A sacrifice of praise: A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1,10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16
Luke 14:1,7-14

At first glance today’s readings seem to have little to do with each other and even less to do with today’s world and the environment we live in – until we start thinking laterally and making some connections. Take the Gospel reading from Luke 14 for example – arising out of Jesus’s observation of who sat where at a wedding banquet. The presenting issue is pretty straightforward. It seems that some people claimed the best seats at the table and then were embarrassed when asked to give up their seat for someone more important. As a guest, how do you decide where to sit? And as a host, how do you decide who to invite? Most of us would invite friends and family, work colleagues, perhaps someone we have met at church who is a newcomer or visitor. Some, it seems, think carefully about what they can get out of issuing an invitation, or accepting an invitation! I am not sure that, even if I had it, I would pay $100,000 for a seat at the table of a wanna-be prime minister!

Then there’s the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. There seems little out of the ordinary here and not a great deal that is specifically Christian. It’s about being nice and good people – showing hospitality, visiting those in prison, keeping the marriage relationship chaste and honourable, not being greedy and so on. That sort of teaching can be found in almost any religion, philosophy or way of life. The punch comes in the last two verses – 15 and 16 – where the continual sacrifice of praise to God is inextricably linked with doing good and sharing what we have with others. That sounds remarkably like the two great commands of Jesus – to love God and love neighbour.

What of the few verses from Jeremiah? The setting is a court case where the House of Jacob is on trial. God is the prosecutor. The surrounding nations and the heavenly court make up the jury. Shortly before the greatest catastrophe to strike the Old Testament Jews hit – the Babylonian Exile – God accuses the House of Jacob of abandoning God. Listen to God’s argument. How can this be, says God? “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” The accusations are wide-ranging and touch the whole of society – the priests who should keep God before the people’s eyes leading them in worship; the lawyers who should be teaching and interpreting the way of life God requires; the rulers who should be setting an example to those under their rule; even the prophets – those who stood out against the current sway of opinion and should have been pointing the people back to God. Nor is it only these four groups who are accused of abandoning God. The whole of society, all of those whom God called his Chosen – a likely meaning of ‘your children’s children’ – from one generation to another the people have abandoned God.

And it is not as if God had abandoned them. Tell the story again, says God through Jeremiah. Go back and recall the awesome experience of the Exodus – the dramatic rescue of an insignificant slave people, the years of protection during the hardship of the desert wandering until finally, the Promised Land with plenty for all. And yet, what happened when they entered the land – a land abundant with fruits and good things to eat; described as a land flowing with milk and honey? “You defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.”

The prosecutor’s voice rises as accusation against accusation is piled up. Go from Cyprus to Kedar, from west to east – has there ever been anything like this? Has a people, any people, ever abandoned their god? The poetic language is dramatic as the appeal climaxes – “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate – for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

Australia, it used to be said, is God’s own country. It may come as a surprise that the phrase was first used to describe an area in Ireland, and has also been claimed by Tamil Nadu, the Philippines, Kerala, England, the United States, New Zealand and Rhodesia among others. For the land-hungry settlers who came to these shores, whether in convict ships, the ten pound POM immigration liners or more recent arrivals by jet plane – the result of their arrival, our arrival, all too often meant defilement of the land as rabbits and foxes, exotic flowers and fruits along with sheep and cattle were introduced, trees cut down, coal and gold dug out of the ground, insecticides and washing powders introduced to water ways even as millions of gallons were pumped out of our rivers to grow cash crops to feed an insatiable economy. The wonder of plastic as a preservative quickly became the scourge of plastic bags and water bottles, and the Great Barrier Reef is just one of the precious fragile eco-systems we are successfully destroying.

Well may God, in the words of Jeremiah, lament, “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate.”

Here we are this weekend with glorious music filling our Cathedral in concert and worship – all part of Festival 150 with its tagline of celebrating the past and imagining the future. Despite having been written into vastly different contexts, today’s readings leave us more than a tad uncomfortable. They contain truths that speak deeply into our day and age.

As we imagine the future of this Cathedral perhaps we can take some ideas from today’s readings. Jeremiah’s court-case assumed the great story of God’s redemption was told and retold, generation by generation. The telling and retelling of the story of Exodus – the way in which a people who were nobodies found themselves with God on their side – must continue. As we look to our future, we need to ensure that the stories of our faith are told and known – yes the Exodus and the Exile, but also those of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, of Paul and Euodia of New Testament times, and the stories of people whom we remember in our Christian calendar at this time – Augustine of Hippo and his mother Monica, John Bunyan and the Martyrs of New Guinea, including Lilla Lashmar from Prospect. Whatever else the future holds the past must not be forgotten. Opportunities for teaching, the telling and exploring of the stories of God and God’s people, must continue – and we must make the most of those opportunities – whether they be participating in a Monday study group, the Pilgrim Course, EFM or more formal study such as offered at St Barnabas College.

Then there is the radical hospitality that Jesus expected of the dinner party host – ‘do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours’ – but the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. These are particularly challenging words, especially for a cathedral community that proudly strives to be a Christ-centered, sacramental, inclusive, thinking, mission-oriented faith community. In so many ways we do well in being open to all people, and we heard some lovely stories from Cathedral Welcomers last Wednesday – but there is always more. What does it mean to be inclusive when we are asked to host a service of consecration for a bishop where women are not welcome to lay hands in ordination? Is there more to do than paying lip service to this land belonging to the Kaurna people? Do we outsource our Christian caring to AnglicareSA – secretly thanking God that we no longer have to come too close to those who smell?

And that phrase from Hebrews exhorting us to continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God – the fruit of those that confess his name. A verse followed immediately by “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” That takes us straight back to the old old story told and retold in the Bible – a story that the people of Jeremiah’s time seemed to have forgotten and one that I suspect has generally long been forgotten in this part of the world once known as God’s own!

Our Festival 150 prayer asks that we have imagination, purpose and grace to step into the future with God – Creator, Redeemer and Life-giver. With the ancient stories retold and re-imagined into fresh contexts, with the sacrifice of praise ever on our lips and the love of neighbour ever before our eyes, we are well equipped to step into God’s future – whatever, whenever, and however that may be.