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Deuteronomy 30:15-20, from the Jerusalem Bible
Matthew 5:21-26, from the Common English Bible
Decision-making can be hard. Depending on how big and consequential a decision is, we can come up with all kinds of reasons, many of them unconscious, for passively putting it off or simply deciding not to decide:
There is the fear of making the wrong choice—choosing Door A when the grand prize could be behind Door B.
There is the fear of choosing too soon and losing out on the best choice—making a commitment to marry your sweetheart, for example, when you might meet your soulmate at the wedding reception.
There is the fear of looking stupid—raising your hand in class to answer the teacher’s question and being wrong.
There is the fear of loss and change—not wanting to give up a sure and comfortable thing for something that is new and different and unknown.
And then there is the fear of taking responsibility, which often masquerades as simply not caring. Who among us, when trying to decide with a friend or family member what to do or where to go, has not been met with, “Doesn’t matter to me. You decide.” And who among doesn’t kind of hate that?
This is not to downplay how hard decision-making can be. Sometimes there simply is no good option, and we are forced to choose between one heart-wrenching path and another that is life-sapping in completely different ways.
In the television show “The Good Place,” the character Chidi is so paralyzed by his choices, so desperate to find the perfect answer to every question, that his indecision leads to his death. He is standing on the sidewalk, unable to decide which bar to go to with his best friend, when an air conditioner falls out of an apartment window and lands on him. The moral of that particular episode seemed to be that if Chidi had only chosen one bar or the other—it didn’t matter which one!—he wouldn’t have been standing under the air conditioner. He would have lived.
Our lives are filled with choices. Everything from whether to get out of bed in the morning to what to eat for lunch, whom to vote for, whom to love, and, yes, whether to follow Jesus.
I realize that it’s in vogue now to smash false binaries—male or female, for example, and, sometimes, a clear-cut right or wrong, black or white, good or evil. This is well and good. And, still, all binaries are not false. Some options are as different as—dare I say it?—night and day. Some choices cannot be delayed or denied. Sometimes, if you snooze, you lose. And, in the end, to not decide is to decide.
We may not like that reality. We may resist it with every fiber of our being every chance we get. But that’s how it is. And it just may be that the bigger the decision, the starker the choice, the truer it is.
Our lives are comprised of countless choices, most of them small and insignificant, and some of them huge and life-altering.
This latter is the kind of choice Moses presents to the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land. This is the kind of choice Jesus lays out again and again for his would-be followers:
The choices between life and death, meaning and drudgery, fulfillment and constant striving, purpose and hopelessness, clear direction and feeling lost.
Love God and follow God’s ways, Moses says, and you’ll live long and prosper. But if you turn from God’s ways and worship other gods, if you think you can live without worshiping anything, you’ll end up following other paths that lead to other, not-so-good directions. Moses paints a picture of sharp contrasts and stark choices.
And then there’s that all-important thing Moses didn’t say that I wish he had:
That God’s going to love you no matter what you choose or don’t. That God is not in the punishment-or-rewards business. That, God, unlike some who think they’re God, will not curse you if you choose not to follow God’s ways, any more than God will reward you if you turn off your brain and follow mindlessly. God will always love you, no matter what.
Fortunately, Jesus did say it, in the most dramatic way. Make the cruelest, most foolish choice possible, he said, to shame your loving parents, demand and squander your inheritance, run away from love and home and security, and end up worse off than the barnyard pigs. Do all that and more, Jesus said, and still your parents will want nothing more than to take you in their arms. Still, God will pace the floor at night praying for your safety. Still, God will run down the street half-naked at the faintest glimpse of a figure that might be good. And she’ll never even say “I told you so.” Only: “I love you. Welcome home.”
In God’s realm, no choice is irreversible. There will, however, be, consequences. And while some consequences cannot be undone, God will always give you the opportunity to start over, to make a different choice: to choose life, to choose healing, to choose love, to choose peace, to choose God’s way. You can even choose to make amends with that person you’re on the outs with, the one who hurt you so deeply you don’t ever want to forgive them.
The choice is yours, Jesus says: Reconcile with them, which is the true worship God wants, or let your resentment and anger continue to eat away at you. Life or death. Inner peace or turmoil. Reconciliation or ongoing estrangement. Vulnerability or hard-heartedness. Newness or regret. Resignation to the way things are, or a willingness to try something different. A low-level bitterness about what you can’t change, or a renewed determination to change what you can.
And, yes, choosing to walk through one door sometimes closes another door—at least for a time. In fact, this intention is exactly what some choices require of us.
Before Dietrich Bonhoeffer became the founder of the Confessing Church, a Nazi resister, and a martyr, he was a pastor. By 1938, when Pastor Bonhoeffer was receiving confirmands into his church, Hitler’s Germany had established five concentration camps and had begun to annex foreign territories under threat of invasion and war. Evil and genocide seemed to be winning the day.
And so Bonhoeffer’s charge to the young people joining his church was clear and strong and not unlike Moses’ charge to the Israelites and Jesus’ invitation to would-be followers:
“You have only one master now,” Bonhoeffer said. “But with this ‘yes’ to God belongs just as clear a ‘no.’ Your ‘yes’ to God requires your ‘no’ to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy. Your ‘yes’ to God requires a ‘no’ to everything that tries to interfere with your serving God alone, even if that is your job, your possessions, your home, or your honor in the world. Belief means decision.”
This is also true in our time—and in every time:
Faithfulness requires decision. Following Jesus means saying ‘yes’ to life, choosing love and justice and the welfare of all, and saying no to injustice and exclusion, to whatever hurts another or kills our own souls. Saying ‘yes’ to Jesus might even require saying ‘no’ to power, wealth, and privilege.
Choosing one thing often involves denying another, and that is hard. We prefer to keep our options open. Despite everything Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. said and did, most of us do not aspire to be extremists. We’d rather keep our heads down, mind our own business, and hew to the safe middle ground.
But not to choose is to choose. And to choose the middle ground, to try to sit on the fence, is to reinforce the status quo, the powers that be, and the way things are, as unjust and untenable as they may be.
We’d like to think that we will meander our way into meaningful life and happiness. But Moses and Jesus say we must choose life. We must say ‘yes,’ which also involves saying ‘no.’
What do you choose this morning? What will you do with the one wild and precious life God has given you?