Roots Of Grace

Sunday, 27 October 2019 22:12

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. (Luke 18:11)

A neurosurgeon goes to a party and it’s at that mingling with a drink in your hand stage. He approaches one guest and asks, “What do you do?” and the guest replies, “I’m a bank manager”. “Hmmm…” says the neurosurgeon. “Not exactly brain surgery, is it?”. He approaches another guest and asks, “What do you do?” “I’m a teacher,” he replies. “Hmmm” says the neurosurgeon. “Not exactly brain surgery, is it?” He approaches a third guest and asks, “What do you do?” He answers, “I design rocket ships.” 

That’s one of those people you don’t want to meet at parties. It’s something that goes beyond vanity to the way he treats and thinks about other people. It lacks grace. It’s a bit of an odd word, “grace”. It’s hard to define but we sort of know it when we see it - or when it’s absent as in this case. For me the Pharisee in our gospel story this morning is absolutely the same. 

There is nothing wrong in the way the Pharisee is carrying out the commandments - he’s going above and beyond. He’s fasting twice a week instead of the prescribed once.There’s nothing in the story to suggest that Jesus wants us to think of this guy as a hypocrite who says one thing and does another - what would be the point of that? He’s talking to God here so there’s no point lying. He genuinely does do all the right things - in the same way as the neurosurgeon in the joke genuinely was a smart, highly qualified guy. He is, though, graceless.

How many of you think the Pharisee - or the neurosurgeon - is the kind of person you’d want to be? This is a really fascinating parable because on one level what Jesus says may have been shocking - especially in that the tax-collector went home right with God, rather than the Pharisee. On another it makes sense and the reason it makes sense is that idea of grace. I want to spend a minute or two thinking about the roots of grace; how we can be gracious and why it’s brilliant when we are.

Let’s turn our attention now to the tax-collector. He recognises that his life isn’t all it should be. He recognises that he has said stuff, thought stuff, done stuff in his life that he shouldn’t have. he knows he’s messed up sometimes and given way to temptations - we don’t need him to go into a long list of them. He’s talking to God  who knows it all already. More than that, though, we can probably fill in the blanks because we all think stuff, say stuff and do stuff that we shouldn’t, don’t we? We are all the tax-collector sometimes - that’s why we have prayers of confession in church.

The good news is that the tax-collector goes home put right with God. That is, after all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ - that we are put right with God through the Cross; that all our sins, all our failings, all our failures are forgiven if we just accept the love of God in Jesus Christ; if we just accept that we need that forgiveness and accept it gracefully. This is a root of grace.

The problem with the Pharisee is in his attitude to other people. “I thank you that I am not like other people,” he says. “Of course not. I am perfect. I am spotless. I am virtue personified.” Aye, right. We’re all of us fallible and we all fall short of what we are meant to be - what we are called to be as children of God. I rather imagine God may have had a wee giggle when the Pharisee said that, because we are all alike in that respect - we are all human.

We are human and we are gathered in the presence of God, as the Pharisee did - God who did not despise ordinary fragile human beings like you and me. God who came into this world in the life of a human being like you and me. A human being who knew all the physical weaknesses and temptations we all know. A human being who experienced all that it means to be an ordinary human being. A human being who did not treat sinners like the tax-collector with disdain, but actually called a tax-collector to be his disciple.

That is the grace of God. A grace that embraces us in our weaknesses and in our fallibility; that catches us when we fall and puts us back on our feet; that does not look down on us, but looks on us with the love of a parent for his children, living in the hope that we will be all we can be; that we will be brilliant and loving and caring and compassionate. That we will be gracious.

This is the root of grace - accepting that we are alike, whatever our race or background; whatever our education or culture; whatever our virtues or vices. We are all human - each of us has our flaws, but each of us is precious beyond measure in the eyes of God. Each of us gives way to temptation sometimes, but each of us can find forgiveness in the love of God in Jesus Christ. Each of us has times when we shine with the glory of Heaven and times when we cower in the darkness.

This is the root of grace - accepting each other in our weaknesses and bearing with each other in the times when we hurt each other or treat each other thoughtlessly; forgiving one another freely as God forgives us. Recognising that forgiveness isn’t weak - it’s a mark of strength that marks us out as children of the God who forgives us.

This is the root of grace - accepting those that the world often despises because they, like us are human. I was listening to “Any Questions” on the radio yesterday and they were talking about the 39 Vietnamese people who died in the back of a refrigerated lorry, trying to get into this country and someone asked, “Would we have as much sympathy for them if they had not died?” Sadly - and possibly correctly - most panellists said no.

I put it to you that sympathy is the root of grace. Compassion is the root of grace. Recognition that there, but for the grace of God go you or I is the root of grace. The extent to which we do not echo the words of the Pharisee, “God I thank you that I am not like other people” is the root of grace. It is  our capacity to recognise that the folk we are taught to fear or despise - drug addicts, prostitutes,  people who live on the streets we fear to walk down, the unemployed and the benefits claimant, the folk who are portrayed as, in the words of a ‘Top Gear’ episode I recall, “Scum Class - these people are just people. People like you and me.

People to be cherished as children of God - just as you and I are children of God. This is the glorious insight of the Christian faith - that we are all just human; but that there is actually no ‘just’ about that. We are all children of God, made in the image of God. We are all made by love for love - love which is really just another word for compassion; for grace. And when we live that compassion out, none of the other stuff we do really matters - even if we are neurosurgeons or rocket scientists - because we shine with the light of Heaven.

Lord grant us grace. May we live graciously, recognising that we are all sinners in need of grace and passing that grace on to those hurt us and reflecting, in the way we speak of others and act toward them, your grace.

Preached at Liddesdale Church and at Canonbie United Church