Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 8th September 2013
8 September 2013 at 11:00 am
Sister Marguerite CSC, Chaplain
I have set before you life and death…choose life.
Robert Fulghum [taken from, It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It] tells a story from WWII, when the island of Crete was invaded by the Nazis. As the paratroopers rained down out of the sky onto the fields they were attacked by peasants wielding kitchen knives and hay scythes. The retribution was terrible. Whole villages of people were lined up and shot. On one hill near the airstrip, there is a cemetery with a single cross marking the mass grave of Cretan partisans. And across the bay on yet another hill is the regimented burial ground of the Nazi paratroopers. The memorials are so placed that all might see and never forget. In the end hatred was the only weapon the Cretan people had. They vowed never to give up their hate. Never. Yet now, on the site where the paratroopers landed there is an institute dedicated to human understanding and peace, and especially to rapprochement between Germans and Cretans. Why? Because of Dr Alexander Papaderos whose influence has changed his community.
During the war he was only a poor boy living in a remote village on Crete. One day on the road he found the broken pieces of a mirror from a Nazi motor bike that had crashed. He tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but he could not. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone he made it round. He began to play with it as a toy. He became fascinated by the fact that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine–in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for him to get light into the most inaccessible places he could find. He kept the little mirror as he was growing up and grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what he might do with his life. Papaderos said, “I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have, I can reflect light into the dark places of this world.”
We may think that environment or heredity or circumstance determine the succession of events that make up our lives but we have free will. We have been given the power to choose how we shall live. Everyone is capable of being wise or ignorant, merciful or cruel, generous or selfish. Papaderos is a good example of this kind of choosing for an individual as well as for a society.
I have set before you life and death…choose life.
In our first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses warns of the costs involved when we allow our hearts to be turned toward other gods that finally bring only death. We choose life when we love, obey and hold fast to God. Our Psalm today also reminds us that those who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night, are happy, blessed and fruitful while those who turn away from the source of life are as insecure as chaff blown away by the wind.
The challenges to choose life, discipleship and the way of the cross are ultimately about where we place our allegiance. But choosing life is difficult, and Jesus in the gospel of Luke warns us to count the cost of discipleship. When we think about the number of people who begin important undertakings only to abandon them part way through, whether buildings or wars, marriages or projects, it is important to consider what we are getting ourselves into and the resources we can rely on. Probably, it would be easier if we could count the cost once and make a single dramatic sacrifice as an expression of our commitment, but usually the way of faithfulness involves laying down our lives in little pieces, through small daily decisions and unremarkable acts of kindness and generosity.
Is it possible to choose life and carry the cross? Somehow both invitations are part of Christian discipleship. We worship a God of life, but mysteriously that life has costly sacrifice at its heart. Choosing life is not necessarily about what feels good or makes us happy. Faithful discipleship, according to Jesus, involves "hating" everything that gives us security in exchange for carrying a cross and following him. Jesus is not talking about a literal hatred of family or life, but a transformed relationship to everything and everyone we depend on to define who we are.
Jesus shows us the path to life. He makes difficult choices that lead to freedom and life. With God’s grace we too can chose creatively, opening up possibilities of which we had never dreamed. We can grasp our fate and make it a blessing. We can discover freedom where it had seemed impossible.
If we think that freedom is just about choosing between alternatives, then our lives become just one choice after another. When we make major decisions, we are deciding the direction of our lives. We are making decisions about who we are and not just what we do.
If we think that morality is about obeying rules, then we can judge the quality of a moral life by how many times the rules have been obeyed or broken. But the older tradition thinks in terms of the movement of our whole life. The virtuous life helps us to keep on moving in the right direction on our journey to God from whom we come.
It is not about submitting to external constraints. It is about acting from the very core of our being. When we think of freedom as choice then it is something that we have. A deeper freedom is being who we are meant to be. Of course we need rules and commandments just as a pianist needs scales. But they are only there to teach us freedom and to remind us of what we most deeply desire. The Ten Commandments are not an external constraint on our freedom; they tell us who we are.
It is usually assumed in our consumer world that the more choices one has, the freer one is. If one can choose between ten sorts of beer then one is freer than if one had just two brands. I had a personal experience of this when one of my Sisters from the Solomon Islands came to visit and needed some soap so I took her to the chemists’ shop where I was embarrassed to show her that there was one aisle full of shampoo, another of soap and body wash and another for detergent. When I visited the Solomons I was given a bar of yellow soap to wash myself and my clothes.
If we can grow into the freedom of Jesus, we will realize that there are just a few deep and fundamental choices to be made, and these are concerned with becoming free and happy in God. So we learn to make certain choices because they are simply part of who we are becoming. In embracing the cross Jesus is supremely free because what he must do expresses who he most deeply is.
The reality is that Jesus calls us to change. We all need change, massive radical change and conversion. By our baptism we signed up for continuing conversion, alone and together with other believers in the community of the church. Every time we hear the scriptures and we do not change, we have not really heard.
I set before you life and death – what is your choice going to be?