A Sermon for Harvest.
There is a famous advertisement for a brand of beer that describes it as “reassuringly expensive”. Forget everything that you thought you knew about living in a market economy, this advert knew us better than that. It knew that if we spend money on something then we value it and think well of it. I can’t be the only one who has been shopping and made the far from certain connection between the price of something and its quality. Whether it be beer, clothes or cars we rely on the price of something as a guide to how good it is. It is a disaster for the makers of some things if they are sold cheaply, because we might stop trusting in the quality of it. So for a beer to be “reassuringly expensive” means that it can be sold for a high price, and it means we want it to be sold for a high price because it makes us feel that we have bought something of guaranteed quality.
And so, my brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this evening that God is not reassuringly expensive. God is disturbingly cheap. So disturbingly cheap, in fact, that God is free. If that’s all you get from this sermon, then that’s fine. It’s all you need. God is disturbingly cheap. It is in fact a summary of all the wonders and all the challenges of the Gospel. And it is at the heart of our celebrations of harvest. Our harvest festival is a glorious proclamation that God is disturbingly cheap.
All of this takes us to what St Paul says in our second reading tonight when he speaks of “the surpassing grace of God in you”. Grace means simply a free gift. It is not a complicated or technical theological term. It is a free gift. It’s as easy and as hard as that. In a culture when a very successful advertising campaign can be founded on the notion that something is “reassuringly expensive” we find free gifts very difficult. They threaten us. We’re suspicious of what the hidden cost might be. We hear of “the surpassing grace of God”, we sing of “Amazing Grace”, but we find grace very difficult to accept. We want to pay for things – it keeps us in the role of customer, it keeps us in control of what is going on, it means that we have an important role in what is happening. When we pay for something we can take it back and complain if it doesn’t turn out as we like. And the Gospel, the Good News, is that none of this works with God. We are not customers of God. Jesus tells us “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15.16). We are not in control of what happens to us – we are called to follow Jesus wherever he goes. We are not important in this – it is all done for us, we play no part, no part, in God’s work to save us and redeem our world. And, I’m sorry, but we can’t take it back and complain if you don’t like it. Job tried that – read his book and see how that worked out.
God is disturbingly cheap. And the Christian life with all of its disciplines and practices is really all about learning to accept that this is how God is – disturbingly cheap. The American writer Philip Yancey expresses this disturbingly cheap God when he says that grace means that ‘there is nothing you can do to make God love you more; there is nothing you can do to make God love you less’. Let me repeat that – “there is nothing you can do to make God love you more; there is nothing you can do to make God love you less”. We cannot impress God with our virtues, and we cannot cut ourselves off from him by being thoroughly awful. This is the Gospel in a nutshell: ‘There’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more.’ We are God’s children. He loves us, and nothing we can do can change that.
But, of course, we forget this. We forget that God loves us, we act as though we can impress God or as though we can cut ourselves off from God by the dreadfulness of what we do. I manage to do both. When I remember to say my prayers and when I do all sorts of other religious observances, I imagine that I must be ‘closer to God’ somehow. That God must love me more now. When I forget to say my prayers or indulge in one of my many vices, I sometimes imagine that God no longer loves me (how could he, when I’m so awful). And I’m wrong on both counts. I cannot impress God. I cannot persuade God to give up on me. ‘There’s nothing I can do to make God love me less. There’s nothing I can do to make God love me more.’ There’s nothing reassuringly expensive about this God. God is disturbingly cheap. He doesn’t need me to be very good or very bad.
Grace is at the heart of the Christian message. It is the fundamental truth about God and about the nature of reality that is proclaimed in the Christian Gospel – there is such a thing as a free gift. Grace is not an optional extra, an addition to the rest of our life. It transforms all of our life, opening us to the gift of God, wherever it may come from.
At Harvest time, we celebrate the grace of God as we find it in his provision for us. The whole world, and all that is in it, is God’s free gift to us. Our disturbingly cheap God gives us everything we need and more. St Paul in our reading this evening is trying to get the Corinthian church to support the collection he was making for the church in Jerusalem where there had been a famine. There were all sorts of motives behind the collection: humanitarian, in helping those in need; political, in binding together the churches of the Gentiles with the mother church of the Jews in Jerusalem. But what Paul is saying to the Corinthians is that the overriding reason for the collection is theological – it is because of God’s grace.
Paul urges the Corinthians to give in response to what they have received. Not because they are obliged to (as if they could do something to make God love them more), nor because they fear not doing so (as if they could go something to make God love them less); but because as people receiving and being shaped by God’s grace they too are becoming people of grace. Generosity is a response to grace, not because we have to respond, but because as grace gets hold of us we become generous. Our harvest gifts are a response to the grace that we have received. If you brought a gift that won’t earn you brownie points with God – there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more. If you didn’t, you don’t get a black mark – there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. But the deeper we move into God’s grace, the more we are overwhelmed by our disturbingly cheap God, the more generous we will be.
So Harvest is a celebration of God’s grace and our gracious response of generosity. It is also a time for gratitude. Gratitude is our natural response to God’s grace. But more than that, gratitude is an acceptance that we are not in control, that we are not the customer here. Our first reading from Deuteronomy promises the People of God the fullness of the Promised Land. And it urges them not to forget that this is a gift from God, not something that we have done, but something that we have received. “Beware, lest you say in your heart ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’”. Our God is disturbingly cheap. Gratitude, saying thank you, is a way of reminding ourselves that we owe everything to this disturbing God. It too flows from the grace of God. The deeper we sink into God’s grace, the more grateful people we will become. The poverty of our gratitude, and the poverty of our generosity, are a feature of our resistance to grace, to the disturbingly cheap God who comes to us in Jesus.
Harvest is a celebration of God’s grace that finds our response in generosity and gratitude. May you remember that there is nothing that you can do to make God love you more and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. May you grow in the knowledge of the surpassing grace of God, and grow in generosity and gratitude. Thanks be to our disturbingly cheap God for his inexpressible gift! Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral 7.10.12.
A version was given at St Matthew's, Smalley also on 7.10.12.