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Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey
October 15th, 2017
Matthew Harrison was a soldier who went to serve this country in the Vietnam war.
I learned about him in the “Vietnam War” series that Cary and I have been watching this last week.
Harrison was a graduate of West Point. Speaking of his attitude and beliefs before he was sent to Vietnam, Harrison says:
The strongest impression I have from my class and my classmates was they were guys who just were idealists. And I think guys drawn from little towns all across the United States had that in common. It was a time before the questions about American exceptionalism. We didn’t question. We believed in what this country stood for, and we believed that people who had the ability to lead soldiers should do that.
Suzanne has just read two stories:
The first is from the Hebrew Bible – from the Book of Exodus,
And the second a parable that Jesus tells that can be found in the Gospel of Matthew.
They are complex stories that are full of theological implications.
As I studied them, this week, I was troubled.
And the longer I looked at these stories, the more I suspected that the two stories are troubled by the same theological problem.
This problem can be summed up with one word…
According to these two stories, God chooses people.
Being chosen by God is generally considered to be a good thing. After all, when God is on your side, you must be pretty powerful, right?
But as these stories suggest, it is not that simple.
Bill Ehrhart was a soldier who went to serve this country in the Vietnam war.
He was from Perkasie, Pennsylvania.
Speaking of his attitude and beliefs before he was sent to Vietnam, Ehrhart says:
Every Memorial Day all of World War II generation would dress up in their American Legion uniforms and parade around. And I’d put red, white, and blue crepe paper on my bicycle. I wanted to serve my country and be a hero and have that gorgeous Marine Corps uniform. And the girls would just be draped around my neck and nobody would beat me up again. But at the same time I would really be serving my country. It was my chance to be the star of my own John Wayne movie. It was my chance to do what that World War II generation had done and seemed to be so proud of. Now I had my turn.
In the first story, from Exodus, Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai, to confer with God. He is up there for a long time, and when he keeps not coming back the Children of Israel start to get nervous.
Aaron, Moses’ brother, gathers all the gold from the people, melts it down, and molds it into the shape a calf. When the people see the calf, they say: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” and they offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; before it.
The people have taken something that is not divine, and given it divine status. They are guilty of the sin of idolatry.
This, according to God, is the most horrible sin.
In a rage, God tells Moses about the incident, saying:
”…Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…”
This is grim.
For a hot moment, the Children of Israel are on the teetering on brink of perishing in the wilderness, consumed by the wrath of an angry God.
But, thankfully, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people saying:
“O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.
To dissuade God from destroying the Children of Israel, Moses refers to the Israelites as “thy people” twice.
And then, if that weren’t clear enough, Moses reminds God of the divine promise made to Abraham…
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”
Here is something that Bill Ehrhart remembers about how he felt when he first arrived in Vietnam:
Certainly when I arrived, in Vietnam, I was thinking “I’m involved in a winning enterprise. I mean, America doesn’t lose. We never lose. I had sort of not really known much about the War of 1812, which was… pretty much of a draw, or the Civil War in which half of America lost, and the Korean War where we won the first half and lost the second half. I’d been taught America never loses.
In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells a parable.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son,
The parable starts out innocent enough sounding. Wedding feasts are fun.
But pretty soon things get ugly.
Some of the invite guests don’t show up and when the kings servants go out to persuade them to come, the servants are treated badly – even killed.
This in turn provokes more killing. The king, in retaliation, he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Burned their city?
Isn’t that a bit extreme?
That, at any rate, is the end of them.
So the king instructs his servants just to go out into the street and pull in some warm bodies to fill up the party.
This seems to be a working solution until one of these new arrivals shows up improperly dressed.
The king orders his servants to ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness’
Another troublingly harsh reaction.
The king, in this parable seems to be a little unstable.
Is Jesus suggesting that the king in this parable is God?
The final sentence of the parable seems to back up this suggestion. The last sentence justifies throwing out the poorly dressed man because:
“…many are called, but few are chosen.”
“…many are called, but few are chosen.”
I was born in 1965.
On the fourteenth of November of that year, when I was an 8 day old infant, suckling at my mother’s breast, the 1st battalion of the 7th regiment was engaged in fierce firefights along the La Drang Valley.
I am too young to have any conscious memories of Vietnam.
This, of course, is not true for many of you, my elders, who gathered here today.
Many of you were adults at the time of that conflict –
For all of you who fought,
For all of you who lost family members,
or who remember the trauma experienced by many of the returning vets…
let me be clear –
I mean no disrespect this morning.
I do not question the dignity of any of the men I have quoted here.
But I do want to point out that many of the young people who were eager to sign up and fight, may have been victims of a theological problem.
The problem of believing that they were “chosen.”
Believing that one is “chosen”…
or that one’s people are the chosen people, is a risky business.
Both of the stories from the Bible that we have heard are troubling stories.
Even though Moses successfully pleads our case and disaster is narrowly averted, I find it hard to dedicate my life to a God who says: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…”
Even though the guests invited to the wedding, in Christ’s parable were bad people who murdered the servants of the king, did their infraction really demand the disproportionately violent response of burning their cities?
When I read these stories I am tempted to dismiss this dramatic language as obsolete. Surely, today, we have progressed further than that as moral creatures.
But then I remember that “burning cities” is not a phenomenon that can be safely removed from us by the passing of the centuries – that, indeed, the twentieth century was the century of burning cities. London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima.
In all war, the stakes are high.
And when the stakes are high, our tendency is to take on the mantle of unassailable moral authority.
And how better to achieve this, then to claim for one’s people with the intentions of God.
Can we make such claims?
I would argue that the two stories we have heard this morning are cautionary tales.
Be careful for your soul.
To be “chosen” or – more to the point – to choose to call yourself chosen is a dangerous thing to do.
Because if you truly believe that you are chosen, and that your actions are therefor given the ultimate approval of Divine will – who knows what you may be capable of doing.
To claim to be “chosen” is, in the end, a moral problem.
The danger is not only to the cities that burn.
The danger is also to your soul.
As a Christian, I believe that we must not claim the authority of God.
I prefer not to think of God as the ultimate 5-star General in he sky.
Indeed, if we believe that Christ was divine, then we see, in Christ, not a God who conquered the world with the sword, but a God who changed the world with humility.
He had so much humility that he allowed himself to be nailed to a tree,
And with his dying breath he forgave us.
If you want to look for an act that has unassailable moral authority – look no further than the humility of Christ broken on the cross.
Our understanding of our moral character, interestingly, is activated here by the image of violence – but in this case, the ultimate value is not in power, but in humility.
What, then, does it mean to be chosen?
Christ’s life teaches us that wielding power is not the proof of being chosen by God.
If we are chosen, we are not chosen by pride.
We are chosen by humility.