Tag Archives: Grace

1 September – Return

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Pentecost 12

Hosea 14
Psalm 89
Luke 14:7-11

In a sentence:
Grace can only be given into empty hands

‘Sin’ the church’s four-letter word.

Four-lettered words are ‘sharp’ words. We call them ‘swear’ words because of the way we use them to intensify an oath – a promise or a threat. Just as four-letter words which actually have four letters are real words referring to real things and yet most of the time are the wrong way to refer to those things, short-and-sharp ‘sin’ both marks something we know to be real but which often feels overstated. It’s uttered all over the place in the church but often with the wrong emphasis: it is not the place to start in characterising the human being in her relationship to God.

Of course, it’s a very biblical word but we hear it in tune with the way in which it has been taken up in the church through history. It ought not surprise us that people so capable of sin as Israel and the church might not be quite capable of speaking of sin properly.

The prophets, of course, are full of the accusation of sin, and we’ve heard plenty of that from Hosea over the last couple of months. His account and assessment of the wrong in Israel has been visceral. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of sin in the prophets.

Of course, the word of grace has been present alongside judgement of sin, and Hosea finishes with God’s willingness to reconcile – our text for this morning. This final chapter is structured as a confession and absolution: there is the call to Israel to ‘return’, the confession of Israel, and then God’s declaration of what good will now come to Israel. That good we have heard most weeks over the series as part of our own declaration of forgiveness in the liturgy:

4 I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree…
7 They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden…

This final chapter presents, on the surface at least, the ‘standard’ approach to sin, confession and absolution in the churches: you are sinners (swear word), therefore you need to confess (also a swear word), and then God forgives (resolution). I say ‘standard approach in the churches’ because, in fact, this is not quite how things unfold in the prophets or in true Christian experience.

Grace is not conditional. It must be received to be recognised as grace, but it always precedes our reception and recognition. The very possibility of a return by Israel has its basis not in the repentant heart of the people but in God’s invitation to them: ‘Return’ (14.1).

Earlier in Hosea we read,

Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the Lord. (5.4)

Later, when Israel says to itself, ‘Let us return to the Lord,’ God’s response is ‘Seriously? What shall I do with you? I look for love and knowledge, not religious obeisance’ (6.1-6).

The engine which moves the story from judgement to restoration is grace, and not the perceived need on Israel’s part for something better. The people cannot return until it hears God’s invitation: ‘Return’. ‘Return’ is an invitation to claim the promise God makes in the face of all that has come to pass: I will heal, I will love, I will be like the dew; and you shall flourish as a garden.

To claim these promises is to let go of other things claimed. And so Israel’s confession includes, ‘We will say no more, “our God”, to the works of our hands.’ In its immediate context this is a casting away of wooden and metal idols (4.12; cf. 4.17; 8.6; 10.6; 11.2; 13.2; 14.8). But the prophets’ easy mockery of the worship of wood and stone disguises a deeper truth: there is nothing we can make or do which will bring us into God’s favour. The ‘work of our hands’ is not merely the silver statue of a god; it as much anything we imagine will impress God, will allow us to approach God, will place God within our reach; this includes even our willingness to confess as a kind of ‘offering’ to win God over (such as seems to be proposed in 6.1-3).

For Israel ‘the works of our hands’ were not only the religious idols but also the land, the kingship, the divinely-commanded religious obligations, even the half-thought of turning back to God – whatever Israel counted as for its own good. For us, it is the same kind of thing: moral achievement, reputation, continuity of history, correctness of theology or purity of association. What we most love and cling to, or create to keep at bay the threats we most fear – these become the works of our hands, with the strong temptation to identify them as ‘our God’. The principle ‘God is what God does’ morphs into ‘God is what we do’.

God has a great interest in what we love and fear, but not as the basis for our relationship with God. For us, what we most love and most fear form a bulwark against the world, against each other and, finally, against God. It is their potential to secure us in this way that causes the works of our hands to begin to look like divine things. Just this saw Israel lose the plot: the God who called them into being as a people is just not doing enough to secure what we love and keep fear at bay, and so let’s try other gods, run off to arrange political alliances, develop new liturgies and more convenient moralities, focus on the ‘important’ people and let the rest fend for themselves.

We fear that if we do not, ‘with our hands,’ create for ourselves parents to keep us safe, we will be but orphans. But the confession on the lips of Israel this morning concludes by letting go of this anxiety: ‘in you, Lord, the orphan finds mercy’ (14.3), in you is mother, father, for you lift us to your cheek.

‘Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled… ‘Return’ is the sharp word intended to catch our attention in Hosea, not the four-lettered accusation, ‘sin’, or the stumbling. The sharpness is not dark pointedness of profanity but the stinging light which reveals a path back to God. An orphan cannot un-orphan herself; love and care cannot be forced from another. But this was never the requirement: ‘your faithfulness comes from me.

The command to ‘return’ declares that we never were orphans, despite how things felt.

And so, however things feel for us now – whether pretty bad or, perhaps especially, if they are feeling pretty good – Return, and say no longer ‘my God’ to the works of your hands. ‘For I desire not your works, your sacrifices and burnt offerings, but love and the knowledge of God’ (6.6).

What we make of ourselves and the world is not unimportant but must not get in the way.

