A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
An Irrevocable Calling: Break Down the Barriers!
August 14, 2005
South African Archbishop Njongonkuku Ndungane
Gen 45:1-15 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matt 15:21-28
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I greet you in the precious name of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a great joy to be with you this morning. Thank you for your invitation to join you here at St Matthew's in the City.
For my sermon today I want to begin with some words from our Epistle reading: The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11:29) The Good News version of the Bible puts it another way: "God does not change his mind about whom he chooses and blesses." This is Good News indeed!
It is Good News for us, and it is Good News for the world around us - yet it also brings with it a challenge to us to be part of that Good News to others. Our starting point is, as it should be, with the character of God. All our lives are lived in response to him: his Father love created us in the first place; the Son in his love died to redeem us from the power of sin and death; the Spirit breathes new life and holy love into us.
This is our God. He is faithful and true. His commitment to us is irrevocable. He does not change his mind. His gift to us is the promise of new life in Christ. His calling is the message of reconciliation. It is a call that goes out to all who are near, and all who are far off. It is the calling to be reconciled - to him, and in him, to each other.
This underlies all three of our readings today. They declare that our God crosses divide; breaks down barriers; and establishes new and lasting relationships. And he does so against the odds. Thus, in our first reading, we had Joseph reconciled to his brothers - to those who had, in selling him into slavery, effectively condemned him to death. Yet in all those years in Egypt, he had held fast to the Lord and known his blessings - and now he in turn was able to share that blessing with his brothers. He saw the irrevocable hand of God at work in all the twists and turns of his life story. So he was able to say to his brothers, 'God sent me ahead of you, to preserve life.' Even in expectation of death in captivity, Joseph had known that the Lord's call was irrevocable. That had given him courage to remain faithful to the Lord who was faithful to him.
Our epistle goes even further. In the face of what appears to be a breakdown of relations, the Lord does not just seek to restore. He also draws in those who had never properly heard the call in the first place. His faithfulness reaches far beyond what we can imagine. His faithfulness is demonstrated most fully as a result of the unfaithfulness of both Jew and Gentile.
Our gospel reading also contributes to our understanding of God as one who reaches across existing barriers. We must admit that this account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman sounds strange to our ears. Jesus seems to be stressing that Jews are like God's children whereas Gentiles are no better than dogs. It is the woman's persistence that wins the day in the face of his narrow attitude; her faith that God has a gift, a blessing, that he will not withhold from her sick daughter.
What is going on here? The first point is to note that Matthew records the incident to stress the importance of her faith, not as a commentary on relations between Jesus and Gentiles. Second, this Jesus who speaks of taking children's food and giving it to dogs has, in the previous chapter, fed the multitudes and provided twelve baskets of left-overs. In the verses that follow his meeting with this woman, he feeds another crowd, and seven more baskets are filled with overflowing surplus.
Here it is more than clear that nothing has to be taken from the children. Nor is it just scraps and crumbs that are there for everyone else who wants to be fed. No, for them there are overflowing baskets provided by the one who is the Bread of Life. The woman has faith. Her daughter is healed. The baskets overflow.
God's gifts and calling are irrevocable, and they are for everyone. God works beyond our categories. He breaks down barriers. His generosity overflows to all - to preserve life. The God who does not change his mind still does these things today. We are called to bear witness to this - in our words and in our lives.
Today, I am conscious of the role that St Matthew's has played in breaking down the barriers of social injustice - and especially in the struggle to end the divisions of apartheid. I want to pay tribute to you today - and to all the support we received from New Zealand during those dark years. I know it was not always easy. I particularly remember the challenge that came to this rugby loving nation when the Springboks toured. The nation was divided - not for or against apartheid - no, there was no question of where your political loyalties lay. But the pain of having to choose to boycott a rugby match! I appreciate how much it cost some of you to oppose that tour. And now, of course, we have the joy and of being able to play in freedom.
Last weekend I was at Newlands for the match between the Boks and the All Blacks - and the gift and the blessing were I am glad to say, on our side! Last evening however in the match between Australia and the All Blacks, the blessings were all with New Zealand! It was a blessing and a gift to be witness to both joyous events.
