Foundry United Methodist Church

Summer in the City 2009

Outstanding Preacher Series

Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

 

 

The Choice Is…God’s?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

 

 

Philippians 4:1-13

Matthew 22:1-14

 

Rev. Ginger

Rev. Gaines-Cirelli

 

It has been said that life is the sum of all your choices.  In one sense, this is undeniably true.  And this is the cause of no small amount of consternation in those moments of life when we are faced with decisions on which our entire future seems to hang in the balance.  Should I stay or should I go—in this job or this relationship or this city?  Do I say yes or do I say no?  At this particular crossroads, which path will I choose to travel?  The answers we make to these and so many other questions determine where we go, who we travel with, what we spend our time, energy, money on and all the rest.  Our choices give shape to the narrative of our lives.  It would be a mistake—and frankly irresponsible—for me to suggest however, that the contours of our lives are carved out of our choices alone.  Who we are and who we are becoming, our personalities and loves, our passions and our desires, even the choices with which we are faced at any given moment evolve within the rich and complicated reality of family and time and place and genetics and circumstance.  The stories of our lives inevitably involve other characters—lovers, villains, friends—and all this within the frustrating context of a world in which all of life is vulnerable and uncertain and limited.  Things happen—to us and around us—things that affect our lives in ways that we have no choice about the matter.  Disease, violence, abuse, crumbling markets, hurricane, flood, death. 

 

So much of life is spent sorting out how to live in the midst of the tragedy and comedy that is unavoidably part of human life.  How will we choose to respond—not only to the discreet choices that are before us but to the confounding realities of life in our world?  Over the past year or so I have been in the midst of one of those seasons of life when the decisions to be made feel heavy and fraught with consequence—not just for the short-term, but for the long haul.  I tell you, it’s easy in the midst of such a maelstrom—for me anyway—to just feel stuck and afraid.  What is the right decision?  What will bring stability and happiness to me and my family?  Where will I find the fulfillment—that sense of wholeness—that I long for?  What will I lose if I go this way instead of that?  Then add on top of all that the fact that the world seems to be careening toward crisis economically and politically and in other ways of which I’m sure I’m not even aware. 

 

And Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always!”  “Do not worry about anything.”  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  What is “the secret” that Paul has learned that allows him to rejoice in having plenty and being in need? 

 

As I pondered this last question, I couldn’t help but call to mind that self-help, Oprah-endorsed, publishing phenomenon entitled “The Secret.”  The basic premise of the book is that "You are the most powerful magnet in the universe . . . so as you think a thought, you are also attracting like thoughts to you."  The author presents the law of attraction as the ultimate shortcut to success and the American dream. Anyone who wants it badly enough can be a millionaire, the president, even an American Idol…all you have to do is "put in your order with the universe." Ask. Believe. Receive. That's the mantra.[i]  It seems this way of thinking—which, by the way is marketed as a ground-breaking new discovery but is, in fact, very, very old—is the ultimate confirmation of the idea that our lives are the sum of all our choices. The primary choice we have to make according to this text is what we want.  Then we just have to think about that choice, that desire—just put it out into the universe—and we’ll attract the reality that we desire.  Now I’m all for the power of positive thinking.  I have seen a positive attitude help folks persevere through trying times.  But I’m quite clear that the secret of which Paul speaks is far from anything to do with this self-made life.  Quite the contrary, the secret of which Paul speaks has everything to do with a self-lost life—a life given over to the savior who confronted Paul on that road so long ago.

 

For Paul doesn’t say, “I can do all things through the power of my own thought and choice and energy and skill.”  Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  Jesus Christ is the key, the secret, the locus of peace, rejoicing, fulfillment, and all the rest.  And so the question becomes:  what does it mean to make that claim?

