Sermon for Sunday August 24th- Church as Chosen People – Responsibility and Gift

Sermon for Sunday August 24, 2014.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A


Isaiah 51:1-6

Psalm 138

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20


‘Church as a Chosen People – Responsibility and Gift’



For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Eph 2:8-10


The poor bloody infantry

This year as we are well aware marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what we have come to know as the First World War. This has been commemorated in a rash of events and of course television programmes. One, called ‘Our World War’ has been put out by the BBC and I happened to catch the first episode the other day. Entitled ‘The First Day’, it was a dramatised reconstruction of The Battle of Mons, the first in which British troops were engaged. In keeping with much of what followed, it revealed the chaos and terror of Total War, as British troops hopelessly ill equipped and poorly informed about the forces arrayed against them were overwhelmed in a day. The focus of the action was a battle to hold a key bridge across the Canal which lay to the North of the city – in the end coming down to the actions of a Private Sidney Godley manning the only machine gun for several hours against huge odds.

Eventually the British forces were forced to withdraw, and Godley covered their backs, left alone to face almost certain death – he was critically wounded, but survived and saw out the war in a prison camp, being awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the action.



Of course one way in such acts are described is as ‘heroic’, but it was then and remains all but impossible to find a veteran of war who would accept the description. They were faced with little or no choice – as the war ground on, increasingly conscripts – fighting for their lives. To sustain the myth of war, the myth of the hero must be upheld, but of course it is sham, as attested by the continuing history of the abandonment of these heroes to homelessness, and lack of care when they return home. A form of collective shame placed on those asked to pay the highest price. Its hard not to think of them as scapegoats.


Now seeing the title for this sermon, you may be shifting a little uneasily. The myth of war and the myth of religion, at times finding themselves too close for comfort for those who are called to follow in the footsteps of The Prince of Peace, the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. But if we step back from the myth of War and its mythical heroes, to the reality, we find some significant parallels which we would do well not to ignore.


Of course it would be Very easy to say that the western church is like those poor soldiers at Mons ‘hopelessly ill equipped and poorly informed about the forces arrayed against them’ thus we are being overwhelmed in the historical equivalent of a day, and that is undoubtedly true in some respects. But another time


Chosen and not for ourselves

As the ‘poor bloody infantry’ had little choice but to fight. So it is with the people of God. They didn’t ask for this. As they complained in the wilderness, they didn’t ask to be rescued from Egypt, they didn’t ask to be put to the service of this strange God, they didn’t ask to be those who would be light to the world. But they were. And here we rub up against the difficulty of this language of Chosenness, not that it is wrong, but in terms of what it means. For Being the Chosen people of God is much more akin to the Reality of a conscript thrown into the front line of a battle which he did not desire, than of that of the myth of the happy volunteer living with dreams of a Glorious inheritance and Noble Victory.

The idea of ‘a Chosen people’ is a difficult one for us to accept, and thus it is so very far from how we perceive ourselves, in no small part because within the history of the church it has been most unhelpfully been tied to that curious and only faintly biblical concept of ‘going to heaven when you die’ , or being the unique objects of God’s love. To say the least if we consider what it means to be a chosen people in these terms, then it is little surprise that we wish to do away with the idea. God’s Love is not limited, and indeed for the first of God’s people, the Jews, the idea of a life beyond this one was at best hazy.


The Chosen One

As always, when we try and understand anything of what it means to be The Church we must look to Jesus, the Author and perfecter of our faith. To understand ‘Chosen People’ we must look to ‘The CHosen One’ When God inhabits human flesh to walk amongst His people – in his very being he is a stark reminder of this. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head – he is dependent on the hospitality of an often hostile world. Being The Chosen People does not get you a table at the finest restaurants or a room at the swankiest hotels – not even something as comfortable as the lair of a fox. The Chosen One, The Son steps into the world in humility – and in truth, the weight of the world is laid on Him. So it is not at all apparent to the human eye, trained in the world’s myths of greatness, that this itinerant preacher with his motley crew of disciples is indeed The Annointed One, The One chosen since the foundation of the world. So caught up in the myths of chosenness, His own do not recognise him in his poverty.


‘You are the Christ!’

