Last Sunday, my colleague Jim Quigley preached a rousing and challenging sermon, using as his text the story of Naboth’s vineyard. The Bible tells us that Ahab, the King of Israel, came to Naboth and tried to purchase the vineyard from him, but that Naboth refused. When Ahab goes off in a snit, Queen Jezebel intervenes, framing Naboth for a capital crime and having him killed, so that Ahab can have the vineyard after all. It is a challenging and subversive story, so much so that it’s surprising it was allowed to be in Scripture at all. But Jim focused in on one moment in the tale, when Ahab is feasting, unaware that Naboth is being killed. Jim asked, What is it that allows us to feast, to sleep at night, to go on with our lives when we are aware that so much pain is happening all around us, that so much evil is being done in our names?
It’s a great question, and it was a great sermon, but in it there was line with which I take exception: Jim suggested that the reason we are able to sleep at night is grace, God’s grace. I do not believe that grace lulls us to sleep. We do enough of that on our own. Left to our own devices, we sleepwalk through life, dull to the lives of those around us, blind to the needs of those we do not know, half-deaf even to the murmurs of our own soul, calling us to live deeply, not to drug ourselves out of awareness with speed and busyness and consumption of one form or another, but to dare to learn who we really are.
No, grace is what shakes us awake when we’d rather go on sleeping. It is not the false murmur that thinks of a dying child and shrugs, “Oh well, he’s in the hands of God,” but the force that impels us out of our own home and down the road to find him, to bring him to safety and shelter.
Grace rocks our world. It turns our conception of who we are upside-down. It tears us willingly from our own small lives, and empties us of our self-conceit, and hurls us at challenges we know we are too small to solve, except that we cannot draw breath freely in this good air unless we try. When Philip Berrigan poured blood on a warhead, when Gandhi took off his shoes, when St. Paul fell off his horse and learned that he’d been persecuting the very God he sought all his life, that was grace.
And, yes, sometimes it lets us sleep: when we have done the best we can, or at least tried; when we need to gather our strength; when we have refused to look away from another’s pain. When we have taken it all — what we can bear and what we cannot — and have prayed it to the foot of the Cross. But not before that. Until then, it’s only cheap grace, the excuses we give ourselves that allow us to remain small, not the true grace God gives us so that we might become what, in truth, we are: blessed.
The words below are not mine, but they say what I would like to pray for you:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator,
Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour,
and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide,
be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.