Moments of grace

Keith Anderson, 23 September 2018

Proverbs 3: 13–18; Matthew 9: 9–13

I think my feminist friends are correct when they suggest that the Old Testament is a male-dominated work. Even in our reading from Proverbs where wisdom is given a feminine form, there is a hint that she should be sought out and wooed. But I think wisdom cannot be treated like a medieval maiden, to be courted, married and owned. If wisdom can be compared to the feminine, it is because she can give birth to an abundance of life. Wisdom is not owned like a chattel but is free and can never be taken for granted or contained. At times in our lives we may experience a moment of wisdom; we have wisdom, but the moment we think we own it, we have lost it – she has gone.

If wisdom can be compared to the feminine, it is because she can give birth to an abundance of life.

In preparing this sermon I have been seeking her out, but she is elusive. Take from this talk what you will; just hear it as the fruits of someone trying to hear the grace and wisdom of God from his own life and experience.

A fortnight ago Valerie and I were in the Dordogne area and we visited the cave at Font-de-Gaume. It was quite a privilege, as only 52 people a day can enter. Today the cave is the only one in France where the public are allowed to view the original prehistoric cave paintings. At Lascaux, the most famous cave complex, you can only see reproductions now.

The guide took us down through quite narrow passageways until after about 60 feet we saw the cave paintings. It was quite hard at first to make out the shapes of bison, reindeer and horses. But gradually we came to appreciate the complexity and sophistication of these works of art. Deep into the cave we came to a painting of a horse and the guide pointed out that all these artworks would have been constructed by candle or oil light. He then turned out the lights and showed us this horse in the flickering beam of his torch.

The painting came alive. The horse seemed to move. The artist had used his paints of iron and magnesium oxide along with the natural undulations of the cave wall and the shadows formed from a single lamp to create an image of a horse beyond the beauty and visual impact of any artwork I have ever seen.

Leonardo da Vinci and our own George Stubbs would have been overwhelmed by its impact. In a moment my understanding of those troglodytes, who lived some 15,000 years ago, was transformed into the realisation that their visual perceptions and artistic skills were possibly superior to ours.

That was a moment of grace: I had been humbled and transformed by the work of a caveman. Never again will I consider the term troglodyte to be a subtle insult. Our most ancient ancestors could be as creatively inspired as us; they, too, were made in the image of God. It was a moment of grace. Wisdom had visited me.

In our gospel today, as we celebrate St Matthew’s Day, we hear of the calling of Matthew. ‘As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me”. And he got up and followed him.’

That is all we are told of the apostle Matthew’s conversion. Jerome, one of our earliest commentators of Matthew’s gospel, almost apologises for the brevity of this incident, commenting that Matthew must have experienced much of Christ’s miraculous ministry before this moment to explain his instantaneous response to Jesus. But our gospels (Mark and Luke also include this event) focus us just upon that moment. It is as though Matthew himself insists that it was not a slow process of persuasion and agony, but an incident of instant grace.

Tomorrow it will be the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I cannot say that ordination was a moment of experiencing instant grace, like Matthew’s calling, or of joyful revelation, as I felt at ‘meeting’ my troglodyte ancestors. But that is not surprising; three weeks before I was ordained my first wife, Marion, suddenly died. Her death has always felt like the life-transforming moment of that time, and in fact this is the first occasion on which I have celebrated my ordination. I can now, after 40 years, reflect how that moment of ordination was life-changing. I can now thank God for the privilege I have been given to be a priest in his Church.

Moments of grace are not necessarily recognised at that instant by us, but I believe they occur perhaps to all of us.

Moments of grace are not necessarily recognised at that instant by us, but I believe they occur perhaps to all of us.

I love the lesson a friend taught me around the time of my ordination. He said, in as many words: remember Abraham, the father of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.

In Genesis it is recorded that God spoke to Abraham. But he spoke to him on average once every 14 years! The rest of the time Abraham tended his flocks of sheep and goats and cared for his family. Today we celebrate Matthew’s call, his moment of grace, and through it we give thanks to God for his whole life and ministry.

As we do, we have the opportunity to thank God for moments of grace in our own lives – for me that caveman, Abraham and my ordination. I encourage you too to remember your moments and thank God, as we return to metaphorically tend our sheep and goats.