Drenched in grace - A non lectionary sermon for the baptism of Grace Sentance based on Matthew 20: 1-16
In just a few minutes I shall have the pleasure of baptising Grace. It's a mighty fine name for a girl. And yet it is something more.
Bono in his song "Grace" says that grace is;
"a thought that changed the world."
Wow! And I might add, grace goes on changing the world even today.
And yet grace is not always welcomed. You see, all too often within the church we want grace for ourselves yet we are quick to long for it to be held back from others. Surely, though, if we want to be close to the will of God, we should welcome grace wherever it is manifested.
When I attended Confirmation classes back in the 1970s, I remember being told that grace stood for "God's riches at Christ's expense." I think I go along with that. After all, we see in Christ the ultimate grace filled life - a life in which unmerited favour is shared with so many people who were not exactly flavour of the month with religious people. Think of the terrorist Zealot, the tax collector who was a collaborator with Roman occupation, the people who would have fallen foul of the sex police, the ceremonially unclean and those who were not exactly religiously orthodox.
Yes, time and again we find Jesus giving people the favour that most would say they were not entitled to.
Sometimes we talk as if the prime purpose of Jesus was justice and morality. But I want to question this. Justice can be a very cold concept. It can be used to justify keeping people in the pits by denying them a liberating possibility on cold legal grounds. Morality can all too often be the voice of tut tutting disapproval, an approach that is cold, unforgiving and inclined to shame transgressors or leave them frozen in their worst moments. Think for a moment of a justice system that denies those appealing against rejections of asylum claims denied of both the right to work or benefit. Think for a moment of those dreadful Community Payback jackets motivated by the Justice Secretary's desire to publicly shame those sentenced to community service. If this is justice and morality, I for one want nothing to do with it.
Give me grace instead. for as Bono puts it;
She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name."
Grace is rooted in a conviction that God affirms the value of each person's humanity. The hymns of Charles Wesley brim with the message that God's love is for all. Oh, we may turn from that love but the love never abandons us. As Wesley puts it in one of the greatest of his hymns;
"For all! For all my saviour died!
For all my Lord was crucified."
Even when we are at our most unlovely, grace causes this love to go on striving with us for in Bono's words;
"Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things."
And this grace crosses man erected boundaries. Think to that story of Jonah. Probably written at a time when the exiles who had been in Babylon had returned and were pressurising Jewish men to get rid of non Jewish wives, this story speaks of God's love an compassion for the people of Assyria, the country which had for so long terrorised Israel. And amazingly it presents a disturbing picture in which the tyrant King of an enemy power would seem to get God's grace more than a thoroughly orthodox prophet of Israel.
And a few hundred years later Jesus will tell a story in which a despised Samaritan not only gets grace more than a priest and a levite, but also dispenses grace to an injured man at great personal risk.
See! Grace cannot be confined by our religious systems. It overrides our prejudices. It is not like karma where one earns one's good fortune. Far from it!
"She travels outside
Of karma, karma.
She travels outside
Why you may ask. Because grace is gift pure and simple.
That brings us to the story that Jesus told concerning a man who sought workers for his vineyard. But this was a man with a difference. Unlike most such employers he is not an absentee landlord. Far from it, he does the hiring himself rather than as was the norm employing an agent to do such things. Perhaps this is because he is motivated by compassion for needy men rather than for personal gain. Certainly in a manner that would be unthinkable in a well organised vineyard owner who would know what needs to be done, he keeps going back to the market to offer employment to men who would have been desperate to earn the means to keep themselves and possibly their families. On his first visit early in the morning, he offers the men a proper day's wage of one denarius. On his next three visits he offers them that he will pay what is right whilst on the final visit he simply calls them to work without reference to financial reward.
Come the end of the day it is time for the vineyard owner to settle his accounts with the workers. But now he astounds us. Not only does he pay those who started last before those who have worked longer hours but he pays them all the same sum that he had offered those who had begun in the morning.
Not surprisingly merry Hell breaks out. Those who have worked the longest hours protest that those who came into the vineyard near the end of the shift have been paid as much as those who have laboured all through the day. In a sense we can understand them. This is not fair and yet none have been shortchanged.
Now we see the scandal of grace. It isn't fair. but it is generous. Grace shortchanges none but gives so so much more to those whose need is greatest. For here is the antidote to the mean spiritedness that so often excludes and condemns. Instead grace offers us the reality of loving kindness.
This morning as we prepare for the baptism of Grace Sentance, we celebrate the grace of God which blesses and gives us and loves us more than we can ever deserve. In baptism we rejoice in the grace made manifest in God loving Grace before she can earn anything of that love. And for Grace we pray that she might come to know that love in her own life and that she might experience the blessing of knowing people who mediate God's grace to her. And more than that we pray that Grace might be true to her name, not brought down to bitterness and harsh judgement. But instead we pray that she might be true to her name so that what Bono writes of grace may be equally true of her;
"Grace finds beauty
Grace finds beauty
So may a girl called Grace and each of us be well and truly drenched in the grace that just goes on changing the world.