11 Sep Sermon for Trinity 12/Proper 18, Year C
4th September, 2022
I remember as a teenager reading some of the Old Testament – I was probably trying to do a ‘read the bible in a year’ type thing, which I’ve never managed – and being astounded at the blatant stupidity of the Israelites. It was the same pattern, over and over again: things are going well, then they do something dumb that leads them away from God, things go badly wrong, they realise they’ve made a mistake and repent and return to God. Rinse and repeat, again and again. I mean, c’mon.
I think it took about an hour for the clue-by-four to hit, and for me to realise that that’s exactly what we do – what I do – so often in our lives, and not always, or indeed often, in huge dramatic ways. Like that well-known description of the monastic life: “we fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up.” If that sounds familiar, then at least you’re in good company with pretty much every one, ever.
Keeping this in mind makes more sense of Moses’ offer to the Israelites in the reading we heard from Deuteronomy. After all, if someone stands in front of you offering you life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and adversity on the other, you’d have to be fairly brain-dead to actively choose death. It puts me in mind of Eddie Izzard’s sketch about the Inquisition as run by the Anglican church: “would you like cake, or death?”.
And yet. If the choice were that obvious, then it wouldn’t need to be a choice. We wouldn’t need to be reminded, over and again, of the importance of following God’s ways. And we do need that reminder, because sometimes – often – it’s hard.
Still, this difficulty, this cost, is hardly some great secret. Jesus himself is pretty clear about the cost of following him: “carry the cross and follow me [and] give up all your possessions.” He follows up this somewhat confrontational language with two very clear and common sense examples: building a tower, and going out to war. And yes, fine, they’re good examples as far as they go – it’s important to look rationally at any big project – but they do only go so far. Part of what makes this God-life such a challenge is the fact that you can’t always see the cost in advance. I might have some general idea that such and such an aspect of the Christian life will prove tricky for me personally, but it’s not like costing out a DIY project. There will always be the potholes we couldn’t see from way back there, the splinters that dig into our hands, the blisters on our shoulders. It’s in these moments, though, that the choice offered by Moses is so important.
Choose life, Moses urges his listeners, because there will be times when “death” would be so much easier. It is hard to love God. It is hard to be obedient to God. It is hard to listen to God’s voice with all the distractions and competing voices around us. It is hard to hold fast to God when we are tempted to cling to other things. It’s easier by far to carry on with our same old ways, to seek revenge instead of turning the other cheek; to believe the lure of the adverts that promise that consuming more will complete us; to indulge in lazy stereotypes rather than risking genuine encounter with the person in front of us.
I believe, however, and I also hope desperately, that the more we choose life, the more that choice becomes who we are, becomes woven into the fabric of our being. The more we are able to go with God’s flow then the more natural that flow becomes.
That flow is found in both the everyday choices and the ‘big ones’, something we see illustrated in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon is being asked here to do one big thing: to take back his former slave, Onesimus, as a brother in Christ, and to welcome him as he would welcome Paul. This big choice, though, will have to be lived out in all sorts of daily choices, big and small. Where will Onesimus sleep? What will he eat, and when, and where, and with whom? Will he be free to go anywhere he likes? What about money? And how will simple daily interactions work? How will Onesimus address Philemon? The list could go on, and on – and will, of course, involve the rest of Philemon’s household too. The tone that Philemon sets in this regard will be vital in guiding others as they negotiate a changed relationship. Will he, and they, be able to consistently “choose life” in this situation? This might have appeared to be a simple situation, with an obvious ‘right’ answer, but as we’ve seen, even a moment’s thought shows us that ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ do not always go together.
The road of following God – the way of the Cross – is bound to be full of bumps and bruises. Just look at the Stations of the Cross around this Oratory. Jesus’ own Via Crucis was painful, in every possible sense. Philemon and Onesimus’ reconciliation was not a ‘once and done’ event. Neither is our own reconciliation with God and with all those with whom we share this earth.
It is awesome in the fullest sense – both terrible and wonderful – that we have a choice in situations such as these, and the many others we encounter each day. Terrible because it turns out that our choices really matter. They shape what kind of people we become, and they shape the communities to which we belong too. Wonderful because we do have a choice. There are all kinds of forces that act on us, and there are some limitations we willingly accept, and which are good – when we make any kind of vows, for example – but all of this is a choice. We don’t have to be for ever the same. At the end of each day we can look back at how we have lived, and we can keep what was good, what led to life, and jettison what led to death. Tomorrow can be different.
Towards the end of his Rule, Benedict talks about good monastic zeal, and the community life he describes in this chapter is a beautiful vision of human flourishing at its best: “This, then, is the good zeal which those who follow the monastic way must foster with fervent love: ‘They should each try to show respect for the other’, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or character, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. None are to pursue what they judge best for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else. Amongst themselves they show the pure love of sisters or brothers. They should have a loving reverence for God. They should love their abbot with sincere and humble affection. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life.”
As anyone who has spent any time at all living with even one other person, never mind 12, will be able to confirm, working and living towards this vision is indeed very often a Via Crucis. Not always: there are the beautiful moments when everything just fits. I treasure the memory of this community enjoying an outdoor barbecue, followed by some silly games and then Compline outdoors. Such times as these are, I believe, the hundredfold we are promised, but Jesus makes no bones about the price we will pay in getting there.
And there is, obviously, more than one way to ‘get there’. Over the past week we’ve remembered the beheading of John the Baptist, as well as Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, Giles of Provence, a 7th century hermit, and Pope Gregory the Great, servant of the servants of God. All men who in their different ways show us lives fully given to God, poured out and therefore overflowing with the Spirit, with the love of God and of his people. For those of us who have chosen – chosen – to live our lives either formally or informally under the Rule of Benedict, however, passages such as Chapter 72 are a pretty good guide to navigating the choices of life, both large and small.
And then there is also the larger communities of which we are a part. Benedict had a vision of his monasteries as self-sufficient communities, and even if that was once the case, which I doubt, it most certainly is not true today: as well as our personal networks of families, friends and guests, we live in a world of global trade, where what looks like a bargain to us is actually putting the full cost onto others we will never meet. Our lives, and those of every creature under heaven, are linked together, and once again we’re back to the awesome, terrible, wonderful nature of our choices. There’s much, much more to be said here, but I’ll leave the final word to John of the Cross: “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on love alone.”
Image: Indiana, Robert, 1928-. Love (four ways), from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55272 [retrieved September 11, 2022]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/unlistedsightings/2383631294/