Choosing a Life

A sermon preached by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber on September 5 at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut.

One of the problems I’ve been wrestling with this summer, as many of you know, is keeping the raccoons out of the corn. I thought I had solved the problem with an eight foot fence but they’ve learned how to get over it.  It’s a story for coffee hour if you haven’t heard it already, but I finally caught the one raccoon who knew the way in and we had the best corn crop in years.

I spoke about sharing last week  but there is a limit!  Ponder the difference  between a raccoon getting into my corn and a neighbor doing the same thing. I can’t get upset with the raccoon.  A raccoon can’t help it; he’s doing what comes naturally.  But the neighbor has a choice. I assume he has a choice.  He owns three houses;  so I don’t think he goes hungry.  If my neighbor gets into my corn, I expect I would call the police.  But human beings are different from raccoons.

Human beings have a choice. It’s fundamental to what we are.  We make choices every day  and some of them are moral choices: choices between right and wrong,  good and not so good,  bad and evil.  And yet.  And yet.  Listen to the reading from Jeremiah: God says through the prophet:     “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”
God, in other words, shapes our lives the way a potter shapes the clay. St. Paul says the same thing:
“Who indeed are you,” he asks, “a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?”

But if we are simply clay in the potter’s hands, being shaped by God to God’s purposes, how are we different from the raccoon?  What choice do we really have in the things we do? It’s one of the fundamental issues judges and lawyers and psychiatrists and social workers wrestle with all the time:  how do you measure responsibility?  Is there such a thing as responsibility?  Are we simply a product of our upbringing and training and associations?  Are we simply clay in God’s hands whose actions are all predestined?

There have been Christians who thought that.  Our Congregational neighbors come from the Calvinist tradition and basic to that tradition is a doctrine called “predestination” that says that everything we do is predetermined:  God has destined some for eternal bliss and others for eternal punishment.  And that settles it – settles us!  They point to passages like that reading from Jeremiah to prove their point.

But, you know, you should never take one small part of the Bible out of context and without the balance that other passages provide.  So balance the Old Testament reading with a readingt like today’s Gospel in which Jesus suggests that we should  plan and calculate and make sensible decisions. That would be meaningless if all our choices are predetermined.

Anglicanism is the church of both/and – “parataxis,” if you want a fancy word for it. We tend to look at other Christians and say,  “Yes, but: aren’t you forgetting something?  Look at this.  What about that?  On the one hand it looks this way but on the other hand it looks that way.  Maybe it isn’t that simple.”  I tell you that there are times  when I wish it were that simple.  Don’t you? So many churches offer simple answers and pack them in. There are days when I wish I could do that.  But what if the simple answers aren’t true? What if life is not simple what if God does indeed shape us and yet also leave us free to shape ourselves?  What if God’s grace enables us  to shape ourselves according to God’s will so that we can work with God toward God’s purpose?

Certainly if God is shaping human lives, God has been shaping them toward freedom. It’s not that far back in history when most lives were indeed determined.  If your father was a farmer, you would be a farmer.  If you were female, you would be a wife.  And male or female, your parents would choose your partner.  Parents still find it hard to let go. You read about people, hear about people, who build a business and want their son or daughter  to take it over, who are crushed when junior goes off to be a starving artist instead. And there is a natural tendency for children to follow a parent’s footsteps.  But they don’t have to, do they?  We have the freedom to make our own decisions, bad ones as well as good ones, and what would be the point of coercing children to do something for which they have  no interest or aptitude?  What would be the point of a final judgment in which God assigned people up or down if they had had no choice along the way?

There was an interesting discussion on Book TV this morning about a book by a man called Wes Moore, an African American who grew up in the inner city and has written a book called “The Two Lives of Wes Moore” about the ways his life could have gone.  He could have gotten into drugs and been killed.  In fact, he became a Rhodes Scholar and author.  There were plenty of factors that could have determined his life for the worse; his single mother made sure there were as many or more on the other side. Finally, however, the choice was his.  His mother didn’t try to control his choice but she shaped his life to make sure he had the freedom to chose well.  Maybe that’s what God does for us: gives us the freedom to chose well.

