Third Sunday in Lent: Grace Period

Sermon for St Andrew’s Aberfeldie, Sunday 28th February

Luke 13:1-9


On Monday this week I had to submit a form. It was an acceptance form for the secondary school to which my second son had been offered a place. I didn’t submit the form on time and the admissions office sent me an email! I rang the admissions office and explained why I hadn’t submitted the form and they gave me a ‘grace period’ of one week, to resolve the issue and get the form in to them.

It seems to me the message of the gospel today is that lent is a grace period.

‘Grace’ is of course a very loaded and heavy word in Christian theology. But today, I mean it in the worldly sense of ‘grace period’—defined by The Free Dictionary as:

“A period after a due date or deadline during which an obligation may still be fulfilled without penalty or suspension of benefits.”

The ‘grace’ is the gift of time. Time to fulfill an obligation, to do the right thing, to restore whatever it is that is threatening a good relationship between you and the other party.

10832361263_26b0211e6b_bConsider the parable of the Barren Fig Tree. A man had a fig tree in his garden that had refused to bear fruit. A fig tree is there to provide fruit for the household, so the tree is not really fulfilling its obligations! The owner is quite right to consider cutting the tree down, so he can grow something else that will feed his family. However, the gardener suggests that the tree should be given another year and with some TLC it could come good. Let’s hope so!

The owner, has given the tree a grace period. Why? Because he wants the tree to bear fruit! He has no interest in cutting it down really, but he is right to cut back that which is not flourishing in his garden.

This parable really seems to come out of the blue in the context of Luke chapter 13. Jesus is teaching and there are whispered around the room about some Galileans who had been sacrilegiously killed by Herod. He makes the point that it is no fault of their own that they were the ones who were killed, it could have been any Galilean in the wrong place and the wrong time. Likewise he refers to a tragic accident in Siloam when a building collapsed and people were killed. It was not their fault they were standing underneath the tower of Siloam at the time it collapsed, but they suffered for it anyway.

Then Jesus says to the crowd, if you do not repent, you will perish. The contrast seems to be comparing—on the one hand, the uncertainty of death, and—on the other hand, the certainty of death. If I can rephrase it I would say, “bad things happen to good people, but sin always has consequences.”

Delivered as a warning from Jesus, it seems to be directed towards people whom he called hypocrites in chapter 12 verse 56.

“You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? . . . Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”

The implication being, in terms of the Kingdom of God, that if you know that you are not pleasing God or abiding by the ways of the Kingdom and you do nothing about it, you will suffer the consequences.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. Let the unrighteous forsake their thoughts, for ‘Your ways are not my ways’ says the Lord.” – Isaiah 55:6

Lent is a grace period for stubbornness, slowness of insight, and failure to fruit.

This year, I have thought a lot about Lent as a spiritual practice. What is the purpose of fasting, of solemnity in liturgy, of simplicity in lifestyle? How can we translate traditional practices of Lent into a fresh and life-giving spirituality? We can’t really understand the purpose to Lent separate to Easter and the Passion of Jesus Christ, for it is fundamentally about preparing to rehear the gospel narrative or being to undergo another cycle of death and resurrection in order that if die with Christ we might also live with Christ.

So Lenten spirituality prepares us for the renewal of life, the renewal of faith in Jesus, the renewal of love.

My children set up some new shelves in their bedroom yesterday. Their stuff was constantly covering their desk making it unusable, so they needed to clear some space. By building the new Ikea shelves and putting precious things away in their place, and throwing out the junk, they made room for new work to happen at their desk!

Essentially I think that’s what we do in Lent. We put the precious things into a place that is good for them, and we throw out the junk. And we do it, not just because we know its good for us, we do it because of our ongoing relationship with God.

