On How We Choose to Respond to Life
February 12, 2023
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.
It was [the Lord] who created man in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own inclination. If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Today’s sermon is titled On How We Choose to Respond to Life.
My oldest Friend is 97. Before the pandemic, we would go out every Wednesday to the library. Without fail she would return at least one or two books she had read during the previous week and then she would check out new ones. We went to the library every Wednesday for three or four years, so I grew very familiar with the eclectic mix of selections that went into her canvas carrying bag. There was usually something historical or biographical, accompanied by some lighter reading that may be fictional or even whimsical. I have learned so much from her and she has never tried to teach me one thing. I learn through her example. I see a person who, at 97, is still an avid reader; she still knows that there is more to learn. I see a person who is making the choice, over and over again, to create meaning, to create fullness, to create a beautiful life. I’m sure it is not easy; that makes it all the more beautiful, does it not?
The scriptures we are given today have a recurring theme that emphasizes the responsibility that each and every one of us bears in the choices we make. It is a gift to be reminded that we are not locked in to a predetermined destiny. It is a gift to be reminded that even within deep loss, within illness, within grief and hardship there is at least some small degree of choice about how we respond.
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian doctor that survived the Holocaust and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, uses, as a thesis for his book, the primary observation he made during years of struggling to survive in concentration camps. The individuals who were most likely to survive, were able to do two things. First, they were able to realize that within them was an inner freedom to choose how to respond to life’s hardships. They were able to realize that their inner freedom to choose was something that no individual and no circumstance could take away. Secondly, those that survived were able to identify something or someone to live for; they were able to find meaning in the midst of their suffering.
There is a tendency within the Christian community to rationalize suffering by referring to the “will of God”, or “God’s plan.” I must admit that there are times I find this language comforting, like when things are going swimmingly. In those times I can easily feel like I am aligned with God and all is well. But as soon as I find myself in adversity, the same words, the same ideology of “God’s plan” or “God’s will” take on a sinister cast. Was it God’s plan that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust? Is it God’s plan when a child dies? Is it God’s will that any of us should become ill? Can we be content with shrugging our shoulders and adding those things to the long list of things that “only God knows why”? I am not content with that, not one bit. The more I am forced to face tragedy and acute trauma, I find less and less application for speaking of “the will of God”. Besides, who am I to say what is and what is not the will of God? I am more qualified to look at the implications of the choices I make, and the choices we as humanity make, that lead to death and disease and despair.
The scriptures we are given this week, especially the ones from the First Testament, present what may be the most fundamental choice we face: the choice of how to respond to life’s most demanding circumstances. The scriptures say, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” These are ancient words from the book of Deuteronomy, written nearly 3000 years ago, and they are as relevant now as they have ever been. The choices we make lead us back and forth along the spectrum between life and prosperity on one end and death and adversity on the other. We can examine these choices through different lenses; these choices can apply to the state of our physical health and also to our emotional and spiritual health, as well. What choices lead us to life and to prosperity? What choices lead us to adversity and death? Do we live with a generous spirit or with miserly regret? In most situations, we really do have a choice.
Listen again to these words from the book of Sirach, also known as the book of Ben Sira, that the lectionary offered us today. I should say that these are some of the writings found in the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1946. They were not included in our Bible initially because there had been no copies found in the original Hebrew until the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. This is what is written: “It was [the Lord] who created man in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own inclination. If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.”
These words weave a theology that is very different from the theology I was raised with. I grew up thinking of God as having ultimate control over me if I would allow it and this is rather terrifying as a child. The first line of the reading from Sirach paints a very different picture; it says, “It was the Lord who created man… and he left him in the power of his own inclination.” We have been given the power of our own inclinations and so the work before us is to orient our inclinations towards what is life-giving. The work before us is to orient our inclinations towards what is edifying, to orient towards what brings us peace and health and wholeness within ourselves.
The teachings of Jesus are our North star from which we can orient ourselves. In our reading today, Jesus’s message is clear, “First,” he says, “First, be reconciled to your brother or sister…and come to terms quickly with your accuser.” Reconciliation can be extremely difficult, reconciliation can take time, deep patience, and intensive listening. Jesus warns us that we can follow what is required by law, whether it is the law of the temple or civic laws, but following the law will not be enough. Jesus says he has not come to change the law. I believe he has come to guide us beyond the scope of the law to a place where reconciliation and where making amends is of the upmost importance. I believe Jesus has come to guide us beyond the scope of the law to where we are called to, as he said, “come to terms with (our) accuser” when we are in the wrong. These are our choices.
The ancient Hebrew words remind us “to act faithfully is a matter of (our) own choice.” God has placed before us “fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.” Jesus says to choose forgiveness, choose reconciliation, choose to make amends and when we make mistakes, “come to terms quickly.” It is so tempting to distract ourselves with the problems of the world and the stress and the strain of daily demands. Jesus calls our attention back to the state of our inner self. Are we holding on to hurt? Are we holding onto resentments? Are we clear? Are we willing to go beyond what is required of us by the laws of humankind and serve a higher law? This is the work we are called to do as followers of Christ and this work seems to be never ending.
In closing, I offer this as consolation: even though the work is never ending, it is in this work that we become familiar with the peace that accompanies the practice forgiving and being forgiven. It is in this work that we learn how to love, more and more, in ever more challenging circumstances. And as we learn of love, we learn of God… for, what is God if not the very source of love? May God guide us in all our choices and may our choices lead us to life, to learning, to loving. So be it. Amen.
God of wisdom, we are living in a world where love is too often obscured by fear and violence, and our hearts and minds are heavy with the weight of the struggle to understand. Our hearts are broken open by the shock and we grieve for the victims, their families, and for those moved to violence by unseen forces of sadness, illness and desperation. Dear God, we need so much healing on so many levels. Lord, we pray for ourselves, that we may hold fast to the golden thread of hope for the future of humanity. Save us, please, from sinking into apathy. We are in desperate need of a great shift in our culture. In this place, together, this morning, we are aiding in the cultural shift as we for deeper understanding, as we live into the loving kindness of Christ, and as we share our best selves with one another. Help us, God, to become what we most wish to see in the world. This I pray in the name of Jesus, who gifted us this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the late Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”