Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ooh! Pick me, pick me!

Ephesians 1:3-14; John 15:16-17

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Nothing is more important in the life of a child
than those things that determine whether they feel
valued, loved, and chosen.
And there are few childhood rituals,
where the stakes are higher,
than choosing up teams on the playground at recess.
I speak from personal experience.

Nearly every day at recess,
there was a public sorting out of the kids in my class.
We were rank ordered, from most valued, to least valued.
The teacher chose the two captains (nearly always the same two).
The jocks in the class.
And then the jocks took turns choosing persons for their team,
thereby assigning a relative value to each classmate,
based on a mysterious combination of two factors—
popularity and athleticism,
both of which I lacked, in large amounts.

When the choosing got underway,
there was always tension and excitement in the crowd.
Most of the kids were jumping up and down,
gesturing and shouting,
“Ooh! Ooh! Pick me, pick me!”
The first ones chosen would walk over to their captain
with a confident swagger in their steps.
But the further they got down the list,
the quieter the children became,
and the more they shuffled, rather than swaggered,
to join the team.
The last few of us lowered our heads as we shuffled.
We knew exactly where we stood.
We were not really chosen at all.
We were reluctantly accommodated.

But you know,
as I think about those dynamics at work in the school yard,
I realize we are all still engaged in this very same kind of game.
As mature and dignified adults,
we still put a lot of weight on being chosen.
It really matters, in terms of how we view ourselves
and our inherent value as a person,
whether we are chosen, or passed over,
for a promotion at work,
for an invitation to a wedding or birthday party,
for an award or public recognition,
or for a position on the church ballot.
We believe it says something about our value,
on a deep emotional level,
if someone else is chosen over us.
So we are all going through life,
with our hands in the air, so to speak,
saying, “Ooh! Pick me, pick me!”

If you watch award shows, like the Oscars or Grammys or Emmys,
the winners try to be gracious,
and share the credit with others,
and praise the other nominees,
but at some level, they know, and everyone else knows,
they have just been assigned a value.
The winner has been judged to be
the best actress, the best songwriter, the best director.
And all the rest know where they stand. Somewhere underneath.

All of us—children, youth, young adults, middle-agers, retirees—
all of us still thrive on being chosen.
Being chosen for something is a huge boost
to our self-esteem, to our sense of personal value.
And being passed up, is disappointing, even hurtful.
There are some who claim to be above all that.
That it makes no difference how other people rank them.
They may claim it, but I don’t really believe it.
I think this dynamic is something
that’s deeply rooted in the common human experience.

Last week I was listening to an audio-book on my iPod,
on my daily morning walk.
The book was “Grace, eventually,”
and was read by the author, Anne LaMott.
Anne is someone who had a tortured childhood
and young adulthood.
She stumbled into Christian faith as an adult,
despite being raised by atheist, and dysfunctional, parents,
and a lifelong struggle with alcoholism and other addictions,
and years of self-loathing.
Her story is a remarkable tale of the power of God’s grace.

The part that caught my attention last week,
in light of this sermon I was getting ready for,
was her statement that every human being is primarily driven by
a deep desire to be loved, and to be chosen.

She taught pre-kindergarten Sunday school at her church,
and would play a game called “loved and chosen.”
I’ll let Anne LaMott describe it, in her own voice,
as she is perched on a sofa in the classroom,
with the children gathered around on the floor.
I sat on the couch, and glanced around slowly
in a goofy, menacing way,
and then said, “Is anyone here wearing
a blue sweatshirt with Pokemon on it?”
The four-year-old looked down at his chest,
astonished to discover that he matched this description,
like, what are the odds?
He raised his hand.
“Come over here to the couch, I said.
You are so loved and so chosen.”
He clutched at himself like a beauty pageant finalist.
Then I asked if anyone that day was wearing
green socks with brown shoes? a Giants cap? an argyle vest?
Each of them turned out to be loved and chosen,
which does not happen so often.
Even Nashauma—“Anyone in red shoes today?”—
leapt toward the couch in relief.
My Jesuit friend Tom once told me that this is a good exercise,
because in truth, everyone is loved and chosen . . .
That God loves them, because God loves.*
Anne, and her friend Tom, are both right.
A foundational truth about God,
is that God loves us, and God chooses us.

That truth underlies the whole of scripture,
and certainly underlies this letter of Ephesians.
Today, and for six more Sundays,
we will ponder the message of Ephesians.
And I can assure you,
you will not begin to understand Ephesians,
if you cannot grasp the truth that in Christ,
you are loved, and God has chosen you
to be part of God’s household.

That is why we begin, in this series on life in God’s household,
with this first basic truth—
God chose us. Chose you. Chose me.
It is by God’s choice, God’s will, God’s initiative,
that we are adopted into God’s household.

Adoption is a wonderful metaphor.
It speaks volumes about how we belong
in the household of God.
Any family bond is deep and lasting.
It’s nearly impossible to walk away from family,
even when you wish you could.
But adopted children have a unique sort of bond.
They know their adoptive parents
gave it long and careful thought,
looked them over thoroughly,
and consciously and deliberately chose them
knowing that choice was for a lifetime.

There is great joy that comes with finalizing an adoption.
But it’s a joy that is often born of deep pain.
The pain of infertility.
Or the pain of war or some other disaster
that produced a flood of orphans.
Or the pain of an unwanted pregnancy.
Or the pain of a child coming to terms
with being given up by birth parents.
But all that pain only deepens the joy
of choosing and being chosen by someone
to be part of a whole and health family.
It’s a joy that calls for exuberant celebration.

And that’s what the apostle calls for in Ephesians 1.
He goes on and on in a joyful stream of consciousness.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing
in the heavenly places,
just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world...
and destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
according to the good pleasure of his will,
to the praise of his glorious grace
that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved . . .”
and he goes on some more.

