The Revd Brutus Green
Last week I preached on finding God in our weaknesses, the thorns in our side; as St Paul says, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong”. Unfortunately I may have overstated my case given the reaction of one former Kids’ Club leader who, having abandoned her kids and pushed back her sixth glass of fizz, complimented me on the immediate success of my sermon. So this week, since Andrejs has hidden the champagne, Bryan is officially one year closer to the end, barbecue season is over and it’s been raining all week, I thought I would curb our enthusiasm further by talking about how to get holy. [I should note though that today is St Swythin’s day so perhaps we can now look forward to 40 days of Summer.]
Well, as St Paul said to the Corinthians, ‘‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.” Grace is sufficient for us, but how do we move on in the Christian life? Are you content to tick the box and then leave God to the next life?
This is the moral of Aesop’s The Grasshopper and the Ant. Happily through the summer the grasshopper frolics in the sun, … (lol) drinks Margaritas and flirts with the grasshopperettes. Meanwhile, poor old ant is slaving away making sure he won’t go hungry in winter. Anyway, blah, blah, blah, the moral of the story is - if you’ll forgive the metaphor - make hay while the sun shines. Essentially, the grasshopper did not make adequate retirement provision.
So should we chip away to prepare for later like the wise ant, or leave it till the last minute like the flighty grasshopper? St Augustine gives us the spiritual example of the grasshopper in his Confessions when he says in his youth, “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!” For the economists amongst you, it’s a sort of Keynesian approach to morality - spending your way out of a recession - even when you’re morally bankrupt! On a pragmatic plane it’s the argument that, while you are able to, you should enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, and leave your soul to when everything else has shut down. Death-bed conversions, after all, have a poignant, heart-warming quality.
The ant’s way of looking at it is to think of religion as a sort of eternity insurance. I read the other day that some American companies a while back started taking out life insurance on their employees without them knowing. These were not even top-tier highly skilled workers and it became a bit of a scandal known as ‘janitor insurance’ or ‘dead peasant’s insurance’, after Walmart collected three hundred thousand on an employee who died helping a customer carry a television; his family got nothing. As Terry Pratchet pointed out, life insurance is a bit like betting that you’re going to die. So I bet £100 a year, and if I live to a hundred I lose; and If I die young I make a killing. For the American companies it was the slightly odious situations where companies were making side bets on their employees dying sooner rather than later, but the principle is the same. And I know what you’re thinking, but, no, I haven’t asked Steve yet.
Religion can also take this role, a sensible afterlife-insurance. I give up two hours a week and set up a modest standing order with Bryan and BANG! I get front row seats in heaven, with the full cost determined by the number of raffles I’ve had to enter. Wise old ant enjoys the winter. So do we leave our souls to the last minute - or do we keep our policy ticking along and turn our minds to other things?
If we think in either of these ways then grace has got cheap. This is the opposite of what grace really is because grace is simultaneously entirely free and yet worth all the world.
It can’t be bought either by church attendance or by a calculated last minute purchase. God does not have end of season sales. But what are we do with this? We are weak, busy, mostly imperfect, often harried creatures. We know that grace is sufficient for us. But how do we move on in the Christian life?
Well by coincidence, St Paul is also full of metaphors in this week’s epistle. He writes that he destined us for ‘adoption’, we have the ‘riches of his grace’ lavished upon us, we have ‘obtained an inheritance’, we are ‘marked with the seal’, ‘the pledge of our inheritance’. All this because he has chosen us ‘before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love’.
This grace, this sufficient grace, turns out not to be merely sufficient, enough to get by, but riches lavished upon us, the inheritance as bequeathed by a king to his beloved child. We are children of God. Now if you’re thinking here, well that’s all very well but my idea of being lavished with riches is Kim Kardashian personally delivering a big silver car (and sorry I’ve never really got beyond describing cars by size and colour) then this isn’t really going to fly. So what is Paul getting at here?
Well if we’re talking about adoption as children of God we must first look to the only-begotten Son, Jesus, to see how divine inheritance works. Here, we find that the Father gives everything to the Son. But the Son overcomes the temptation to hold on to this gift; to seek power, the easy life, wealth and riches. ‘He took the form of a servant… and humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death’. Jesus receives the free gift of all that the Father has and is, and himself gives freely, in his commitment to revealing God as the free giver of love. To put it another way, love cannot be held on to, coveted or hoarded; it is only real when it is given away. What Jesus inherits is character - defined fundamentally by an extraordinary generosity. Which is to say that the Father and the Son are of one purpose: making plain the nature of love, which is also the nature of God: to give everything away, or, as I read in a charming phrase: love is planting trees in whose shade other people will sit. This is the definition of Christian riches.
But love so easily becomes a cliche. Love is a good thing, it makes the world go round, love is all around, it will keep us together; or perhaps, even after the 2012 Eurovision disaster, love will set you free. But actually, love is mostly found in little acts of solidarity. In the last week, across social media bitchy comments and petitions have regularly flown to and fro over the issue of women bishops. Friends of mine on both sides have been tearfully threatening to leave the church, and the business of love in the church has become a little fraught. There are women feeling that the institution is irredeemably sexist and anglo-catholics feeling that the Church has fallen prey to some sort of heresy or bad theology.
So what do you do in this situation?
One way would be to not say anything and sympathize with whomever you’re talking, being generally kind and drinking a lot of tea. But is that love? As Christians we cannot flinch from truth and justice. As my namesake said, “I am arm’d so strong in honesty/ That they pass by me as the idle wind’. The Church’s recognition of the full equality of men and women cannot be sidestepped. But this means working even harder to preserve relationships with people who think differently, and avoiding frustrated personal attacks, which are so easy to make. So I went with Gemma, who is a curate in Bromley, for brunch with a wicked conservative yesterday. I helped him move a wardrobe down five flights of stairs while Gemma cooked brunch. We didn’t talk about bishops, but Gemma was wearing her “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt.
Small acts of solidarity, refusing to give up on relationships, seeking reconciliation where possible. This is the business of love and to be a child of God is working at growing in this love. And that’s where we can find these riches of grace, lavished upon us. When we love our crooked neighbour with our crooked heart - as Auden put it - we get a taste of salvation, of holiness. Grace can’t be saved up and it isn’t about a sudden moment of magic or passing a test. It is about a lifetime of growing in love - in learning to give and receive it, to forgive and be forgiven. This is what it means to be a child of God. As children inherit genes and mannerisms from their parents, taking their identity from them; becoming children of God is becoming more like Christ, able to give more, to think less of ourselves, to widen our hearts to the world. In economic terms we all need to be little growth stimuli.
So don’t be like the grasshopper, putting off God till the last day. But don’t be like the ant, grudgingly setting a little aside for God. Find God in the joy of everyday life and the people you meet, and love them as best you are able. Then love will lift you up where you belong. Amen.