Sermon for June 18, 2017: Belonging (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

My daughter recently graduated from high school. The other night when I came home from work I found her in her bedroom crying.  I asked her what was wrong.  “Mom,” she wailed, “I was just laying here thinking that this is what the rest of my life is going to be like.  Every morning I will have to get up and there will be a really long list of chores to do and it will take all day and I will go to bed all tired and the next day it will be exactly the same!”  “Actually honey,” I told her, “you could get a job.  Then you wouldn’t have to do chores all day.  You’d have to do them after you got home from work.”  She was not comforted.

It’s easy to laugh at the dramatic intensity of her shocking realization that her high school years were not, in fact, the hardest thing she’d ever have to manage.  It is uncomfortable to think that she truly believes that she has a hard life, that she has become entitled, that she has forgotten how fortunate she is to have food, shelter, and the freedom to speak and do as she likes, as well as the ability to see things and learn things that are out of the grasp of two-thirds of the world’s population.  But I don’t really think that’s the case.  She understands that her father and I both work to provide her and her brother with these things.  She grasps that they have many things that her father and I did not have when we were her age.  She is not lazy or stupid.  She is not immoral or unethical.  She cares for others and shares what she has.  But I think that she is still genuinely anxious when she thinks about the fact that she is now, according to the rules of our society, responsible for herself. She is not sure what being an adult really means.  She doesn’t know if she can actually do what she is being asked to do – so she has decided that maybe it’s better if she doesn’t try.

She is not alone. We live in an era in which Americans are becoming more educated but less competent,[1] in which we are far from being “United States,” but instead are deeply divided on issues of race, politics and creed.  It is an era in which our standing in the international community has dropped considerably.[2] Nonetheless, Americans continue to think of ourselves more positively than most other countries in the world.[3]  And we are polarized among ourselves.  We are seeing a surge in hate crimes against numerous groups”[4] and divisive rhetoric has become normative, even in the highest councils in the land.

There are many opinions as to the reason for these declines, but I suspect that Zig Ziglar was right about one thing: It’s not our aptitude; it’s our attitude.  We have the ability to do much good in the world, but we have lost track of who we are. Rather than seeing ourselves as responsible for sharing our prosperity with other nations, many Americans now see our primary role as protecting what is ours.  These citizens believe that others are not worthy of what we have – that others are ungodly, unrighteous – that they do not belong.  This attitude reflects an exclusionist theological view – the notion that only Jews, by virtue of being God’s chosen people, and Christians, because we believe in the divinity of Christ, can achieve salvation – that is very popular within a certain segment of the Christian community.

That’s why today’s readings are so troubling – because they seem to support this notion.  In today’s passage from Exodus, the Lord makes clear his preference for the children of Jacob.  They are his chosen people, his sheep, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation, predestined for salvation – while the rest are to be left out in the cold (or heat, depending on your perspective).  According to this exclusionist view, because the Jews did not, as they had promised, obey God, and keep God’s covenants, God sent Jesus to give them a second chance, to win by faith that which they had lost through their behavior.  Because of this, Christians are also “saved” – but that still leaves much of the world’s population in a state of spiritual doom.

This idea is accepted – and touted – by several groups of Christians and forms the basis for bias against people of other races and creeds; but for those of us who believe in the basic goodness of God’s creation, the idea that God would not offer salvation to all of us just doesn’t make sense.  That’s because we do not live in the context and time of the first apostles.  According to Guy Nave, “The Jesus movement began as an exclusively Jewish movement [but] by the time of…Matthew… [they] had abandoned Jewish exclusivity…While the historical Jesus was apparently concerned with an exclusively Jewish mission, the resurrected Jesus… [commanded] his followers to make disciples of all nations.”[5]  So, the Jesus who transcended his humanity tells us something different than the Jesus who was a man of his time.  That divine Jesus says very clearly that anyone can be saved.  Anyone can belong to God.  Anyone is good enough to be part of God’s community.  We need only admit our own powerlessness and accept the free gift of salvation.

