Being Chosen

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on May 13, 2012.

“You did not choose me but I chose you.”   St.  John 15:16

It’s a privilege to be chosen.

This is going to be an interesting year not only in America but in the Anglican Communion.  Choices are being made – of a President for the next four years, of a congressman, a Senator, and an Archbishop of Canterbury.  These are choices sometimes described as choices of leadership but better described, I think, as choices of people to serve us.  Sometimes we actually mix the metaphor and talk about “serving in leadership positions.”  But the emphasis remains on choice: we choose.  We choose a Vicar or a priest or bishop or a representative or President.  We choose direction at the local level and we choose direction at a diocesan and national and even international level.  But we choose.

And I think most of us like to choose.  I think Americans generally like to choose.  We are, to begin with, people who chose to live here – unless, of course, we are African Americans, but even there, choices are made to remain here, to live in the south or north, east or west.  We or our ancestors chose to come here and live here and we choose to stay here and we get to choose people to represent us at every level of government and we even choose our church and choose our clergy – unless we are Roman Catholic or Methodist.

Do you know how unique that is?  Most Christians don’t get to choose church leadership.  The two biggest American churches, Methodist and Roman Catholic, don’t give you a choice of bishops and pastors to serve you.  Even in the Anglican Communion,  Christians don’t get to choose.  Generally in England and Africa and Asia clergy are appointed. Chosen by Queens and committees and Archbishops and higher authorities.

This, as a matter of fact, is one major reason for the tumult in the Anglican Communion:  Anglicans elsewhere don’t understand why our Presiding Bishop or diocesan bishops don’t just issue some edicts.  They don’t understand a church where people choose.  But that’s the American way and we grow up with the idea that it’s appropriate to take control of our lives and control events whether in the church or the middle east or the local school board and we do our best to control even the weather and in fact we probably do shape it by changing the climate of the earth itself.

We like to feel as if we are in charge.  And so we may not quite take it in when Jesus says to us in the gospel today:  “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  Do you really feel as if that’s the way it is?  That you are a member of God’s church not because you chose but because Jesus chose; that you are a practicing Christian not because you chose but because Jesus chose?

I sometimes think we misunderstand one of the basic Reformation ideas which now even Roman Catholics accept: that we are “saved by faith.”  I think we often interpret that as meaning that we saved by our choice:  “I choose to believe therefore I am saved.” But that’s not how it is.

I like to quote the hymn that says:

I sought the Lord, and afterwards I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I who found, O Savior true,
No, I was found of thee.

God seeks us.  In fact, God pursues us and we often respond by hiding, afraid that this God who chooses and pursues us will take charge of our lives.  It’s not that we are doing such a great job ourselves, but we’re brought up to think we ought to control our own lives and we’re pretty sure that if we really let go and let God control our lives we might have to make some changes.  So we resist and hide and flee.

There’s a fairly well-known poem called the Hound of Heaven written by Francis Thomas over a hundred years ago which goes even further and speaks of God not just choosing us but pursuing us:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

And that’s something else I think we may not really understand: the way we try to avoid that seeking God. It’s not just that we sometimes sleep in on Sunday but that we put off a deeper commitment, that we resist giving our lives the discipline and order they need to be really God-centered.  But God chooses us and even pursues us and we almost have to work at it to avoid the God who is forever coming after us and knows our hiding places and won’t let us escape.

Now, there’s a mystery here that I don’t think we will ever quite be able to think through.  It is our response God seeks, our response of faith, but that response comes, if it comes, only because God initiates and enables that response.  And if you try to separate out and prioritize my part and God’s part I don’t think we can do it.  We get hung up on questions about predestination and double predestination and Pelagianism and impenetrable theological thickets and maybe we’re better off accepting the fact that we lack God’s wisdom and that we have to make do with what seem to us like contradictory notions that are both true.

God does want our response but we can’t respond without God’s initiative.  God wants us to choose, but we can only do that because God first chooses us.  However much it may offend our American desire to be in control, we aren’t.  We are here because God has moved us to be here and the choices we seem to make will be choices in which God plays a major role.  It may be that we will choose well and thank God that we were enabled to do so.  It may be that we will choose badly and pray God to make that choice work for us in different ways than we had planned. The point the Gospel is making is that we can’t take much pride in what looks to us like our wisdom and initiative and faithfulness.

I think the flip side of that is that we can’t be too depressed at the bad choices we often make and the mess we make of things, because God can work there too.  For example, a hundred years from now, will our great-grandchildren read about the disaster we made of the middle east and the environment or will they learn about the providential way our misadventures led to critical advances in the use of renewable resources saving the world from a catastrophic global warming in the nick of time and creating a world-wide recognition of the vital necessity of working together to save the environment and at the same time forcing Christians and Muslims to understand each other and find ways to work together?  What I know is that the leadership we choose is incapable of doing what needs to be done through their wisdom and farsightedness and political courage. if we rely on the people we choose and the choices they make, we are doomed.  If we say our prayers and trust God to make better choices for us, I think we have a chance.

“You did not choose me,” Jesus said, “but I chose you.” Yes, it runs counter to some of our most basic instincts.  We have that deep-seated need to be in control whatever disasters that may cause.  But don’t worry about that; it is what it is: we are not in control and the simplest thing to do is relax and accept that situation.

So put aside the fear and doubt and insecurity and just think about the privilege of being chosen.  Do you remember childhood games where someone said, “Let’s choose up sides?”  And everyone starts screaming, “Choose me; choose me?”  I suppose most people go through most of life not being chosen first, not everyone can be chosen first, and not everyone can be first in the class or star of the team or President of the United States or Pope.  And that’s OK too; if you are wise enough you learn to pity those who are chosen and pray for them.  But even if we aren’t chosen first, we do seem to feel a need to be chosen and can we hear the joy of the promise in Jesus’ words: that he has chosen us?  Isn’t that incredible, almost unbelievable?  That God should choose us to be children of God,  chosen to know God’s love and come to God’s table and be given the gift of life?

Let me read you some words of a 17th century English priest, Thomas Traherne,  who wrote about the joy of being chosen, of knowing God has put you in this world and given it to you to enjoy, chosen you to enjoy living.  He said:

You never enjoy the world aright until every morning you awake in heaven . . . You never enjoy the world aright until the sea itself flows in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars and see yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world . . .Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold and kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.

It’s that incredible delight in the knowledge of being chosen that Traherne reflects in those words: “to delight in God as misers do in gold . . .”  We are rich.  God loves us.  We need to understand that we, you and I,  in a small church in a small community have been given a gift beyond the combined powers of Donald Trump and Barack Obama and the Pope of Rome.

When I got up this morning I was thinking about this sermon and whether it really said what I wanted to say, and I remembered a poem of e.e.cummings that says some of these same things.
Do you remember e.e.cummings?  He was an early 20th century poet who never capitalized anything and ran words together in a funny way?  I think I probably read one or two of his poems in a high school English course and you remember him not so much because of what he said as because of his funny way of writing.  How does God get our attention?  Listen:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

In that poem, actually, cummings makes an exception and does capitalize ”God”and “You” referring to God.  So “God” is the word that gets your attention: whatever it is in your life that needs a capital letter.   Whatever it is that awakens the ears and opens the eyes and reminds us of “most this amazing day and life,” that’s God choosing and pursuing and calling you to pay attention and respond.  Are you listening?

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