The whole course of human history suggests that God’s purpose is to give us freedom to choose. The story of the Garden of Eden  is a story of choice. The call of Abraham and Moses and Isaiah and Peter and Andrew and Paul suggests always a choice.  A calling is just that: not a command, but a challenge.  God may say: “I want you.  I need you.  I have a role for you to play.”  But God can still leave us free to say Yes or No.  Moses said, Why me?  So did Isaiah.  So did Jeremiah.  So did Peter.  Maybe you did too at some point in your life.  Maybe you looked at the church and said,  “Who needs it?” I suspect more people do than don’t  at some point in their lives. And that’s good.  If we were simply programmed to be here how could we talk seriously about love?

Love can’t be coerced. Love is a choice.  But then if life is about choice, it seems to me,  we can’t really ever sit back and say, “Here I am, all finished and decided.”  What then happened to freedom? Did you trade it in?  What happened to the clay in the potter’s hands.  Did you get fired in the oven  and stacked on the shelf with no future except to get chipped and broken,  no flexibility left, no room to change?  I think most of us, probably all of us, have some shaping up still to do.  I think that God is holding up the opportunity for us to grow far more than we may realize.

You know, human beings take longer to grow up  than any other form of life. A colt is born and walking in minutes.  A child can take well over a year to do that. Animals are commonly reproducing in a year or two –  or a lot less with the rabbits and mice in my garden. Human beings have to wait at least thirteen or  fourteen years and would do better to wait at least twenty  before getting into the reproduction business.  And all too many even then aren’t really prepared to make lifelong commitments.  We make bad choices and wrong choices  and need to try again. Becoming a mature human being is a long process;  a lifelong process – and I think myself  it takes an eternity.  I certainly hope I will have an eternity to work toward  a potential I am far from having achieved here.

What about you?  I got a letter once from a man well into retirement years who said he had come to realize  that he needs to be deliberate about his spirituality. Yes.  Never too late. So do we all. We are still soft clay  unless we harden ourselves and God is still available  to shape us if we will.  Summer is a time of growth, isn’t it?  I can go out every day and pick some beans or zucchini.  But that’s coming to an end. And notice what happens then.  The plants die; the leaves fall; but chidren go back to school and a chance to grow.  Vacations come to an end and we go back to work, to contribute more than last year because we’ve gained some wisdom, some insights, some experience. Counter to everything around us our growth continues.  Retirement once was the end of the line.  No more. Go to any “retirement community” and you’ll find people  doing things they’ve always wanted to do: reading, painting, exercising, traveling. So what if you’re 80 or 90?  Human beings can still grow. So what if this life comes to an end?  There’s more to come.

That’s what’s so tragic about the lives that settle into a routine without challenge or change:  those who work and eat and sleep and use the free time  to do nothing more exciting than watch television and videos where they even have other people to do the laughing for you. I remember a time when people thought television  had enormous potential to teach, to expose us to great art and culture.  Maybe it’s out there somewhere but not easy to find.  Our society can make us dead very easily:  plug us in to a computer screen and television screen until the mind dies  and the spirit.

Jesus asked, “ . . .which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”  A lot of people look at Christians that way:  “Look at those people who claim to be following  Jesus and just don’t have it; can’t finish what  they started.” And all too often they’re right.

What about you? Have you really looked at the possibility of yourself as you might be if you let God have God’s way with you, shape you and mold you into a human being able to love and be loved,  to pray with real depth, to act with committed faith, to know God in the depths of your being? What might you be if you responded to God’s call? Now, now, today, is always the time to respond.  God offers us a gift: life, real life, free for those who choose  to move on with God’s grace toward that limitless future.

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