God has already embraced us, and we cannot ‘return’ that embrace if our arms are already full. Grace can be given only into empty hands.

31 March – Against wisdom (and foolishness)

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Lent 4

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11
Psalm 32
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

In a sentence:
Not what we do, but what God has done, is the heart of the matter

Qohelet is traditionally identified as King Solomon, not least because he claims to have been king in Jerusalem and the book is clearly a work of considerable wisdom, for which Solomon himself was famous. There are, however, other hints in the book which undermine this identification. Whatever the case, our writer was certainly a person of considerable means, and so he resolves to ‘make a test of pleasure’. He performs great works, acquires slaves and beautiful things and people: ‘I kept from my heart no pleasure.’ Yet, for all, that he determines again, ‘all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.’

His efforts then continue beyond what we heard this morning, although now in a different direction: he turns from material indulgence to wisdom and work.

12So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly… 13Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. 14The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. 15Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 

17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind. 18I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? … 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

In the end, then, both profligacy and wisdom with serious hard work lead him to the same conclusion, to which he will return several times: all is vanity, and so

24There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 

What we have heard from Qohelet today has surprising parallels to Jesus’ parable of the two sons. In both there is extravagance, and hard work, and eating and drinking.

The parable is familiar to most of us – the irresponsible younger son who eventually comes to his senses, the waiting father who welcomes him home and the complaints of the older and hard-working brother about his father’s behaviour. The last time we considered this parable (March 3 2016), we noted that the two sons, despite who looks to be right and who wrong in the story, related to the father in the same way: according to an economy of exchange rather than of gift. Both are concerned with what the father owes them, the one hoping to earn a servant’s living and the other hoping to prove worthy of his inheritance.

The action of the father, however, reveals that – in Qohelet’s terms – each invests in a vain chasing after the wind. The foolishness of the younger son’s early behaviour is self-evident. Then he comes to his senses and wisely plots a course back to the safety of the family home, only to find that he has misread his situation. There is no folly in the behaviour of the older son but he employs much the same wisdom as his younger brother, which also indicates a misreading his own situation. In neither case do either receive what they think they are due, as their due, as an earned reward. The younger discovers that he need not earn his place with his father, and the older hears that he will inherit regardless of what he does.

The surprise here is that, despite their efforts, both in fact catch the wind, the ‘wind’ being here the father’s favour. Or perhaps, they are caught up in that wind.

And so we stumble upon a surprising amorality in the story of the two brothers, despite the strong moral overtones in the contrast between their behaviour and often drawn in reflections on this parable.

This amorality is in that, while wisdom is to foolishness as light is to darkness (as Qohelet admits, 2.14), both the foolish and the wise end up in the same place. A problem many have with Qohelet, and which will only be exacerbated in next week’s reflection, is that it’s not quite clear where right and wrong are located in the world as he describes it. More to the point, he questions whether we can actually locate them (cf. 6.12; 8.1,17). And, if that is the case, how do we orient ourselves towards the right, the good?

For Qohelet, this orientation occurs in what he calls ‘enjoyment’ – there is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil, for this also is from God (2.24). This is not hedonism; it is life lived with a ‘serious lightness’. This is a hard-earned wisdom which allows that it might still be found, in the end, to have been foolish.

What this means, practically, is the pursuit of life ‘as if’ life depended on the pursuit, but knowing that it does not. It means hard work, loving service, costly sacrifice, careful consideration and refinement – in our relationships, in our discipleship, in our worship, in our studies and vocations. Qohelet calls us to a serious life, a ‘wise’ life.

But a life of serious lightness is all these things in the spirit of freedom – the freedom of those who already have what they work for.

What Qohelet sees we already have is life and God’s blessing on what we do (9.7). This he allows us to mark in the time of enjoyment, symbolised in the feast.

For Jesus’ parable today, the terms are different but the point is the same. The irresponsibility of the younger son and then his attempt to manipulate his father on the one hand, and the unhappy efforts of the older son on the other, are both shown to be far from the heart of things.

The heart of things is the father’s very own heart, which claims both of them regardless of what they do. This, too, is marked by a feast – to which the foolish and the wise both find themselves welcomed. The feast is the sign of the folly of those who are loved by God but do not yet know what that means.

While we are so concerned with what we are doing, the gospel draws attention to what has been done: we have been begun in the Father and completed in the Jesus the Son. All that remains in our meantime – in this life under the sun – is that we open ourselves to the Spirit for which we prayed in our opening hymn: the ‘blessed unction’ which is ‘comfort, life and fire of love’, which anoints and cheers our mortality, and teaches us to know our beginning and our end – here, in God.

And so we break bread and bless the cup, in order that we might begin to learn this lesson, to God’s greater glory and our richer humanity. Amen.

LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on grace 1

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“The gospel will not ever tell us we are innocent, but it will tell us we are loved; and in asking us to receive and consent to that love, it asks us to identify with, and make our own, love’s comprehensive vision of all we are and have been.  That is the transformation of desire as it affects our attitude to our own selves – to accept what we have been, so that all of it can be transformed.  It is a more authentic desire because more comprehensive, turning away from the illusory attraction of an innocence that cannot be recovered unless the world is unmade.  Grace will remake but not undo.”

Rowan Williams, Resurrection, p.89

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