Several years ago I heard an interview in which an author on Bill Moyers’ series “Faith and Reason” claimed that all religions believe that God favors the adherents of their religion over all others. He said something like, “No tribe ever pointed to their neighbors and said God loves them more than us.” The Hebrew people believed that they were the chosen race, God’s favored ones. They held the belief that they were special to God; that they were blessed. Anthropologically, that’s not an unusual claim. What is unusual is the claim from some of their oldest stories, including the one that we just heard from Genesis, that God blessed them so that they could be a blessing to others. It’s clear from the biblical histories that the Hebrew people did not always honor that belief, remembering only the first half. What we hear throughout scripture is the push/pull of nationalism over blessing, of favoritism over equality, of dominion over stewardship. In the account in Genesis, Abram hears God tell him to leave his home and journey without knowing his destination. At one point God promises Abram all that he sees. Abram hears that he will be blessed and that through him the nations will be blessed.
Abram and his wife Sarai are blessed by God. They understand themselves to be special. What a great feeling to be special in someone’s eyes! We see little sparks of being special in our lives, but they don’t always last very long. There are moments when we shine—in a relationship, at work, in school, in sports, in a great performance or a problem solved, in a goal achieved or a dream realized. And then the spotlight falls on someone else, or the glow fades, and we return to normal. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. We need to know that we are special—and that others are special too. If we believe too long in our exceptionalism, we become arrogant and self-serving. One of the definitions of sin is love that is turned in upon itself, a love or joy that becomes self-centered. Abram hears God say that he is blessed and that God has a plan for Abram and his descendants—and God will also bless Abram’s neighbors and God also has a plan for each of those neighbors and their descendants all over the world. Even if we don’t always feel blessed or special, it’s harder still to think of our neighbor’s as equally blessed and loved by God. So it makes a tremendous difference in the quality of our lives if we understand ourselves as blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. If my children need good schools, then my neighbors’ children need good schools too. If I need to make a living wage, then my neighbors need to be able to make a living wage too. If I need access to health care, then my neighbor needs access to health care too. If I have been blessed, then I need to bless others. If I have received grace, then I need to extend grace.
This spring I was privileged to hear Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Institute in Jerusalem, and the Director of its iEngage Project. Rabbi Hartman told his audience of Jewish and Christian clergy that if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, Israelis must give up their claim to being God’s chosen people. Because he is a Jew and because he understands himself to be blessed, he believes that Palestinians deserve the same rights of self-determination that Jews claim, and that his Palestinian neighbors are no less loved by God than he and his children are. All of the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine deserve to be safe in their homes. He finds the grounding for his argument in the Hebrew prophets. The prophets imagined a supernatural peace in which the wolf lies down with the lamb, and an impossible peace in which one nation gets all of its desires met, and a realistic peace in which people find a way to honor one another’s needs as well as their own. If we cling to a belief in a supernatural peace or an impossible peace, we will all be disappointed. We will all lose. But if we can imagine a realistic peace, we have a chance of achieving it. In other words, achieving realistic peace demands that we learn to honor one another’s needs with an understanding of the miracle of our own blessing and a desire to bless others.
Our forebears in the faith preserved conflicting and conflicted stories. These stories are not history. They are metaphors and mythic explanations about human behavior and how humans encounter and experience the living God. They are a mixture of faith statements, confessional fables and cautionary tales. We can look back at these stories and mine them for wisdom. We can see a road that has formed behind us, but like Abram, we face the future as unmarked territory in which we make the road by walking. We take with us our images of God which may change as we face new challenges. We will make a different road if we claim that we are special than the road we will make if we believe we only live once in a random universe. There is another road that we can build if we believe the past and future are static and pre-ordained. Or we can find our way forward trusting that God chooses goodness and wholeness for us and that we will find God already ahead of us as we accept that we truly are blessed and we bless others. Our faith tradition whispers that we are God’s beloved people—and so are our neighbors—that we are blessed to bless one another—and if we walk in that faith we will make a different road altogether. Instead of competing with one another, how can we build together? Instead of being afraid of losing something in an end sum game, what if we honored our neighbors’ needs? Henri Nouwen writes:
Not claiming your blessedness will lead you quickly to the land of the cursed. There is little or no neutral territory between the land of the blessed and the land of the cursed. You have to choose where it is that you want to live, and that choice is one that you have to keep making from moment to moment.
We have to choose blessing for ourselves and for others or we will discover too late that we have chosen cursing by default. That takes some conscious decision making. We make the road we want to travel by walking. We make the world we want to live in by our blessing others. The Hebrew scriptures claim that God is always plotting good for Israel, and the prophets add for all nations. If we are to live under that blessing, we must also be plotting good as co-creators with God.
I hope that you will read chapter 6 in McLaren’s book. I find his description of being alive in God’s generous creation compelling. Now receive these words from Henri Nouwen as a blessing:
The eyes of love have seen you as precious, as of infinite beauty, as of eternal value. When love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one, and it chooses without making anyone else feel excluded.
We touch here a great spiritual mystery: To be chosen does not mean that others are rejected . . . . To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness.
This is your mantra for the week: I am chosen as the Beloved of God—and so is my neighbor. We are chosen as the Beloved of God—and so are they.