Tolpuddle and Puddletown
Sunday 20th August 2017
Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.21-28
The Templeton Prize, which was founded in 1972, aims to: “[honour] a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. It is not confined to any particular religion; it’s previous winners have included Mother Theresa, Aleksandr Solzhenyitsn, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and last year the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
On being awarded the Prize, he said a number of things but included in his speech these words: “And thanks ultimately to God, who believes in us so much more than we believe in Him.”
In some ways, that could sum up the passage from Romans we heard today – it’s about a God who believes in us so much more than we believe in him.
It’s a bit of an odd selection for the lectionary compilers to have chosen because they’ve missed out most of the chapter, and the verses at the end of the preceding chapter from which heard last week.
Today’s opening verse clearly requires us to know what has gone on before – the word “then” in the first sentence obviously refers to something Paul has previously written.
Chapters 9 to 11 need to be viewed as a whole. In essence, what Paul has been explaining is how it is that the Jews, God’s chosen people, have failed to respond to the Gospel, but the Gentiles have accepted. What does that mean? That God’s plan has failed? Or that God has changed his mind about his people?
Not at all, says Paul - which is where today’s reading starts. Look at me – I’m a Jew, he says, an Israelite, descended from Abraham, part of the tribe of Benjamin.
So God can’t now be writing off his own people. I’m one of them, and I have heard the good news and believe it.
And then in the missed out verses he explains how throughout history there have been times when most of the Jewish people have wandered away from God but there has always been a remnant, a smaller group, who have remained faithful. And that somehow through them Israel retains its place as God’s chosen people who will receive salvation.
Back to today’s reading – Paul stresses that God cannot go back on his word. That’s not part of his nature of truth and faithfulness; his gifts and his calling cannot be withdrawn.
Look, you Gentiles, he says – you once didn’t believe and look at you now. Because God’s people didn’t listen, you’ve had an opportunity to hear the Gospel and receive salvation. They’re not listening now but there is still a way for them.
The Message translation compares it to open doors. The Jews slammed the door shut, it explains, so the Gentiles who had been the outside could now open the door and come in, and through that open door, the Jewish people too can pass.
So how does this work? It all comes down to the mercy of God. No one is free from disobedience – it’s part of the human condition – but that just means God’s mercy is even greater.
Back to Rabbi Sacks: it’s about a God who believes in us so much more than we believe in him. A people who have rejected God does not equal a God who has rejected his people.
And when we talk about believing in we’re not referring to whether something exists or not, we’re talking about trust and faith.
We could rephrase Sack’s sentence: it’s a God who has faith in us so much more than we trust in him.
A God who has faith in us – I wonder how that makes you feel. To know that God has faith in you. That’s quite something.
Just reflect for a moment on what that means for you.
The fantastic news is that whatever we do, God does not let us go.
Think of the story Jesus told about the younger brother who snubbed his father, brother and home life, and went off for a period of dissolute living. Did the father reject him on his return? No. Each and every day he’d been looking out for him, desperately wanting him to come back.
And when he returned there wasn’t a Spanish Inquisition about where he’d been, what he’d done, why he’d wasted the money nor a long list of ranting complaints about how irresponsible he’d been and so on, but just arms outstretched in love.
That’s a picture of a God who has so much more faith in us than we do in him.
A God whose mercy is uppermost so that a restored relationship is far more important than punishment or judgement.
A God who always gives us another chance when we get it wrong.
I love Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing about Grace? If you haven’t read, then maybe you should.
Here’s a quote: “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more — no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less — no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love”
Wow – nothing we can do to make God love us more, nothing we can do to make God loves us less.
And, of course, we are called to love in the way that God loves us. But how hard it is: to love others as they are, with all their bumps and scratches and imperfections, and to allow God to love us as we are, to let God’s love into our hearts completely, with all our bumps and scratches and imperfections.
Yancey tells the story of a prostitute told to him by one of his friends. She was, he writes, “in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter — two years old — to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit.
“I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable — I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
“At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’
“What struck me about my friend’s story,” Yancey writes, “is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift?”
God has imprisoned us all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
To us, to our friends, to those we know, to those we don’t know, to those we look up to, to those we look down on, to all. How do we as a church show that kind of love to those around us?
Are our priorities right? How can we ensure that they are in line with God’s?
How welcoming are our churches? Do we reveal Jesus to those around or some other Gospel?
God’s love will not let us go. God trusts in us far more than we trust in him. God’s love will never let us go. It is constant and unconditional, real and for us.
Let’s give that message to the world.