Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 10 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 10:44-48; Ps 98; 1 Jn 5:1-6; Jn 15:9-17
“You did not choose me, but I chose you.”
Modern western society has a bit of tendency to fetishize choice. It’s a central feature in so much of our discourse, and we frequently present choice—especially consumer choice—as the highest value, more or less synonymous with freedom. This is not, however, a particularly scriptural way of looking at things. The wall of cheese at the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws is no doubt impressive in its own way, but the fact that those people who have enough money are able to choose between a dozen different varieties of mozzarella says very little about whether they, or anyone else, are really alive or really free. There are ranges of choice I am very glad to see expanded, of course. I am very glad that gay and lesbian people can now choose to live openly, to marry, to raise children. I am very glad that women can own property and vote and go to university and be ordained. But there will always be a great deal we do not and cannot choose. And if unlimited choice is our only model of freedom, we will find it hard to think through this in a constructive way.
We do not choose any of the fundamental conditions of our coming into being. We do not choose our parents, our race, the economic status of our families. We do not choose whether we will have safety or care or enough to eat. Even more important, perhaps, we do not choose our own bodies and brains, those intractable givens of muscle and bone and chemicals, with abilities and disabilities, strengths and weaknesses, desires and compulsions, out of which we make the best lives we can.
We are creatures of desire, creatures of love. But only in a very tenuous sense do we ourselves choose what we love. There was never a time when I chose to be in love with language; it was a given condition of my life from before my earliest memories. For others it may be music, for instance, or building, the making of furniture or houses, or the care of children, the care of others, tending, nursing. This is that thing which we sometimes call vocation; a love which chooses us. We allow ourselves to be chosen, to be taken, and in that we begin to become ourselves. Nor, I think, do we in any realistic sense choose the people in our lives whom we love. They are given to us by grace and chance, and love arrives as gift, love claims us. We can only choose how we live out that love, how we respond.
And so, and so much more, with God. We cannot choose to make God love us; and, even more, we cannot choose to make God not love us. God is a constant movement of love towards us from the moment of our creation, God is creating us, our being, our selves, loving us into life, over and over every instant; nothing we can do can or will ever change that. The one thing we have some control over is our response; for we can turn away. “Love bade me welcome,” says George Herbert, “but my soul drew back.”
We may, like the narrator of that poem, draw back or turn away from God’s love because we cannot imagine ourselves being deserving of it. Which of course we are not, and that, to God, is less than irrelevant. None of us deserves, or can possibly deserve, the infinite love poured out upon us. Deserving doesn’t even enter into it. We are God’s beloved, children and friends, simply because we are; loved so much that God entered in our human lives, came to us in our human flesh, to bring us all into that love.
Or we may draw back because what we have experienced, what we have been told was love, has been hurtful, abusive, damaging. It can be hard, for someone who has been hurt by people who claim to love them—at home, among friends, in church—to be vulnerable to God’s selfless love, even to imagine that any love, even God’s, can ever be selfless.
But we may also draw back because when we do turn to love, when we do accept that invitation, we must also respond; and that response can be costly. Loving God is not about having a good opinion of God, or constant warm feelings about God. Loving God, as the Gospel today tells us very clearly, precisely means living out God’s commandment of love for our brothers and sisters. Not because we have to, but because we can do nothing else.
For when you allow into your self some hint of the vast, uncontainable, inexpressible love of God for each one of us, then you know as well that every part of God’s creation is loved with that same vast love, that each person, each creature, is so infinitely valuable that to let any of them be hurt or hungry or damaged or deserted is intolerable. You must respond, you must act to love those who are suffering, because your very being lies in this; you are only your own whole beloved self when you live out this free response.
And those who accept this invitation and offer this response—they may not always be the expected ones, the ones we think God has chosen, or ought to choose. Often, they are precisely the unchosen, the excluded. This is a theme that recurs over and over again through all our scripture; the ones who hear God’s invitation, who answer, who follow, who live out God’s will in the world, are the most unlikely and often the most unlikeable. It’s the theme we see at work in today’s reading from Acts. The disciples, having apparently forgotten that they themselves were a rather unlikely and disreputable bunch, are shocked to see Gentiles—’‘Gentiles’‘, the unchosen people—responding to God’s call. But Peter, though he will struggle with his own issues in all this later on, Peter for once gets it right the first time. He sees the response, and he knows that this is what matters, this is all that matters.
Now, the author of acts portrays the action of the Holy Spirit in a rather dramatic, and very much culturally conditioned, way. The church has come to think about the action of the Holy Spirit much more broadly, as all the energy of God’s unfolding of God’s reality and intentions; the action of the Holy Spirit visible in the careful work of Biblical scholarship and analysis, in the sometimes frustrating and contradictory deliberations of our church councils and synods, in the development of our understandings of justice and inclusion, in all the works of creativity and love. But what we have not yet been able to do as well as we should is to understand one of the most basic things about the work of the Holy Spirit—that it is probably going to happen in what we see as the wrong places. It will probably happen among the unchosen people. It will probably happen outside of our churches, and outside of polite society, and outside of all the places we expect.
We will know the work of the Holy Spirit in one way, and one way only—it will be about following that one great commandment of love. It will be carried out through unlikely people who have found themselves chosen by love, compelled to the tasks of love. In hospitals, in protest camps, in schools, in food banks, working the phones of a crisis line in the middle of night, baking a cake for someone who has never had a birthday cake before, writing music, learning to dance. People who think, often enough, that the church has nothing to offer them.
And we will not convince them otherwise by joining the game of unlimited consumer choice. It is not about a dozen varieties of mozzarella or a dozen varieties of music or liturgy, or some exciting new variant on the wording of one or another prayer. We will convince them by showing ourselves too to be people who have been chosen by love, people whose freedom is found only in our reponse to that call, people who are claimed, compelled, made new by the voice which welcomes us, which calls us friends, the voice which we love by loving one another, because we cannot do otherwise. People who do not choose but are chosen, and, when chosen, step into the freedom of responsive love.