Happy New Year—tomorrow we begin the Year of the Monkey!
“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”
Jesus’ appearance with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop tells us that Jesus’ ministry as the chosen one of God is grounded firmly in the salvation story of God’s people as the Gospel writers understood that story. Moses and Elijah represent the tradition of the law and the prophets in which Jesus’ ministry is rooted. Moses gave “the chosen people” the law as God gave it to him. Elijah represents the tradition of God’s voice speaking through individual prophets to call the people and their rulers back from the ways of sin, tyranny, corruption, and injustice. To be a prophet is not so much to predict the future as it is to be critical of society and government when they are corrupted by greed, selfishness, and cruelty; when they fail to pursue God’s vision for God’s people—God’s vision of a world that is just, compassionate, and loving. And now, in the scene we call the Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah beside him, Jesus is named as the one chosen to bring that message of freedom, justice, compassion and love to the world of his day and to our world as well.
God’s people. God’s chosen people. God’s chosen Son. Being chosen. When you think about it, the notion of being chosen can be tricky. If I am chosen, does that mean someone else is not? If I am special, does that mean that someone else is not special?—or that someone else should even be excluded or despised? On this point, I need to put up a few caution signs around today’s passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Paul is trying to interpret the meaning of the passage from Exodus we heard just before it.
In the Exodus reading, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai bearing the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Remember the first time Moses brought the tablets down he angrily smashed them to pieces when he saw the people of Israel whooping it up before the golden calf. In today’s passage he’s coming back down the mountain a second time with what publishers would call the reprinted edition, and his face is shining, which makes the people afraid. So Moses veils his face so the people don’t freak out, and it is this passage that Paul interprets to the people of Corinth.
I want to caution us all not to understand Paul’s interpretation of Moses veiling his face in a way that puts us Christians in the right and Jewish people in the wrong. First of all, if we hear in this passage Paul’s attempt to disparage Jewish people, we also need to be aware that elsewhere in his writings Paul proudly declares himself to be Jewish, and not just Jewish, but a pious and learned Jewish person. Paul is using the veil and unveiled glory as a metaphors—perhaps badly chosen metaphors, but metaphors all the same for the knowledge of God that we have in Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that through Jesus Christ we all of us acquire a knowledge of God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love—a knowledge that can transform and transfigure our lives, even the lives we lead today.
We need to be careful about thinking we hear Paul disparaging Jews in comparison with Christians in this metaphor, because whenever Christians start thinking that we are right and Jewish people are wrong, bad things usually happen. Ugly names get thrown around, hatred brews over generations, people are herded into ghettos, and before you know it six million Jewish people are rounded up and exterminated.
This congregation—working and praying as you do for a just peace in Israel- Palestine, especially for the Palestinian people, whether they are Muslim or Christian— you walk a particularly fine tight-rope. Crying out for justice for the Palestinian people, crying out against the oppressive policies and behavior of the Israeli government, can quickly provoke accusations of antisemitism. And we Christians, given our own shameful past, want to avoid that accusation at all costs. We want to avoid thinking that we are now the chosen and Jewish people are the unchosen.
I think we Christians should follow Pope Francis’s lead and remember first and foremost that Jewish people are our elder siblings in faith. And perhaps, just as might be possible in a healthy family, we can find ways to address our elder siblings with love and respect to point out how the behavior of some of them, in that land that God clearly intends to be shared among many, does not live up to the best of what God expects from all God’s children.
So let’s none of us hear Paul saying that because we are chosen, others are not. As Henri Nouwen points out in his book Life of the Beloved, “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. . . . 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.” Nouwen says that we may never understand this mystery fully with our minds, and that perhaps we only begin to grasp its truth in our hearts.
Some of us, though, have in our lives people of extremely sharp intelligence who can force us to recognize the mysterious truth with our minds as well as with our hearts. My mother was such a person in my life. I’m the youngest child in my family, and the only one born in the United States. My eldest brother and I twelve years apart, pretty much to the day (which did not exactly make his twelfth birthday the happiest of his life). My middle brother is six years older than I am, and from his behavior in my early childhood, it was clear he wasn’t too thrilled at my arrival, either. For what it’s worth, while tomorrow begins the Year of the Monkey, I was born in the Year of the Rabbit.
Once, in a snarky fit of adolescent nastiness (though I was probably in my twenties at the time), I remarked to my mother about the six-year gap between my middle brother and myself, and said, “Well, obviously I was an accident.” Rather than a well- deserved smack across the face, my mother came back with, “What do you mean? You were the most wanted of all my children!” She paused, and I had a few moments to enjoy thinking I was “Mommy’s favorite,” and then she said, “Yes—we needed you for American citizenship.”
And so I was a chosen one, after all. Chosen, and beloved, and lucky (people born in the Year of the Rabbit are supposed to be lucky). Slowly and gradually, I began to shed my adolescent tendency to feel alienated and friendless, my silly notion that I was hopelessly alone in the world. I focused less on being unhappy, and started to notice the many gifts that I had been given by my parents, and by many others. I began to see my life as it truly was and is—lucky, blessed, chosen, and beloved. In a word, I began to feel gratitude for my life.
And gratitude, as Nouwen tells us, is the necessary and proper response to realizing that one is chosen and beloved. He reminds us, “You have to celebrate your chosenness constantly. This means saying ‘thank you’ to God for having chosen you, and ‘thank you’ to all who remind you of your chosenness. Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening your consciousness that you are not an ‘accident,’ but a divine choice.”
It is when we can look at the world with the open heart of gratitude instead of the shriveled heart of fear and anxiety, of selfishness and hatred, that we become capable of the actions that can transfigure the world—for ourselves and for the people around us. It is when we accept our chosenness and our belovedness that we can increase our heart’s capacity for love, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness, and show others that they, too, are beloved and chosen by God. Again Nouwen reminds us, “When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant. . . . Every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for. Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.”
We are all God’s children, beloved and chosen. I invite us all to let the truth of that sink in, so that the light of that knowledge, whatever gratitude and love illuminate our lives, will shine forth in our faces, and transfigure our relationships, and make the world glow with God’s grace.