The place where Remembrance Day really found a home deep within me, was at the first United Church pastoral charge I served after ordination. Our “settlement charge” as we called it in those days, was Wadena, Rose Valley and Archerwill in eastern Saskatchewan. In those communities, particularly Wadena, there was a huge overlap between the Legion and the United Church. Local merchants, teachers and farmers, first generation Canadians and those with much longer histories on that land, had gone to war four decades earlier, and values set in those days still shaped them, and the Church, and the town.
In that place, there was an exceptionally high value placed on civic responsibility: doing things not just because they benefitted you and yours, but to serve a “greater common good”. So yes, you loved your family and yes, you had a special connection with farm families adjacent to you and yes, you had pride in your ethnic roots and your town and your Church. But it was clear that these things were always in a bigger container. So you raised funds for a care home to be built locally, even if your own parents had already retired to the city. You developed community supports for people living with mental disabilities, even though most of the participants in those programs would come from elsewhere. You flipped pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, whether you were part of the Church sponsoring the event, or another one, or none. And in the early 1940s, when your nation called you to service, you went, leading to a very large Legion in Wadena, a town of about 1700 residents.
That value – of community service rather than self-service – was clearly embraced and understood. Now, I’m not going to pretend it was perfect ‘cuz it wasn’t, especially when it came to indigenous relations, but it was an ordering principle that shaped who they were together. This morning’s reading, from the 12th chapter of Romans, explores some of this same territory, looking at the way lives are shaped and ordered when we live in Christ.
Rev. Susan Crowell, on the “Day One” Christian website, wrote a line about Paul’s thinking in the 12th chapter of Romans – and Susan’s phrasing caught my attention and would not let me go: “in Christ” she writes, “grace becomes the structuring reality in our daily lives.” (to repeat,) “in Christ, grace becomes the structuring reality in our daily lives.”
I love that line, because it suggests an interplay between something that is extraordinary and God-given and dynamic and opening – the gift of grace – and the structure of life. Grace is nothing less than the unconditional, active, searching love of God. Grace, is that sense that God is already there when we are in the presence of something kind, or touching, or, well, “gracious”. Grace, is God’s desire for goodness to flow through all of life, and God’s nudging for me to engender that goodness even when I am hard-hearted or narrow-focused. Grace, is the attitude that God places within us, to seek reconciliation, and welcome, to express open-heartedness and forgiveness, and to keep expanding that. So to think of grace, which is all of these things and so much more, as the “structuring reality” of life, is simply thrilling.
If grace is indeed our “structuring reality”, Jesus points us to the behaviours that are to inhabit that structure: the two-fold “great commandment”, to love God, and love our neighbour. Jesus calls us to get past the pervasive desire to “get even” with those who have wronged us and “get ahead” of our rivals, setting those things aside in favour of a new way. The apostle Paul, in Romans 12: 14-18 (NEB), puts it this way: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.”
With this in mind, I wonder about how we structure our lives, in this place, in this time – as individuals, as a congregation, even as a town, province, and nation? How might we perceive our lives, supported by a “structural reality of grace”? How can we step into a life more influenced by grace? And what hands-on actions will we undertake, as those who recognize this in-dwelling, out-reaching grace in our lives?
Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore, writing for the “Working Preacher” website, sees a model in the 12th chapter of Romans that broadly addresses such questions. She describes the “concentric circles of involvement” that Paul calls us to have.
The first, inner circle is “the immediate community” which is pretty much self-explanatory.
The second circle, is “The saints and those needing hospitality.” Last Sunday we looked at this term, “the saints” and the way it was used in the early Church to describe any and every Christian, so here Paul is talking about supporting other Christian communities who are in financial (or other types of) need, and providing safe shelter for anyone who needs help, regardless of religious affiliation. In other words, the same kind of work funded by our Benevolent Offerings: emergency assistance and community outreach.
The third circle, is “enemies”. This has been a tough one for Christians, right from the start, as Jesus knew it would be. He called those who follow him to release their need for “eye for an eye” retributive justice, believing that the best interests of the community and the loving heart of God are served by harmony, not revenge, and Paul reiterates that in the reading we heard this morning. Jesus called us to love our enemies, and he meant it – in times of peace, in times of heightened emotion, and even in times of war.
For many decades now, some film-makers have understood the power of telling stories of war that humanize both sides of the conflict, rather than always lapsing into the good guys (us) against the bad guys (them). I think back to David Lean’s 1957 classic movie, “Bridge on the River Kwai,” which engaged the moral ambiguity of war from several angles; I think also of the recent CBC series “X Company” which gave a very three-dimensional treatment of a German officer and his family, while also telling the adventures and sorrows of Canadian operatives. Humanizing the opposing forces helps me to name the horrible diminishment that comes with armed conflict – while bringing me closer to the heart of Christ, who urges me to see humans as humans first, before I see any other label, no matter how different they are from me, no matter how much their goals conflict with mine, even if they see me as their enemy.
The fourth and final circle, is “all people.” That, I believe, is what is said by our Ralph Connor Mission Statement, and in turn by our Affirming Vision which takes that Mission and surrounds it with specific shape and urgency, statements in which we state our intention to nurture spiritual exploration and growth; to invite, seek, welcome and embrace; to be encouragers of social justice in our community and world.
Together, these four concentric circles would look like this (concentric, see references) – but what I would like to suggest is this: four intersecting circles (intersecting, see references) rather than four concentric circles, because I don’t think that the apostle Paul – or Mary Hinkle Shore – are suggesting that the broader needs are served only after you look after home base & have some scraps or leftovers to give to more distant concerns. As Christians, motivated, held and even structured by grace, we interact with a tumbling mess of needs wherever and whenever they arise, for neither human needs nor the needs of all creation tend not to be predictable or orderly. God doesn’t call me and mine to ignore our needs in unhealthy ways, but we are called to service: to give generously of self, for the needs that Jesus would have me engage: needs of our beloved family and friends, and the needs of those who are unknown to us but well known to God. It’s not an easy balance and we won’t always get it right, but the call to serve others is an expression of the “structural grace” that shapes our lives. And in a roundabout way, this call to service fits well with Remembrance Day, which recalls the response of those who offered their lives in service, wherever deployed, with the hopes of restoring peace.
We close today’s message, with Christ’s call to us, to be infused by grace and directed by grace…to look beyond any desire to “get even” and seek instead, to “be loving”… to be caring to those closest to us, and to participate in the broader needs of the community… to learn how to engage the diverse needs of a multi-faceted world and our multi-faceted mission. We take up that calling, with confidence in the Christ who calls. Amen.
And now, we move to the time in our service when we Remember those whose lives were shaped by service. With thankfulness and respect, with heartfelt prayers for those lives are in this moment overshadowed by war, with hopes for a world freed from violence, we enter a time of silence. Our silence will end with the singing of the hymn, “Make Me a Channel of your Peace.”
Hinkle Shore, Mary. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1060
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church – Mission Statement. https://ralphconnor.ca/mission/
Circle diagrams noted in sermon:
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.