Our English translations do us a favor.
NRSV breaks up these twelve verses into six sentences.
But in the original Greek, all twelve verses, 3-14,
are one long sentence.
It’s a grammar teacher’s nightmare.
It’s wordy. It’s awkward. It’s repetitive.
But what a glorious, enthusiastic, outpouring of joy!
The apostle Paul is like a child, breathless with excitement,
trying to describe something that is truly beyond words.

When you understand what it was like for the church in those days,
it’s not hard to see why Paul was excited.
The church was in a pressure cooker.
There were pressures from outside—
resistance from the Jewish community,
resistance from the Roman Empire.
There were pressures from within.
Jews and Gentiles were being brought into the same church,
trying to relate to each other for the first time.
They had vastly different traditions and assumptions and values.
Conflict erupted time and again.

Whether you were Jew or Gentile, this was a church full of pain.
The pain of feeling alone, rejected, alienated.

It wasn’t easy being a Jew in the church of Asia Minor.
Jewish Christians were rejected by their own faith community
that had always nurtured them,
and with which they still identified.
Families were torn apart.
Daughters and sons estranged from parents.
Persecution was intense.
They couldn’t go home. Couldn’t go to synagogue.
Couldn’t nurture the relationships they grew up with.
Now they had to worship with Gentiles,
who were, both culturally and religiously, strange.

And it wasn’t easy being a Gentile in the church of Asia Minor.
Gentiles were joining a new and exciting movement,
but they knew full well
this was a Jewish-initiated and Jewish-led movement,
and they were the outsiders.
They were used to being held at arms length.
Jewish law required it.
But when it happened in their own church,
it had to be painful.

So, both Jews and Gentiles in the church
had a hard time believing they were loved and chosen.
They were both asking,
“Who am I? Who are my people? Do I even belong here?”
That’s why the apostle gets beside himself with joy,
eager to share the good news!
“You belong! You really do belong to this family!”

God has adopted all of us—Jew and Gentile.
God has chosen us to be part of God’s household.
We have all the joys, all the rights, all the privileges, all the blessings,
of being bona fide, full-blooded, children of God.

In Christ, Paul says—and that’s a key phrase, “In Christ”—
we have redemption by his blood,
we have forgiveness of sins,
we have the riches of God’s grace. [v. 7]
Both Jews and Gentiles, by their common faith in Jesus Christ,
were given the gift of a new family.
They were both deliberately and thoughtfully
chosen by God to be God’s children.
Chosen before the foundation of the world.
Chosen according to the “good pleasure of his will.”
That phrase is repeated twice here.
We are chosen, according to “God’s good pleasure.”

Now think about that for a minute.
We weren’t adopted as God’s charity cases.
We weren’t adopted
just because God had pity on our miserable souls,
felt sorry for us.
No, we were adopted for God’s sake.
God gets something out of the deal: Good pleasure.

To think we are so desired by God.
God chose us. It wasn’t the other way around.
As Jesus said to his disciples in John 15:
“You did not choose me but I chose you.”

It wasn’t that God saw how hard we were trying to get into his family.
It wasn’t that God decided we had finally achieved
what it took to qualify as a member of God’s elite household.
It wasn’t that we figured out the combination
on the lock on God’s front door.
It wasn’t anything of our doing at all.
God saw us and loved us and asked us to join the family.

We are tempted,
when we focus on the church as God’s household,
to think that the first and most important thing
are the house rules, and learning to live by them.
Learning what it takes to be a deserving member of the house.

Of course, we have a responsibility as a member of God’s household.
We were chosen for a purpose . . . [verse 12]
“so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ,
might live for the praise of God’s glory.”
If we are part of God’s household,
we are called to live that way.
We need to live in such a way that we bring honor
to the head of our household.

But we don’t start with the obligations.
We don’t work our way into the house.
God doesn’t check to see whether we have earned a place in the family.
Being adopted into God’s household
is nothing but a gift of God’s grace.

But once that truth—the truth that we are loved and chosen—
starts to sink into our being,
then we start living as loved and chosen people.
So as we get clear about our identity as a people belonging to God,
we also get clear about our ethics.
We will live in a way that honors our family name.

So as we delve into this book of Ephesians,
let us wrap ourselves around, like a blanket,
with this warm and encouraging and life-giving truth—
we are loved and chosen.
We don’t need that anxious, desperate plea, “Ooh! Pick me!”
We have already been identified, out of God’s great love,
and for God’s good pleasure,
to join together with others,
in this life in God’s household.

God’s door is open wide for all.
No matter who we are.
No matter where we have come from.
No matter what baggage we bring with us.
God invites us in,
for God’s own good pleasure, and for ours.

It is the ultimate gesture of hospitality from God,
whose mercy and grace is unlimited.
The question is whether or not we accept the offer.
May God help us answer with a yes.

I’d like to end with my own version
of Anne LaMott’s loved and chosen game.
I invite you to stand, if you’re able.
Then turn to the person on both your left and your right,
and say,
“You are loved. You are chosen. You belong in God’s house.”
Or some variation of that,
“You are loved. You are chosen. You belong in God’s house.”

Now, let us each claim that truth for ourselves.
“I am loved. I am chosen. I belong in God’s house.”
Wrap your arms around yourself as you speak these words of faith.
“I am loved. I am chosen. I belong in God’s house.”

Now, let us hear some more good words spoken by God to us,
in hymn #49, in the purple book, Sing the Story.
“I will come to you in the silence.
I will lift you from all your fear.
You will hear my voice.
I claim you as my choice.
Be still and know I am here.”

*from Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007, chapter 4, p. 25ff.

—Phil Kniss, July 12, 2009

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