(A sermon for Easter 4A)
When I was a little girl, I loved books, and on the shelves in my house are treasured volumes from long ago, moved carefully from one house to another, from one phase of life to the next. High on a shelf in my daughter’s room are some books that have grown fragile, books belonging to my mother and my grandmother and even my great-grandmother, old copies of “Little Women” and “Eight Cousins.” And there is one book stored so high above the others because although I do not want to lose it, I do not want to come across it easily, either.
It is called “The Chosen Baby.” My family had the 1950 edition, and it evokes a different world, of large rounded sedans with running boards, of ladies with neatly coiffed hair wearing gloves, of little boys with tidy haircuts and little girls wearing bows in their hair. It’s the world of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” and babies chosen by families who want them, with no reference to where they came from in the first place.
And it’s a fantasy.
Except that it isn’t.
It’s a fantasy in the sense that it draws a picture of a reality that didn’t quite exist, an image of long rows of cribs in a nursery, each holding a beautiful and healthy baby, and of a loving couple reviewing the possibilities until they find their one, perfect baby. It is fate and love at first sight and the hand of God all in one moment, and naturally, it will have a happy ending.
The truth of adoption in the 1950’s and ‘60’s was a little different, and some of you may know this already. Adoptive parents took the baby offered to them and hoped for the best. My parents, married for ten years and unable to have biological children, made an appointment with the Social Services office where my mother had worked before their marriage, and they began the process of being investigated. Really, *they* had to be chosen as appropriate adoptive parents. Friends offered references and gave interviews to the social workers, who also examined their house and their circumstances minutely. Eventually they received the good news: they were chosen! They could now move to a list of potential adoptive parents, and perhaps a baby would become available who would be matched with them.
I’m sure they wondered about the competition. Who might be ahead of them on the list? Were there other potential adoptive parents who might be more highly desirable? We live in a competitive world, after all, full of rankings and poll numbers and scores and won-loss records. We almost can’t help rating ourselves against others.
The meditation on your bulletin cover is taken from the book “Life of the Beloved,” by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Nouwen wrote his book in response to a young man who asked him to speak about spirituality to people for whom church didn’t make much sense. What do we really need to know about God, wondered his friend, and could Nouwen, a priest and professor, put it into words that would have meaning for him? Nouwen began by saying we are all beloved by God, then using the ideas we heard in the Emmaus story last week to describe us as “taken, blessed, broken and given.” For the next few weeks, we will be exploring these ideas, and we begin this week with the idea of being “taken” or as Nouwen preferred to say, “chosen.”
When I write to you that, as the Beloved, we are God's chosen ones, I mean that we have been seen by God from all eternity and seen as unique, special, precious beings…We touch here a great spiritual mystery: To be chosen does not mean that others are rejected. It is very hard to conceive of this in a competitive world such as ours…To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice.
God chooses us, and I think we can expand that further to say that in the ecology of God’s grace, every being in creation is chosen and loved. Our scriptures, both the relatively New Testament and the Psalms of old, testify to God’s love and care for humanity. Repeatedly we hear of the shepherd showing care for the sheep, accompanying us on the entire journey of life, as in Psalm 23, and guiding us through the times of decision, as in John 10, when we choose which voice to follow or which gate to enter.
For being chosen also involves a choice on our parts: when we recognize the love of God, our shepherd, do we move towards it or do we choose to move away, instead?
This past week I saw an old friend, a person who always identified herself as a non-believer. But in an attempt at mid-life integration, she began to meditate, perhaps viewing it as a chance to be peaceful and quiet and alone with her own thoughts. To her surprise, she began to feel a presence, a sense that there exists more than she can see simply with her eyes or hear simply with her ears.
You might say she chose to listen to the voice that has been there all along.
My own journey into ministry involved responding to the voice of the shepherd, at times with great enthusiasm and at other times with deep reluctance. It took fifteen years for the first sense of possibility to blossom into ordination. In between there were losses and changes. The young woman who wondered in 1987 went grey and buried parents and a child and a marriage before becoming a pastor at mid-life. Wrangling with the sense of being chosen went right along with the journey. Anyone might aspire to be a lawyer or a teacher, an accountant or a doctor, an athlete or a musician, but what made me think I could be a pastor? It felt strange to claim it, to choose it as my identity. I know from speaking to other pastors that they felt the same way.
In all choosing there is both a call and a response. God chooses us and loves us, but God leaves it up to us to choose to respond with our love and attention, our commitment and energy.
And sometimes it’s hard to choose being chosen, to admit to ourselves that it is not a fantasy after all.
Over the years, I’ve wrangled with my feelings about being adopted. I’ve worked through a less-than-perfect relationship with my adoptive mother and come to the conclusion that being adopted had little to do with our ups and downs. I’ve felt alien from and yet perfectly suited to my adoptive family. I’ve met my birth mother and her extended family, looked for resemblances between us almost hungrily, then resisted the similarities when they became more obvious.
It can become a habit to think of ourselves as not-chosen, can’t it? When we are confronted with being loved and valued, when we experience the grace of being chosen and beloved by God, we may be afraid, simply because we need to be bigger people in response, to choose to be loved and loving.
Now I understand it all differently. After almost 47 years, this is amazing to me! I rejected the fantasy of the chosen baby, the ideal of being chosen, but now I feel it’s true that every one of us is just that, to God. Oh, I thought that way. I’ve thought it for a long time. I mostly thought it was true for every single person *except* me!
Now I understand that living into being chosen means choosing it myself.
What choices lie before us in the life of faith? And what choices lie before this church? I believe this community of faith is beloved of and chosen by God. How will we collectively respond to God’s voice of care? Will we follow in God’s direction? This church, like many others today, faces challenges, some financial and some cultural and some unique to this particular group of personalities gathered together to be First Parish. If only it were as simple as going through a gate. It is not. Sorting out where God calls us takes time and patience and, for a church, generosity with one another. But it begins simply, with a choice. It begins with a choice to believe we are chosen. Amen.
(Illustrations from The Chosen Baby, by Valentina P. Wasson, illustrated by Hildegarde Woodward)