What do you think about the idea of “God’s chosen people?” Does that phrase swell your chest with pride, or does it make you squirm a little?
Throughout the Old Testament the Hebrews, the Israelites, think of themselves as God’s chosen people. God, Yahweh, is even called “The God of the Israelites.” But that’s the same God Christians and Muslims pray to, and Christians and Muslims traditionally say that they are descendants, at least spiritually if not always genetically, of the Jews, so we assume we inherited the honor of being God’s chosen people.
Does that totally satisfy you? Does it leave you wondering who has been left out?
What about in current world affairs, are we God’s chosen people? A lot of Christians believe that Jesus is American and God loves the USA best and wants us to rule the world. Most Brethren haven’t thought that, but it’s a strong force in our culture – maybe some of you believe it.
And I bet some of you are horrified at the thought!
I am, I think it’s blasphemous, I think it’s dangerous, I think it’s idolatrous to believe that God cares about the nations and borders and countries we’ve created, especially that God would care about any of the life God created more than any other life, people more than trees, Americans more than Syrians, Christians more than Muslims. I believe that God can love every person on this planet all at once, knowing each of the hairs on each of our heads. I believe that God grieves for the people of New Orleans amidst Hurricane Katrina and the birds of the gulf amidst the latest oil spill. I believe that God can love the mosquito and me even when I’m killing the mosquito. God loves bigger, deeper, and more fully than we can ever love, than we can imagine loving, and we can just sit, stunned, in awe, and say thank you, and try to love a little bigger in our gratitude.
Cause we just can’t love that way. We can’t love everyone at once. We have to pick favorites, we even have to choose sides sometimes. Our hearts aren’t infinite. I think we should stretch our hearts out, and grow our capacity to love, but not be ashamed that we have human hearts.
When I was in high school I did Model UN – have any of you done it? You take on the identity of a country and practice negotiations and trade agreements and pretend to be in the UN – you learn a bunch about the world and economics and politics, and it’s a great way to develop some leadership skills. So I was in Model UN and for a weekend students from various Indiana high schools are gathered on a college campus to try to pass treaties and so forth. Sometimes in Model UN the organizers give students a challenge by announcing some breaking news, a hurricane or a pipeline burst or something, so the students have to scramble, and get creative, and work together.
So in the middle of this weekend, the adults – probably college students, but adults to me – announced that there was an earthquake in India. Now this could have just been a tactic, a ploy, to get us to work harder. But it just so happened that my dad was in India, he was working with the Church of the Brethren in India, which has been in serious conflict for decades, and he was there on one of many trips he made. So when the organizers announced this earthquake I went to them to find out if this was fact or fiction.
If it had been today I would’ve pulled out my phone and looked it up online. But this was 2001 and no one had cell phones, let alone smart phones, yet. So I asked them and found out that the earthquake was real, and found out it was in the area where my dad was traveling. And then I found a phone and called my mom. She hadn’t heard from him. She was calling Elgin to find out what they knew. Well, you’ve all met my dad, you know he’s fine, but we didn’t hear from him until the next day – they’d been in a car when the earthquake struck and so no buildings fell on them, they were safe.
Buildings fell on many people, that’s how most people die in earthquakes, nearly 20,000 died in that earthquake in northern India in 1998. And while I was waiting to hear if my dad was okay I was checking the news and reading the death toll estimates and I was praying he wasn’t dead and suddenly I realized that if I got my prayer, my wish, my hope, and my dad was alive, then someone else was dead. Because as many as 20,000 people were dead and if my dad was alive, someone else was dead.
So I felt guilty. But mostly I was afraid and wanted my dad to be okay.
Because I have a human heart. I can’t love like God does. God can love each of those 20,000 people, all the injured, all the unscathed, and God loves me even as I love unequally and incompletely.
As much as I’d like to reach some enlightenment and love the whole planet all at once, I can’t. I love the people closest to me the most, the people I spend the most time with, the people I’ve shared the most of myself with. I will always love them the most, I will always care more about my family and friends than I care about strangers.
