Third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A, 23 January 2011)

Near occasions of grace

1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Matthew 4.12-23

There’s a strand of Christian belief and practice that talks a lot about ‘near occasions of sin’. For example, the Baltimore Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says this (Question 207):

What do you mean by the near occasions of sin?

Answer: By the near occasions of sin I mean all the persons, places, and things that may easily lead us into sin.

This teaches us to avoid situations that lead us into temptation. It ranges from the obvious: I don’t go to brothels in order to give pastoral care. (I found out the whereabouts of the local brothel at a recent ministers’ fraternal meeting, of all places. Everyone else seemed to know.) But avoiding near occasions of sin may also lead to things that are less black and white than that: should I as a minister go to the local bottle shop? Some would say that’s a non-question, why worry about that, while others would tell me I just shouldn’t go there.

We can see that what for one person is a near occasion of sin is nothing for another. Personally, I find entering a book shop can be a near occasion of sin, in that I’m often tempted to spend way too much money. You might enter the same bookshop and be totally bored.

Avoiding near occasions of sin is a good teaching; why should we put ourselves in harm’s way morally, ethically or spiritually? I am happy to say that we should avoid near occasions of sin.

But if all we do is avoid sin, we’re missing out on a lot of living. If all we do is avoid sin, we may do no good. If all we do is avoid sin, we may miss God.

The spiritual writer Richard Rohr is someone I listen to closely. He writes about ‘near occasions of grace’, rather than near occasions of sin. He says:

We want to plant ourselves in near occasions of grace, yet we spend all our life avoiding near occasions of sin. Can there be situations that we allow ourselves to enter which will force us to reevaluate everything?

So a near occasion of grace may be where there are persons, places, and things that may easily lead us into further grace.

Near occasions of grace are often places and times in which we are confronted with something beyond us, perhaps way out of our control. In that place and that time we may find God’s grace waiting for us, loitering with intent, just around the corner. An ordinary day may be the time when God’s unexpected grace reveals itself to us.

Grace often surprises us, and it may not look like grace. When the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John set out for a day’s work one morning, it probably seemed like any other. The sun might have been shining, or it may have clouded over, but my guess is that it started as an ordinary day.

Then Jesus came along.

When Jesus comes by, things happen. When the creator-Word-made-flesh is ‘there’, things just can’t stay the same.

Jesus is proclaiming a message. It’s this:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

But he added something when he came across the fishermen by the lakeshore:

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

‘Follow me,’ Jesus said. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims ‘the kingdom of heaven’. In Mark and Luke, he proclaims ‘the kingdom of God’. What’s the difference? Nothing at all. Matthew was a Jew, writing for Jewish Christians. Jews aren’t used to saying the word ‘God’ out loud, so he used ‘heaven’ in place of ‘God’. People still do that today: they may say ‘good heavens’ instead of ‘good God’; or ‘thank goodness’ instead of ‘thank God’; or ‘darn’ instead of ‘damn’.

This kingdom of heaven, this kingdom of God, interrupts our ‘normal’ lives. It breaks into our hearts and turns them upside down and inside out. This kingdom demands that we re-prioritise our lives.

This kingdom is an interruption of grace. It breaks and enters our hearts for the purposes of grace. It makes grace-filled demands upon us.

Matthew’s ‘kingdom of heaven’ isn’t about where you go when you die. It is about how we live while we’re alive. It’s not ‘pie in the sky when you die’; it’s ‘God in the “here and now”’.

The kingdom exists wherever Jesus is, because he is the kingdom in human flesh. That’s why he can say ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ It is near just because he is near. St Paul would soon write:

…the kingdom of God is…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is that righteousness, that peace and that joy. The Spirit of Christ brings the kingdom to life within us and among us.

So when Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him, they follow because they catch hold of that righteousness, peace and joy that radiate from him. The kingdom has come near because Jesus has come near.

I said the kingdom is an interruption of grace, which breaks and enters our hearts and makes demands on us. The kingdom is not always a welcome interruption. Something very unwelcome indeed has interrupted our lives of late. I’m referring of course to the recent flood, which has broken and entered into people’s homes and made demands of us.

Can we say that it’s been an interruption of grace? I wouldn’t want to say that. Lives have been lost, homes devastated. It would be foolish to call it an interruption of grace.

But there was grace in that interruption.

Something good was called out of people in our community and others like it last week. There was an outbreak, an epidemic of neighbourly love, community spirit, and simple acts of kindness. These simple acts went from grabbing chunks of debris from flooded houses and throwing them into skips, right through to chatting to people at the shops and behind the counters—‘How did you go in the flood?’

It took the disaster of the ‘2011 flood’ to unearth this latent community spirit. Will it last? I think some of it will. Now I know more of my neighbours’ names and have been through this disaster with them, I’m connected to them in a way that I wasn’t before. Will we in Centenary become a permanently more neighbourly community? Only time will tell; I have my doubts. But whatever happens, none of us will forget the numbers of people who turned out to clean up.

Grace was there in this dreadful interruption—but in saying that, the flood was and remains dread-full. Some people died, others are afraid to rebuild in the same place, some businesses may never reestablish themselves.

We need to offer grace for some time. We need to put ourselves into places where there are near occasions of grace.

Right now we’re collecting items for people, from kitchen goods and non-perishable foodstuffs to toiletries to laundry items to books and crayons for children. We have two destinations in mind for these goods.

With the other churches of the area, we want to offer help to the people of this area affected by floods. If you know someone who could benefit from such help, let me know. I’ll make sure you receive a laundry basket or hamper full of stuff to give to them.

We have another destination in mind, and this is where the majority of the things we collect will go. The people of Goodna have suffered terribly from the floods and we want to help them. So we’re putting hampers together so that they can be distributed in that area. This will be going on for the next few months.

This is a ‘near occasion of grace’ for us. Jesus is here in his suffering people. That means the kingdom is near. It’s not glittering and shiny; it’s caked with mud and filth. This kingdom is not full of beautiful people; its people are more likely to be careworn and beaten down.

If we allow this kingdom-coming to be a near occasion of grace for us, then we can be the vehicles of grace—God’s grace—for others. The need is not going to stop anytime soon. Let’s help as we can, including continuing to give to our hampers. Let’s follow Jesus as the disciples did and as disciples do. Amen.

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Filed under Church & world, church year, Lord have mercy, RCL, sermon

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