Amazing Grace | Amazing Grace

Sermon, 10.30 Parish Eucharist, Sunday 15th  Sept., 2013

Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10


Amazing Grace

We spent our summer holidays in the United States this year and they began with a wedding in Detroit.  The groom was the son and grandson of old friends of ours and the wedding was held in the church that the bride and her family attend.  A church more different than St. Mary’s it’s hard to imagine.  It’s a “community church” for one thing, which means that it takes place in a school gym rather than a church building.  There’s no organ or choir and the minister is called a “pastor”, rather than a priest.  It won’t surprise you to know that he doesn’t wear robes or even a dog collar but an ordinary business suit and tie.  There’s no liturgy – by which I mean set prayers, psalms and responses. The service didn’t even feature the Lord’s prayer!  The pastor also talked a great deal – even more than I do.  From what I remember, he spoke for all of the 40 minutes of the service with the exception of the two hymns we sang and the vows said by the bride and groom.  And when he did speak the word “Jesus” featured a very great deal.  It was what we call “low” in church terms being very evangelical and it felt pretty strange.

Fast forward a week and we attended our friends’ church in Maine. This was a pretty little New England white, weatherboard church. They had an organ and a small choir, a liturgy recognisably similar to our own and a woman minister who wore vestments although – needless to say! – they were nothing like as magnificent as the ones that I am wearing.  But what really told me I was at something more akin to home was that the church described itself as “inclusive and affirming”.  Indeed, it was much more so than the Church of England as they had celebrated a gay marriage there only the previous weekend.  I can pretty safely say that the church in Detroit held rather different views on such matters.

I mention all this because today is Inclusive Church Sunday.  Quite recently the PCC here agreed that St. Mary’s should join the Inclusive Church Network.  You may well ask what this is. Well, it’s a grouping of churches that share a view about the need to reach out to excluded minorities.  It began life over 10 years ago after the row over Jeffrey John – who was (and is) both celebate and gay – becoming Bishop of Reading.  When, the church withdrew his appointment the fledgling Inclusive Church Network began life with a petition that said this:

“We affirm that the Church’s mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every generation.

We acknowledge that this is Good News for people regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation.

We believe that, in order to strengthen the Gospel’s proclamation of justice to the world, and for the greater glory of God, the Church’s own common life must be justly ordered.

To that end, we call on our Church to live out the promise of the Gospel; to celebrate the diverse gifts of all members of the body of Christ; and in the ordering of our common life to open the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation”

It makes me feel good just saying that for I strongly believe in inclusivity.  I must admit though, that preparing this sermon has made me think twice about what I now realise was my judgemental attitude towards the church in Detroit.  Let me explain.

To be clear – no one was more inclusive than Jesus in his earthly ministry.  This is the man who was criticised by the religious authorities for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.  So who are we talking about here?  Tax collectors were loathed for two reasons. Firstly, because they collected taxes on behalf of the hated Romans, and secondly because they cheated the people they taxed, extorting money from the poor.  Think loan sharks today.  The term “sinners” covers, indeed, a multitude of sins.  There were some Jesus reached out to who led what many would even today consider as leading dissolute lives, such as the woman he met at the well in John’s gospel.  But many others were seen as sinners for the simple reason that they didn’t observe all the Jewish religious laws and perhaps didn’t even go to synagogue at all.  Shocking!

So these were the people Jesus reached out to and to whom he promised grace and forgiveness.  No wonder the religious crowd were scandalised by him.  To them, he would have seemed amoral, unjudgemental and irreligious. To highly religious Jews the idea of God having anything to do with the sexually profligate or the religiously unobservant would have seemed horrifying.  But here is Jesus in today’s gospel telling stories about a shepherd desperately searching for a lost sheep and a woman similarly searching for a lost coin.  These are stories which show that God longs for the sinful to be reunited with him.  More than that, he’s not just waiting to shower them with grace and forgiveness, he is actively seeking out the lost and the excluded so that he can do just that.

Given all this I am proud that we are inclusive church – or try to be, at least.  But I see a great risk of self-righteousness here.  Preparing this sermon I began to realise that I was glad that the church in Detroit was so different, glad that we’re not like it, glad that we’re inclusive and they seem not to be.  But where have I heard thinking like this before?  Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells the story of a highly religious man sitting next to a hated tax collector in synagogue and he says this:

“God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and I give away a tenth of my income.”

But the punchline of Jesus’ story is that it’s the hated tax collector that goes home justified and not the highly religious man.  He does so because, for all his faults, it’s he that has the better understanding and truer estimation of his need of God’s forgiveness.

The truth of the matter is, the gospel is bigger and more inclusive than any of us.  Whatever views we passionately hold about gay marriage or women bishops, we are all of us in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.  And there seems – thank goodness – to be no limit to God’s patience in waiting for us to acknowledge our need of him and accepting his forgiveness.

At both the wedding in Detroit and the one I attended last weekend, we sang John Newton’s great hymn Amazing Grace.  The first verse goes like this:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”

Those of you who were listening hard will see here a reflection of the St. Paul’s astonishment, as expressed in today’s reading from his first letter to Timothy, that someone as sinful as he should be in receipt of forgiveness.  In John Newton’s case he surely needed it for he was a slave trader.  It’s hard to imagine a crime more miserable and heinous than that.  You may well think that those wonderful words were a fitting response to his sense of forgiveness for such crimes, except that, if you did think that, you would be quite wrong.  For Newton wrote that hymn while still a slave trader!  Yes – he was a communicant member of the Church of England, a religiously observant man who saw nothing wrong in what he was doing.  And the excuse that everyone thought the same way at the time just won’t wash – there were plenty of Christians (and others) opposed to the trade although he did, later, become one of them.

This extraordinary story raises two interesting and related questions for me. Firstly, what evil lurks in my heart to which I am blind and that needs forgiveness?  For the uncomfortable truth is that it is so much easier to spot evil in others than it is in ourselves.  Secondly, good, liberal people that we are, I wonder what we would think if a modern day equivalent to John Newton were to start joining us here for worship at St. Mary’s?  Someone who made their living trafficking in Eastern European prostitutes perhaps?  Or, less dramatically, the owner of a lap dancing club?  Or what if a prominent member of the British National Party or English Defence League decided to join our numbers?  Would that stretch our inclusiveness to breaking point?  I think it could well.  And yet, reading the gospels, it is clear that God’s grace and forgiveness, as manifest in Jesus, is extended freely and unconditionally to all.

I’m really proud that we are part of the Inclusive Church Network and hope that you are too.  But may we never forget that we remain as in need of forgiveness as any of those whose views we disagree with and whose theology, teachings and liturgy (or lack of it) we perhaps too readily disdain.