A Sermon from Sherborne

Unworthy but chosen

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 15 January 2017 by The Reverend Ron Martin, Assistant Curate (and Head of Chaplaincy Services at Dorset County Hospital).

Our reading from the Gospel this morning has John the Baptist declaring of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29b).

I’d like to share with you a story or a parable, if you like, that seems to me to illustrate how many people, and perhaps some of us, view God.

One day a little boy was being taken to meet his grandpa for the first time. He was happy and excited because he had heard that grandpa was very generous and would spoil him. So accompanied by his mum he set off to his grandpa’s house. It was a very large house, with a long driveway leading to an impressive porch. He arrived at the front door to be greeted by a doorman who ushered the young boy and his mum into his grandpa’s presence. Grandpa was a very grand looking old man, with a long white beard and white hair and piercing, intelligent eyes. Grandpa greeted the boy warmly and sat him on his lap. He offered him sweets, biscuits, cake, fizzy drinks; he played with his grandson and listened to him and together they had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. When it came time for the boy to return home with his mum, his grandpa sat him on his lap and asked him, “Have you enjoyed your time with me?” “Yes I have.” “Will you come and visit me often?” “Yes I will.” “And will you always behave and do what Grandpa wants you to do?” “Yes I will.” “Good, because if you do you will enjoy many good gifts from me, but if you don’t,” and with that he opened a trap door next to his chair and from down below came the smell of sulphur and the feeling of heat and the wails of tortured souls, “If you don’t,” he said, “this is where you will end up.”

On the way home the little boys mummy said to her son, “Did you enjoy your visit to Grandpa,” “Yes I did.” “Will you visit him again?” “Yes I will.” “And will you love your grandpa with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?” “Yes, yes I will!”

Now I’m sure none of us have an image of God that is quite as brutal as that parable portrays. However, it’s an image that many people seem to have inherited at some level from childhood and the image of God that we grow up with is often the one that will spring out at us when life becomes hard, when our health gives way, our addictions take over, our relationships break down or we lose our sense of self worth or status or work.

Coming from a strict Scottish Church background and upbringing, the image of God in that parable is exactly the kind of God I was sold as a child. It’s an image I didn’t break away from until well into my twenties. My brother, too, broke away, but instead of developing a more Christ centred image of God, he rejected God and Christianity altogether, and who can blame him?

The image of God we grow up with is often the one we end up wrestling with when times are tough unless we do something to change it. And the only way to change it is to take time to prayerfully read and think and reflect on what the Bible, the Church and Jesus Christ, actually reveal God to be.

So as a starting point for reminding ourselves of what God is actually like and ridding ourselves of the God of our own fearful imaginings, let’s look briefly at our lessons for this morning. First of all we are told that the prophet in the book of Isaiah (chapter 49) was known to God while he was still in his mother’s womb, and while he was in the womb, God named him.   In other words God chose him before he was born. No merit involved there. The prophet was chosen for God’s purpose and by God’s love and grace alone.

Then in our New Testament Lesson we have Paul, formerly, as we know, known as Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee, the torturer and murderer of those Jews who followed Jesus. Again, he is chosen! So Paul is able to announce in our lesson from 1 Corinthians this morning that he is now, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (1Cor 1:1).

Finally in our Gospel we have the calling of Simon son of John who is to be called Cephas, Peter – the rock! The rock? Some rock eh? Three times he denied his Lord whom he promised faithfully never to desert only a few hours earlier. “Everyone else may leave your side Lord, I never will.” Not once, not twice, but three times he clearly and emphatically denied Christ and betrayed his promise to his Lord. Cephas, the rock becomes Saint Peter who, by God’s grace, the Church was founded upon.

You see what I’m saying?   God’s love, God’s goodness and God’s grace is offered to all, even to the least likely. God bares no resemblance to that parable I read whatsoever, for when he came to earth he was revealed in a vulnerable baby, born to a lowly family in a downtrodden backwater of the Roman Empire. And while on earth he revealed a God who loves even the lowliest of sinners and whose forgiveness is unfailingly available to all who seek him. A God who is called Immanuel, which means, “God with us,” but not just with us as in ‘present to us’, Immanuel also carries the sense of God being ‘for us’, ‘on our side’.

The late 7th – early 8th century English monk and historian known as the Venerable Bede famously wrote the phrase in a Gospel commentary, “unworthy but chosen.” Pope Francis, then Fr. Bergoglio, when he first became a bishop adopted this phrase as his episcopal motto, “Unworthy but chosen”, and he realised right from the beginning of his vocation that not only was he unworthy but chosen but that God wanted him to see all of humanity in this light too because, as Pope Francis himself is quoted as saying, “everyone is chosen by the love of God.”

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, loves and forgives to the uttermost. And alongside Isaiah’s prophet, St Paul and St Peter and all the saints, we too are called. We too are chosen. Not because of who we are, but because of who he is. When life becomes hard, this is the God we should trust, this is the God we should turn to, the God Jesus revealed and not the God of our own fearful imaginings. Amen.

The Reverend Ron Martin, Assistant Curate (and Head of Chaplaincy Services at Dorset County Hospital) 15/01/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne