Sermon: Acting Out of Love and Not Guilt.
“He hath set fire and water before thee: stretch forth thy hand unto whether thou wilt.” [Ecclesiasticus 15:16]
I remember reading many years ago that, when someone from the old Soviet Union immigrated to the United States, they had a very hard time adapting to our lifestyle. The reason for their troubles was that, when they went into a grocery store, instead of having no choices, they would be overwhelmed. The number of choices in breakfast cereals alone, not to mention shampoo, toilette paper, detergents and everything else, is staggering. Some even became so depressed, they would start questioning their escape from the USSR.
We take for granted the number and variety of choices we make every day. Yet, there is one choice that many of us try to avoid making. It is a choice between fire and water; it is a choice between life and death. And, of course, by not choosing we do choose.
Today’s lessons deal with this choice. It deals with the dynamics of being human, and the dynamics of making this all-important choice.
In the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, we have this statement:
Before man is life and death, and whether him liketh shall be given him.
The Eastern orthodox translate this same section as:
Life and death are before mankind, and whichever he chooses, it will be given him.
As many of you know from my article on the Apocrypha, both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic accept this book as the word of God. We Anglicans, however, see it as a wise book, good for instruction, but not the word of God. Regardless, the truth in this statement is absolutely clear. We as humans are given a choice. We are given the choice between life and death. But, which choice gives you life, and which gives you death?
Remember the story of the man who was given a choice between two doors? Behind one door was a man-eating tiger; behind the other was a beautiful lady. Choosing one would result in certain death. Choosing the other would result in life, love, and family. In the story I read, I never found out which door the man chooses. But, let’s face it, most people, given the choice, would choose life. Unfortunately for the man in this story, choice was a guessing game.
For us, choice is NOT a guessing game. We HAVE all the information – and then some. And that’s our problem. We have TOO many choices; we have TOO much information. And the result is confusion.
For any Christian, the choice is clear. We are told time and time again that to choose Christ is to choose life. And for us this makes perfect sense. Christ IS life. And life with Christ means our current life has purpose, and our future life will be eternal. However, those who choose differently most likely do not actually think they are choosing death.
Do you honestly think atheists knowingly are choosing death? They think they are choosing life. They have bought into the lie that this life is it. So, they are choosing to “live this life fully.” The only trouble is that there is very little difference in their lives than other people. They don’t do more and exciting things. They pretty much live the same lives as we do. However, for some reason they have decided that this life is all they have.
Others choose other religions based on how they were raised, with very little or no knowledge of Christ’s promise. Still others know and reject it all. Most of the time, the choice is based on misinformation about Christ. But sometimes the choice is well-informed – and there the reasoning escapes me. Yet, even though there is too much bad information and misinformation out there, sooner or later we must ALL choose.
Now, for all of us in this room, our choice is clear:
“He hath set fire and water before thee: stretch forth thy hand unto whether thou wilt.”
This seems a clear allusion to the choice between Hell-fire and Baptism. One is the path to eternal death; the other is the gateway to eternal life. But Baptism is ONLY a gateway. The choices do NOT end here.
In our Gospel lesson, we have three extremely hard lessons. I must admit, I do not know why they are grouped together. Any one lesson could be the basis for a complete sermon. Yet, they are presented as a whole lesson, and the one thought I have is that, they are presented this way because they are the three sins that none of us escape – no matter how good we are. The three sins are anger, lust, and swearing. And all three convict me. I am no stranger to any of these sins.
Now, I have heard sermons on these sins. Most evangelists will tell you that these are presented precisely because none of us can escape these sins. Rather, they are presented by Christ so that we will see how much we need Him. In other words, none of us are capable of executing our own salvation; we need Christ. And these admonitions on anger, lust and oath-taking are to show us this fact. I even remember George McNeely giving this same type of sermon on this lesson years ago. And I believe this is correct.
However, I was also raised Roman Catholic, and with this faith comes a whole different dynamic when it comes to these passages in the Gospel. I was raised believing that we need to strive to meet these standards. Those who meet them are saints; the rest are all of us.
Being a convert to Anglicanism means I am probably more strident on some topics than those who were born into the faith. And one such topic that I am adamant about is that we are saved by faith alone. Works are important, but without faith, works are hollow, and can achieve nothing. Saint Paul in his epistles stress this point time and time again.
But our lessons for today give me pause. Truly I have failed time and time again when it comes to controlling my anger and controlling those thoughts of lust which passes over all our minds from time to time. And, it is clear how absolutely I need Christ. But the words from Ecclesiasticus come hauntingly back to me:
Say not thou, “It is through the Lord that I fell away,” for thou oughtest not to do the things that he hateth. Say not thou, “He hath caused me to err,” for he hath no need of the sinful man. The Lord hateth all abomination, and they that fear God love it not. He himself made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his counsel. If thou wilt, to keep the commandments, and to perform acceptable faithfulness.
This last part is translated by the Eastern Orthodox to read, “He Himself created man in the beginning and left him in the counsel of his will. If you will, you will keep the commandments and faithfully do His good pleasures.”
It is NOT acceptable to blame God for our sinfulness, nor is it acceptable to claim that we did something because “the devil made us do it.” There was a heresy that claimed that, since we are saved by faith alone, we need not worry about our sins. We can do anything we want and still go to heaven. This is clearly NOT true. Yes, we may be fallen creatures, but we are also new creations in Christ, and that means trying to act accordingly.
For all of us, Christ’s commandments are God’s. We know that, to God, anger is as bad as murder. We also know that, to God, our passing thoughts of lust are as bad as having an adulterous affair. And we know that God would rather us not swear to something. Rather, it is better that our word be always dependable. We just must do what we are supposed to do and leave it at that.
We also know that we are creatures of free-will, capable of choosing God and life, or rejecting God and choosing death. And, we know that choosing God means choosing to live life by His commandments. Yet, we are fallen, weak creatures that need Christ for our salvation. This probably leaves all of us in a quandary as to what we should take away with us from our lessons for today.
Let us be honest, most of us will fail. That seems clear. We also know that we love the Lord and He loves us. That should give us confidence. He loves us and will support us. He will give us strength to persevere and will cover our shortfalls with His self-sacrifice of love.
This reminds me of the two parishioners discussing one of the sermons they heard together. One said, “I thought the sermon was divine. It reminded me of the Peace of God. It passed all understanding.” “Really,” answered the other. “I thought it reminded me of God’s mercy. I thought it would endure forever!”
God loves us and will provide us the mercy we need to make up our failings. But, He also wants us to show OUR love for Him. After all, no one wants a loving relationship to be one-sided. That means we must show our love by changing. And that means we cannot merely dismiss our lesson from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as just a means for us to realize how much we need Him. It is also a loving call to change. It is a wakeup call, for up until this time, we did not realize how our actions troubled and saddened God.
So let us resolve to change. Let us try to control our anger and our thoughts. Let us make our word our bond. And let us realize that what we do, we do for God, not out of guilt, but out of love. And when we look at this call for change as an act of love, then the importance and the resolution becomes stronger and better for us.