What's on your plate?
Like many clergy people, I am a fan of the Masterpiece TV show from England, Grantchester. Grantchester is a real village near Cambridge, and the setting for a series of fictional mystery novels by James Runcie, the son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. In each story, the mystery is solved by the local detective inspector and his sidekick, the vicar of Grantchester. People love mystery-solving clergypeople, it seems, and Grantchester, both books and TV show, are very popular and the TV show has moved even beyond the original books.
In the latest season, the vicar, Will Davenport, has been suffering from the knowledge that he has fallen short of perfection in several areas of life. Will feels that as a priest, he should always make the right decisions, that his mistakes are worse than other people’s because he should be perfect.
And of course he is not perfect, and he ends up taking out his frustration and shame about that on the people around him. And even worse, he is not able to make amends or maintain relationships but rather absents himself and indulges in self-loathing.
He says he should be better than other people. This causes his detective friend, Geordie, to assure him that actually he is obnoxious, disagreeable, and a pain in the rear, and another person, upon hearing this, pronounces him profoundly arrogant. And worst of all, in his despair, Will gets up in the pulpit and says to his congregation that none of them deserve salvation; that if we sin, we do not deserve God’s love.
Well. Apparently Will Davenport has not read Romans 8. Or maybe he just forgot in his misery and self-loathing, forgot about the part where Paul asserts that despite our fallen nature as flawed human beings, God, who already knows all that, has wiped the slate clean, and that nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God. I a convinced, says Paul, that neither death nor even life, can separate us from God’s love.
Will should especially hear that part that even life can’t separate us from God, because it is his own life that he feels has gone so wrong and makes him so undeserving.
Will Davenport, of course, is not the first person, real or fictional, nor will he be the last, who feels undeserving of God’s love. Some people spend their whole lives trying to be deserving, which must be awfully frustrating to God and to the saints in heaven like St Paul who probably hear our similar cries about our faults and inadequacies and think,
“She didn’t hear a word I said, did she?”
Some people consider this chapter in Romans to be the climax of Paul’s whole theology. We are not deserving but we are set free from striving because God loves us anyway, so we don’t have to try to earn it or to try not to lose it or otherwise spend our lives focused on that whole “he loves me, he loves me not” loop. God knows our brokenness and loves us anyway, because that is the nature of God.
So if we don’t need to spend our energy trying to be deserving, what are we going to do instead? I mean, it would be pretty easy to sit back and think, well, good, that’s done, I’m good, Amen.
And at times, that’s probably just what we need to do, like when we are beaten down, grieving, feeling the losses life hands to us. If we are just now discovering that we are loved no matter what, we might just need to sit still for a while and shed tears of gratitude and relief. I’ve certainly had those periods in my life, and they are precious indeed.
But I also wonder about that plate that no longer has “striving to be deserving” on it. If I don’t need use my energy for that, then, to paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, “what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?”
These are weighty issues, but I’ve got room to lift my gaze from myself and look out into a world that still needs a lot of love. I can wonder where is God calling me beyond myself, beyond my own cares, my own comfort, my own satisfaction in light of the lack of comfort and satisfaction all around me instead of simply resting in my privilege.
In the end, that’s what Will Davenport did. After he got over himself and made some amends, he tapped into his family’s fortune to bankroll a struggling young man’s dream to lift himself from his own despair.
This is a question for us as a parish, as well. What fruit are we called to bear in our community now? We gather, we love each other, we praise God, all good things.
But we as a parish also have a wild and precious life to live out in the world, beyond our walls, beyond Sunday worship, beyond our friends and family. Because God is with us, in the heights and the depths, in the present and in times to come, giving us the power to risk everything for love.