Sermon: "Choose Wisely"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry V. Ort
Jeremiah 2.4-13; Psalm 81.1, 10-16; Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16; Luke 14.1, 7-14
Today’s appointed readings have a great deal to say about choosing wisely. In Jeremiah, we encounter the prophet’s lament for the people of the house of Jacob and the house of Israel have not chosen wisely: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me [God] that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (Jeremiah 2.5; NRSV). Jeremiah recounts some of the wonderful things God has done for the people: Bringing them up from Egypt, leading them through a wilderness no one passes through, and bringing them to a land of plenty. Yet the people have chosen to defile the land; they accepted foreign gods, choosing the unprofitable over the profitable. The heavens are to be appalled for God’s “people have committed two evils: they have forsaken God, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2.13; NRSV). The people have exchanged the living water of a pure spring or fresh flowing stream for rainwater collected in a cistern with all its impurities, but even so, the cistern is cracked and will go dry. Choose wisely – would we possess springs of living water from an ever-flowing source or a cracked cistern?
The psalmist sets forth a similar lament – despite the Lord’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel chose not to listen to God’s voice or to obey. Hence, God gave them over to their stubbornness of heart and their foolish ways. Perhaps they will see their error, repent, and return to the Lord. God desires the people listen and walk in the ways of the Lord, for God longs to subdue their enemies, feed them the finest wheat and honey from the rock (Psalm 81.13-16; BCP).
In the first two readings we see the marked difference between what is, versus what could be – the negative versus the positive. Choose wisely. Our readings from the epistle and the gospel emphasize the positive.
Hebrews 13 emphasizes several positive actions grounded in wisely following God’s call.
Loving – “Let mutual love continue” (Vs. 1; NRSV). Note the primary position accorded love. “God is love,” and love is the very heart of our faith expression.
Showing hospitality – “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Vs. 2; NRSV). Last week I mentioned the International Friendship Family Program. I have submitted my application. This is a wonderful way for us to show hospitality to strangers and to invite them to be part of our community through “burgers and brats” or “soup suppers.” This week I have brochures and application forms.
Caring and remembering – “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Vs. 3; NRSV). In ancient times, prisons were not equipped for feeding prisoners. People brought them food, and in doing so, fed more than their bodies. Today physical nourishment is provided, but there is a longing for spiritual nourishment.
Honoring – “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers” (Vs. 4; NRSV).
Being content – “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Vs. 5; NRSV). The love of money is a misplaced love which distorts one’s soul and life. True love is a manifestation of the spring of living water which flows from God. When we drink of this love, we extend that love to God and others. This is life as God intends it. The love of money impedes the flow of living water. We become cisterns of impurity.
Remembering – “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Vs. 7; NRSV). I encourage you to think of who has promoted your spiritual development, who has shared the journey of God’s goodness with you? How can you emulate their actions?
Sacrificing – “Through Jesus, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Vss. 15-16; NRSV). We need to praise God for God’s steadfast love and support. As Kind David has reminded us, when we err, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51.17; NRSV). Our healing, as with David, should bring forth praise.
Although not included in our reading, Hebrews 13 sets forth a couple more noteworthy behaviors:
Guarding – “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them” (Vs. 9; NRSV). We must guard the essentials of our faith while remaining open to new insight and understanding.
Praying – “Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Vs. 18; NRSV). We need to support one another in prayer. Let’s face it, it is easy to fall into the habit of simply hearing the Prayers of the People without attending to them. Let us strive to more fully attend, to take ownership of these prayers such that they are our prayers.
What is the intended effect of such actions? We see this clearly stated in a few of verses near the end of the epistle: “Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13. 20-21; NRSV). In Matthew 5.48, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NRSV). We often interpret this to mean perfect in the sense of without spot, blemish, or fault, but the intended sense is to be perfect in the sense of following something through to completion. Now that we have begun to travel with Jesus, let us finish the journey! Let us be transformed into the very image of God. If you would be transformed, choose wisely.
Jesus gives us further insight into living into this transformation in our reading from the gospel of Luke. We must remember that middle-eastern society places great emphasis on honor – on attaining honor and keeping it. When we are invited to a wedding banquet, Jesus warns us not to automatically occupy the seat of honor, for the host may ask us to move such that a more honored guest may be seated. Should that happen, we will suffer dishonor; we will lose face. If we sit at the lowest place, the host may come and invite us to move up to a more honored position. Should that happen, honor is bestowed upon us. Jesus tells us “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14.11; NRSV). Choose wisely.
But Jesus goes beyond this and calls into question the whole system of honor and privilege. He tells the host, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relative or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid” (Luke 14.12; NRSV). But wait a minute. Isn’t this what it means to choose wisely? Yes, from the worldly point of view. But Jesus gives us a new view: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14.13-14; NRSV). We might call this the “other-worldly view,” the “kingdom view.” The worldly view is present oriented – give me my honor now. In contrast, the kingdom view is future oriented. Repayment occurs at the resurrection of the righteous.
Our readings portray a deep contrast in values – values chosen to benefit oneself versus values chosen to benefit others and God’s kingdom. But there is an irony present, for as we live into kingdom values, we come to realize that these are the values which most benefit our self – our true self. We need to choose wisely! Amen!