Agents of Grace
Preacher: Revd Sam Ferguson, Assistant Chaplain
Readings: Exodus 16: 2-15; Philippians 1: 21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16
So how has your first full week of learning online, on teams, of even in person – gone?
Not quite what you expected really is it?
Dashing to arrive in time for a 9am lecture doesn’t really have the same affect when you simply wake up, fall out of bed, block the video on teams and switch on your mike in the comfort of your own bedroom.
I know the feeling, pyjama bottoms and dog collars have been a theme for many many clergy over the last 6 months, including me!
And after the instructions of this weekend from our principal do you feel a bit like our Israelites from the first reading this morning and have had a jolly good complain? I must confess to feeling a bit let down that I am preaching to you from the realms of the internet rather than in person from our glorious chapel’s pulpit!
But enough complaining, how are you doing?
I hope and pray that you are all coping rather than complaining and remember the chaplaincy and student support are always here for you through it if it isn’t! We are here to listen and support.
But don’t worry if this first week has been a sensory overload of information, sunshine, getting to know the intimate details of those lucky people in your bubble and trying not to people.
Just remember to pace yourself! This coming week is only week 2 and there are 95 days to Christmas – so there is plenty of time yet during this semester to adjust, breathe and find your own rhythm.
For me, the beginning of the new academic year – coinciding with the changing of the seasons, the slow shortening of our days and nights as we slip naturally into autumn and winter, are the best days of the year.
Any excuse to wear jumpers, eat sticky toffee pudding and duck shepherd pie and hibernate whilst watching Vampire Diaries on Netflix, works for me.
And, naturally, as we see the world around us literally letting go in preparation for the sleep of winter, one’s thoughts turn inwards.
This week has been a time of reflection for me as on Monday past, liturgically it was Holy Cross day.
I know that probably all passed you by, but it was also the 12th Anniversary of me being ordained a Deacon in the Scottish Episcopal Church.
That ceremony, 12 long years ago held in St Andrew’s Cathedral up in Aberdeen where it took not 1 but 3 bishops to ordain me, (I think they wanted to make sure it took) culminated the end of one journey and the start of another.
A journey that began when I took up a place to study Masters of Theology here at St Mary’s as a mature student in 2002 and continues on today with me standing here before you as your Assistant Chaplain in a dog collar and servicing God as his Agent of grace.
Agents of Grace, Now I do not profess to claim to have come up with that term Agent’s of Grace, I think Bonheoffer may have got there first, but I do use the phrase to describe what I do as an ordained member of the clergy as an Agent of grace not a judge of it.’
And that is what our readings this morning are all about. Being Agents rather than judges especially with our gospel story this morning but more on that later.
The last time I actually preached these very readings was when I was Rector of two churches in the North East of Scotland, Montrose and Inverbervie. It was the weekend after the Scottish Independence Vote. How times have changed! Or so we thought. Anyway back to agents of grace and not judges of it!
On that Sunday in 2014, I preached about reconciliation, renewal, peace and forgiveness after a tumultuous two years of discord and, for me, personal attacks for being English but that is another story.
We have a new focus for our energies at the moment and one that is proving difficult to manage and control, but it is one that we must all work together to overcome.
For we are all together in this equally just as we are all equal before God. And that is also the thread that runs through all of these readings this morning.
There is no fast track to heaven. There is nothing we can do or say that will let God love us any less or prevent God from wanting the best for us. We must all be equally prepared to be agents rather than judges of that grace. To truly live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, to be fruitful in labour and for us this weekend here in St Andrews and at the university, it may have meant staying at home and not going out peopling!
However sometimes we all get so wrapped up in what we think we need, and so bound up in our sense of what we think we deserve, that we fail to recognise what God is even now about and to remember what had God has already done for us.
It is said that when the people of Israel first grumbled and complained against God and against Moses, accusing them of leading them from slavery in Egypt only so that he could kill them in the wilderness, that God responded to their criticism and lack of trust – by promising to provide them with bread from Heaven every day
And that on the first morning that they were to collect this bread that had formed like dew upon the ground, in thin flakes like frost, they did not know what it was, and asked one another what it might be.
And so this bread – this stuff that formed on the desert floor each dawn – this daily provision from God – came to be called Manna – a word that literally means “What is it?”
Even though the people of Israel were liberated from their bondage in Egypt with incredible signs of God’s power –
Even though the Red Sea parted to allow them through safely and came together again and destroyed their enemies, –
Even though God made bitter water sweet and led them by a fire in the night and by a pillar of cloud by day towards the Holy Mountain where they would worship Him and towards the land God had promised to give them.
Even though God had proved his goodness to them, his love for them, they fretted and worried and grumbled and complained – and doubted the love of God, the will of God, to do them good, and then they failed to recognise how God had answered their complaints and their cries of need.
Perhaps it is always that way.
I know that sometimes I am like that – constantly comparing what I have been given to what others have been given, constantly evaluating what it is I believe I should have against what I do have and forgetting what it is that God has promised to give me, am constantly forgetting that it is nothing but the grace of God that has brought me safe thus far, and that God will bring me “home”.
And that, along with our finding our way through the nightmare of pandemic life, is the message of the parable of the workers in the vineyard that was read this morning.
And I have to ask myself are we sometimes like those hired first?
Do we compare our labour to the labour of others and conclude that we should have more than they, more love, more respect, more thanks, more say in how things are run?
Or do we take a step back, breathe and believe that God has empowered us to be his agents to freely share his grace and his love instead of judging who deserves it the most regardless of time of the party they arrive at?
You may think that being a chaplain at this university is an easy job. Well, try finding a picture that encapsulates the readings for each week for the front of your chapel booklets. This is just one of the joys that Donald and myself are tasked week by week.
And you may well think that an image of workers in the vineyard is a simple one to come up with. But this week I wanted to show an empty vineyard. Just as our town, our playing fields and our beaches should have been empty this past weekend.
For We are all workers, we are all tasked as children of God to be his agents out in the world to share his love and light with all.
There is not enough space in this simple vineyard that is from the valleys of Bordeaux near the fields of Taize in the south of France for all peoples to be represented.
We don’t get to judge who receives God’s grace, we do not get to judge who is entitled to feel God’s love or even act as his Agents. We are all charged to act as Agents for God to share his love, his forgiveness and his grace with every single person we meet.
Whether we come to God at the beginning or end of our lives, at the beginning or end of the day, have faith for you do not do so alone.
God will be with us equally as we work our way through the problems that we as a people and a nation face over the coming days weeks and months, God is with us, his agents of grace, and God will bring us home.
My prayer for you this week is that you are blessed as you are blessing, that you find the burden of being an agent of God a light one to carry, and that you stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel