Sermon 14 July 2024

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost / Ephesians 1:3-14 / CHOSEN

There are so many books on self-help, self reliance, achieving things on our own, on our own terms.  When we were growing up we would say, “No mom, I want to do this myself.”  Learning to ride a bike: “Dad, I’ve got this.”  Sure, some people like to be mothered but I think we rather still believe that we are self-made men and women who have arrived at our good success by pulling ourselves up by own boot straps.

Yet Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, speaks of something which we have NOT done for ourselves, have NOT achieved by hard work, social engineering, earnest endeavour, canny manoeuvring, burning the midnight oil, missing children’s ballet performances.  Here Paul speaks of our SALVATION, our relationship with and to God.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” is how Paul opens his letter- words we take for granted given how often we say it and how often we have read it in these letters.  Yet Paul is saying, God has blessed us. Don’t forget.  God has blessed us.  How has God blessed these new Christians in Ephesus?  Well, to quote, God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ…he freely bestowed on us…In him we have redemption…forgiveness…he has made known to us the mystery of his will…”

Notice WHO has done all this, note where all the action is here.  It is God who acts, this God whom St. Augustine called pure act.  This God who created us without us but will not save us without us.  The act is with God NOT with us.  This is the very God of Israel who ordained that we be saved through his son.

We gather here this Sunday morning, having negotiated vast swaths of anxiety and uncertainty and even boredom, asking ourselves in our own ways, “Am I winning?  Am I winning?”  from Monday to Saturday.  We do not sit here this morning to show our results or our weekly CV to God of what has been achieved.  NO.  We are here because in Christ, we have already arrived.   We have been already ordained.  Ordination is not an achievement, rather it is a GIFT.  It is the gift of being already chosen before we were known to ourselves.  What a gift.

So we gather here this morning to bless God and to be blessed by God because we have been already chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven.  Because God has given all of this to us, we “might live for the praise of HIS glory.” (1:12).  When somebody gives us a gift, even something as small yet precious as a bowl of soup, we rightly say THANK YOU.  When we sing to God, we are the only song to God that many may ever hear.   So, dearly beloved, make it a good song, something bright and beautiful, a song worth singing, a song others can overhear to join the chorus.

This is 614th sermon that I have preached as your minister.  And yet, I was surprised to discover that I have never preached on this lectionary passage.  I confess that when I encountered this passage at the beginning of this week I did not know what to do with it.  By this I mean that I have been conditioned to preach sermons mainly on what we have done, on what WE are to do, to unpack what WE are to think and feel.   But if you notice, there is VERY little of us in this passage.  The passage is mostly about God.  Paul is singing, rapping even, about what God has done for us, how God has CHOSEN us.  How God has even given the faith to believe.  It would be odd to think that we had somehow achieved faith.  That would be incoherent.

The problem with us in this world where we think we are playing a zero sum game, where there are only winners and losers, measured by the sum of what we have achieved, it may feel like a waste of time to listen to songs about what God has done.

East Coast

In the Northeast of USA where I grew up, when you meet somebody new in a business or social setting: dinner party, BBQ, children’s football games, you will have exchanged verbally each other’s CVs within 5 minutes.  In other words, what you have achieved thus far in your life.  I find the whole thing a bore.

Sometimes there is a passive aggressive tone to these encounters.  “So where did you go to university?”  If the person replies “The school was in Boston.” He means that he went to Harvard.  Or if the person says Philadelphia, he really means he went to UPENN and so on and so forth.   Let the games begin.  So what is it you do?

Sometimes these questions are asked in earnest or genuine curiosity or to make polite cocktail conversation.  When asked this question, I usually reply, “I work in sanitation.”  That usually ends the conversation.  However, one time this really rather sweet woman asked, “So what did you do before you became a minister?” SANITATION, I replied.   But after hearing “sanitation” she was rather sweet and she continued the conversation by following up with “How did you find the work?”  And I said, “It’s similar to what I do now.”

Self-help

There is much atheism in the modern church.   That is, too many sermons, too many church activity, is mostly about us, and too little about God.  I am guilty of this, of course.  How many times have I heard people say things like, “The purpose of a sermon is to show me where I have goofed up and then to urge me to do the right thing.”  Or we say, “Church is where we go to find out how to live better lives.”  Nietzsche spoke for many standing outside of the church today  when he wrote, “You must look more redeemed if I am to believe in your Redeemer.”

Capital One Bank

That we are chosen by God can be best shown by our parents.  We did not choose our parents.  Regardless of what sort of relationship we have with them- distant, loving, fraught, badly broken, non-existent… we did not choose them.  Rather, the angel of the Chosen sent by God saw fit that you were to be born to your parents.  This is same Angel of the Chosen sent by God to choose Mary and Joseph to be Jesus’ parents. 2 poor illiterate people to be parents to THE SON.  Karl Barth said that God is in Christ.  We can know nothing until it is revealed to us.  Not ANYTHING at all until God decided to choose us as he decided to reveal Godself to Israel and choose Israel.  NOTHING.  Absolutely nothing.

 

The last time I saw my parents, they took me to Capital One Bank to sort my USA checking account.  As you know, bank security protocol has changed so much and if you do not have a USA mobile, you cannot unlock your account.  So it was one of the last things I had to do before I came back home to Scotland.  I had brought both my USA and UK passports as forms of identification.

The bank teller said, “I need something that has your US address on it.”  I said that I had not driven in the USA for over 15 years after my license had expired.  But I pointed to my father.  “He has a license.  Could he verify that I stay with him when I am here?”  Yes, but I will need 2 forms of verification.  I see.

By this time my mother had ambled in.  That’s my mother she has a license too. The bank teller asks, “Ma’am, is this your son?”  So my mother looks at my father.  Looks at me.  Looks at the bank teller and says, “I have never seen him in my life.”

You do not choose your parents.  Nor can you achieve your parents.  They were ordained to you.

Wedding

Alison Macfarlane, the first daughter of Neil and Elaine McFarlane, was wedded to Alasdair Lamont, a boy from Lewis this Friday at Tullibore Castle, the ceremony I had the honour to officiate. The wedding was held outside.  It is a beautiful estate with very many peacocks.  They were very noisy during the wedding rehearsal on Thursday night. <Peacock Noise>

The peacocks did come by with their 4 newly born chicks to see that everything was in order. <Neck Bend>

The women wore hats.  The men were in kilts.  The minister was in the traditional Kirk Blue cassock.  When we toasted each other, we did not say, kumpei or cheers or À votre santé.  No we said Slàinte Mhath.  The way that God intended.

To be surrounded by all these Scottish Presbyterians, my heart felt FULL.  To borrow from John Betjeman:  And splendour, splendour everywhere.

I heard several of the guests unconsciously fall into speaking Gaelic to each another.  The groom’s best man, his ushers, nay his whole family all are fluent in Gaelic as it was their first language and they learned it before they learned English.  And a person from Lewis when they speak English has a very distinct accent, lilt, bounciness and cadence.

And I love the sound of Gaelic.  Its metre.  Its quietly defiant energy.  But again, I love the sound of it all.  I usually have BBC Alba on in the background as it is music to me.  I am so thankful I do not understand Gaelic because I could never know it as pure SOUND.  A beautiful Song.

You close your eyes and you let the rhythm carry you.  I asked a friend once who does not speak Korean, “Hey, how does Korean language sound to you?”  He replied, “Angry.”

Now, let me ask you, is speaking Gaelic as your first language an Achievement or something that was ORDAINED to you?  What does it mean to be ordained?  To be ordained IS to be CHOSEN.  Many are called but few are CHOSEN.

My youngest border collie, Skywalker (1.5 years old now), when I am in the study not paying attention to her, looks at me with those intense border collie eyes, as if to say, “Why do you spend so much time putting words in a line?”  And to which I can only reply, “Because each word is ordained and my job is to figure out where each word should go.”

But the most righteous moment came when Catriona Morrison read those immortal lines from 1 Corinthians 13 once more in Gaelic.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails.

I have to say it sounded better in Gaelic than in either English or Korean.  To hear these ancient words in Gaelic felt like a beautiful song.

Conclusion

North Dakota writer, Kathleen Norris, recalls her experience as a child, experiences related to hymns and praise:

“I remember very little about my confirmation class in a Congregational church in Illinois, except that it was easy because I was good at memorizing, and the minister was a kindly man.  I was still singing in my dad’s choir and music still seemed like the real reason for church.

 

In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.  Thanks be to God.

Rev Sang Yoon Cha

14 July 2024