That’s the important thing about a grace period, it’s a grace to provide you with more time to fulfill your obligations to a relationship, to something you have promised. Something that at some point you have presumably agreed to. Entered into willingly. The boys didn’t get in trouble for their messy desks before the extra shelves arrived, and they were given a whole day in which they could construct them and sort out their stuff in-between their own play. If, however, they hadn’t cleaning up their desk by the end of the day, sadly, there would have been consequences!

And I can imagine the sadness of the owner who really would cut his tree down if it didn’t bear fruit after another year of extra care an attention. I can imagine his disappointment and regret that the tree fell short of its potential.

fig tree fruitWe, as Christians and as humans, fall short of our potential when we fail to grow in gratitude for the life and love given to us in Jesus Christ. We fail to meet the obligations of grace, when we compromise the freedom of that love or deny the privilege that it is to know God. But …

“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” – 1 Cor 10:13

And that is why Lent is a Grace period. Because it is a period of testing, in order that we might become our very best, dying and rising with Christ on

‘Love thy (6 billion) Neighbour(s)’ worship by Grace community, Greenbelt 2011

(worship led by alternative worship community: ‘Grace’, Greenbelt 2011)

The biggest challenge facing the curator of worship in a transitional context is surely managing the difuse psycho-spiritual states of the congregation as they arrive at the top of an hour with varied and hidden expectations. Grace is a well-known alternative worship community so I was expecting something ‘different’ but arrived with my head in another place not at all ready to engage in the theme of global poverty, prayer or worship. Characteristicly, ‘alternative worship’ is a total sensory experience and entering the darkened venue with distinctive sights, sounds an

d smells tried its hardest to transport me from the everyday outside to a moment of engagement.

The first half hour we are invited to wander around at our own pace and engage with 4 different stations. There was no prescribed progression and indeed I wandered around more than once like a travelling wilbury. It was easy for me as an educated worshipper to equate the stations with an element from the traditional liturgy – confession; intercession; bible reading; and response (living life as praise). Three of the four stations involved reading and writing and it would have been difficult to engage without those skills, though you could work together with a friend. For the bible reading were we invited to read two contrasting passages on poverty, laid out on the floor at either end of a strip of paper. Our response was invited through writing a few words on a post-it-note and placing it somewhere on the spectrum between the two passages to indicate our own reading of them.  

The other station was an interactive game with an upbeat ‘game show host’ who invited 4 players at a time to use themselves as markers on a giant board laid out on the floor. Players moved forwards and back in response to questions about their lifestyle’s impact on global poverty (eg. 3 spaces forward if you buy fair trade; 2 spaces back if you owned more than one car).

Without any noticable instructions or direction, other than the wrapping up of a final ‘game of life,’ people started gathering in the central open space and taking a seat on the floor. Soon someone made their way to the central microphone and introduced himself as a corporatations social responsibility consultant. He speaks briefly about our everday choices that affect others and introduces a simple graph of cost and impact before inviting us to place ourselves on a floor grid with a decision about a new choice we could make to positively impact global poverty. Many people participate, many remain on the edges and watch and listen.

To close, two members of the community lead us in responsive prayer for the world and there are words for us to read projected on the screen behind them.

The creativity in this service was always purposeful and the congregation were reverent throughout.  The extended verbal interactions worked to make the engagement with God very practical and ‘life oriented’.  However, I wonder whether a prior experience of God is critical to the success as it was much more a reflection on my life than the life of God or Jesus.  As alternative worship tries to reduce the distinction between religious and not, committed christian and not, this may have been intentional and certainly has its place in drawing some people in to an experience of the divine, or drawing different people in different ways.

On the other hand, I was struck again by the importance of finding a way to bring a sharp focus on God if worship in a transitional place is to have really engaging power.  Preoccupied with my own thoughts upon entry, I was not inspired to give them up for the sake of taking up a different set of thoughts about myself and my life, though undoubtedly a worthy exercise.  I felt guilty for not being committed enough to the global poor to leave my own selfish concerns behind.  However, God – by definition- is beyond me.  And that which is beyond has the power to bring new movement.