Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Almighty God, you search us and know us: may we rely on you in strength and rest on you in weakness, now and in all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;
according to the abundance of your compassion
blot out my offences.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my faults
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you only have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
5 So that you are justified in your sentence
and righteous in your judgement.
6 I have been wicked even from my birth,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
7 Behold, you desire truth deep within me
and shall make me understand wisdom
in the depths of my heart.
8 Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that the bones you have broken may rejoice.
10 Turn your face from my sins
and blot out all my misdeeds.
11 Make me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Timothy 1:12–17
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 13
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Don’t we see the same Scribes and Pharisees today? Amongst our friends, our acquaintances and even people we don’t know at all?
But why do we grumble? It must be something so deep within us, or else not everyone would grumble, would they? They wouldn’t complain about the weather, for one thing, but we spend hours going on about the weather and castigate its insensitivity to our plans or the farmers’ wishes. But why do we grumble about the weather? Grumbling seems to be universal. Don’t you think? Well, perhaps not here, but everywhere else people grumble. If it is not the weather, it can be just about anything else. And everyone does it so well!
What is the basis of a grumble? Is it the thought police constable in each and every one of us coming out from behind those closed doors? Is it our wish to dominate another, or our ability to turn something to our advantage? Is grumbling making judgement on others because something doesn’t conform to what we want?
I must admit that I grumble myself – especially when I am driving, “Oh what is that fellow doing going from the passing lane straight out onto the exit.” I might exclaim. “The Highway Code bans that sort of driving, doesn’t it?” Other drivers also call out observations and colourful descriptions of just what those awful drivers are doing on the road. Some drivers even shout invectives when such driving happens near them. We all do that sort of thing, don’t we? However, if you ask my wife, I grumble a lot, and I have to admit that I even grumble when I am in church – “Oh, this sermon is not very interesting,” “Surely the preacher could be more challenging.” Or even, “Why doesn’t the preacher smile more?” I can be hypercritical of the whole church–thing, just as I am sure you can be. I grumble so much that I wonder on occasion about returning to the church building.
But I do return, not because I have a job to do – for instance, leading worship as in this gathering – but because this is where I can acknowledge something rather than nothing (it is my answer to existential nihilism, I suppose). Here I am in the presence of the past, of beauty, of pain, of joy. All of that rouses me and I return time and again because with others I acknowledge what St Anselm called, “that beyond with nothing is greater,” whom we name as God.
We say this form of worship is wonderful and nothing should deviate from it. I suppose the reason I keep coming back to church is because I want to experience that perfect joy which I had on that formative occasion once a long time ago, but I want to have it again and again – I want to repeat it eternally. So I hold myself within those rules of liturgy and behaviour which I have set up for myself, but then hubris takes hold of me and I want to prescribe it for everyone else. That is when the grumbling starts, isn’t it?
We grumble because we are like those Pharisees and Scribes of our reading. We surround ourselves with regulation and take up those positions of authority which come to express our inner selves in such subtle ways. We create the hedge of the Law so that those within conform, and those without the Law outside the hedge are heathen gentiles who are condemned to wander without any of the joy of abundant life, God’s salvation, which our statutes and limitations apparently provide for us.
But Jesus broke that conception when he sat down outside the hedge, when he spoke about that golden rule of loving others as ourselves because we keep the one Law, because we love God with heart and mind and all our strength. When we love God so thoroughly, everything else falls away, even those commandments which cause us to conform. Jesus seemed to have grubbed up the comfortable hedge of the Law with his own commandment. When we love our neighbours as we love ourselves, no one is beyond the reach of Jesus’ commandment. When the hedge of the Law of conformity is eradicated, then we can grumble no longer.
That is the crux of the matter, I think. When the Pharisees and Scribes saw Jesus consorting with people who were well beyond their own definition of orthodox behaviour, in their horror they asked why this man would sit at table with people who were outcast from society – after all they themselves had cast them out!
I think grumbling is a sign that we actually do acknowledge our own limitations – explicitly or not. We are uneasy when there is something wrong with others,because it is wrong with ourselves, and we grumble about “them” – whoever “they” are …
The psalmist wrote “my sin is ever before me” – maybe that is why we grumble. We cannot get away from our shortcomings, and somehow that realisation manifests itself. If it doesn’t show up in our own self-loathing, then I think it seeps out in complaints against those foibles we see all around us. I think what Freud and the psychoanalysts call the subconscious reveals our self-knowledge, even if it is not truly a conscious element in our lives. You know how that works, slips of the tongue and so forth. Sometimes it is even more explicit. One of Shakespeare’s characters says, “Methinks she doth protest too much.” This is what unacknowledged sin can do to us. This is grumbling write large, don’t you think? How do we reconcile all this grumbling with the words of our collect, when we petition God, “help us to proclaim the good news of your love”?
How do we reconcile the commandment of love with our grumbling? Should we reconcile them? However, I do think we need to be aware of our grumbling and see just how it reveals just what we are. If we shout so load about something, is that because we are aware of being guilty ourselves?
I think that is why the Scribes and Pharisees grumbled. They were ashamed that they did not offer hospitality to the people whom they should be converting to the way of life, the way of life hedged by the Law, that Law distilled anew into the commandment to love God and one another, that Law Jesus redefined and refined in their hearing and seeing. The Scribes and Pharisees grumbled because of their guilt. After all when we love we don’t grumble, do we? What lover is seen wandering grumbling? Normally they just stare at the stars and contentedly sigh, awaiting the arrival of the loved one. Let’s imagine us, the Scribes and Pharisees, like that!