A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 19, 2014
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; I Corinthians 1:1-9
One of the childhood perils of the playground was when a game was played and the group of kids went through the ritual of choosing up sides. Two captains were named and one by one the group of unchosen kids dwindled down as they moved to one team or the other.
A precious few were the first one or two chosen and almost mercifully most of us fell in the squishy middle where we were not first, but at least we weren’t last. Making a bad moment worse was when the last two kids stood there all alone awaiting the last painful truth of being picked. Neither kid was really desired or they would have been chosen already!
Do you remember the pain of this moment? Good golly! The playground gifted us with the burden of knowing how we stacked up in the world of peers, whom we painfully learned weren’t really peers at all.
But choosing teams didn’t end on the playground. Were you elected to the Student Council or chosen to be a cheerleader? Were you the girl no one wanted to take to the prom or the boy no one wanted to sit with at lunch?
Ralph Keyes explored this through a large number of interviews in his book, Is There Life after High School? After interviewing hundreds of people, from the famous to the obscure, from the successful to the unsuccessful, Keyes came to the conclusion epitomized by something Kurt Vonnegut once observed, that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.”
From our earliest life experiences, we’re barraged with messages from family and friends and school and society that have told us whether we are accepted or rejected, approved or disapproved, worthy or unworthy, valuable or expendable, loved, hated, or worst of all, ignored.
When Jesus walked up to the shoreline where Andrew and Peter were working on their fishing nets, I don’t know what got into them to drop everything to follow Jesus. Some have suggested they knew Jesus prior to this. Perhaps … but what else might have been in their relationship that would suggest this would make sense? What else might be at work in the craziness of dropping their nets to follow him?
How do you explain how any of us choose one person over another? How does calling move you to risk it all and throw the dice? Is it chemical? Is it in you or the other person?
At the core of these memories of childhood and beyond is the question, “Who am I?” It’s one of life’s most important questions and how we go about answering it is critical to how we live and what we do and where we go and who we share life with.
Life from childhood teaches us to understand it’s a losing game to answer the question of meaning by trying to win the approval of others.
Not surprisingly, people have often turned to religion to answer the question. Perhaps it’s the whole point of religion. Some would say that theology is a subset of anthropology, not because humanity is greater than God, but because we can know nothing of God except in relation to ourselves. Everything else of God’s identity belongs to the mystery of God alone.
Christianity answers the question of identity, “Who am I?” and, “Do I matter?” with two responses. The first is almost entirely negative. You are a “sinner, condemned, unclean.” You are a failure, born in sin. Consequently, you deserve misery, suffering, death, judgment and hell. You can’t even be good when you’re trying your best at it. Let’s face it, the Bible itself teaches most of this message.
But the Bible also has a second answer to the doctrine of humanity. The second answer is the response to the first, something of a replacement for it. It is the word of grace. Who are you? Do you matter? The Bible says resoundingly, “Yes! You are chosen, chosen by God.” Most often, we think of our choosing God, when in truth, God chose us first. In our overly-proud self-righteousness we think of ourselves as choosing God, but the Bible says God chose us.
God picked us by creating us and giving us life. Once you see this great truth, you’ll recognize it all over the Bible. Everywhere, the language of choice is God’s favorite idea in all the Bible: The LORD called me before I was born (Isaiah49:1); I will give you as a light to the nations … the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel has chosen you (Isaiah 49:6-7).
The language of calling is everywhere in the Bible.
Here’s how Peter used it: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 2:8-10).
We believe Jesus came to the world to help us know God, but Jesus also came to help us know ourselves. We cannot know ourselves until we know God and we are never separated from the questions of self, whether we know who we are and whether we matter.
I wonder if we can ever truly believe in Christ until we understand that Christ believes in us. God picks first and God chooses you! Then the decision is ours. It is the decision to be ourselves, to be who God made us to be. It means trusting God and following Christ who gives us the life we’re meant to live. I like the story of Rabbi Zusia, who once told his disciples, “When I get to heaven and stand before the Holy One, Blessed be He, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Abraham?’ I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, will ask me only, ‘Why were you not Zusia?'”
Rosa Parks wasn’t trying to start a movement that day in Montgomery. She was just tired. A white man demanded she get up and give him her seat – all according to city policy meant to keep the divide between whites and blacks. She refused and kept sitting there until the police removed her and took her to jail. She sat for justice and she sat because she was tired of the heavy burden of her life.
Interestingly, the boycott began as a movement led by the women of her church. Soon other women from other churches joined in and that put the pressure on the black church pastors to respond – either support them or ignore them, something they could not afford to do. They wanted a pastor to lead them and the veteran pastors were not very willing to put themselves on the chopping block. What if it failed, like most efforts for equality had failed?
So they chose an unknown, a bright young newcomer, the son of a preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin did not want to become the controversial leader of a national movement – this was just Montgomery. He just wanted to be a good pastor, leading his people in their work of building a better community. But Martin had been preparing himself for this moment for years unknowingly and was ready when the call came. The Civil Rights Movement found its nonviolent spiritual leader.
God has made you for a reason and if you are available, God will make your life count. Imagine that, God picks you! You are gifted for some key place in life that will advance God’s life in the world. What will you say to that?
 Ralph Keyes, Is There Life After High School?, New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1976
 Adapted from Larry Bethune, “God Picks First,” University Baptist Church, Austin, TX 1/17/93
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).