So when 1 person dies in a car accident in Lafayette and it’s on the front page of the paper, and 20 people are killed in a bombing in Syria and it’s tucked into some small corner in the back of the paper, I can understand. The people closest to us matter most. I can understand.
And still, I worry. Because the people closest to us matter most to us, but they don’t matter most to God. They don’t actually matter more. The people close to us, the people we will never meet, each one of us, and each person in Mexico, we all matter the same amount. Do you believe it? Do you agree? If you believe it, how do you live that way?
I don’t think we really can, not all the time, because our hearts don’t work that way. The people who matter most to us will seem to matter the most, in general, and then we’ll have to be reminded, by coming to church, or reading the back pages of the paper, or talking to strangers.
Because the habit of our hearts is strong, it’s like gravity, and the habit of our hearts is to think the people we love matter most, and then it’s just the subtlest shift to assuming that the people who matter most to us matter most in general, or matter the most to God.
But it’s not true. Everyone matters most to God. Everyone. All at once.
Throughout the whole Old Testament the Israelites are wrestling with this. The habit of their hearts, too, is to think they matter most, that the people they love matter most, that they are God’s chosen people. They even come up with laws about how, since they’re God’s favorites, they should stay pure and insular from other kinds of people. Ha! Good thing we never make that mistake!
Then Job comes along, and who is Job? The most faithful person in the whole world. God says Job is blameless, upright, faithful, above all others. If God is so impressed by Job, and Job is the most faithful person in the world, Job must be one of those chosen people, right? Nope. Job is an Edomite.
Edomites are foreigners, the Israelites war with them. Job, the enemy of the chosen people, is the most faithful person. An Edomite. Not a chosen Israelite. An enemy....
So just in case anyone made it to the end of the New Testament still confused about who might or might not be God’s chosen people, who might or might not be beloved by God, we read in Revelation that “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” gathers to call up on God, as God’s beloved. There is no nation that God loves more than any other, there is no ethnic or cultural group that God favors above any other....
Remember 2 years ago when 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria? It was always terrible, unthinkable, disgusting, terrifying. But when we Brethren in the US found out that most of these girls are Brethren, that the school these girls attended was started by the Church of the Brethren, when we found all this out, the girls’ story captivated us. And it makes sense! People are dying, being kidnapped, being tortured, every day in this world – where would we start to care? We have human hearts, not vast like God’s heart, we can only love so many people at once.
We’re best at loving the people close to us, physically close to us. And the people who remind us of ourselves, like the Brethren in Nigeria, they are familiar because we share a faith, even though they are far away. Even though they may not look like us, or live like us, or talk like us, or even worship like us.
We can accept our human hearts and still strive to love more vastly. We become more fully human, I believe, when we strive to become the fullest, best version of our human selves. Jesus brought God into human form to give us an example, to be our teacher. We can point ourselves toward the example of Jesus and grow to become more fully human as we follow one both human and divine.
We don’t have to grieve or feel guilty that our hearts are human size. We can only love so much. Like of course it would matter more to me whether my dad survived the earthquake than someone in India who I have never met. That makes sense, and there’s no shame in my human heart’s limited ability to love. But the shame, the sin, shows up when we decide to go ahead and justify our limited caring, by thinking, well some of those Syrian refugees are Muslim, and they might hate Americans, and they might become terrorists, so I don’t need to ache for them. I can change the channel, they’re probably to blame for this civil war.
Well, sometimes we will change the channel, because we can only ache so much! This world’s suffering is infinitely beyond what we can feel compassion for in any one day. But when we change the channel let’s be honest that it’s our human hearts, not someone else’s unworthiness, at play.
Because we can be sure God’s love is for “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” And God’s heart is especially aching for those “who have come out of the great ordeal. For this reason they are before the throne of God,” they have come to God so that finally, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Amen.