Of course, that’s a pretty big catch for a species that has struggled with pride since Cain killed Abel.  In order for God to save us, we have to admit that we need to be saved. We have to recognize that for all our wealth and power, there are things we cannot control.  We have to acknowledge our fears.  “[Doing] this requires trust. It requires a trust that runs deeper than just expecting things to turn out the way we want them to. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t. We develop equanimity and grace as we learn to trust that, with the guiding hand of [God], life will unfold exactly the way it should.”[6]

This doesn’t mean that we can sit back and bask in our “chosen-ness.”  “Self-satisfaction can lead one to thank God that one is not like other, flawed human beings.”[7] But there is nothing in the Bible that supports the idea that any one nation is better than another. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of one group of God’s chosen people, but it doesn’t say that there aren’t others.  The bottom line is this: the Israelites chose God and that’s why God chose them.  What God wants from us is to actively choose her – and then to follow the way of Jesus. Claiming to belong to God and then acting as if this makes you better than others is the opposite of what God asks us to do.  It is not only that you profess your faith, but how you enact it that matters.

This was made clear to the ancient Israelites throughout their relationship with the God they call Yahweh.  Although the election of the Israelites as God’s people seems to happen in one shining moment, it is, as Barbara Wheeler emphasizes, the result of a long process.  “God’s choosing and subsequent self-revealing has been going on for a long time…God’s choosing goes [on] constantly…threaded through the length of our lives… [and] requires difficult disciplines: obeying the Lord and keeping the covenant.”[8]  Being chosen by God is not an award or a reward, it is a challenge.  It invites us to assume a completely new identity and relationship status. We belong to God not because God loves us more than any other person or people.  We belong to God because we choose to be in relationship with God. And, like any successful relationship, it requires work.

That means that exclusionism is completely contrary to scripture.  What scripture actually says is that God is present to us when we act on God’s behalf.  This section of Matthew is not called the “entitled” discourse; it’s called the “missionary discourse.” Belonging to God means taking “little more than faith out into this world and [getting] Christ’s work done.”[9] And doing it despite the fact that we do not have Jesus’s compassion – despite the fact that we do not see those who commit crimes, and use government resources selfishly, and are moved to buy and use guns, as “harassed and helpless” sheep – despite the fact that we can’t seem to help viewing them as wolves who want to take what is ours – despite the fact that we are afraid of what it might cost us to invite them in.  But this is what God asks us to do – and Jesus believes we can do it. “Despite the challenges, despite the questionable likelihood of success, despite our inevitable difficulty in accomplishing what he could do far more easily than we, Christ confidently sends us out.”[10]  And God is with us – in danger and times of trial, in moments of persecution and when our courage fails.  God bears us on eagles’ wings and brings us to herself.  God saves us.  God has equipped us for our ministry, and everything the Lord has spoken, we can do.  AMEN.

[1]Drew DeSilver, (February 15, 2017), “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries,” FactTank: News in the Numbers, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/

[1]Mikhail Zinshteyn (February 17, 2015), “The Skills Gap: America’s Young Workers Are Lagging Behind,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-skills-gap-americas-young-workers-are-lagging-behind/385560/

[2]Waseem Abbasi (March, 2017), “U.S. slips to seventh best country in the world after Trump election, Switzerland tops the list,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/03/07/us-slips-seventh-best-country-world-after-trump-election-switzerland-tops-list/98816470/

[3]Frank Newport, (February, 2017), “North Korea Remains Lease-Popular Country Among Americans, Gallup, www.gallup.com/poll/204074/north-korea-remains-least-popular-country-among-americans. Aspx?g_source=position3&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles

[4]Richard Wolf, (March 13, 2017), “Rise in Hate Crimes spurs launch of database and hotline,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/13/hate-crimes-incidents-database-hotline-lawyers-services-trump/99095440/

[5]Guy D. Nave, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 145.

[6]Madisyn Taylor, (June 16, 2017), “Things we can’t control,” Daily OM, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?tab=cm#inbox/15cb0e7cfe85c512.

[7]Walter J. Harrelson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 131.

[8]Barbara G. Wheeler, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 124.

[9]Alexander Wimberly, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 142.

[10]Ibid, 140.

Leave a Reply