Saint James Fordham • Proper 24a • Tobias Haller BSG
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you.+
I have spoken before about God’s attributes: the characteristics of God; God’s wisdom and power, and God’s love; you know, I’ll never get tired of preaching of God’s love, and I hope you never tire of hearing me do so! But another characteristic of God, a thing that God does, time and again, is this: God chooses.
This power to make choices is such an important part of God’s nature, that we enshrine it in our Catechism, in our definition of what it means to be made in the image of God. The Catechism asks, What does it mean to be created in the image of God? And it answers (on page 845 of your Prayer Book), “It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.”
+ + +
So the freedom to choose is an important quality of God as God, and of us children of God, made in God’s image. And what I’d like to examine this morning is the nature of the choices God, and we, make. How does God choose? Well, first of all, although we share this capacity, we are assured that God does not choose as people do. God plays no favorites, as alluded to in that passage from Thessalonians: God is impartial. So it is that God often chooses what we would not expect to choose if we were in God’s place.
Of all the nations of the earth from which God could have chosen, from the great tribal kingdoms of Africa, the powerful rulers of Asia and Mesopotamia, of Egypt so old they were into double digit dynasties two thousand years before the birth of Christ — of all of these, God chose not a single one, but little Israel: wanderers and nomads with little more than their tents, herds and flocks. And God chose to journey with them in the wilderness, dwelling amongst them in a tent, just like them.
Later, God chose little David: the youngest son, the shepherd boy, not an impressive grown-up like his brothers, but a boy no more than 14, to be the king of Israel. Centuries later, that same chosen people Israel prayed for deliverance from captivity in Babylon. And God chose as his messiah, his anointed one, not a descendent of David, but Cyrus, the gentile. Cyrus, king of Media and Persia, was chosen to end the proud rule of Babylon and send the captives home.
Then came perhaps the most unlikely choice of all. For his own coming among us, God chose to be born, not in the royal palace, but in the barn behind the inn in the suburb of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. It is as if the visiting dignitary came for a state visit — not to the United Nations, not to City Hall, not to Manhattan even, but to a borough on the edges — dare we say it: maybe even to the Bronx?
Yes, my brothers and sisters, God has chosen us! The royal visitor is here with us, as he promised he would be where two or three are gathered in his name. As with the people of Thessalonica, and of all the gentiles, God has chosen to be with the unlikely. Yes, beloved, God has chosen us, and that means we are among what is called “the elect.”
+ + +
Now, election is a difficult doctrine. It caused a whole lot of trouble back during the Reformation. It seems exclusive and prideful at first glance, as if to say, “we’re God’s favorites and you aren’t.” But that is to miss the wonder of God’s choice. It isn’t that we should place ourselves in the position to judge others, to look down on those we might think God has not chosen (for until God chose us we were not chosen either, and who knows what God may do tomorrow — remember, God shows no partiality, and is patient and generous, and the latecomers at the harvest get the same pay as the early ones who worked all day). Rather we should take comfort — spiritual strength — from this knowledge, without looking down on anyone else, or doubting their call from God.
But how do we know we are among the elect? What is election, anyway? Well, first of all let’s remember that election is not something we have done, it is something God has done: as I said, God chooses; God elects. That word election is, of course, very much in our minds at this season — in a very different context. But what does it mean in the context of the church? Our English word election derives from a Greek word which means “chosen, summoned, called together.” It is the source of the word ecclesia — the assembly chosen and called together by God, the church. You hear a modern form of it in the word eclectic. In home decorating that describes decor with all sorts of styles mixed up together — and if that isn’t the church I don't know what is! If you have any doubt just look around at this place and the people in it — from the stained glass windows to the people in the pews, we are an eclectic bunch, gathered here literally from the corners of the world.
