(Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20)
The scripture readings for today present us with people who were chosen by God for various reasons and roles. The Exodus reading presents the following as chosen by God:
*Shiprah and Puah, midwives who saved Hebrew baby boys from Pharaoh’s decree that they be murdered at birth
*Moses’ mother, Jochebed, who hid him from those who would murder him because he was a Hebrew baby boy, and then placed him in the Nile river to be discovered and adopted
*Moses’ sister, Miriam, who watched him flow down the Nile and suggested her mother to Pharaoh’s daughter as a wet nurse for Moses
*Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted Moses and raised him as a son
*Moses, who freed the Hebrew people from their Egyptian enslavement
Psalm 124 presents all of the people of Israel as chosen to be saved from their enemies.
Likewise, Romans presents all Christians as chosen by God to present themselves as living sacrifices to Him.
Finally, Matthew presents Peter as chosen by Jesus to be the rock on which Jesus’ church will be built.
I would guess that most – if not all – of the people here today have chosen to become disciples of Jesus and so have taken on the label of Christian. The choice to become a disciple of Jesus makes one a Christian and, thus, makes one chosen by God, as the Romans reading makes clear. Our choice to follow Jesus makes us chosen by God! We have all been chosen. What, then, does that mean for us?
First, comes awareness: We have to be aware that we’ve been chosen. If we read the Bible, we become aware that we’re chosen. And, after this sermon, no one here has an excuse not to know they’re chosen, because I just told you that you are. LOL, right?!
Second, comes acceptance: We have to accept that we’ve been chosen. One of my favorite quotes is from the first Spiderman movie with Tobey Maguire playing the lead role, which came out in 2002. Ben Parker, Peter Parker’s uncle, tells Peter, after Peter has failed to stop a criminal when he had the chance, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a pivotal moment in the film. Because Peter didn’t stop the criminal when he could, the criminal ended up shooting and killing Uncle Ben a few minutes later. Peter learns an important, but very painful, lesson. Peter was chosen to be a force for good as Spiderman despite the fact that remaining faithful to his call would require him to make difficult choices and endure difficult circumstances. The movie is, basically, about his struggle to accept that he has been chosen.
The difference between Peter Parker and us is that he was chosen by accident when he was bitten by a radioactive spider in a science laboratory, and, by the fact that he is a fictional character. We are real people and have been chosen by our own choice: our choice to become disciples of Jesus. So, we’re responsible for being chosen! Being chosen, however, comes with power – the power of our relationship to God – and responsibility – the responsibility of honoring that relationship, which brings us to the third step after awareness and acceptance: action.
Romans tells us what action to take to honor our relationship with God: “[P]resent your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:1-2). We honor our relationship with God by presenting ourselves to God so that God can transform us by the renewing of our minds. Otherwise, we will be conformed to this world, and we know, just by reading and hearing the news, that that is not a good thing! As God transforms us by the renewing of our minds, we are able to discern what is the will of God, and the will of God is always good, acceptable, and perfect.
Chosen by God, we stand at the boundary between the material world and the spiritual world. We turn in one direction, and we find the world; we turn in the other direction, and we find God. Living on the boundary line means that we live in both worlds. If we spend too much time in the material world, we are turning our backs to God; if we spend too much time in the spiritual world, we are turning our backs to creation: to humans and nature. Neither is what God has chosen us to do. God has chosen us to live in both worlds, to straddle the boundary so that we can do God’s will in the material world and, thereby, glorify Him.
This is not an easy task God has chosen us to perform. We are pulled in both directions. Like a mother or father who loves both children, we are balancing between two loves and two responsibilities and, sometimes, they conflict. The conflict hurts, but it is what we are called to endure, with grace, mercy, and love.
If we turn back to those presented as chosen in the scripture readings today, we can see what this living on the boundary looks like and imagine what it feels like. After awareness and acceptance comes action, and those presented today illustrate action.
Shiprah and Puah are examples of those chosen to perform acts of social justice. They were members of a people enslaved by Pharaoh who also worked for Pharaoh. They lived on the boundary between the enslaver and the enslaved and were, thus, in a position of relative power. They could subvert the Pharaoh’s plan of restricting the growth of the Hebrew people. To do so, however, would put them at risk of being discovered and punished. They did so, anyway.
