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Grace

Children’s author Dick King-Smith wrote these sweet little words which I heard often as a child, particularly when I sat down to meal times with the day’s dirt still all over my hands:

“Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace
Grace is a little girl, who would not wash her face”

Dick King-Smith

This month, as the weather warms and the days lighten, we explore the notion of grace and the significance of God reaching out to us with the desire for close relationship despite our dirty hands and stubborn hearts. 

<a candle is lit>

Here we gather, 
as brothers and sisters in Christ,
as sons and daughters handmade by God
and sustained by the breath of Spirit 
– with and within us.

Here we gather, 
as those who are sometimes hard of heart
and harder of hearing,
but full of hope 
that in this moment we may know God’s grace 
and see God smile on us

and welcome us home. 

***

Hear this word of grace:

“Beloved son,
most precious daughter,
flesh of my flesh and heart of my heart,
how I have yearned to be the arms you run to;
to wrap them tightly around you
and whisper tear-choked into your ear:

‘There is nothing that can keep you from my love –
no sin,
no worry,
no unspoken thing too big, too small
to dampen my longing
to laugh and dance and feast and sing
and work and love and rest and eat
and be …
… just be with you.

I’m sorry you’ve felt the need to stay away so long;
that you’ve thought yourself unworthy, unwelcome, unforgiven.

In my eyes
I hope you see only compassion
for the things that have hurt you,
for the times you have chosen wrong,
for the desperate, aching need to know you are loved.

In my embrace
I hope you feel how much you have been longed for,
how much you are my delight, my joy,
as my heart beats against your own.

In my welcome
I hope you believe you are at home;
that though you felt dead and distant,
you are alive and well;
that though you felt lost and alone,
you are wanted and found.

Beloved daughter,
most precious son,
flesh of my flesh and heart of my heart,
I will never let you go.’”

Scripture …

On this Father’s Day we open ourselves up to a familiar story from the gospel of Luke (15:11-32) that goes like this:

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them.

Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living. When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.

When he came to his senses, he said: ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ They began to celebrate.

Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied: Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father: ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’

Then his father said: ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

https://www.samford.edu/worship-arts/files/celebrating-the-work-of-god.pdf
As a “Song for Dad” plays, you are invited to take a moment to reflect on the love that the father showed his sons, to give thanks for the father figures in your life, and to pray for homes under strain in this time.

Sharing …

Take a moment to think about/talk about how this story might be about grace. Who needs it? Who receives it? Who gives it?

Author of the Message, Eugene Peterson wrote:

Grace is an insubstantial, invisible reality that permeates all we are, think, speak, and do. But we are not used to this. We are not used to living by invisibles. We have work to do, things to learn, people to help, traffic to negotiate, meals to prepare. 

When we need a break, there are birds to watch, books to read, walks to take, a cup of tea to drink, maybe even a chapel to sit in and meditate for ten minutes or so. But these so-called “breaks” are not what we call the real world, the world in which we make a living, the world in which we make something of ourselves. They are brief escapes from it so that we can go back to the “real world” refreshed.

Eugene Peterson, Practise Resurrection

The story of the prodigal son is a story about grace. 

It’s about the generous self-giving of a father who gives his youngest son his fair share of the inheritance (before he is dead, I might add) and sets him free from the life and land that he has grown up in to make his own way in the world – because that is what he wants to do. 

It’s about the undeserved sacrifice of the ring, the best robe, the fattened calf through which the father not only expresses his uncontainable joy at his son’s return, but establishes firmly for all that his son is still his son – no matter where his choices may have led him.

It’s about a father’s love that brings us to our senses when we’ve wasted all our resources and we’re knee-deep in the mud and muck with the pigs and nothing has satisfied the deep emptiness in our souls. 

It’s about that moment when we know who to turn to, when we begin to make our way home – certain of the mercy and forgiveness and fairness that we will find; only to be surprised by the warmth and the intimacy and the extravagance of the father’s embrace.

