by Ellen Sims
On third Sundays we offer a more contemplative service. In lieu of a sermon, a briefer reflection on one of the lections is offered followed by an invitation to visit one or more more prayer stations, described after the reflection.
Today’s lection from Sirach calls us to make wise and godly choices. Journalist Ezra Klein is interested in how we make choices and if, in fact, we make choices.(Last week’s podcast of “On Being.”) Kline explained that “we often have an illusion that we made a choice for ourselves, when that choice was so fundamentally shaped by who we are and where we grew up and what was around us and what made sense for us to do, that in some final accounting, it was really almost never a choice at all. . . . I think when you look at the world like that, then it becomes . . . of central importance that [we create] systems [that] are just. . . [and support] people who were born into, or who fell into, the wrong systems.”
Drawing from his own experience as a parent, he described how unfair is “the lottery of birth itself” which determines, for instance, if a person was born healthy or wealthy. He acknowledged that “not every parent is able to have, say, even the flexibility in their time to be there for when [their children] go to sleep. And so . . . it really strikes you in the face with the reality . . . of inequality.” Klein recognized that when that “good” child gets out of sorts, his own assumption as a father is that the child has a need that is not being met. When his little son wakes up crying in the night, he reacts, as most parents do, very differently than he does when adults, especially strangers, seem upset or needy. When his child is distressed, his first reaction is not “‘How dare you? Don’t you know what I’m going through?’ It’s, ‘Oh, are you hungry? Are you tired? Is it cold in here? Is something wrong? Something must be wrong for you to be acting this way. Maybe I can help you find what it is.’” Klein acknowledged that other people have been born into families and other larger systems that sometimes have not supported their needs while others have been born into systems that have quietly attended their needs in ways that seem, to them, available to all. He emphasized that “people’s politics may not be as much a choice for them as we often think they are.”
Some sociologists, anthropologists, neurologists, philosophers study choice and conclude that fundamentally we don’t have real choices in the world. That perspective helps me give grace to those who are struggling and to recognize they may not have had much choice—-and to give grace also to myself for the times when I fail. But at the same time I try to engage this world AS IF I have influence and choice, which may be contingent on at least the belief that I have choice and a moral responsibility. So I must wrestle with choices-—even if a futuristic computer might one day save me the trouble by predicting my choices before I even become aware of a “choice”– based on the trajectory I’m already on.
“Choose!” says the ancient Hebrew prophet Sirach:
“Before each person are life and death [choices], and whichever one chooses will be given” (15:17a).
But in the next sentence Sirach preaches: “For great is the wisdom of our God who is mighty in power and sees everything; whose eyes are on those who fear God, and who knows every human action” (15:17b-19).
If God already knows every human action before we act, are we really making choices? If that which we call God is a reality that holds past and present and future, then is Deep Reality something that both exists already “in the mind of God” and yet has not yet happened from our limited perspective?
Jesus calls us to follow him, which presumes we have a choice to say a “yes” or “no” to Jesus. Acting as if that choice does NOT exist and therefore does not matter becomes a trajectory of despair and recklessness. Yes, forces of history and biology and politics and relationships have put us on our various paths. We especially need to be aware of the political, economic, social SYSTEMS because they determine so much but are invisible, just part of the air we breathe most of the time. Yet in many ways we see how individual choices add up and can help maintain or disrupt the big systems. Choosing is a human obligation to history. Our small choices add up—whether these “choices” are entirely freely made or not. So I choose to believe that choices matter—but will try to give grace to myself and others when choices don’t always prove wise.
PRAYER STATIONS BASED ON TODAY’S LECTIONS
1. Reread the passage from Sirach. Now focus on a particular decision that you are facing or may face in the not too distant future. Perhaps there is a problem in your life that requires you to make a decision. With the paper and pencils provided, take some time to “freewrite” about what you imagine to be possible consequences of one or more future choices. You might list pros and cons or simply describe how you imagine your life might be different if you make a change in some way. Share these thoughts with God. Which choice feels more “faithful”? You may want to share these thoughts with us later.
2. Reread the passage from I Corinthians. In writing to the church he planted in Corinth, Paul chides them for splitting into factions based on their loyalty to Paul or to Apollos (who “watered” the church that Paul “planted”)—instead of praising God for the growth. As a church expecting a change in pastoral leadership next year, let us pray for unity now and during the transition and for the one who will be called to “water” Open Table in the next phase of our church. Meditate briefly on the painting of a woman planting. Think of yourself coming behind her to water that plant. Pray for the pastor God is leading to Open Table. Add a sentence or two to the group prayer for our church’s next pastor, which we’ll compose on the flipchart.
3. Read silently these words of this hymn. Use it as prayerful preparation before partaking of the Lord’s Supper:
(We do not have permission to share the lyrics here.)
4. Reread the passage from today’s Gospel lection from Matthew, giving attention to these words: 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” As you offer your gifts to God, pray for the needs of the world, and then pray specifically for a person in your life with whom you have a challenging relationship.
SHARING FROM OUR TIME OF PRAYER