Moses’ mother is an example of one chosen to take a great risk out of love for her son. She used her courage, wits, and ingenuity to hide him and devise an escape route for him, at great risk to herself and her household. Had Moses been discovered by the authorities, surely they would all have been punished. She saved him, anyway.
Moses’ sister is another example of one chosen to take a great risk out of love for her brother. She, like her mother, used her courage, wits, and ingenuity to devise a plan to get him back home for a while so his mother could nurse him and they could be a family together. Had her ruse been discovered, she would have been punished. She acted on Moses’ and her family’s behalf, anyway.
Pharaoh’s daughter was chosen to keep Moses safe in Pharaoh’s household while he was growing up, although she didn’t know she was chosen. She didn’t know that she and her people would, ultimately, pay a high price for her compassion for and love of Moses. Even so, she played her part in the saving of the Hebrew people.
Moses was chosen to survive out of all the Hebrew baby boys murdered by Pharaoh so that he could grow up in the Pharaoh’s household and know intimately the royal family and the inner workings of the Egyptian government. Like Shiprah and Puah, he lived on the boundary between enslaver and enslaved. Like Pharaoh’s daughter, for a long time he didn’t know he was chosen. He didn’t know he was a Hebrew and a member of the enslaved people. He didn’t know God would one day send him to do an almost impossible task. He didn’t know he would have to hurt the family he had grown up with. Even so, he played his part in the saving of his people.
All of the Hebrew people were chosen to survive enemies and hardships as they escaped Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They lost faith over and over again, but persevered to, finally, enter the Promised Land. They played their part in the saving of their people.
And, now, we are at our part of the story, told today in the scripture reading from Romans. Each of us is chosen because of our choice to become disciples of Jesus but, beyond that initial choosing, each is chosen for specific roles in the church and society according to each one’s gifts. Romans lists some of those gifts: prophecy, ministering, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and uplifting. Of course, there are as many gifts as there are people. It is our responsibility to discern what gifts God has given us and how best to use them to glorify God in our church and our society. And we do that by . . . presenting ourselves as living sacrifices to be transformed by God by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern God’s will.
The reading from the Gospel According to Matthew today presents Peter doing just that. Peter discerns that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (16:16). Jesus’ response to him reveals that Peter could only know this through turning to God and being transformed by God by the renewing of his mind. He states, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (16:17). Because of Peter’s renewal and transformation by God, he is chosen by Jesus to be the rock on which the church will be built. He is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to loose or bind on earth and in heaven (16:19-20).
As we know, however, because we know the rest of the story, Peter struggles with being chosen. He suggests Jesus should not undergo the passion (at which point, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”), and he denies Jesus three times after Jesus is arrested. Being chosen doesn’t mean life is a smooth and easy ride. It means God is asking us to participate in creating God’s kingdom on Earth – a kingdom that is all about love and justice, a kingdom in which all are honored regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, whatever, because all are created and loved by God – and that is a bumpy and, sometimes, dangerous ride. We live on the boundary between the world and God, the material and the spiritual, the enslaver and the enslaved. Like Shiprah, Puah, Moses, his mother, and his sister, we have the responsibility to work with God to free those who are enslaved. Like Peter, we will struggle with having been chosen and with having been given this responsibility. But, having made the choice to follow Jesus, it is the only ride we can take, because it is the only ride that satisfies faithful disciples. We have become aware; we have accepted; and now we must take action, continually, in line with God’s will. We must seek first the kingdom of God, for we know that all else that matters, ultimately, follows from that. Like all of the examples give to us today, we must play our part in God’s salvation history.
I will end this sermon by reciting a poem by Audette Fulbright Fulsom:
Did you rise this morning,
broken and hung over
with weariness and pain
and rage tattered from waving too long in a brutal wind?
Get up, child.
Pull your bones upright
gather your skin and muscle into a patch of sun.
Draw breath deep into your lungs;
you will need it
for another day calls to you.
I know you ache.
I know you wish the work were done
with everyone you have ever loved
were on a distant shore
safe, and unafraid.
But remember this,
tired as you are:
you are not alone.
and here also
there are others weeping
and gathering their courage.
You belong to them
and they to you
we will break through
and bend the arc of justice
all the way down
into our lives.
Having chosen Jesus and been, thus, chosen by God, we have no other choice. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, August 27, 2017, the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost.
*The image is from http://www.sidewaysthoughts.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Transformation-710x434.jpg