It’s also about those moments when we place ourselves on the outside of the celebration – so envious of what the father seems to be doing for others that we can’t see the gift: that he has always been with us and everything he has is ours. 

It’s about refusing to be moved by the invisible, standing our ground in the real world of work, making our case for control, and feeling so justified in our anger that we miss out on the music of the Divine inviting us to participate in the dance that transforms death into life and the lost into the found. 

Grace: an act of God without precedent that makes it possible for us to participate in a new reality through the generous, sacrificial self-giving of Jesus and not through any goodness or effort or great intentions of our own. 

Grace: it’s everywhere to be experienced, but hard to take hold of for a people so accustomed to doing rather than being. So I invite you, to stretch out your hands in this moment and to sit in the silence with them still and empty as you ask God to give you what you need for this day.

<silence is kept>

Thank you God,
for the many gifts that you have bestowed on us 
so freely and so generously;
for the eternal inheritance that you have made possible for us 
in dwelling among us,
hanging on the tree,
and rolling away the stone 
so that your Spirit may flow with healing graces 
and present with us now – 
in our lives and at our tables.

We celebrate with feasting 
that once we were dead,
but now we have new life 
in Christ
who gathered with his disciples
around a table in an upper room,
took a loaf of bread,
offered a blessing, 
broke it, and gave it to them saying:

“Take. Eat. This is my body given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”

We put on robes of rejoicing 
for once we were lost,
but now we are found
in Christ
who took a cup of wine 
when the meal was finished, saying:

“This cup is the cup of life,
sealed with my blood for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Drink from it all of you,
in remembrance of me.

We reach out with empty hands 
in earnest desire to receive the grace we need
for this and every day 
in Christ 
whose body and blood binds us together 
in the warm and compassionate embrace of God, 
Father,
Son, 
and Holy Spirit. 
Amen.

Sending …

As we rise from these tables,
knowing the grace of God which holds us fast, 
fed with Christ as we make our way home,
and full of the Holy Spirit,
may all we meet in the week that lies ahead
find our Father 
in the way that we welcome, 
the way that we share, 
and the way we forgive.
And the blessing of God remain with you,
this day and always.
Amen.  

On our search for meaning …

A reflection on Luke 1:46-55

A fundamental part of being human is our ongoing search in every phase for identity, for intimacy, for involvement in the world around us by creating and nurturing things that will outlast our very limited life spans. 

Throughout Scripture, we hear again and again this phrase “from generation to generation” which speaks of our need to have something of who we are and what we have contributed to our family, to our community, to our society endure beyond ourselves as we enter an unimagined, and maybe unimaginable, eternity. 

Our search for significance is epitomised in our customs around grief as loved ones all gather together to tell stories of how the deceased’s life somehow fundamentally changed us, made the world a better place; and to receive the comfort that they live on in the eternal arms of God and in the legacies that they leave. 

No funeral is sadder than the one where there are no nice words to offer, no pleasant memories to hold on to – or, as we reflected on in one of last week’s images – where the dead are unclaimed, buried in mass graves, simply gone and forgotten.

From the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, and shaped and formed us for relationship with one another and with all that was part of the very good, we have searched for our particular place in the universe, for the unique gift that I, Yvonne, or you (insert your name) have to offer this interconnected symphony of time and place.

We hear the rhythm of significance resound today in the heartbeat of the Christ child within his mother’s womb – causing another to leap for joy! And in the song of praise that pours out of Mary – an unlikely person to be thought of as significant in her time and place at all. 

A young Jewish woman in a patriarchal society ruled by the Romans, from a lineage of priests, bound to a carpenter from Israel’s smallest tribe, bearing the disgrace of having fallen pregnant outside of marriage, would have had little to offer the world in terms of wealth or or influence or power. 

Yet, she gives voice to a God who brings down the powerful to lift up the lowly, who fills the lives of those who have nothing with good things while sending those who have everything away empty-handed, who shows strength in mercy, and scatters the proud while holding firm to the promises to those who would give up all and follow.

