The readings for this coming Sunday in the Episcopal Church are:
You know, I’d always wondered about Ordinary Time. As a child and a teenager, I don’t remember a whole lot about it, just the interminable time of GREEN. But it seems like we get these really hard readings during Ordinary Time, and I don’t think I wonder any more why so many Episcopalians take the summer off from church. 🙂 Getting this stuff week after week is tough, and I feel for those clergy who have to preach every Sunday. I think I’d be really worn down by the end of summer, and more than ready for Advent. Not that Advent is easy, but still!
This week, the main theme I see in these readings is choice. And I find this interesting, because I don’t remember hearing very much about choice in church. But free will – the power and the responsibility to make choices – is a very important part of Christianity. I have said for years that faith is not some nebulous feeling that we either intrinsically have or don’t have, but that faith is our deliberate, conscious choice, made when we engage heart and spirit and mind, made with our doubts, in spite of our doubts, because of our doubts. Faith is what we choose to believe, and how we choose to respond to God. A funny story about this. Last month, the choir director at Old Donation treated the choir to dinner, and I was chatting with the rector. I asked who was preaching in the morning, and he told me that our new assistant would be preaching on faith. I said, “Oh, I have quite a speech on faith.” And from several directions, the eyes of everyone around me turned to me, including those of two Episcopal priests and a retired Methodist minister. “Okay, then,” I said, and gave this little speech. The rector smiled and said, “You’ll have to hear what she says about faith tomorrow morning.” And darned if she didn’t preach exactly what I’d said at dinner! As the sermon wrapped up Sunday morning, the rector’s wife tapped my shoulder from behind me in the choir loft, and said, “Preach it, Hedwyg!” We both cracked up, and the rest of the choir thought we were nuts. (For reference purposes, we are.)
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depression) on New Year’s Day 1998, when I was hospitalized with severe depression. The next two months were a study in how low my soul could sink. I was hospitalized as an inpatient three separate times. The first time was because I wanted to harm myself and was afraid. The second was because I expressed to someone else the desire to end my life. The third was because I had actually made a suicide attempt. And in that third hospitalization, the hospital social worker came to see me – a lady I’d gone to college with, had been in the same service sorority with – and she very sadly said, “Hedwyg, I wish you’d made a different choice.”
Whoa. Those words hit me like a punch to the stomach. Choice? What choice did I have? I couldn’t think straight. Everything I did, it felt like I was doing through jello – walking through jello, talking through jello, even thinking through jello. It was almost impossible to do simple care-taking things like brushing my teeth. And this was a choice? Well, yeah. It was. And that was simultaneously the most awful thing anyone had said to me, and the best lesson I learned in my journey through depression. Because every action we take, every word we speak, even a great deal of our thinking, is our choice.
The Deuteronomy lesson is probably the clearest on this topic. Here, God is speaking to you, to me, to all of us. And God is laying out our choice: I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. What God doesn’t tell us here is a very hard lesson to learn. Unfortunately, we don’t get to make this choice once and for all, so that everything afterward is just gravy. We have to slog through our lives, making this choice every day, every hour, every minute. In every word we speak, every place we go, every person we meet, we are choosing between life and death.
Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? The truth is, there are many kinds of death. One does not have to be in the grave to be dead. Rather, one could be devoted to the pursuit of money, or one could spend one’s time being mocking and cruel, or one could be so enamored of the pursuit of happiness that all the fancy cars and big-screen televisions and beautiful women in the world can not satisfy the aching for true joy and wonder. One could choose to disengage from the world, whether from anger or cynicism or grief or depression. But there is life. There is the play of sunlight on the leaves of a tree. There is a sleeping infant. There are squirrels at play and dragonflies darting from place to place and oceans and rivers and mountains and meadows. There is poetry, and there is music, and there is beautiful sculpture. There is the whisper in one’s heart – or the clue-by-four to one’s head – which is God, saying I am here, and I want you to live; choose me.
The psalmist recognizes this, saying that when we choose life,we are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. When we choose life, God fills us with life. When we choose life, the seeds of joy and love and wonder are nourished, and it becomes easier to continue to choose life at the next stop along the way, and the next, and the next, and the one after that.
Jesus is a bit more… hmm… demanding in the gospel lesson for Sunday. I like to think that Jesus is indulging in a bit of hyperbole here, since that seems to be one of his favorite teaching techniques. But he does say that when we choose to follow Jesus, this choice will cost us everything. And perhaps it does, but not in precisely the way it seems on first reading. Yes, it is good to give up possessions and to live simply. But all of them? Surely Jesus doesn’t mean my bed or my pillow. He couldn’t possibly mean that I have to give up my socks and my underwear! What I think is more important here is not the choice to actually give away everything we own to somebody else. Rather, I think what Jesus is telling us is that we must choose to not be attached to our possessions, to not let our possessions own us. Because when it comes down to it, possessions do not give us life. My television does not give me life, nor does my dining room table, nor do my socks. But if I choose to be attached to these things, to give them power over me, then I am choosing a path of spiritual death. And that is hard.
So today, I am going to try to see myself as that tree, beside the stream of living water. And I will imagine what my leaves will look like – healthy and unwithered – and what kind of fruit I will bear. Am I a weeping willow? A strong oak or maple? Am I a pine tree, with deep roots to withstand the fiercest storms? Am I an apple tree, feeding my friends?
And what kind of tree are you, my friend? How do you choose to let that stream of living water feed you? What do your leaves look like, and what kind of fruit do you bear? I hope that you and I both are able to choose life today – in the words that we choose to speak, in the actions that we choose to take, in the prayers that we choose to pray, in the thoughts that we choose to think. And as we choose life, I pray that God opens us up to those wells of wonder and joy and love and peace that help us to continue to choose life day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Choice by choice.