Deut. 30: 15-20; Jeremiah 18: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 8, 2013
(This was my candidating sermon for the New Ark United Church of Christ in Newark, DE. They voted unanimously to call me as their next settled pastor. I begin there on October 15.)
My oldest daughter Andrea has a standard phrase whenever she teases me and pushes my buttons: “I couldn’t resist, Mom!” Then I give her ‘the look’, she laughs at me, and so it goes.
One day I realized that she was making a choice, that we both were, and that, if we wanted to, we didn’t have to do the same old thing every time. She said, “Oh, I couldn’t resist, Mom!” I replied, “Oh yes you could. There were two paths in front of you. One was rather ordinary and plain, the other bright and shiny as a penny and you chose the bright and shiny one, you did!” And we both laughed.
Every day such choices and possibilities exist before us. Some feel like old habits and ruts, others like a warm, comfortable piece of clothing, some like that bright, shiny penny, others seem empty of any kind of thrill or joy. If we take time to think about it, our whole reality is created, moment by moment, by our choices. What we think, what we feel, what we do. What our attitude will be, what kind of mood we’re in, whether or not we’ll be hurt or annoyed or just amused by someone’s actions. And from these choices come a myriad of possibilities that affect not only our reality but others’ as well.
We’re convinced that we’ve been conditioned in some way to respond, to choose the way we always have. We were raised a certain way, with certain values, a mix of good and bad experiences. Sometimes it’s hard to see a way through our present situation, to choose another course. Most of the time, we don’t like knowing that we possess the ability to be co-creators of our reality. It would mean we would have to take some responsibility for shaping the way things are.
John Calvin, a 16th century theologian and Protestant reformer, believed that before the creation, God predestined the fate of the universe; that some of God’s creation was made for grace and salvation and some of it was not. Yet humankind was also given free will and the option to reject that saving grace.
In the readings from both Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, God’s people are given a choice, between life and death, good and evil, blessings and curses, listening to God’s messenger or ignoring him at their peril. It hardly sounds like free will. Life or death? That’s a no brainer! And yet listen to the next verse in the reading from Jeremiah: “But they'll [God’s people] just say, 'Why should we? What's the point? We'll live just the way we've always lived, doom or no doom.”
Fear has never really worked as a coercive to get us to choose the next right thing. It’s also given the God of the Hebrew scriptures a really bad, undeserved rap. Actually, Deuteronomy and Jeremiah were written during and after the Babylonian exile, after the bad choices had been made, after the doom had happened. God’s people, in retrospect, realized that their stubbornness and their unwillingness to be shaped by God led to their destruction. And yet God continues to reach out to God’s people, again and again, offering life, blessing and goodness when we would rather die than surrender.
It’s words like surrender, obedience and repentance that make faith leave a bad taste in our mouths. In the words of the poet William Ernest Henley, we like to think that we are the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul. We are when it comes to our attitude and our outlook on life; no one can choose that for us unless we give them that power. But resisting God will do us no good. Though we may be able to master our moments, God is the master of all space and time and we do indeed ignore that life-giving wisdom at our peril.
God is the master-potter, an artist working with an ever-changing medium called the creation. God is still discovering how to work with us earthen vessels, still shaping us, still creating us and creating through us. There are still possibilities untold: everlasting peace, the end of hunger, poverty, violence and oppression, a new heaven and a new earth but also destruction, torment, death, extinction. What will we choose? Which path will we take? What do our choices about how we live speak to the God to whom we still need to surrender?
All it takes is one step: one step toward life, one step toward blessing, one step toward God. In any twelve step program one does not agree to do all twelve steps—just to begin with the first one. And that first step is all about surrender, that God knows better than we do how to end the insanity and how to begin to live. Author and Quaker Parker Palmer wrote that faith is less about taking a big leap and more about taking one more step. It’s all about doing the next right thing, whatever that may be.
Humanity’s relationship with God is changing, evolving, as it always has been. In our faith tradition, in the beginning and ever since, God demands loyalty, obedience, and covenants were built upon that foundation. “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.”
With Jesus we are invited to follow, to go, to live as Jesus lived, to pick up our cross and die to ourselves. In the death of Jesus on the cross, in our baptism and affirmation of it, and whenever we break bread together, we are given the covenant of community, of belonging, of being loyal to each other.
It is said that we are now living or making the transition into the Age of the Spirit. Not just what astrologers might call the Age of Aquarius, which is typically associated with, among other things, democracy, freedom, humanitarianism, Idealism, modernization, rebellion, nonconformity, veracity, and perseverance. These qualities are certainly part of the Age of the Holy Spirit as well, but I am speaking of something more.
The Age of the Holy Spirit is one of transcending differences and opposites, an age of oneness, connectedness, relationship, and kinship to all living things through a living Spirit. In the Age of the Spirit there is no longer “us” and “them” but only “us”. It is a loyalty that transcends tribe and culture, race, skin color, gender and sexuality, creed and belief. This Age of the Spirit doesn’t mean that we are chucking God, that we leave behind Jesus. It means we make room.
All these folks who say (and there are probably some in this room) that they are spiritual but not religious—there is probably a very good reason why they say this. We all want to feel close to God and to each other, close to the holy, the sacred, close to the Spirit living in me and the Spirit living in you. Religion is just as much about binding ourselves to each other as it is about faith. But living in community can be hard work, really hard. Author Henri Nouwen said that “community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
The covenant now is still about community but more about belonging, about kinship, about, as Father Greg Boyle would say, “creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it …moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.” The covenant of the Holy Spirit is one of vulnerability, authenticity, flexibility and malleability. It’s about being ready for the Spirit to enter, to speak, to reveal: anytime, anywhere, through anyone or anything. It’s less about programs and more about being light on our feet. It’s less about success or failure and more about going where the Spirit leads. It’s less about belief or unbelief and more about being real and accepting each other as we are.
What is the next thing toward which the Holy Spirit is calling you, the next step toward God, that you need to take in your life and in your life together (and I'm not talking about whether or not you will call me as your next pastor)? In what ways do you still resist the Holy Spirit and God’s desire to be in relationship with you? Though God may not be necessary for a life lived for good, why not live with spiritual companionship that accepts us as we are and yet prods us off ourselves? What are some habits, some old ruts that need to be replaced with spiritual practices such as service, study, prayer, and giving?
Our choices shape who we are and whose we are. Will we put ourselves into God’s hands and allow God to mold us and use us or will we resist and grow hard and unmalleable? When we choose God and God’s community of kinship and compassion, of justice and peace for all and not just some, we are shaped into a vessel that can be used toward that blessed community. Every time we choose God, God’s blessed community becomes more than a possibility. It becomes more and more visible, more and more a reality. And all it takes is just one step, one choice at a time.