, and if our spirituality is around following rules, we miss out on the life that is promised to us in Christ.
Grace cannot be understood by ledgers of merits and demerits. It cannot be held to any patterns of buying, losing, earning, achieving or manipulating which is where most of us live our lives. The game of meritocracy or earning worthiness is deeply embedded in our culture. And it seems that things weren’t so different in the time of Jesus. The gospel writers set out a clear tension between law and grace in the person of Jesus – think about the prologue to John’s gospel, where the author tells us that ‘the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus’ – or the parables that Jesus is reported to have told – the wonderful stories of the Prodigal Son or the labourers in the vineyard where all that is fair is thrown up in the air and we see an economy of grace that is both challenging and shocking. We see Jesus, in John’s gospel, going to the temple to destroy the system of buying and selling which had taken over the temple itself. It made him very angry, and he railed against a religion that told people they had to buy their way to God.
‘By grace you have been saved,’ says the epistle. God’s forgiveness can never be earned. It is only and always received as gift. But I think this passage is saying something more to us that that, remarkable as this is. It’s saying to us that God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. There’s a beautiful translation of v8 of Ephesians which reads that ‘Nobody can claim the credit for your salvation. You are God’s work of art.’
My failings hurt me and they hurt other people and they hurt the planet, but God’s grace to me is that my failings are not the final word. My selfishness is not the end of the story. God can make us beautiful. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then being upset with us when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace. Rather, God says to us ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you, and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.’
Today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. We heard the wonderful reading this morning of the delight of God in Jesus: ‘This is my Son, my beloved, with him I am well pleased.’ Of course at our baptisms we are brought the same presence of the Holy Spirit and a clear voice from God that rejoices in us. Baptism is traditionally the place where we are washed clean from our sins. It would be wonderful to be able to claim that once we’re baptised, once we’re Christian, we don’t sin any more. But we all know that’s not true. Our sins are real. We all do unspeakable things. But God’s grace and acceptance are more real. It’s not because we have any value that we are loved. God’s love and acceptance gives us value.
It’s so easy to believe the world when it seduces us into believing that we have to earn God love, that our worth is dependent on how we look or how clever we are, or what we do. We can find all sorts of reasons to negate our belovedness, to forget that we ever heard this promise. But to believe that God’s words are not addressed to us, is to separate ourselves from the love of God. And that, surely, is what we call sin.
I think that sin is probably more than lots of sins. It is not a one-off mistake in an otherwise perfect life, a clearly-defined stain on a white surface. It is more like a way of being that we follow, an attitude of refusal to the invitation to wholeness, to life, to belovedness. Sin is a draining thing. Sin denies the creativity of God, God’s delight in making things new. So often the sins we beat ourselves up about are the same tired tawdry stories that we all fall prey. They are boring stories. They do not bring life or contain beauty.
There’s a wonderful novel by the African-American writer Alice Walker called The Color Purple, where the character Shrug reminds us how fed up God must be when we talk through a field of poppies and fail to notice the colour purple. Sin is blind to beauty – and that may be beauty in the world or perhaps harder, beauty in ourselves. It is grey and has no imagination. It shrinks before surprise and excitement. It sees no magic in creation. It cannot trust that God is good and therefore we are good. And this results in lives that we all to a greater or lesser extent lead – of excessive control, of clinging to our fragile egos, or grasping for more, of trying to prove that we are worthy because we cannot trust in the grace and love of God.
I suggest that today is an opportunity to remember the love that God has for us. The start of a new year is an opportunity for a fresh start. Because we will all have messed up in some monumental way last year. We all live our lives full of little cruelties and resentments and bitternesses. But God offers us all the time opportunities to start over again, to do things right.
And what about those infinitely pleasurable sins we’ve given up for New Year? There’s nothing wrong with stopping these – indeed some of them may be very good things to stop, but we are working with flawed materials, and if your willpower is anything like mine, it has its limitations. God comes to us to show us that our flawed material is capable of great beauty and great redemption. In Christ we are offered a new start, a way out, and way that doesn’t mean relying on our willpower but on God’s love for us.
We are God’s beloved. By grace we have been saved, through faith, not by anything of our own, but by a pure gift from God. Nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art.
This sermon contains material and ideas from the following resources:
Bolz-Weber, N. (2013), Cranky Beautiful Faith, London: Canterbury Press
O’Leary, D. (2014), Treasured and Transformed, London: The Tablet Publishing Co.
Rohr, R. (2008), Scripture as Spirituality, Cincinnati: St Anthony Messenger Press