SERMON Easter 7b 2018
John 15: You did not choose me …
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
I’d like to begin this morning as Joel Osteen often does, with a joke.
A prominent hostess gave a party, and invited all the local clergy. Early in the evening, she made the rounds with a tray of cocktails. The Methodist minister politely selected one and took a glass, but the Baptist minister recoiled in horror: “Madam! Is there alcohol in that glass?” “Why, yes.” She replied, “I’m afraid there is.” “Please take it away. I would rather commit adultery!” At which point the Methodist minister put his glass back onto the tray and said apologetically, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know there was a choice.”
I tell you that joke only because of the way Jesus uses the word choice in the gospel today.
We love our choices, don’t we. Being able to choose one thing over another, whether it is a breakfast cereal or a husband, helps us to feel powerful, to assert control. Mother used to say that she loved to shop at the Goodwill Thrift Store, because she could afford to buy anything she saw. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1984, one of the most depressing things about it was that there was nothing to buy; in the department stores all the clothes seemed frumpy and gray, and if you wanted a cabbage, you stood in line in the street for two hours. Completely foreign to Soviet life was the magic experience we have every other day of pushing a shopping cart down a supermarket aisle lined with two hundred kinds of breakfast cereal, umpteen varieties of canned tomatoes, and a quarter-mile of fresh fruits and vegetables.
I could go on of course: I think that we are addicted to choices and to choosing – the kids are all panting and salivating to get free of their parents so that they can at last make all their own choices. They have no idea that half the choices they make will be bad ones. What was Eve doing but setting aside “parental” instruction to make her own choice and eat the forbidden apple. The name Eve means “mother of all living”; we are her children, and if we are wise we will at least learn that, much as we like choosing, it can be very dangerous. That’s a lesson we learn in politics as well, isn’t it: sometimes we make bad choices.
Let me cut to the chase here: This is the eternal paradox of creation and faith. God has hard-wired in us the freedom to choose, but God does not really offer us choices. As my sainted seminary professor, Aidan Kavanagh, used to say, “We are not baptized into options.” No, it is not by choices, but by commandments that God deals with us. Commandments are the opposite of choices. Now we can and often do choose to break God’s commandments, but that choice is by definition a bad one.
Most of the commandments we have from God are easy to follow, though, because they tell us thing that we are NOT to do. I’ve always found it easier to choose not to do something, than to actually do something. It is really pretty easy not to commit murder, or perjury, or adultery, and it’s less easy but certainly possible not to be jealous of other people’s things, which the 9th and 10th commandments forbid.
No, the OT commandments are pretty easy to follow, especially for Christians since we have dumped most of the 631 commandments in the Torah.
The commandments of Jesus, on the other hand, are not so easy: love one another as I have loved you. Which is to say with an unconditional, omnidirectional, unshakeable, universal, eternal love. A love that is life-giving and life-saving … a love that heals and blesses everyone. This is not presented to us as a choice. Love is not optional.
Here again, of course, our perverse appetite for choice kicks in: we want to choose whom to love and how and when to love them. We want to choose give or withhold love according to how we happen to feel on a given day. We speak of my love and our love as if love was something that could be parceled out, even bought or sold. We want to be in control, and control is exercised through choice. How many times, at funerals, have I been asked if “I Did It My Way” could be sung, or William Henley’s poem INVICTUS read (“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul…”)
What’s the problem with that? As the saying goes, “It’s your funeral.” Well, the problem is – and it’s a big problems – is that that’s not how God has set it up. That’s not who God is, the one in whose image and likeness we are made, and therefore it’s not who we are. We love our choices, but the truth is that before God our choices are very limited. As another great seminary professor, George Lindbeck, used to say, “We are only free to fall farther away.”
There is perfect freedom in God, of course, but that freedom is experienced and exercised inside the unconditional love that God commands. God commands us to love because love is truth, the truth that makes us free.
Our choices are the index of our character, but they mean very little before God; God loves us anyway. No the only choice that really matters is the choice Jesus points to in the gospel today, when he says: “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you.”
That, it seems to me, is the beating heart of this whole project we call the church: we are the assembly, the collection of those whom God has chosen to be his own, and to be his heart and hands, mind and strength in the world. God has chosen us, and we belong to God. Everything that we call “ours” belongs to God, including our future.
There is great comfort and strength and safety in that: we are not lost in the stars, we have a home, we have someone who loves us, and we have a future sealed with the resurrection of Jesus.
“You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that abides.”
May God make it so with us all.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen (Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.) Amen