SJF • Proper 18c • Tobias Haller BSG
Moses said to all Israel, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
Human life is full of decisions, some trivial and some important. Some of the decisions that we face day by day, and the choices we make, will have little impact on our lives. Other choices will have consequences so serious that we can even find ourselves paralyzed and unable to choose out of our fear of making the wrong choice.
And, let’s face it, even simple decisions can sometimes be hard to make. There is an old story of the Queen of England attending tea at an English lord’s manor. The butler in attendance was understandably a bit nervous, as it was his first time serving a royal. He asked, “Will you take tea, Ma’am?” The Queen answered, “Yes, thank you.” “India or China, Ma’am?” “India, please.” “Darjeeling, Assam or Nilgiri, Ma’am?” “Darjeeling, I think.” “Yes, Ma’am. Milk or lemon, Ma’am?” “Milk, please.” As the butler paused to turn away, he had one last thought. “The milk, Ma’am... Hereford, Guernsey, or Jersey?”
It is easy to see how having too many choices can make it difficult to make a decision even over such trivial matters. Part of me dreads going to the KFC, because I often find myself transfixed and overcome by what has become an entire wall of menu choices. It used to be so easy — just one piece, two or three! But now there are so many things to choose from. Perhaps that’s why they added that new dish — the bowl that contains layers of everything piled one on top of the other — a perfect solution when you can’t make up your mind. Believe me, there are times I am grateful that there’s a long line so that I can sort out what it is I want to order before I have to do so!
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Yes, many of the choices in life are trivial — and if even these can sometimes cause us to pause, with how much greater fear and trembling ought we approach the kinds of questions set before us in today’s readings from Scripture.
Even the choice that Saint Paul offers Philemon must have been difficult for him to decide upon — and it is a little frustrating that we only have Saint Paul’s side of the story, and so have no final word of how this story ends. Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to Philemon. He asks the slave owner to receive him back, and not only not to punish him for having run away, but to accept him back as a brother in Christ — as an equal.
As I say, we don’t know if Philemon followed Saint Paul’s urging. The fact that Philemon preserved this letter (so that it could later be included in the Scripture) suggests that he did — after all, if he had rejected Saint Paul’s urging he would be unlikely to advertise that fact! We also know, from the writings of Saint Ignatius, that the bishop of Ephesus was named Onesimus — so it is possible that this former slave not only became a beloved brother to Philemon, but a bishop of the church.
Choices have consequences; and Paul’s choice to make this appeal and Philemon’s choice to hear it — as we hope he did — are remembered to this day.
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As are the choices made by the people of Israel as they approach the promised land. And here the choices are even more momentous than one person’s freedom. Moses offers the Israelites a literal life and death choice — the decision to follow the commandments of the Lord their God, walking in his ways — or to abandon the Lord who has delivered them, and follow other gods.
Now, you might say, this is a no-brainer! Who would choose death and destruction rather than life and prosperity? And yet, as we know, even though the people say they will choose life, and hold fast to God and follow in his way all the days of their lives, it isn’t too long after they cross the Jordan and enter the promised land that they begin to stray, setting up pillars and posts of wood and stone, bowing down to gods made by their own hands. And the consequences soon follow.
The reason they make this choice, strange as it may seem, is actually quite understandable when you consider human nature. Human beings have an amazing capacity for wishful thinking, for thinking they can live a life without consequences, for the freedom to choose what they want when they want it, even when they are told what their choices will lead to.
I don’t know if anyone here has ever been in the position of needing an organ transplant, but I’m sure you know that there are waiting lists and significant costs involved. But I am sorry to say, I once knew a man whose heavy drinking destroyed his liver, and who was lucky enough to get a liver transplant — but then drank his way through that liver too, and was dead within five years. And I’ll tell you, even many members of his family, as well as many of the doctors and nurses, were furious, and even said, “He didn’t deserve to get that liver; it could have gone to someone else who respected the gift of life they were offered.”
So it is for the Israelites — delivered from bondage in a land with many gods by the mighty acts of the one true God — they find it easier to slip back into their old pagan ways, than to follow the ordinances and commandments that could bring them a blessing instead of a curse.
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In our gospel today, Jesus doesn’t make things much easier for us. He tells those who followed him that if they want to choose him it will mean giving up all kinds of other attachments. He even uses the word hate — and he applies it to things we have always been told we should love: parents and spouses and children and siblings — and yes, even life itself. Jesus tells us to crucify all of these things, to give up all of our attachments to seek only him, taking up the cross to follow him.
This is a hard saying; hard to receive and even harder to put into action. How much easier simply to honor Jesus with our lips, rather than devoting our lives to his service. But he assures us that such halfway measures will not do. As I said in my sermon last week, simply acknowledging him as Lord or even inviting him to your home for dinner, even coming here one day a week to gather at his table, will not be enough. Jesus wants all of you, all the time, not just on Sunday morning but 24/7: just as God said to the Israelites, God wants “all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” Just as with air travel, getting out halfway there won’t do.
And so, Jesus is up-front and tells us to count the cost, lest we end up like a foolish man who tried to build a tower but didn’t have the resources to complete it; or a king who takes account of the number of his troops and the strength of his adversary before he dares to commit those troops to a war he cannot win.
This is not a decision about what kind of tea to drink, or whether to have original recipe or extra crispy. This is a decision that will affect the rest of my life — the rest of your life — the rest of many lives — not just in this life but in the life of the world to come. This is a matter of life and death, eternal life or eternal death.
Decisions have consequences; choices have outcomes. Directions taken lead to destinations reached. Not just for us but for all with whom we come in contact — our families, friends, and neighbors; those who serve us and those whom we serve — or refuse to serve. Hear the voice of God to all who truly turn to him: love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself — your whole self, all of you, 24/7. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. Choose wisely, by taking up the cross of Christ, by which alone we can overcome the world. By it we are delivered from slavery to freedom, and made part of a family and given a heritage to outlast any merely earthly tribe or people. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to choose him and to follow in his way.+