So being elect means being part of the church, this odd assortment of all sorts and conditions, brought together in one place, to worship one Lord through one faith. And the way we enter that fellowship of one faith in the one Lord is through the one baptism — the same the world over. Whether our baptism is an adult choice, or (as in most cases) a choice made by parents and godparents, baptism is election to salvation and eternal life.
Now, down through the history of the church — as I said, back at the Reformation — some have said: isn’t my choice involved? There are and have been denominations that insist on what they call “believer baptism” — only adults are to be baptized, and only when they’ve asked for it. This led to conflict among 19th century Anglicans, and led to the departure of those who felt that baptism somehow didn’t really “take” on infants and children.
The problem with this view of baptism is that it calls God’s grace into question; it puts the burden on the individual, and leaves nothing with God — or the church, through which God continues to act. For the church in its apostolic faith teaches that God’s grace acts as much on a week-old child as it does on me, just as Jesus Christ was God Almighty even when he was an infant in the manger!
Yes, our choice is involved, in living a good and righteous life and walking in God’s ways once we’re old enough to walk, but only after God has made the first move, acting through the church in its many members, working as Christ’s Body on earth. God chooses us through the church, and then it is for to us to live up to that responsibility in the church. We who bear God’s image belong to God — no less than the coin with Caesar’s likeness belonged to Caesar — much good it did him.
We belong to God who saves us, with our will, without out will, even sometimes against our will. Many of us were brought to the font literally kicking and screaming. I’ve wrestled with a few right over there! But anyone who’s ever rescued a drowning swimmer knows by the way they sometimes struggle you’d think they didn’t want to be saved. But God’s grace, and God’s choice, is stronger than human panic and fear, whether we are three weeks, three months, three years, three decades or three score year and ten years old. God has chosen us and saved us.
How do we know? Because we are here. We are justified by faith and cleansed in Baptism, clothed anew with that wedding garment I spoke about last week. And... where does that leave us? Are we all dressed up with no place to go? Not at all. Baptism is the beginning, God’s choice of us. What are we to do in return? What is our choice?
People down through history have wanted to make it harder than it is: they want to impose fasts and long faces, austere disciplines and sacrifices. But we are assured again and again that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. How do we “render to God the things that belong to God”? There’s no secret here, my friends; we’ve been given the answer in advance. “Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Certainly hard enough to do sometimes! We are often tempted to anger, to lack of charity, to impatience. I said we were chosen, not perfect!
But if we trust God, he will make up for our lack of charity. The God who chose us is the same God who will fill us with his love, and help us to love others. How do we know we are on the way to God? Because God has promised it, and because we want it. We really want it — for who would want to choose death when life was within their grasp. We belong to God, and God will never turn away that which belongs to him.
+ + +
Sir Thomas More was the chancellor of England back at the time of the Reformation I referred to a moment ago. He tangled with Henry the Eighth when he wouldn’t give in and accept Henry’s divorce and remarriage. Whether we agree with his reasoning, we can honor his courage and his commitment to the promises he had made. In spite of Henry’s and his own family’s pleas, he stuck with what his conscience told him he must do, refusing to be a “man for all seasons” who would go which way the wind was blowing, and for that he came to the headsman’s block. You may remember the scene from the movie, Man For All Seasons. In accordance with the custom, the man who was about to chop off his head knelt before him to ask his forgiveness. And Sir Thomas said to him, “Fear not, you send me to God.” The Archbishop, standing by, asked “Are you so sure?” And Sir Thomas responded with heartfelt words, “God will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”
God will not refuse us, who are so eager to go to him. He has chosen us already. We belong to him, marked with his image, and he has washed away our sins in baptism and so brightened and restored the image we had at our birth; he feeds us with his body and blood in the eucharist. We have been delivered from the bonds of death and the wrath that is coming. God has chosen us, and we belong to him. No one can take us from him. God will go before us and level the mountains, God will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron — delivering us from the bondage to sin and death — God will give us the secret hidden treasure of eternal life, that we may know that it is God the Lord who has chosen us, and called us, each and every one, by name.+