 

We can’t get at an answer without grounding ourselves in the most basic Christian confession that Jesus of Nazareth was God-in-flesh.  The point is that we are not just talking about an idea or a philosophy.  At the heart of our faith—the secret, if you will, of our faith—is not a concept or a mantra.  At the heart of our faith is a person, a person with whom we are invited to be in relationship.  All of this truly matters because the person with whom we relate is a particular kind of person who does particular kinds of things.  All of this matters because the person of Jesus Christ opens up for us a reality beyond the present moment, beyond the present concern, beyond the end of our own nose, that is to say, beyond our own desires.  Jesus lived in the love of God and embodied the love of God in nurturing, challenging, life-transforming ways for the sake of the whole world.  Jesus gave the whole of his life to God and other human beings—especially the poor and oppressed, the outcast and marginalized.  Jesus, as the God-human shows us not only what God is like, but also what it looks like to be fully human—which is to reflect the fullness of the image of God—which is the image of perfect love.  Therefore, in Jesus we see what truth looks like, what honor does; we see holy justice and purity at work in the person of Jesus.  Paul says to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable…(Phil. 4.8).  And see the connection:  whatever is true is Jesus.  Whatever is honorable is Jesus.  Whatever is just is Jesus.  Whatever is pure is Jesus.  Whatever is pleasing is Jesus.  Whatever is commendable is Jesus.  Excellence is Jesus.  Jesus alone is worthy of praise.  Paul exhorts us to “think about these things.”  Because in so doing, we remember that we are in relationship with Jesus whose self-giving love is both the meaning and the pattern for our own lives and life of the whole world.  We are reminded of what human life is supposed to be about, what human life is really for.  And insofar as we keep Christ at the center of our lives, we are less apt to forget that God loves us, that God will never abandon us nor forsake us, that God, in Jesus, has freed us from the tyranny of fear and death. 

 

That, my friends, is how Paul can say “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” (Phil. 4.11)  To truly, fully enter into relationship with Jesus Christ is to know that nothing matters but the love of God in Christ Jesus.  And as we live in the knowledge and reality of that love, we are strengthened to follow Christ, we learn what it means to be free, we learn how to trust and how to give, we learn how to be human, to truly love, to truly live regardless of what life brings.

 

Our faith doesn’t pretend that life is easy or uncomplicated or that vulnerability and suffering aren’t part of the deal.  Our faith doesn’t give us an “easy out” from responsibility.  We do have to make choices in life.  The story we heard from the Gospel confronts us with one rather stark example of how we tend to choose.  In the text, we hear Matthew continuing to exert his fierce agenda with his fellow Jews.  While we may not like the ferocity and even violence that Matthew uses to make his point, the point is made nevertheless:  God has prepared a table for us filled with all the bounty of rejoicing, the bounty of true life; and there are those who just blow it off, can’t be bothered, don’t even care.  And there are those who come to the party, but refuse to enter fully into the life of the party by refusing to clothe themselves with the garment provided.  Held within the larger vision of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, we can read this story as a pointed moment within the heartbreak of God.  Who here can’t relate to the moment when you have offered all you have, have put your very heart on the line, and are rejected, blown off, abandoned? 

 

The story we tell is of a God who loves us so much that even in the face of indifference, forgetfulness, abandonment, and outright violence God continues to love us and to stay present with us, sacrificing everything in order to save us from meaninglessness, selfishness, the paralysis of fear, and the isolation of self-reliance, the shallowness of self-fashioned gods. 

 

Our lives are not the sum of all our choices, thank God.  Our lives are not dependent upon the power of our positive thinking or on the strength of our own skills.  If that were the case, then we’d easily end up in despair—for we know well enough the limits of our own power to make it to the gym or to write that letter or make that phone call—much less our power to make life different, to make love appear, to make relationships work, to solve the crises that face the human family.  For people of Christian faith, true life is found not in our choice, but in God’s choice to love us and all the world so much that God does not abandon the world but rather invites one and all to share in the feast that is life in Christ Jesus.  There is a larger vision, a bigger reality, a deeper love, a more profound being that holds us and guides us and strengthens us.  And because of that, no matter what decisions we make or what path we take, we know that God will be with us on the journey.  That means every journey bears sacred possibility—the possibility to learn and mature such that we begin to have the same mind and heart that was in Christ Jesus.

 

Regardless of where you are in your life today, regardless of what decisions you face or what challenges or joys or questions or vulnerabilities or crises capture your heart and mind be assured that whatever happens, you are held in the surpassing love of God.  God continues to give us everything we need, grace and nourishment and strength to face every moment with love and without fear.  The choice has been made on our behalf— God continues to prepare the feast and Jesus Christ is calling your name to join the celebration.  The only decision left is whether you’ll really accept the invitation.  And that choice is yours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[i] Self-Help's Slimy 'Secret' by Tim Watkin, The Washington Post, Sunday, April 8, 2007; Page B01, found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/06/AR2007040601819.html, on Saturday, October 11, 2008.