How does she know all this? 

Because God has chosen her in her lowliness to become known as blessed and to carry within her the blessing of salvation for a world for which she really should have very little to offer.

Significance. 

Every person, regardless of age or gender, religious affiliation or sexual preference, tribe or language, bank balance or level of education, ability or occupation is significant to God in ways that we will never ever even begin to understand. 

And being part of the people of God, people made in love in the Divine image, people on the way to a much-needed kingdom of perfect peace and justice, means being open to how God might be working out God’s purposes in and through another … often in opposition to what we think is right or normal or logical or important. 

It also means that God probably has a particular purpose for me (and you), a part that we must play in this particular time and place for the good news song to be coherent and whole in this generation and the next.

As Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoice in God, her Saviour, I find myself wondering today just what surprises God has in store for us and what significance your love, your faith, your life story might have in this ongoing and uncertain time. 

In his book, “Man’s search for meaning,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” What is your “why” for living right now? And what is our “why” for being church? 

In the rhythms of love and the rhythms of loss within the world right now, may we find too the rhythms of significance that keep us moving, dancing, laughing, together, in Jesus’ name.      

Leaven

It’s a short story – only a verse in the Gospel of Matthew and two in the Gospel of Luke. 

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed [hid] in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Matthew 13:33 (NRSV)

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21 (RSV)

In Matthew, it is prefaced by the parables of the sower and the weed; in Luke, by the call to repent or perish, the story of the barren fig tree, and a nasty confrontation with the Pharisees over the healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath. In both instances, immediately before this parable is another: the parable of the mustard seed – the smallest of all seeds which, when planted, grows into a large tree that offers shelter to the birds of the field.

In context then, perhaps this story is also about what increases the kingdom – a sense of the nearness of God’s justice and perfect peace – and what might get in the way of that understanding and experience.

As I read Scripture through a woman’s eyes, the first thing that I notice about this story of the kingdom is that it is a woman’s story – probably taking place in her kitchen in her home in among all of the other routine tasks of a woman’s day.

As she bakes bread for the household, she takes a little piece of dough left over from the last batch that has, by now, fermented and mixes it in with the three measures of flour until it is all leavened and begins to produce the gas that makes the loaf rise.

I also notice that the whole process depends completely on leftovers, on just a little bit that she’s been clever enough to keep aside. And I notice that it really is just a little bit in comparison to the rest of the ingredients – but without it the loaf would remain flat, unleavened. I notice that that little bit permeates the whole mixture – changing its nature from unleavened to leavened. I notice that the word used for mixing in is actually the same word for hiding something inside. I notice that in this whole process, there is a a necessary, hands-on action on the part of the woman but, also, a letting go time in which the leaven, once mixed in, does its own work. 

Finally, I note that there is another passage in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus warned others to be wary of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees – and that, in this particular culture, at this particular time, there were many religious moments that involved unleavened bread, so leaven could be used metaphorically to describe a negative influence – and just a little would ruin the whole lot. 

Yet, in today’s story, a woman’s story, Jesus tells us that we discover what the kingdom of God is like …. I wonder what you notice and how it speaks to you of God’s perfect peace and justice growing in our churches, our households, our society. 

Perhaps the kingdom of God is about nothing going to waste.
About the smallest gift making a significant change. 
Perhaps it’s about how we divide and share our resources.
Perhaps it’s about planning ahead, and holding on to a little now, for something today or tomorrow or the next day.
Perhaps the kingdom of God is about those who normally don’t feature in our stories taking centre stage.
Perhaps it’s about finding God in the ordinary places of our homes and the ordinary routines of our work and our rest.
Perhaps it’s about what we hide away in ourselves that transforms us from the inside out. 
Perhaps it’s about knowing when to act – and when to just be part of an unfolding process that we cannot control.

