Sunday, June 02, 2013

Choosing God, Choosing Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 2, 2013

Year C: Proper 4 – The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 18:20-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

Choosing God, Choosing Love
            I’m not sure why, exactly, but I’ve only officiated at a few weddings in the six years since I was ordained a priest.
            As it happens, though, lately I’ve been on a little bit of a wedding streak! I officiated at one wedding last Sunday afternoon and I have another one later today.
            I didn’t know either couple when we began our pre-marital counseling sessions. In one case the groom is the son of parishioners at my former parish and in the other case the couple found me after being turned away by the local Roman Catholic parish.
            I spent a lot of time offering pre-marital counseling to both couples – encouraging them to look hard at their relationships, remember what brought them together, admit the things they don’t really like about each other, face up to mistakes they’ve made, and share their hopes and plans for the future.
            Like most of us, both couples carry a good bit of baggage: failed relationships, poor decisions, complicated family dynamics, and anxiety and fear about the future.
            But despite all that baggage, despite past mistakes, despite concerns about what tomorrow might bring, despite the option of not committing to each other till death do they part, both couples have made a choice. They’ve chosen love – not just romantic love but deep, self-giving, self-sacrificing love. And since God is love, whether they fully realize it or not, they’ve chosen God.
            We Americans have more choices than any people who have ever lived.
            In the first years that Sue and I lived on Highland Avenue, there was a little corner grocery store on West Side Avenue that was run by an elderly man and his two sisters. Maybe some of you remember it. Walking in there was like entering a time warp. There was fresh produce, but only what was in season. There were a few small aisles containing canned goods and household products.
            You could find pretty much all the essentials but there wasn’t much selection – there was little choice – Dawn, but no Joy – Chef Boyardee, but no Franco-American…you get the idea.
            Not too long ago that’s what life was like.
            Now, we go to Shop Rite and are faced with an incredible number of choices –just in the salad dressing aisle alone!
            Most of us remember when we had just a handful of TV channels. Maybe because it was a hassle to get up and change the channel, lots of us just stayed tuned to the same channel most of the time. There were “CBS families” or “Channel 7 families,” and so on.
            And it’s not just at the supermarket or on TV that we face way more choices than people before us. We also have many more choices when it comes to religion.
            A generation or two ago, it was very unusual – and usually downright scandalous – for someone to switch Christian denominations, let alone adopt a different religion, or, God forbid, to give up on religion altogether.
            But today, according to the writer Diana Butler Bass, “roughly 44 percent of Americans have left their childhood faith in favor of another denomination or religion or by dropping any religious affiliation at all.” And that last group – the people who don’t belong to any religious group is the fastest growing, especially among young people.
            In many ways, all these choices make for a new and troubling world. It’s definitely a lot harder to be church now that it’s perfectly acceptable for people to skip church and to ignore religion.
            Now, obviously, we’ve chosen to be here today. And many of us choose to be here most Sundays. Most, if not all of us, have chosen to identify as Episcopalians, as Christians, as followers of Jesus.
            But, when we’re here, that’s not such a hard choice, is it? Admit it, it’s easy to be a Christian here at St. Paul’s, right?
            But, that choice gets a lot harder when we’re out in the world. The choice gets a lot harder when it’s embarrassing to admit our faith. The choice get a lot harder when we know something’s wrong but we see people all around us doing it and getting away with it and we think, “Why not?” or “Just this one time.” The choice gets a lot harder when we have the chance to stand up for what’s right, to defend the weak, to risk something big for something good.
             It’s a pretty easy choice to be a Christian here at St. Paul’s. But, that choice gets a lot harder when we leave this place
            God who is Love has already chosen us.
            What choice do we make?
            Today’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture, from First Kings, is all about choosing – or not choosing – God.
            One of the great themes running throughout the Old Testament is the fact that God chose the people of Israel and was faithful to them but, like us, lots of times the Israelites made other choices.           
            In today’s reading from the Old Testament, it seems like at least some of the Israelites are hedging their bets – not quite abandoning their God but also choosing to worship the popular pagan god, Baal - you know, just in case. So, the Prophet Elijah calls them out - tells them to make up their minds. – to make a choice. Elijah says to the Israelites, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
            Elijah then dramatically challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to a little game that we might call, “My God’s More Powerful Than Your God.” Sure enough, despite the best efforts of Baal’s prophets – despite calling to Baal from morning to noon, despite limping around the altar, despite cutting themselves, despite making offerings, Baal is silent, offering no answer, demonstrating no power.
            Then Elijah called upon the Lord and, we’re told, “the fire of the Lord fell” and the people then made a clear choice, saying, “The Lord is indeed God; the Lord is indeed God.”
            Unfortunately, our choice between the false gods of the world and the God who is Love is not as clear-cut as the choice the Israelites faced so long ago. These days God doesn’t usually send lightning strikes to display God’s power, to make our choice obvious and clear-cut.
            Then again, maybe God sends us a different kind of lightning strike.
            Isn’t love – deep, self-giving, self-sacrificing love - like a lightning strike?
            It’s like a lightning strike when we realize that somehow we love someone else – a partner, a child, a parent, a brother or sister, or a friend – more than we love ourselves.
            It’s like a lightning strike when we realize that, somehow, despite our many failures and imperfections, we are loved - loved by a partner, a child, a parent, a brother or a sister, or a friend.
            And, most of all, it’s like a lightning strike when we realize that we are loved by the Source of all love – the God who is Love.
            It’s like a lightning strike when we realize no matter how far we stray, no matter how many bad choices we make - no matter how many Baals – no matter how many false gods – we worship – God always loves us.
            As the ancient Israelites proclaimed after witnessing God’s power, “The Lord indeed is God. The Lord indeed is God.”
            We live in a time of many choices, both trivial and big – choices ranging from what salad dressing to buy to what religion, if any, to follow.
            But, we face one big choice.
            Will we be like the Israelites of long ago and hedge our bets – try to have it both ways by coming here to worship God, claiming to be Christians, but then going out into the world and choosing to worship the false gods of our time – the false gods of money, materialism, selfishness, cynicism, apathy and the rest?
            Or will we be like those two brave couples who made vows till death do they part – who despite the baggage, despite the risks, despite the fear, have chosen deep, self-giving, self-sacrificing love?
            God who is Love has already chosen us.
            What choice will we make?