Fourth Sunday before Lent - Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts

This morning, I’d like to start with a prayer. It is one that you may well have heard; indeed, you may have prayed some version of it yourselves. It goes like this:

 

Dear Lord: So far today, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over indulgent. I’m very thankful for that. But, in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed. And from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot more help. Amen.

Although amusing, this contains within it some profound truth: that every waking moment is filled with choices about how we think, and act; and that we cannot hope to manage these choices with wisdom, freedom, compassion and peace without God’s help.

How often, I wonder, when we are called to follow Jesus, is our response like that of Simon Peter in our Gospel today: ‘Go away from me Lord! I am sinful!’, or Isaiah, ‘Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips!’? How often do we get in the way of God’s invitation to love and be loved – because we are too bad, too sad, too busy, too uncertain?

Our Church can seem relentlessly – and sometimes embarrassingly – caught up with the idea of ‘sin’. What it is, what it isn’t. How we purge ourselves from it, how we identify it in others; what rules and regulations we put in place to guard against it, and allow us to castigate for failure. Our attitude towards sin is deeply ingrained, such that we find it almost impossible to believe that the forgiveness and mercy of God is real, and absolute.

I am not suggesting some uber-liberal, dismissive view of sin. Sin is a serious business. But so is forgiveness. And so is mercy. Too often our idea of sin omits these elements – the God elements – and we get stuck in a very human cycle of failure, disappointment, judgement, and shame. This is not life-giving. This is not a pattern for which we feel compelled to leave everything and follow Jesus, let alone come to the Church to offer our precious children for Baptism, though many of us believe this is the only ‘religious’ option available to us.

One way of thinking about sin is as that which gets between us and a fulfilling relationship with a loving God. In which case, I wonder if our greatest stumbling block is our conviction that we can, or must, become ‘better’ on our own; that will-power is a substitute for grace, and self-abnegation more effective than compassion, and judgement preferable to mercy?

In short, our refusal to accept the terrible, painful realization that God is not the God we create in our own image – wrathful, judgemental, punitive. Rather he is the one who created us, and who knows – better than we do – our frailty, and fear, and frustration that we cannot be how we wish to be, and cannot find a way to accept the love and life that is offered to us.

Only by accepting this might we get to truly say, with the apostle Paul (and possibly to the tune made famous by my fellow Welsh-woman, Dame Shirley Bassey), that ‘by the grace of God I am what I am’ – that means every part of us, the good, the bad, and all that stuff that sits uneasily between. To understand, deep within ourselves that, as Harry Williams puts it, “everything we are is God imparting Himself to us, and therefore in everything we are we feel after Him and find Him. The whole of us flows from the one fountain of life, and it is by means of the whole of us that we return to the source from which we have sprung.”

When Peter saw the Lord as he is, and himself as he was, he was transformed and made more useful to God than he had ever been. The same thing was true for Isaiah. When we realize that God is God, and not just a bigger, more powerful version of ourselves, we are freed to acknowledge our limitations and come before him in penitence and confidence.

When we feel tangled and messy, we can know that we are not left alone; God is alongside, in the tangle, pulling here, poking there, showing us how, yes, things might get clearer, but we are where we are at any given time, and God is there too. There is grace, and love, in the very worst situations. We may feel lost, we may feel sinful, but we are always beloved children of God.

This is what God is saying to us in the Sacrament of Baptism. This is what is happening here to these children this morning – but is a message for us all: that Christ has claimed us, died for us, loves us, just as we are. Our job is simply to remember this.

This, I believe, is the tough, ongoing work of discipleship. Because as all three of our readings show us this morning, it is only after acknowledgement of what our sin is – and what it is not – and only after our acceptance of total forgiveness and mercy, that we can be sent out, that we can say without reservation, ‘here am I: send me’.

Only then will we be equipped to go about in our world as visibly treasured, loving, merciful signs of the love of God. We have to believe it’s true for us before we can convince anybody else. Do we really believe we have good news? Has the story of Jesus transformed our lives? Can we say with confidence that we know that we are loved, and that nothing we can do can make God love us less? Do we know this, deep in our hearts?

Our bearing fruit, our efficacy in terms of discipleship, is not about intellect, eloquence, piety, self-discipline, good works; those are worldly measures which, although helpful in their place, can all act as defences against receiving and giving love.

Rather, God leads us, gently, to see ourselves as we really are: as he sees us, created in his image, loved into being, held throughout life. He invites us to accept and forgive, with him, the parts of us that are damaged and dark, and then, ready, he sends us out, grateful and loving, to show others how their lives, too, can be changed by love.

May each of us here this morning know that we are loved, forgiven, accepted.

May each of us say, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am’.

May each of us respond to God’s loving call with ‘Here am I; send me!’