Perhaps the kingdom of God is working unseen in us in this very moment.
Perhaps it’s about the peace and the justice that we long for contaminating our thoughts, our prayers, our language; 
fermenting in our gatherings, our studies of Scripture, our rituals, our planning; 
changing our mindsets, our prejudices, our grudges, our brokenness, our excuses; 
and rising, through the Spirit of God and not through any power of our own, to become bread for all at an open table …. 

It’s a simple story. A parable of the kingdom. May you break off a piece and hide it in your heart this day and see what increases in your life. 

The Good Samaritan

From Luke 10:25-37

This past Sunday, over Zoom, we took a fresh look at the parable of the Good Samaritan through the “wondering” questions typical of a Godly Play story. Some of the ideas that have been developing in my further reflections this week have been around … 

… how quickly we identify with the people who passed by the man who had been beaten, had everything taken from him, and was left on the side of the road half-dead or with the notion that Christ calls us to be a community who stops and takes care of the wounded and needy; yet how seldom we acknowledge that we can, in fact, be that half-dead person or one of the attackers who took, by force and for reasons that we do not know, that which did not belong to them …

… how gender, race, and age would impact the story in different ways: most of us would be willing to rush to the aid of a child who lay hurt on the side of the road; yet, as a woman, I would feel distinctly vulnerable stopping on my own to approach a man on the street – even if he was clearly in need … 

… how the one who had mercy is identified in Scripture as being the neighbour of the one in need in accordance with what God requires of us – but, in fact, all in the story are in need of mercy, of a neighbour, of the touch of God upon their lives as they journey.

As I wrestle today with what this parable teaches me about the kin-dom of God, I find myself wondering as I enter into prayer: 

  • What have I done to hurt another? To rob them of their joy, their peace, their voice, their confidence, their dream, their energy, their passion? What do I need to apologise for? And what pain am I carrying from others doing the same to me? What do I need to forgive? 
  • Who am I comfortable caring for and reaching out to? Who have I simply walked past – and why? What would it take for me to make myself vulnerable? 
  • What might it mean to be a neighbour to those too busy to stop, to those too fearful to get involved, to those who survive/prosper through violence, to those from a different culture or religion or with a completely foreign perspective on life, to those trying to keep a small business alive at this particular time, to those on a journey, to those stuck in a place of shadow and pain, to those who have been beaten and had everything taken for them and been left lying on the side of the road half-dead? 

Blessings to you in where this day takes you and on all you may meet on the way.

***

This Sunday, we hear the parable of the leaven and share in the sacrament of Holy Communion (with the elements of bread and wine or with empty hands). Feel free to get in touch if you would like more details on how to join our conversation. x Yvonne.

Love letter 1

To the people of God on the way to the promised end, 

Warm greetings to you in this first “love letter” of the new year!

In South Africa, the first Sunday in February was often set aside in Methodist Churches for our annual Covenant services in which each person was encouraged to make a radical declaration of love and loyalty to God. Though its language has been modernised, the words of the covenant prayer penned by John Wesley can still be jarring to 21st century ears (and hearts): “I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will .…”

In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 2:22-40), we encounter two (very old) characters at the Temple who embody this prayer beautifully – Simeon and Anna: male and female, priest and prophetess; both devout; both longing and waiting and praying for the salvation of God’s people; both filled with wonder and uncontainable joy at seeing God’s promises fulfilled in this Christ child who would grow in wisdom and become strong in God’s grace.

As we seek to be faithful disciples like Anna and Simeon, to proclaim the message of hope and salvation, I wonder:

  • how may we better hold the living God in our arms in this new year? 
  • how may he be born(e) in the midst of both the light and the dark of life, the highs and the lows, the celebrations and the sorrows? 
  • how may he continue, through us, to be touched by the brokenness and sorrow and worry and pain of everyday people and to offer, through us, support and healing and comfort – particularly to the most vulnerable in our society?

As God’s Church, I pray that 2020 will be a time of growth, self-offering, and deeper unity as we walk in the way of the Spirit and use our diverse gifts for the building up of the Body and in expressing God’s all-embracing love in life-giving ways in the world around us.

Yours in Christ
Yvonne