Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday August 20th 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale
“The Irrevocability of Grace”

Romans 11:29 “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” Ametamelétos – not to be repented of, about which no change of mind can take place, not affected by change of mind; they cannot be taken back.

Out of context, the message here is wonderfully simple – God never gives up on you, on me.

In just a few words Paul lays down a foundation that cannot be shifted, a line in the sand that cannot be washed away, a point of demarcation that cannot be trespassed.

There is a tough resilience in his voice and there needs to be… for he is dealing with a concept that, if left unchallenged, would wreak havoc on the Christian church and the Christian mission both then and now.

A movement was growing within that nascent Christian community that was being nourished by misplaced feelings of racial and religious superiority. The newly converted Gentiles dismissed Judaism as flawed and relegated it to the trash pile of defunct religions. And, as with any wild racial theorizing, this readily found a voice. Mani/Manes, the founder of Manichaeism, argued ferociously and virulently that “the Jewish religion be excluded altogether, the Old Testament be rejected, as inspired of the devil and his false prophets.”

But Paul asserts, affirms “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” Paul is fighting passionately for a faith that is embracing, inclusive, respectful of all… in the words of our Gospel hymn, there is truly “a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”

There is, though, nothing new under the sun and so this wretched and sick inclination to claim superiority and nominate others as inferior occurs also in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15). A woman (one strike), a Canaanite woman (two strikes) is summarily dismissed by the disciples (those who have been privy to sweet conversation and intimate observation of the Lord of love at work). “Send her away” – why care for this stranger! In what seems a frustrating ping-pong of positioning, Jesus affords the foreigner respect and, indeed, a place in the table.

“The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” – yes, indeed.

But, yet again, we see there is nothing new under the sun – this wretched and sick inclination to claim superiority and nominate others as inferior raises its venom-filled fangs in the pages of Isaiah the prophet and the song-book of the Psalmist. It becomes necessary for the prophetic word to affirm that foreigners will be brought to the “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7); and for lyrical Psalmody to insist that God’s saving health “is for all nations” (Psalm 67:2).

“The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” – yes, indeed.

Whether it is in sixth century BC or AD 30’s and 50’s, today’s readings lay before us the blindingly obvious that I believe we cannot avoid, even with the most skilled of casuistry. There is something about the human heart, each human heart, that seems by default to elevate self and dismiss the other. Of course, for some poor souls, the dynamic of denigration begins with the self.

In contrast to this shadow side in our hearts, St. Paul confronts the early church and today’s church with this glorious truth, “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Gifts, expressions of grace, are showered upon us… the call to know we are His children and beloved remains fast though we are fickle.

A recent presidential tweet reached more readers than any other similar tweet; in it President Obama wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…”; hesitantly I find myself at odds with this statement because it seems that today’s Gospel, the early part (the part we were allowed to omit!)… this part says it is from deep within us that “evil intentions” emerge. It may well be that our default setting, our inclination is not to hate a particular race or a particular religion but I believe Jesus is saying look well, look intently, look honestly at what is deep within – confront and name the demons that seek a voice.

This past week I heard a phrase that struck a chord deep within me, talking of cancer a friend said, “Cancer works north” in the body; and so does the cancer of dislike, dismissal, disparagement, distaste – it begins deep in our psyche and then moves north to affect voice and deed.

Friends what we urgently need is an intervention of grace, the affirmative action of grace, in our lives individual, corporate, and body politic.

Fifty years ago I learned a simple prayer for revival of grace; it read simply, “Lord, send a revival but please begin with me.” It is our vocation to pray for our nation, it is our necessity to pray for ourselves.

This past week, Michael Curry Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, reflected on “Charlottesville and its aftermath”. He wrote, as ever, with passion and wisdom, not wasting words nor missing opportunities. He concluded with these words, “Where do we go from here? Maybe the venerable slave songs from our American past can help us. In the midst of their suffering, they used to sing …
Walk together children
And don’t you get weary.
Cause there’s a great camp meeting
In the promised land.

We will walk there … together. We will make this soil on which we live more and more like God’s own Promised Land. So God love you. God bless you. And let’s all keep the faith!”

We will keep the faith… and resolutely affirm, constantly propagate and long to experience “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”



For more of Alan’s Words of Wisdom: Click Here