Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Trinity (14 June 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Trinity (14 June 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison looks at the modern mantra of 'choice' and says "God chooses us: and asks us to choose God in return."

Romans 9.14-26

Most mornings as I go across to the Cathedral for morning prayer, I walk through a group of pigeons sitting on the ground just outside Marks & Spencer's corner shop in a forlorn little gang. They've not been there for ever, but certainly for a number of months. And at some point while I’m inside during the prayers, somebody comes along and scatters birdseed around where they're sitting, so the birds get a free and ample breakfast – I've never seen who it is who does it, but that's because I'm inside the Cathedral when it happens.

At the beginning of last week, the passer-by must have been ill or away, because the little gang of pigeons were still hanging around and looking rather disappointed after 8 o'clock in the morning. After a few days, there were very few birds left hanging around; but by Friday the bird seed was back on the ground, and all seemed well.

Those pigeons started off making a choice, one that seemed pretty obvious – to dive in and eat some easily available birdseed. Out of that choice they’ve developed a way of life which means they’ve become dependent on the generosity of a passer-by. Just as the person who brings the bird seed has unwittingly created a community dependent on him or her, which will not survive if they don't keep producing the goods, so the pigeons are building a life based around access to easy food, not realising how dependent that life is on the wishes and whims of somebody of whom they know nothing.

Choice is a modern mantra. The government tells us that we should be people who exercise freedom of choice, and the advertising industry is based on trying to get us to choose one thing over another. It sounds good, for a while; but we need to beware, because our lives become the choices that we make, for good and for bad. One choice becomes a series of choices becomes a habit and can become an addiction, leaving us like the pigeons trapped into situations determined by choices which we may have made a long time ago, and may hardly have been aware of making at all, choices back then in the past which leave us with little or no choice here in the present.

The importance given to choice is a modern phenomenon based on reliable food and power and democracy, because in so much of human history people have had little choice about the life they lead. Whether the harvest succeeded or failed, whether they lived in peace or war, who they married or not, whether they lived or died, wasn’t decided by them. In the ancient world in which St Paul was writing his letter to the Romans, part of which we’ve just had read to us in the service, people felt that their fate was determined by nature or the gods or their rulers, and that the best that they could do was to try to get the gods or the king on their side by prayers and sacrifices and presents. It would be like that little gaggle of pigeons leaving thank you notes for the anonymous passerby to encourage them to keep coming up with the birdseed.

Many people over the centuries reading this part of the letter to the Romans have concluded that it’s about something called ‘predestination’ – the idea that God has already chosen who will go to heaven and who will go to hell, and all we can do is try and discover in which category we are – that we have no real choice about God.

The concept of predestination has been abused to say that another group of people are the condemned and I’m one of the elect, the chosen of God, so I don't need to bother about that other lot over there; imagine my little gang of pigeons laughing with contempt at other pigeons who don’t know that outside Marks and Spencer is free daily birdseed for life.

Or sometimes, people suffering from doubts or depression take their afflictions as evidence that, even though they’d like to know God, they must be unholy and so are in the category of the damned, and whatever they do and however faithfully they pray, God hasn’t chosen them – there’s no birdseed ever going to come in their direction.

But as ever with the Bible, you have to read what’s said in its context. In this part of the letter to the Romans, Paul isn’t addressing predestination as an abstract philosophical point about God, evil and the world. He’s wrestling with his problem that God has called the Jewish people to know God’s love, and yet many of them have rejected faith in Jesus Christ whom God has sent and Paul is proclaiming. They aren’t choosing God’s way of life in Christ – why not? Because, Paul says, God is using their rejection of Jesus to encourage those who aren’t Jews to come to faith in Christ, so that in the end everyone will receive God’s mercy.

It’s not that God chooses some for life and some for death, some for a happy life and others to be miserable, making God equivalent to the Greek and Roman Fates who determined the destinies of the inhabitants of the ancient world.

What God chooses, says Paul, is that everyone should become a child of God by opening our hearts and lives to Jesus. God wants us to know love and grace and glory; God loves us without reserve, and calls us to exercise our choice to follow him in Jesus Christ. But God’s choice of us comes before our choice in God. Otherwise – what real choice would we have? Think of my pigeons: they can choose to wait around for the birdseed, precisely because someone gives them that choice. Without the anonymous donor, there is no birdseed, and no choice for the pigeons. Those birds have put their trust in a fallible human being who may or may not deliver the food they need.

But with God: it’s God who chooses to love us first, God who offers us life in Jesus Christ. And unlike the passer-by who may or may not come, God’s choice is utterly trustworthy and reliable. God’s love is and will be always there for us in Jesus Christ. God doesn’t depend on us to be good, or love us sometimes and then on other mornings not turn up: God loves us always, through good and ill, sunshine and rain, good and evil: God never passes us by. God chooses us: and asks us to choose God in return.

The good news is we’re not a bunch of pigeons waiting for a handout of birdseed, which may or may not arrive. We are all beloved by God, and we’re all invited to choose the love of God; we are invited by God to choose the way of Jesus Christ.

On your way out of the service, as you get towards the door on the north side there you’ll see on your right the painting called ‘The Light of the World’. It's a painting of Jesus knocking on the door of the human heart, a door closed and choked up with weeds and brambles, because the person behind the door has chosen to leave it shut. The picture shows the God who in Jesus Christ has chosen us, who comes to ask us to open up to Jesus, to choose to discover the wonders and glories of what being loved by God can mean to us and to others.

My gang of pigeons outside Marks & Spencer's are becoming trapped by a choice that’s become a habit, unaware that they’re at the mercy of the choice of just one other person. Don’t be a pigeon – rather, build your life, as Christians seek to do, on the faith that God has chosen to love you in Jesus Christ; for God does not change his mind.

Hosea says: ‘Those who are not my people I will call my people, and her who was not beloved I will call beloved… They shall be called children of the living God.’