But one of this motley band does. Peter in response to the question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ responds – ‘You are the Messiah! The Son of the living God’ And Jesus replies ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ It is a Beatification, a Blessing to recognise Jesus for who he is, it is Gift. Of course there are many who in truth fail to see who he is – whilst making much of Jesus’ poverty and humility, in truth they’re still expecting God in a more splendid garb – perhaps as a fine politician who will really put the world to rights through the exercise of intelligence and power, making the world a better place. The pattern we always try to revert to. The idea of a crucified God ultimately too much of a contrast for us, as of course it threatens to be for Peter himself. But let us let Peter be for the minute, Jesus hasn’t finished with him yet.



Revelation and Responsibility

Jesus accepts this recognition – and then Reminds Peter that it was a gift from HIs Father, not anything to do with his own perception. Reminds him as it were of His Chosenness, and promptly makes the most breathtaking statement. You have been Chosen to see me for who I am – to see through the lack of worldly glory . . He renames Peter, the Rock for this confession of Jesus will be the rock on which the Church is established – The Church Of Jesus Christ – on this rock ‘I will build my church’ the One who has revealed himself as the true interpreter of the law – ‘you have heard it said, but I say to you . . .’

Jesus, The Chosen One, never shies from his responsibilities, from his identity – he takes the Law of God and acts as its true interpreter – breathtaking. And he declares that this new community is HIS church, and on the confession of himself as God’s Chosen one, the Son of the living God, he will build His church against which the gates of hell themselves will not prevail . . . but then gives then says to Peter these unbelievable words – I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.


True and false humility


And at once we look at the church and say ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus! How can you put that responsibility in our hands??’ We are nothing!! I’ll come back to the keys in just a moment. But to look at this responsibility from another angle we might take Jesus’ words ‘You are the light of the world’ Recently I’ve been working on adapting a service of Night Prayer that we might all use. I’m working from an existing adaptation of the NZPB service, which includes the words ‘we are to be the light of the world’ – Well the problem with that wording, however ever so ever so ‘umble it is, is that it is in contradiction with the words of Jesus, who says to his ‘Church’ – you Are the light of the world – let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Again we look at ourselves and say ‘Don’t be ridiculous!!’ YOU do the whole light of the world thing, Jesus, we’ll tell people about you – well if we’re trying hard anyway . . . We undo the connection between Christ and his church – we evade our responsibility. Or to put it in terms of Private Sid Godley at the Nimy bridge, we abandon our post, the place we have been put, the place what is more that we were told the gates of Hell would not prevail against . . . to be called is to put our hand to the plough of inhabiting that calling – of Being in Him, the Light of the World, of binding and loosing, in heaven and on Earth


However strange it might seem to us that Jesus gives into our hands such responsibility in His name, it is I suggest far less strange than the notion that this first century wandering Jewish Preacher should in fact be the Son of the Living God, no? This truth cannot be found out for ourselves – it must be revealed to us by God the Father. We are never Christians because we worked it out for ourselves, nor can we live as Christ’ people except in that same dependence upon him. And that is the Core of it – that we can only live out this responsibility as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices – saying we have no life apart from Christ.


Responsibility . . . and Gift.

Here we have perhaps to abandon the parallel with those conscripts – for our war is not against flesh and blood. Indeed it cannot be for we are poorly equipped for that – rather it is against the powers and principalities of this dark age – not the human aggressor, but that which fires him or her, and our weapons?

Prophecy – the gift of seeing things as they are – ministry – teaching – exhortation – generosity – diligence – cheerfulness – St Paul – ‘think of yourselves in accordance with the measure of faith God has Given to you – these gifts which ‘differ according to the grace given to us. These GIfts are just that – they are not of us, but of God – most fully the life of God made present in us by the Holy Spirit. And above all forgiveness – Love which covers a multitude of sins. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound, whatever you lose will be loosed – whomsoever sins you forgive are forgiven – whomsoever sins you retain are retained – the keys of the Kingdom of heaven – which we enter through forgiveness of sins and which we offer to those around us.


Responsibilities we never sought, Gifts we were given . . . underlying it all though the sheer wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ that has Peter say ‘to whom else shall we go!’ As St Paul puts it, we are captivated, compelled by the love of Jesus Christ, revealed in costly obedience to Him. We rejoice in our calling, not because of anything to do with us, but the Glory of the one who calls us. We remain joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. because of the one who in Love has called and chosen us. Insofar as anything rests with us, insofar as anything springs from us, it arises out of a deep love for Jesus Christ, for whose sake we have left everything.


Paul expresses it thus I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Having in 11 chapters of the letter to the Romans, set forth the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – Paul encourages us to a glad sacrifice of our lives, not for national myths; not as so many are tempted to do within the church to perpetuate the World’s own story about itself; but as a cheerful and reasonable offering to the one who has given us His all, The Christ, The Son of the Living God.


As he puts it in the second chapter of the letter to the church in Ephesus It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Responsibility – and Gift

Sermon for Sunday August 3rd – 18th in Ordinary Time – Year A

Sermon for Sunday August 3rd, 2014
18th Sunday in Ordinary time – Year A

Genesis 32:22-31
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Deep Roots
Deep Church

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon . . .
You cannot spend too much time reading the scriptures without becoming aware of the prevalence of genealogies. The people of God know where they have come from, and knowing where they have come from , and knowing this they know who they are. There Roots are the source of their sense of who they are. As the Pharisees protest to Jesus ‘We have Abraham as our Father . . .’ Who are we . . . not Who am I, Who are we – ‘We are the children of Abraham . . .’ Our Roots . . .
Of course that protest immediately alerts us to something, that roots can go rotten. Not that there is anything wrong with having Abraham as your father, unless it becomes nothing more to you than a name in a list – something you take pride in, but do not live out of. {For us moderns, the sense that we lived out of our ancestry is an odd one. We might take a certain interest, even a pride in our genealogy, but we think of ourselves as individuals, that our identity is personal, not given. ]
Paul’s gospel to the Romans is in some respects an extended meditation upon the question, ‘what does it mean to be a true child of Abraham?’ Our reading from Romans finds Paul in agony over his people who have lost touch with the lifeblood of their descent from Abraham. They loudly declare they are children of Abraham, but their lives belie that truth. I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. To Them, to Them! They are the True inheritors of the promises of God, but they have not inherited. This Life Giving Gospel message should be flowing through their veins, but the root has rotted . . . Like Esau, they have despised their birthright. Cutting themselves off from their past.  And losing touch with your roots is s serious matter – a tree which on the surface may look so secure will come crashing down in a gale if its roots are no more.
Of course we in New Zealand know a lot about felling trees, and not just the rotten ones. It is only recently that we have learned to value our native trees, although economics and those with friends in high places, continue to win out. Orokonui is a wonder, but how appalling is the thought that trees and native fauna need Sanctuary, a place safe from the ravages of human insatiability.
When we were holidaying in January up on the West Coast, it was horrifying to contemplate what had been done to the native forest, to see the only the odd solitary Rimu, above the canopy – somewhat bent of course, of no economic use. All that was left. That pioneering spirit which seeks to ‘establish a new land’ – had cleared the land, to leave its own mark upon a blank slate, a Tabula Rasa. Like in so many modern cultures – lacking a sense of place within the order of things, a sense of lineage, a sense of Place and History. ‘Out with the old!’ (language which increasingly we use of people – having run out of trees there is not much left to fuel our passions . . .) Out with the Old! is our mantra. Henry Ford is our prophet. History is bunk.  LIfe is what We make it. It is not a gift from the past.
And even in the church. How many even without meaning to, fall into the trap of saying ‘We are to build the Kingdom of God!’ – worse, how many say it and mean it . . . The past?? Even in the church, this spirit of the age, confused as it is for the Eternal Spirit of God, inevitably leads us into secularism.
And thus we live at a critical juncture in the life of the Church in the West. Perhaps like the Pharisees of old the root has gone rotten. Perhaps ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees’ Because as some have noted the critical Schism, the critical divide in the church seems to be between those who in the spirit of modernity disavow the past, and those who see it as life and health, however strange to modern ears. And I do not here mean the recent past, not traditions of recent years, but Deep Past. Its disavowal in the refusal to acknowledge what God is doing in a first century Jew in Palestine.
I have spoken from time to time about how the modern church seems strangely divorced from Jesus, as anything [sic] more than a conventient hook for our own preoccupation. It is as if Jesus is for children, but more grown up Christians need to let him go . . . For, to be sure, in modern thought he is an embarrassment.
