Choosing is an action that’s full of consequences; some intended and some unintended. Especially when it comes to choosing people. If you choose someone, you’re passing over or not choosing someone else.
You know, back when I was a kid, this was played out almost every day on the school playground. When it came to choose sides for kickball, two captains would gaze over the crop of perspective kickers and choose the most popular and most athletic kids first. Now, what we learned from this pre-game tradition was that it feels pretty good, rather affirming to be the first chosen for something. It makes you feel special and wanted. It doesn’t, however, feel so good when you’re the last one to be chosen, if you’re chosen at all.
Now, the Bible is full of the language of choice. We can read passage after passage about God choosing a particular people, the descendants of Abraham, to be “God’s people.” And as the centuries progressed, this gave the Jewish nation a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a people chosen and blessed by God. Unfortunately, as many of the prophets have made clear, the Jewish people turned that blessing into privilege, and they thought it would spare them from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God. It would seem that by Jesus’ day and time, one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity, of the Jewish faith, was the belief that they were chosen by God. In their minds, God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people).
But like Jesus, the prophets also reminded the Jewish people that the purpose of their calling was not simply privilege, but so that they might be a “light to the nations”. This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”, a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world. It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur, and God called him for a special purpose. The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.[i]
Now, I think this is a big part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus knew that the people of Nazareth were jealous of the fact that he had done wondrous things in Capernaum–a city they considered sinful and filled with sinners. It was a scandal to them that he would share the blessings of God’s Realm with those who were not a part of the “chosen” people. That’s why Jesus gave them two examples of God doing just that; examples of Elijah and Elisha sharing the blessing of God with Gentiles.[ii] In part, I think Jesus was trying to remind them that God’s Realm of justice, peace, and freedom was not just for a chosen few, but for the whole human family; that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth”.[iii] My friends, God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. Matthew tells us that God visits sun and the rain upon all people, and the Psalmist reminds us that God’s compassion and care extend to all the people on earth. [iv]
I think this is the first thing that Jesus was trying to teach us through this exchange in the synagogue, and this was the second: Jesus wanted his audience back them, and us still today, to have the courage to “speak truth to power.” Remember, Jesus had fame, he was “the hometown boy who done good” but rather than exploit that power by falling in line with the religious authority and spouting the party line, he chose to risk being tossed off a cliff because of what his hometown religion had become.
Which leads us to an interesting question. How might this challenge to “speak truth to power” translate into our time, our context; how might it inform our worldview?
Well, the most obvious answer to that question ties back into this idea of “refusing to forget.” It’s not enough to simply remember or give lip service to the concept that Jesus came for all people, we must refuse to forget, activity resist the notion that we are somehow specially chosen above all other nations, races, or religions.
Former President Ronald Reagan quoted Isaiah when he famously said, “America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill.” Now, some people in the years since have taken this quote to mean that we’re a nation chosen above all others, set apart by God. And they have allowed this concept of separation to breed isolationism and a fear of the other; whether the “other” is a refugee or an immigrant, an adherent of the Islamic faith, or a person of color.
But that’s not what President Reagan, or Jesus for that matter, would have us believe. In that same speech, Reagan also said, “You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”[v] In other words, President Reagan held that God has blessed us to be a shinning beacon to all who wish to seek freedom; to all who seek to be liberated from oppression. Somehow that lesson has gotten lost over the years.
But maybe it’s time to rediscover it. Perhaps today, in our context, our call to “speak truth to power” takes the form of welcoming refugees, immigrants, no matter what their religion, ethnicity, or skin-color. And I specifically quoted President Reagan today for a reason. I chose him because his words defy the place we find ourselves as a nation today when it comes to welcoming refugees. You see, this isn’t and conservative vs. progressive thing; it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, or a Republican, or Green Party, or an independent; it’ finally a matter of living-out our covenant with God and humanity as a people of faith. A covenant that challenges us to extend an extravagant welcome to all people, just as Jesus did.
One final thought this morning. I think Al Carmines encapsulates the essence of Jesus’ love for all people in his hymn God of Change and Glory. The refrain from that song goes like this: “Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one God known in many ways.”[vi]
My friends, as we come to the sacred table today, and as we refuse to forget Jesus and his compassion and grace and love for all people and all creation, may we do so with the confidence that we have been chosen, along with all of humanity, to be God’s hands and feet, heart and voice in this world. And as we leave this place today, may the blessing of the One God, known by many names, go with us.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 28-41.
[ii] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (Jan 27, 2004):20, where he points out that this is Jesus’ first sermon, and he “threw the book at them”!
[iii] Cf. Claus Westermann, C, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36, 152: “Where the name of Abraham is spoken in a prayer for blessing, the blessing of Abraham streams forth; it knows no bounds and reaches all the families of the earth.” Cf. also Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:278.
[v] Ronald Reagan The Shinning City Upon the Hill, January 25, 1974
[vi] God of Change and Glory by Al Carmines, New Century Hymnal (Pilgrim Press, 1995)