St James Fordham • Proper 6a • Tobias Haller BSG
The Lord said to Moses, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all peoples.”+
How many choices have you made today? That may seem like an odd question, and you may not even be aware that you have made any choices. But you have, I assure you. Every minute of our lives we are all making choices, some as insignificant as which shoe to put on first, left or right; some a bit more important, such as what clothes we will wear.
Even more important — and because you’re here I know what choice you made — was the choice not to lay in bed this morning with the Sunday paper, or to go to the mall or the cricket field, but to come to church.
The thing about choices is that if you choose one thing, you don’t choose something else. You can’t, as the old saying goes, have your cake and eat it too. If the right shoe goes on first, the left waits its turn. If you wear the blue dress, the red one stays on its hanger. And if you’re here in church, you are not still in bed, or at the mall or the cricket pitch, or enjoying a quiet snooze by the seaside. Making one choice, accepting one option, means that all the others go unchosen; and unlike the choice with pairs of shoes, where it is either the right or the left, many choices you make stand against many, many other possibilities, which become, in the moment you choose one out of many, a multitude of unchoices.
As we choose, moment by moment and day by day, we create, as it were, a trail of choices marked out on the map of all possible choices, a silver trail glimmering on a velvet field of innumerable possibilities passed by, innumerable paths not taken; so that if we were to look back through time and space we could see our lives drawn out like strings of pearls, each choice in each moment glistening in the early morning light. And we could say, That is my life. For the choices we make form the sum not just of how we are dressed, or where we may be, but indeed describe who we are. We become who we are by the choices we make, by the paths we choose to take, by the singular things we choose to do as well as the multitude of things we choose not to do.
+ + +
What our readings today show us is that God makes choices, too. God tells Moses that even though the whole earth belongs to him, he has chosen Israel to be his people, to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, a treasured possession. That means, among other things, that all the other nations of the earth have to stand by and wait for the right time, until the coming of Christ fulfilled what the prophet had promised — that light would eventually come to all nations, a light to enlighten the Gentiles. The light would have to shine somewhere before it could shine everywhere.
In the Gospel reading, we see Jesus even intentionally delay that process, soft-pedaling even the spread of the Gospel itself. He looks out on the crowds and sees them like sheep without a shepherd. But instead of sending all of his followers out to all of the world — to all those other nations apart from Israel — he chooses only twelve, and tells them to be very choosey about where they go: not to the Gentiles, not even to the Samaritans, but only to recover the lost sheep of Israel.
This is the same Israel that God chose long before, when he plucked Abraham from the midst of the populous land between the rivers, and sent him off to a country he’d never known; the same Israel that God chose when he swooped down on eagle’s wings and rescued them from slavery in Egypt. God, and the Son of God, choose and choose again, and seem to know exactly what they want, and when they want it. And what God wants, what Jesus wants, is what we all want, when it comes right down to it.
What God wants is a people who will hear and obey his voice, a people who will choose to enter a loving relationship, and return that love. What Christ wants is to gather the lost sheep of the twelve tribes of Israel, to gather the stricken flock lost in a world that has lost sight of God, and he chooses twelve apostles to gather that flock, to spread that word, the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Once that is done, there will be plenty of time to spread the message further.
+ + +
The fact is, you have to start somewhere before you can act everywhere. And Jesus shows the wisdom of a strategic thinker, for he knows that the best way to grow is to build a firm foundation — as we were reminded a few weeks ago when we heard about the houses built on rock and on sand. So the choosey Jesus chooses the twelve, to send them out to prepare the way by first recalling Israel to its true vocation as God’s chosen. And, as we see from the advice he gives them, what Christ seeks is to be welcomed. In the long run what God chooses is to be chosen in return.
For Abraham chose God after God chose him. He could have said, “No thanks, God, I’ll stay here in Chaldea. I’m comfortable here; I know my neighbors and they know me.” Moses could have remained in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right-hand-man, the Dick Cheney of ancient Egypt: “Look God, I’ve got a great job here; I’m second in the kingdom to Pharaoh, and if I play my cards right I might even get a pyramid after I’m gone.” What power he might have held if he hadn’t chosen to follow God’s call, to choose what was comfortable rather than what was right! And look at the apostles themselves: Matthew could have chosen to stay at the custom house, collecting taxes and making a good living; Peter, Andrew, John and James could have stayed by the seashore with their nets.
And Judas.... well, here is someone who did finally make the other choice, as Matthew reminds us. Even though God had chosen him, offering him a hope and a glory that was yet to be, to be one of the twelve foundation stones of the new Jerusalem, Judas chose instead the short-term security of silver across his palm. And his choice shaped who he was and what became of him as surely as it shaped the lives of the other eleven, of Moses and Abraham, and of us too.
For you and I have made choices as well. We could have chosen to stay in bed this morning, or gone to the mall, the Van Cortland Park or Orchard Beach. But these choices we make, in response to the choices God has made, form us into a different sort of people, not just people who are a nice enough bunch of folks, but a people who is holy, a royal priesthood, a chosen nation that chooses God right back. We are who we are because God has chosen us, and because we have chosen him in return. And that is what it means to be partakers in the kingdom of heaven.
+ + +
We are who we are by the choices God has made, and by the choices we make in return. We can choose to wander and stray — see, the door is open, and nobody’s got a gun to your head holding you a hostage here in church. We don’t live now in the days of the early church when being a Christian could cost you your life. We don’t live in a place where being a Christian can mean assault, or being thrown in prison. We live in a place and time when being a Christian requires very little — yet how many are reluctant even to part with that little of their time, talent and treasure? We are free to choose the comfortable cushion and worship at the Church of Saint Mattress if we want to. We can slip off to the mall or the park or the seaside. I’m old enough to remember when the stores were closed on Sunday; not so much because the merchants respected the Lord’s Day as due to the lack of customers who did respect Sunday. And I remember — how many of you do too? — when Macy’s broke the barrier and was the first store to open for business on Sunday. Maybe they heard there was someone outside with thirty pieces of silver to spend! Oh, yes, we have many choices we can make.
This is Fathers’ Day, and we know that fathers can choose to be good fathers, sons to be good sons. Or they can follow the way of neglect and abdication, of abandonment and disdain. Oh yes indeed, there are many choices.... But by such choices we shape what kind of people we are, and what kind of future we will enjoy, in this life and the next. May we always choose the way that brings us ever closer to the one who chooses us: the Son of God, the Son of his Father in Heaven, Jesus Christ our Lord.+