Chosen for the Brave Work of Love
What does it mean to be chosen by God?
Our second reading starts out by addressing the Colossians, “As God’s chosen ones” or in other translations “God’s chosen people” or “God’s choice”.
It’s not the first time this week we’ve heard such language.
While he rolled it back later, the president’s use of this descriptor for himself has provoked a lot of discussion, from people saying “yes he sure is” to “there’s no such thing as God’s chosen”.
So it’s a good week to examine this a bit: what does it really mean to be chosen by God? I want to take this in two parts and ask both: what does chosenness look like? and how do we know if we have been chosen?
First, what does chosenness look like?
Well, it often looks a lot like Jeremiah. Jeremiah seems to have known enough to be pretty nervous about it when God said to him “I have made you a prophet to the nations.” His life as a prophet wasn’t easy: he was ignored, imprisoned, and exiled for telling the truth about what God wanted for and from Israel. It’s no wonder he often tried not to be God’s choice for prophet.
We see this same reluctance in many of God’s other choices. Moses’ first response is “I’m not good at these things. Please send someone else.” Isaiah sees just the hem of God’s robe and says “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips.” Esther cuts off her uncle Mordecai as he’s about to ask her to stand up for the Jews outside the palace, saying “They’ll kill me if I go in unannounced.” Even Mary begins with perplexity, saying “How can this be?”
God’s chosen usually have mixed feelings about the task. And yet for all their reluctance, each of them found that resisting God’s choice was ultimately harder and more painful than saying yes. Jeremiah says in chapter 20, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Mary was told at Jesus’ presentation as an infant that a sword would pierce her own soul. From Jeremiah to Jesus, Moses to Mary, God’s choices have compelled people down paths most of us would not choose for ourselves.
To be God’s choice, then, is a bit like how the prophet Amos describes the day of the Lord: It is gloom with no brightness in it. It is as if someone ran from a lion and was eaten by a bear. Why do you desire it, he asks?
And it is in this context that Paul, one of God’s choices who distinctly did not volunteer for his task, wrote to the Colossians: “As God’s choice, holy and beloved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience… and over all these things put on love.” Let these things be as close to you and as visible to others as your very clothing. To be God’s choice is to align oneself with compassion and love, despite the suspicion and even hostility with which real compassion and love are often received.
Contrast that reluctance and that compassion with what tends to happen when we humans claim chosenness as if it were something to be desired. History is full of times we have done this, either individually or as groups. We mostly don’t look very fondly on those claims, because mostly they have resulted in abuse, violence, destruction. From the days of King Saul to our own day, when we claim a crown of chosenness for ourselves, we come to rely on our own power and to confuse our own desires with God’s. And so, as our eucharistic prayer says, we violate God’s creation, abuse one another, and reject that clothing of love. And then, we read in our news feeds and papers, the Amazon is burning and cannot be replaced. 400 years after African slaves were brought ashore in Virginia by white colonizers who believed they were chosen to settle land people already lived on, Black people are still being imprisoned and killed by white violence at an extraordinarily high rate, and Native communities still have little access to land or resources outside the reservations that the white treaties allotted them. And it becomes convenient to ignore the choices God has made among our Jewish and Muslim neighbors as well, and we make them into Christian scapegoats. When we claim chosenness for ourselves as if being God’s choice will make us powerful and prestigious, we lose touch with the power of God, the power of love. We are left with only our own power to rely on, and if we are not too far gone, we begin to feel how weak our own power leaves us. And so, if we are not too far gone to notice that, we begin to feel helpless against the systems we ourselves have built - the choices we humans, and not God, have made.
Yet even at the point when we have walked away from God, God does not walk away from us. God does not stop choosing. In fact, God makes profligate choices: over and over in all times and in all places; over and over with each one of us. God keeps choosing people for the brave work of love.
Which brings us to the other side of chosenness: how do we know if we have been chosen?
It turns out that while chosenness is often harder than we imagined, this part is simpler than we often imagine. If you’re wondering whether God has chosen you, the answer is yes.
I don’t mean that God has chosen each of us for each specific task in the reign of God. I believe mightily in individual callings and in the lifelong work of discernment, of praying and talking with others and listening to the still small voices inside us and checking them with our communities and all the work that happens to determine exactly which things each of us is called to do in building a world of compassion and justice and love.
But that’s not what Colossians is talking about. It doesn’t say, “As God’s choice, you will now lead a movement” or “As God’s choice, you will now be in charge of dishwashing”. Colossians says, “As God’s choice, holy and beloved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and over all, put on love.”
Each one of us is God’s choice to live like that. You. Me. The person who is eager to walk in love, and the person who has no use for a life of sacrificial love. All of us. God chooses each of us for this. At this greatest level, we do not need to ask if we have been chosen. As Presiding Bishop Curry says, when love is the way, there’s plenty of good room for all God’s children - not only to receive love, but to walk in the way of love.
Now ‘plenty of room’ does not make the way of love easy. But God is not a stranger to difficult problems and overwhelming odds. Jeremiah, Moses, Mary and Jesus - all lived with systems too big for one person to dismantle them on their own. All lived under empires that were in the habit of protecting their own power at any cost. And yet, God bothered to choose them. God chose them for ridiculous, unthinkable, impossible work… and God did not choose in vain. God chose the people of Israel, and later the Gentiles who heard the Gospel, to be part of a ridiculous, unthinkable, impossible story… and God did. not. choose. in. vain.
The powers of this world want us to believe that to be God’s choice must be an exclusive claim, a claim that separates us from one another; that the goals most worth pursuing are individual projects with individual credit to claim; and that if we cannot quickly see the end result, if we cannot seize it up and measure it and store it away, if we cannot stake our claim in it, then we have not gained anything at all. The powers of this world want us to believe this because they know, just as we fear, that on our own we will get nowhere.
But on our own is not how we follow Jesus. On our own is not how we create justice. On our own is not how we receive love. On our own is not where our worth is located. Not in our own isolation, and not on our own power. Both the challenges of this world and the way of love are bigger than that. Nor, often, do we see the end result of our own work in our own lifetimes.
But God does. God sees it all, and God still chooses to choose. God sees the cruelty of the world, and God chooses to raise up the oppressed and bring down the systems of oppression.
The compassion and kindness and love of Colossians stands in the long tradition of Torah and prophets and writings, where God has been saying since the story began,
This is what it means to be God’s choice: to care for the widow and orphan and foreigner among you.
This is what it means to be God’s choice: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.
This is what it means to be God’s choice: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
This is what it means to be God’s choice: to love as God loves, to create and repair the world in love, to walk in love as Christ loved us, to love with every breath you take, and to trust the source of that love, to be fueled by the God who is love.
Our power is not enough to stand up under the weight of chosenness, but God’s power is. God chooses love. God chooses us to partner in that love. God chooses to work in us to do more than we can ask or imagine.
And God. does. not. choose. in. vain.