Sunday, September 8, 2019

Making Choices

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

We make choices all the time. Sometimes they are relatively simple. Sometimes they are more difficult. Sometimes, there are ways to compromise, to find a win-win. When we can’t decide between vanilla, chocolate or strawberry ice cream, there is Neapolitan, which has all three flavors in one scoop.


Sometimes the choices we make have consequences beyond a few extra calories. Our readings for today all call for people to make choices. In the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses calls for the people to make a choice. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, they are about to cross the Jordan River into what they have been calling the Promised Land.


Moses knows that their human nature will lead them astray from what he has tried to teach them. The Ten Commandments are a promise between God and the people to choose life by obeying these simple rules.  If you love God and obey the commandments, your life will be full of blessings.  You will live long on this land God is giving you. If you turn away, you will not live long on this land, and you will perish. It’s a choice between life and blessing with God, or death and curses without God.


History tells us that sometimes the Jews chose obedience and life, and sometimes, they chose to turn away and met death. They learned that obedience can be hard, costly, singling the community out from their neighbors. And that obedience has blessings and good life.


Jesus also challenges the people to choose. Choose the cross and you will be blessed, but it will not be easy. Your choice will divide your families. If you really want to follow me, you must calculate the cost of doing so.


We know, because we are looking back in time, that the price Jesus paid was his life. Some followers of Jesus also have paid this ultimate price, but most of us haven’t. We follow Jesus when it is convenient, and ignore him when it is not convenient. We choose which commandments to obey and how to obey them. We don’t always choose God first. We don’t always choose to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Philemon. Paul did not say to Philemon: “You should free Onesimus from the slavery that binds him”. But he did encourage it. He asked: How can one person be a brother to another and still have that person as a slave?” Paul is saying Philemon should choose to free Onesimus.


What would it cost him? The purchase price, the money spent on feeding and clothing him, the years of training him for specific work? Unfortunately, we have no idea how Philemon responded. Freeing Onesimus would be one way for Philemon to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Did he go that far? I hope so.

I got to thinking about the many ways that people have tried to follow Jesus by carrying his cross. One way was to collect relics. Especially valuable were pieces of the true cross. Some people believed that if you owned a piece of the true cross, you could literally carry the cross without having to pay attention to how you behave.


Some people take the challenge to carry the cross in a different way. They choose to carry a large cross for great distances, like this minister with a cross on wheels. Those who do this are trying to reach many people with the message that Jesus died on a cross for them. I am sure they have lots of encounters with curious people and get to share Jesus’ story with them. Such a journey must be meaningful, life-changing for them.


But … Jesus is not talking about literally carrying his cross. He is talking about a lifestyle that chooses sacrifice over comfort, over one’s own desires. We can think about it as how we use our time, our talents, and our treasures.

First, our time and our talent. For many folks, Sunday morning is the only time they spend with Jesus. Others are here Sunday, and Wednesday for choir and bells, and Thursday for all the miscellaneous tasks that need to be done. Others are at Interfaith Ministries or other volunteer locations and times. Some attend Women of the ELCA or Catechism class or the Sunday morning Bible Study. Some are on the Congregational Council or committees. Some people spend an hour or two a day in prayer. How much time do you choose to give to Jesus each week? How do you use your talents?


Next, our treasure. One way to take up a cross is with our checkbooks. How do you calculate how much to put in the offering plate each week, or each month? Do you pay your bills first, then give what is left? Or do you make the choice to be generous first and live off what remains? It may be a serious challenge for you to give 10%, a tithe, but I have found that committing to giving away 10% of my income is a wonderful spiritual discipline. How do you choose to give to the ministries of St Matthew’s Lutheran Church?


People are treasures, too. Do you choose to think of everyone that way? While families and other groups of people are complex, it’s usually easy to love family members and people at work and in church. It may be helpful to realize that every family, every congregation, every business, every community and nation, has someone or some-ones who are hard to love.


It is easy to forget that each person is a beloved child of God. We choose how we think about and treat people who are different from us. Do we see them as sisters and brothers?


How do we think about those who are poor and hungry? How do we think about those who are in prison? How do we think about those who have had an abortion? How do we think about those who are seeking asylum in the US?


Jesus was especially intentional about connecting with all sorts of people, treating them with respect, even as he challenged their practices. Taking up our cross with regard to people we don’t like or don’t approve of means remembering Jesus loves them, so we should try to love them, too.   


Taking up our cross to follow Jesus means going farther than we want to. It means choosing Jesus over those people and activities that draw us away from him. It may cost us, financially. It may cost us the respect of our peers who don’t follow Jesus. It may cause us to reconsider how we think about other people. It is never easy, and it is a daily, even hourly, challenge.


We have to choose to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Paradoxically, we find our best life when we give it away to Jesus. Amen