That God uniquely, once and for All, took on human flesh in the person of a Jewish man in first century Palestine revolts the modern imagination. It isn’t enough for those ‘cultured despisers’ the church has for years sought to persuade by copying them. A simple analysis of church writings of sermons on the web, of new and ‘more relevant liturgies’, of books on the false trail that is ‘spirituality’ readily exposes this abandonment, of the first century Palestinian Jew,  . . . Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. Everywhere we see the sidelining of His particularity, to reduce Jesus to one amongst many moral examples, or a teacher of timeless truths, or to carelessly refer to him as Christ, with no sense of the Roots of that name – Christ – Messiah – the annointed King of Israel, the King of the Jews, God’s chosen one for the Salvation, the healing of the entire cosmos. who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
And so when we come upon this story of the feeding of the 5000 – it seems to be for us ‘a fairytale for children’ and as adults we may well be tempted to think it a shallow matter for our consideration from the gospels. Trained in the shallows of our culture, it is an entertaining story but has nothing to offer us.   Disconnected from our roots, ahistorical as we are, this tale, seems of little import. but in Truth it is a foundational story of our faith. A tale which recalls us to our Roots. For here as it happens that is precisely what Jesus is doing, recalling God’s historic people, the Jews to their roots. No person who was in anyway aware of the Roots of the Jewish story could see ‘a metaphor’, or indeed ‘just a miracle, because God can do that sort of thing!’. No – here in the feeding of the five thousand, the only action of Jesus recounted almost identically in all four gospels, Here The Lord, Yahweh, is providing manna for his children in the wilderness. This is a profound encounter of Israel with her God in the person of Jesus – Yahweh-yireh – The Lord provides. Here is Israel’s God doing what he has always done, feeding his offspring, his children. Revealing himself as their Very Life. Recalling them to their roots.
And more than a mere memorial, he is recalling them to the Life giving obedience of God his Father. When the disciples are confronted by the hungry crowd, although they have heard Jesus announcing the Life giving Law afresh ‘you have heard it said, but I say to you . . .’, they still do not remember who they are, they still do not remember that the Law Giver of Sinai is the same One who feeds his children in the wilderness. The one who feeds his people through their obedience – ‘This is a wilderness, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ they do not recognise the Life Giver – they too think that we make our own lives, ‘let them go . . . so that they might buy food for themselves’ They have forgotten the ancient words of the prophet – forgotten their roots, forgotten who they are
‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price . . . Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. Listen so that you might live. Israel’s teacher feeds his flock – and the disciples are supposed to understand ‘‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ Jesus calls them to obedience – a life giving obedience. ‘You give them something to eat’
Here is the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus – in obedience to Jesus His life is shared. Obedience to God in Christ leads to Life for the whole world. But they still have to be taught this. ‘The Disciples replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ obedience to Christ is life giving for all. Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
Between our house and Yvette Williams, there is a Sycamore in midlfe. But last year part of it had to be taken down, a branch died off. The problem? the Roots, As the field had been excavated to build the nursing home, a senseless digger had cut through the trees roots. A tree is a thing of Wonder  We are dull to Wonder almost like no generation before us. A tree takes that which is death to us, Carbon Dioxide and turns it into Life – in the form of Oxygen.
So a healthy church can indeed inhabit what is a highly toxic environment for faith. The difficulties of the Church are not to do with the toxic culture, for ours is the Life of the one who hung on The Tree – His Life in us is Life for the world, irrespective of how much the world denies that life. The problem of the church is that it has ignored its roots, it is shallow. It has paid little attention to its roots and rather sought to shape itself with regard to culture. The world produces Carbon Dioxide and worse, strangling all of Creation, the Church is often too eager to mimic the world is the endless and hopeless quest for relevance. But it need not be this way.
As roots stabilise mighty trees in great storms, so the Church who remains deeply connected to Jesus – who knows HIm as her life – who seeks only to do his will – who desires only to feed on him in Word and Sacrament, the Bread that comes from heaven, truly in the gales of this present age, it will stand firm.
The tree with no roots, fed from the toxic streams of individualised modernity . . . great is the crash thereof. As without Roots a tree cannot live, so our Roots must go deep deep down into Him, the one who says ‘whomsoever is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Out of the believers heart will flow streams of living water’
If we imagine one of those trees in our church, As it grows it adds girth which adds to its strength above the ground. Still utterly dependent though on the roots. So as the Church grows it acquires The Tradition – those things which come from Christ for our health, which make HIm present to us. The Creeds which remind us of the truth of Christ, The Scriptures which testify to Christ, the Sacraments, Baptism by which we are included in Christ, the Eucharist in which now and always Christ feeds God’s children.