Our lectionary committee gave us two options for the Hebrew scripture reading this morning. Whenever we encounter this when making the bulletin, I tell Anne to go with the top choice, which we did this week. Normally I don’t even read the second choice—it won’t be read at church, after all—but this week a commentator mentioned it in her reflection and my interest was piqued. So if you will humor me for the 30 or 40 seconds it’ll take, hear these words from Sirach:
“If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action. He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.”
Choice. It’s front and center today. In Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Hebrew people after he’s brought them through the years of wandering in the wilderness. They are on the brink of entering the Promised Land: “I set before you life and death, prosperity and adversity. Choose life!” And then again from the Wisdom of Ben Sira: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” And you may be sitting there thinking, “Well, duh, that isn’t much of a choice. Who would choose death?”
Robert Pirsig in his memoir Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values offers up an example. He describes a monkey trap used on the Indian subcontinent. Wild monkeys there are pesky, often stealing food from villagers. So the people would hollow out a coconut and chain it to a stake in the ground. They would put a small bit of rice inside through a hole. The hole itself was large enough for a monkey to slide its hand inside, but it was too small for the monkey’s fist to fit through when holding onto the rice. You’d think that there’s an easy solution for this, of course, but not so for the monkey. They’ve instinctually learned to hold onto food no matter what. With their fist clenched tightly around the measly ball of rice, they’ll remain trapped there, costing them a great deal.
The question about choosing between life and death might seem a bit more difficult now. But maybe another example from the human world will illuminate this more. In his book Messy Spirituality pastorMichael Yaconelli describes a situation one Sunday morning during the church announcements. A parishioner there named Eric had, as Yaconelli described it, faced “a lifelong battle with alcohol [which] had been mostly unsuccessful.” Eric’s drinking had landed him in jail a few times, and it was destroying his relationship with his wife. Eric stood up that Sunday morning during a time to share concerns and said, “I need prayer. My wife has given me an ultimatum—drinking or her. She’s asked me to decide today,” he continued, “and I just wanted to tell you all that I have decided…”
Yaconelli writes, “A long awkward pause ensued, and every person in the church was on the edge of their seat with their face turned toward him, encouraging him, pleading with him to make the right decision. You could have heard a pin drop.” “Finally,” he writes, “[Eric] stumbled on, tears in his eyes [and said]: ‘I’ve decided to choose my wife!’ Applause and cheering broke out.”
Eric had his hand in a hollowed out coconut, holding onto something he thought would bring him life. He finally decided to unclench his fist.
“God has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess…. Choose life.”
Notice what both Moses and Sirah, and of course Jesus himself, are telling us today. That it is through following the commandments that we uncover life. That if we want to choose water over fire, then we need to follow God’s ways. Often, however, it is believed that following the commandments is more confining for us, much like getting one’s hand stuck in a coconut. We think that God’s ways take away our freedoms, and so we’d rather not be constrained by the commandments. It was CS Lewis who posited “that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” He said that God does not choose to send anyone to eternal darkness, but rather that the eternal separation from Love is self-inflicted. He writes, “[the damned] enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore enslaved: just as the blessed forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”
What are you holding onto so tightly in your hand that you’re unable to get free?
A peer reviewed medical article was published last spring about the impact of busyness on our lives. The author Jodi Clarke, a Licensed Professional Counselor, writes, “Research indicates that an individual’s perceived level of busyness may be heavily connected to their self-worth, as well as how others view their status.” But then she points out how it negatively impacts us in significant ways. Busyness impinges on our emotional health causing us to feeling lonely, angry, or stressed. It hinders our physical health leading to headaches, insomnia, and tension. An of course it does a number on the health of our relationships often making others feeling rejected when we do not have time to spend with them.
I’ve been looking at the impact of busyness on our spiritual health for over a year now, and its the same tune as those other areas our lives. Busyness, while heavy on the perceived value of worth in our society, is killing us in a myriad of other ways. And we keep at it, thinking somehow we’ll figure out how to pull out that small bite of rice. All the while we miss the forest right behind us full of nourishing fruit.
In a couple of weeks I’m beginning a series on making space in our busy lives for God. I’m convinced that our overly filled schedules are the biggest barrier we have to living meaningful lives. We imagine that there is no other way to live in our world. That we need to be shackled to our phones 24/7. That we will ruin our children’s lives if they don’t have an activity every weekend. That we will not move up professionally if we don’t put in hours and hours. That our busy lives point to our success. And it is slowly killing us.
God invites us to rest. The call to keep the Sabbath is the only one of the ten commandments that we feel pride in breaking. We think that we’re beyond that all now. That a society driven by commerce in order to achieve greatness was invented by us, forgetting that Moses led the Hebrew people away from Egypt which thought the very same thing and enslaved the people of Israel to accomplish it.
Beloved ones, choose life. Let the rice go. Unlock the door. Open your hearts up to the grace and love of God. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live.” Join me for that series. Make time in your busy life for God. God longs for you to fully live. So choose life. You will be so glad that you did.