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Last week I preached about the hidden wisdom of God. It is that place deep within us revealed through prayer and honed by Scripture that gives us insight into God’s calling upon our souls.
Today, I want to talk about how that calling upon our souls is revealed in our lives through the choices we make. Choice is the watch word for today’s sermon. I love that word choice, it is empowering, and gives me a sense that I have control over my life.
I am inspired to talk about choice because of the words we find in the Book of Sirach. Now the choice Sirach talks about is a little different than the type of choice I prefer, I might note. I like nuanced; I like choice to be flexible, a little grey, so, I can ensure the choice I make works for me.
For example: When I come across a beggar if I am not in a hurry; if I have small enough bills; if I don’t need cash later; I will choose, in my beneficence, to give him money.
Now the choice Sirach talks about is different than that. It is binary, it’s black and white, it’s good and bad, it’s sin verses the calling God has put upon our soul.
Sirach would say: God sees; You have the money. Give it to the beggar. God gave you the money. God put the beggar before you. Give him the money. That is pretty black and white.
The Book of Sirach may be new to you. It is part of the Apocrypha in the Bible that is made up of 12 books found in the section between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Book of Sirach is a collection of sayings from a wise man who lived in Alexandria Egypt named Jesus Ben-Sirach. The Book of Sirach is about the ethics of public life and how it is supported through worship and the study of Scripture.
When I was in seminary, I took an ethics class, which felt more like a chemistry class. We talked about beneficence and some other stuff that I can’t remember now. We probably should’ve just studied the Book of Sirach.
Here is what it says, and I believe to be true, that we know the difference between good and bad; we know when we wander into the gray area in an effort to justify what we want; we know when we sin instead of living into God’s call upon our souls.
Today we are going to look at choice and we begin with a quick definition of sin, since sin is the wrong choice. Sin is making choices where we set ourselves at the center. Sin is making choices where our context is the most important context; instead of considering God’s context; which has a name, incidentally: the Kingdom of God.
Sin is a word most of us don’t like very much. It seems judging, and it sounds churchy, and it can even tweak a sense of shame. No one likes that. But here’s the reason that happens: God has formed our hearts to be a holding place of all that is good and honorable and right and noble. And sin is none of these things.
So today I’d like to look at two kinds of choice we often encounter because choice is the catalyst that propels us toward the good and noble or the bad and sinful.
The first is imminent choice. It is a fork in the road. We see it coming. We can go either right or left, but either way a choice will be made, even if no choice is the choice we so choose.
The second kind of choice is the choice we make unconsciously and only recognize retrospectively. These choices are instinctive and occur because of habits we have developed over time.
So, let’s begin with imminent choice. We’ll use the Ten Commandments as our backdrop for these inevitable, binary choices. If we are mad; and we choose not to murder. If we have need; and we choose not to steal.If we feel lust; and we choose not to commit adultery. If our neighbor has something we like; and we choose not to covet. If we break these rules, choosing to violate them, generally things do not work out all that well.
Even if we are successful at hiding our sin, we obscured God’s calling upon our soul; and something deep down inside gets twisted out of shape. If we get caught, on the other hand, we know the ramifications will impact our relationships.
And here is an interesting thing: when the choice is inevitable our perspective on that choice is the same as God’s. God sees the same fork in the road that we see, and, as it is written by Ben-Sirach, God never endorses the choice of sin.
Now the second kind of choice we are going to look at today is the one that we can only see in retrospect. And yet, God sees these choices in real time, even as we are making them unconsciously.
I’ll give you an example: workplace ambition. Think of a time, maybe, when you were working hard and doing your job and your efforts, in your opinion, were not being matched by a colleague. So, you turned in your work and when your boss asked for the rest of it you just shrug and say, “You’ll have to ask Lois.“ Then it happens again. This time, you do a bit of Lois’s work as well and turn it in. And the next thing you know Lois seems to be mad at you, and you have no idea why. She should be loving you. Right? Not likely.
To recognize this kind of habit of self-centered choice we need to train. Last week I talked about training in prayer and the study of scripture; today I want to call your attention to the spiritual exercises of stillness and discernment.
We’ll start with stillness. Let me tell you what it isn’t: it’s not quiet time; it’s not alone time; it’s not even “me time.” Stillness is intentionally putting your body and movement and actions before God. One example might be taking 10 minutes each day to sit perfectly still; just pay attention to your breathing, and to your body. Quieting your being. Quieting your existence.
Another stillness exercise is walking slowly, and moving slowly, and being very attentive to the space you are in. Try this the next time you are at an airport or in a department store. You will be surprised at how you see the world around you when you are moving slowly and everything else is moving quickly. Your perspective will change in a way that better allows you to see your choices coming at you before they arrive. Good and bad will walk toward you as if in slow motion, and sit down before you, allowing you to clearly discern which decision to make.
The exercise of stillness is about controlling the pace of the choices that come before you; so to hear more clearly God’s calling upon soul.
Now let’s move to discernment. It is a spiritual exercise that illuminates the unconscious choices we make. Discernment is the practice of seeing the world from God’s perspective. And so, the activity of discernment is reviewing your life every day. The Jesuits call it the Examen. It is simply opening a journal and chronicling the activities of the past day, putting a circle around all the relational interactions you had. And then ask: “How were they?” And if Lois pops up as a broken relationship, get curious, and not about the interaction per se, but about Lois herself. What is happening in her life? What is she good at? What are the virtues God’s written on her soul? And then wonder: how am I allowing her virtues to be expressed or how am I repressing them? These questions will then set the standard for future choice points in your relationship with Lois; and it will improve.
The good choice bad choice matrix will shift through the practice of discernment; moving from what was good or bad for me, to what is good or bad for Lois. Here is the interesting thing, the more concerned you become for Lois’s soul; the more clearly you will see how God sees you.
The choices we make matter; they are more binary then we might suppose. Good choices form us to be our most authentic self, and sin perverts the very shape of our heart and obscures the calling upon our souls.
I’ll leave you with this invitation: Ash Wednesday is February 26. This Lent I invite you to consider how you make choices. I invite you to take on the spiritual exercises of stillness and discernment; and to more genuinely seek to see how the choices in your life are binary: good or bad, sin or God’s calling upon your soul; and how each choice has an impact on who you are, and on the world in which we all live.
God has made each one of us perfectly capable of choosing the good… every time. All that is good and honorable and right and noble comes from living as if God sees you all the time, and this leads to the good life. May that be the choice you make.