On this membership Sunday I thought I would let you know that I myself have been a full member of The United Church of Canada for almost 50 years. But what I really want to do is share with you about some of other organizations of which I am a part. For example in addition to being a member of the United Church I am also a member of the Blueshore Financial Credit Union, the Save On Foods More Rewards club, the BCCA, the President’s Choice Optimum Club etc etc.
Like the church, all of these clubs have membership requirements. Most of them are pretty low barrier. I only had to give my phone number to Stongs to become a member of their club but they all have rewards. I’m not entirely sure what the rewards are at the Credit Union but for most of these organizations the more money you spend with them, the more rewards you earn. I just received an email from Old Navy telling me that I have earned 68 membership reward points with them which as near as I can tell represents 68cents in savings off my next purchase with them.
The church of course, also has full membership requirements. We’re just a bit more discriminating than Stongs or Save on Foods. All of the people who are being baptized or reaffirming their baptismal faith have had to go through a fairly rigorous formation process and today they will make promises in front of you about the way they are going to live their lives. A membership requirement based on a way of life is no small thing.
The big difference between the church and all these other organizations I have mentioned is not just that our membership requirements are more demanding, it’s that the primary reward of being part of this club is not something you have to work at to earn. The primary reward for membership in the church has already been handed out even before a profession of faith or a commitment to a way of life has been made. In fact, you never actually have to become a member to get it because the primary reward is grace.
Today’s scripture reading about the workers in the vineyard in which the owner pays the labourers who arrived at the end of the day the same amount as those who have worked all day long is probably one of the most offensive passages in the entire bible. It describes a reward system that is completely unfair. Why should people who have done next to nothing to earn a living be given the same thing as those who have worked night and day to earn their pay? It’s simply not the way the world works. And that’s actually the point. The world runs on a reward system based on you get what you deserve. The gospel runs on a reward system based on freely given grace.
God’s economy is run this way because there isn’t a single one of us here today that isn’t in need of grace. We all mess up. Not one of us is more deserving of love than the next person.
It’s a message our world is in great need of hearing. We are simply not going to move the world towards justice and greater peace and understanding with the instruments of war. What’s needed is a whole lot of grace. The challenge, of course, is that grace is not always easy for us to access when we’ve been wronged by someone else. It’s not always easy for us to give out when extra grace is required. That is why it is so important for us to access the grace we need for ourselves on a regular basis. The more able we are to receive Divine grace, the freely given grace that is on offer to us and therefore the more gracious we are able to be with ourselves, the more able we are to be gracious with others.
I often think of a sermon I preached many years ago now when my children were quite young. It was a reflection in which I talked about how the Nancy you see on Sunday mornings is usually calm, cool, patient and collected. For the most part, what you see up here in the pulpit is the kind of person you want your minister to be. But when my children were little and I would try and get them both into the car and into their car seats because we needed to get somewhere on time, calm, cool patient and collected Nancy, Rev. Nancy would disappear. I would become someone you might not want to have leading your church. I became someone who needed a lot of forgiveness and a lot of grace.
After I made this confession from the pulpit that day, a young mother came to me and thanked me. She had assumed that because I was a minister I didn’t struggle with the same things she struggled with as a parent. She thought that because I was a “holy person” I am always calm, cool, patient and collected even when my children won’t get in the car. The truth is, I am in as much need of grace and transformation as anyone and on many occasions more.
So I’m very grateful that whenever we gather at Christ’s table, grace is always on offer. There’s a part in our liturgy (our ritual at the table) that points directly towards our need for grace. It’s called the “epiclesis” which means invocation in Greek. It’s the moment we raise our hands and pray for the Spirit to come and transform not just the bread and the cup we share but to transform each one of us so that we might embody the presence of the living Christ.
The grace we evoke in that moment is a means by which we are continually transformed. In other words, there’s no once and for all in this way of understanding the Christian life. It doesn’t matter how long you have been a Christian, how “good” you at Christianity or quite frankly even if you use that language to describe yourself or not. What matters is that we are open to being transformed, to being seen for who we are in the naked reality of our being, to receiving more grace than we can ask for or imagine and to growing day by day more loving, more forgiving and more compassionate with ourselves and with others. Being part of a Christian community means we believe it takes more than our own doing for that to happen.
The requirements the church has for those who want to become full members are actually pretty steep. We commit ourselves to love and serve others, to follow a path of peace and justice, to believe that hope is stronger than despair and life more powerful than death. And the truth is, we all fall short of those commitments. So thank goodness we have a membership card etched on each of our hearts with a reward balance that is always in our favour, so that we might be the Body of Christ’s transforming presence in a world in great need of love and grace.