Matthew 20: 1-16
Last week we began exploring Henri Nouwen’s conviction that we are beloved and that the purpose of our spiritual journeying is to become the beloved who we are. Last week, I asked that you speak the truth of being the “beloved child of God” to yourself every day and to pay attention to whether you can hear this truth or whether another voice from within begins to condition it for you. For what you hear, I said, will tell you a lot about the landscape of your spiritual journey. So how did it go? Could you hear the full truth of being beloved or is there some distance there for you to travel?
Today we will step into this journey towards becoming beloved with Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved,” as our guide. Nouwen was asked to write this book by a friend who wanted to know what it is like to live a spirit-filled life. What it is like to engage and be engaged by the Holy.
In the forward of the book, Nouwen, a Catholic priest, says he struggled to try to find a way to speak to his friend. Then, in celebrating communion one day when speaking the familiar words, “Jesus took bread and blessed it, he broke it and gave it to them,” Nouwen heard something new. He heard the movements of his own spiritual journey.
According to Nouwen, the first movement of the journey to becoming beloved is the movement of being taken and blessed, of being chosen. Jesus took bread… He placed his hands upon it and blessed it; claiming it for us, claiming us for God’s own.
But before we begin, let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN
Now if I were to tell you that you are chosen by God; that we are a chosen people, I bet nearly everyone in this sanctuary would flinch. This idea of being chosen makes us uneasy. For being chosen means that others are not, right? That’s what it means to be chosen after all, to be selected out from among others. To be special. And we know where that can lead. After all, who does not remember recess in elementary school? Lining up there on the playground as the captains picked the teams for kickball? Don’t you remember the dread hoping and praying that you would not be the last one, the one not chosen — the one no one wants?
And if we pan out from the personal to the full scope of human history, how can we not cringe or better yet, throw ourselves on the ground in profound repentance at all the ways that Christian exclusivism, this idea that we are better than all the rest, has been used to rationalize and justify so much violence — used as a bloody sword to wound and to destroy so many of God’s beloved?
Who wants to be chosen if being chosen comes at the expense of another? But is this what being chosen means to God? I wonder.
Let’s look at the teaching of Jesus in the parable from the Gospel of Matthew this morning.
A landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. He finds a whole group of people ready to work and so he hires them and straight away they head into the vineyard feeling pleased I am sure, that they had been chosen.
But then the oddest thing happens. Throughout the rest of the day, additional laborers keep showing up at the vineyard. Turns out the landowner keeps heading back to the market finding more and more people who had not yet been hired. More and more people that were not chosen.
Why in the world does he do this? Now I am sure that with all that labor available, the landowner was very able to hire all the hands that he needed when he went to the market first thing in the morning. He already had all the laborers he needed to get the job done. So why does he return again and again? If it is not for his own need then could it be for the need of those who had not yet been hired. The landowner seems to want to be sure that no one is left unchosen. The parable seems to suggest that no one is to be excluded, left out from the generous grace of God.
And for me, that makes a lot of sense. After all, God chose to create all that is including each and every life that lives and breathes in this beloved creation. God brought us forth from “all eternity and formed us each as unique, special, precious beings.”  Each and every one of us has the touch of God upon us. Each one of us is singled out by God, formed and fashioned by God, chosen by God to live our unique life right now.
This reminds me of the novel, The Shack by WM Paul Young, where when the name of a person comes up in conversation, the character of God says “Oh, I am especially fond of her.” And as a reader one cannot help but feel a little envious of that person because the character of God is so appealing and you just want God to be fond of you as well. But as the book goes on you realize that whenever the name of any person comes up in conversation, God always says with the same joy and enthusiasm “Oh, I am especially fond of him, or her.” Turns out God is especially fond of everyone!
Nouwen goes on to say that it is in accepting that we are the chosen of God that we find we are able to truly open our hearts to seeing those around us as chosen as well. It is through accepting that God is invested in me and my life, that my heart opens wide enough to also see that God is invested in you and your life. When we do this, we discover that the other is not our rival, someone to be excluded if we are included, but instead that the other is our companion on this journey of becoming beloved.
Now our reluctance to accept that we are chosen and blessed by God may be due, not only to aversion at the rivalry and the hurt exclusion has caused, but also perhaps because being chosen and blessed by God is not a neutral thing. Being chosen is charged because it means that God has expectations of us. God hired the laborers because there was work to do in the vineyard. Being chosen means saying yes to what God would have us do and how God would have us be.
And sometimes the work God would have us do can be difficult. In the story from Exodus this morning, God’s chosen people are struggling in the wilderness. The sun is hot, they are tired and more than anything else they are hungry. Really hungry, so hungry in fact that the people are getting agitated. An ominous grumbling is stirring against Moses and Aaron.
It is easy to hold onto the truth that we are chosen and blessed by God when things are going well but it is a real challenge when we are struggling through our own times of wilderness. But it is in the crucible of the wilderness that the Israelites experience the identity-defining formation of who and how they are to be as God’s people.
For four hundred years the Israelites had lived under the reign of Pharaoh and in what Pastor and Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Bruggemann calls “a place of great corporate wealth in which the powerful controlled all the public processes, in which the little ones were used up and discarded, in which the weak ones were abused and oppressed, in which the marginal ones were silenced and coerced.” But now, there in the wilderness the Israelites are learning a new way of being with each other, one based not on exploitation and the fear of scarcity, but on trusting in God’s generous grace and sharing in the radical notion that all are to have enough. No more, no less than what one needs. Just enough.
On one particular morning in Zambia, we were in Chawama, another neighborhood, slum really, on the outskirts of Lusaka, participating in a workshop with half a dozen high school-aged kids in the community school. Dozens of younger children played in the small dusty yard outside. During our break, a older boy took us by the hand over to a younger child who was sitting in the dirt leaning against the wall. He told us that the child was hungry. Very hungry. That he had not eaten for days. One of us went inside and returned with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that we had made for lunch that day. We gave the sandwich to the younger child. He took one huge bite and then without hesitating tore the sandwich into pieces to give to the other children crowded around him.
Companions not rivals. Sharing not hording. Every moment of every day, we too have a choice to make. We can choose to live into our blessedness as beloved of God or we can choose to return to the reign of Pharaoh. We can follow God into the vineyard and labor with God and each other for the day when hunger no longer devours any of God’s children, when all have enough – or we can turn away. There really is no neutral ground. So this week, I invite you to take time to open your hearts to the truth that God has chosen you. That you matter and that how you live your life matters. And I invite you to see the chosenness in others around you. See them not as rivals but as companions, co-laborers in the vineyard. And finally, I invite you to reflect on and to practice the learning of the Israelites, the laborers, and the hungry boy in Zambia – that we are to share what we have and gather just what we need so that all will have enough. AMEN.