There are other areas of life where we must declare and work for the breaking down of barriers. One of these is poverty. In many ways, poverty is the new apartheid. It causes vast divisions between countries and within countries.
The statistics for global poverty are horrendous: Half the world's population live on less than two dollars a day; indeed, over 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than one dollar a day. That includes 84.3% of all Ugandans, 69.9% of Nigerians, and 65% of the population of Sierra Leone. The number suffering extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has actually risen by 72 million in the last ten years. Global hunger has been rising since the mid 1990s. Between 1999 and 2002 it increased by over 10 million people; now 852 million people face hunger every day.
Yet I am optimistic. In 2000 the international community adopted the Millennium Development Goals - the most comprehensive undertaking ever made to reduce absolute poverty and huger by half, by 2015. This year has also seen the Commission for Africa report, and a G8 summit that put Africa and poverty at the head of its agenda, along with the environment. Next month is the UN Special Millennium Summit, to review the MDGs. Progress is mixed - especially in Africa, which at the present rate is likely to miss every single target. But the will-power to do better is growing. In the week before the Summit, I am hosting a Consultation on Global Poverty among Christian leaders, which will issue a clarion call to world leaders to meet their commitments, and where necessary, do more. Then in December we have the World Trade Organisation's Doha Round - which is billed as having a focus on development.
Sometimes in the face of such overwhelming need, it is easy to feel powerless. But we need not be. Ever since the success of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to bring down debt, we have found that global public opinion can make a difference. There is nothing that moves politicians further and faster than knowing that their electorates demand change! So be encouraged, and continue to lend your support to these campaigns.
May I particularly draw your attention to the Micah Challenge, which aims to harness global Christian opinion in support of the MDGs. It takes its name from that famous verse: 'What does the Lord require of you? Only this: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God' (Mic 6:8). You may know of the Challenge - I know that a national campaign is being launched in New Zealand. You can find out more on line, at http://www.micahchallenge.org.
Within the Church we must also live as those who have heard the call of a God who breaks down barriers and brings reconciliation in the face of division. This is a particular message that the Anglican Communion needs to hear at this time. I am not saying that the matters over which we disagree are not important. Though I would like to say that the real issue is not about the complex question of human sexuality, particularly in relation to gay and lesbian Christians. This has become the presenting issue. But, I am ashamed to say, they have been made a political football for other people.
The present row, particularly within the American Church, has deep roots that go back many years into disagreements over what might be seen as various forms of liberalism, but it now seems to draw its energy from fights over power, property and politics. This is the real field of this regrettable battle. It has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It grieves my pastoral heart that those who have received such terrible treatment from the Church in the past, should once again find themselves scapegoats for others. This is why I am so outspoken against such discrimination. You can imagine that after the experience of apartheid, I am always dismayed by any attempt to discriminate on the basis of characteristics over which we have no control - whether race, colour, gender, sexual orientation - even IQ and attractiveness!
Now, I am not denying that human sexuality raises difficult theological, pastoral, even personal, questions. But I want to say that we must not allow the genuine wrestling with these matters to be hijacked by those with other agendas. I also want to declare that the way that we conduct our disagreement should far better reflect the nature of the God whom we claim to serve. He can break down the barriers that currently threaten us. We should not doubt or fear that these divisions are too great.
In South Africa we learnt what this meant, as we held together through the apartheid years. We had huge and terrible differences - over how to oppose apartheid; over sanctions; over whether Anglicans should be chaplains with the army that was illegally occupying and oppressing Anglican parishes elsewhere in our Province, in Namibia and Angola, and raiding others. Some of these were real life and death issues.
Yet we argued face to face - we were not afraid to recognise each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, members together of his body, united in him no matter what our differences. We were not afraid to kneel at the altar rail together; and to keep on arguing, yet praying all the time as we did so, that Jesus - the Way the Truth and the Life - would lead us into all truth.
His calling to each of us is irrevocable. It is not for us to choose who is or is not our brother or sister in the Lord.
So let us not be afraid when there is talk of division - but let us hold fast to the Lord who holds each one of us safe in his grasp; let us hold fast to one another; and let us celebrate his gifts and his blessings, and keep working to share them with his world, which he longs to reconcile to himself.