So many choices!
Christopher Seaman, 19 September 2021
Proverbs 3: 13–18; 2 Corinthians 4: 1–6; Matthew 9: 9–13
‘I don’t know what to choose!’ How many times have we said this, or heard someone else say it, when looking at a menu in a restaurant? ‘I don’t know what to choose!’ All our readings today are about choices – all of them far more important choices than what to order for your main course.
Our first reading, from the book of Proverbs, encourages us to choose wisdom, and to seek it above success, fame, riches and so on. You will have noticed that wisdom is spoken of as a person – a person of the female gender. Quite right too, I hear you say. ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.’
Wisdom. The great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham said the following thing: ‘I went to university seeking wisdom, but all I found was cleverness’. Oh dear! I wonder if I was like that as a student. We all know people, don’t we, brilliant in their field, but lacking what we might call common sense, or even wisdom itself? But you can get the lowest grades in your GCSEs and still have wisdom.
King Solomon made a very important choice: when he took over the throne from his father David, God said, You can have anything you want. What do you want? Riches, power? ‘I want wisdom’, said King Solomon. Very good choice.
The apostle James, in his letter, teaches us that wisdom is a gift from God, and encourages us to pray for it: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom’, says James, ‘God, who gives to all generously – ask him’. And at this point in the life of our parish of St Matthew’s and St Paul’s, we all need to pray for wisdom – for our bishop, archdeacon, clergy, churchwardens, PCC, and everybody who is playing some part in the appointment of a new rector. We need your prayers, our prayers.
Now, an important part of wisdom is knowing ourselves. In our second reading, Paul has obviously made another choice: ‘We do not proclaim ourselves’, he says, ‘we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord’. Paul, aware of his own human frailty, would have needed to check and monitor this every day. We may think that’s obvious. Surely he knew he was proclaiming Christ and not himself; but it’s more subtle than that.
Some years ago, I was leading a group of young Christians at a conference. On the Sunday, we all went to the local church. During the service, a young man stood up and said, ‘I have a word from God for all of you’. I thought, ‘Great! This sounds like a bit of encouragement’ – we all need encouragement – but he got up and he said, ‘God is angry with you all, and you know why!’ And I looked round, and people were squirming in their seats. Then some of us realised that this young man was having the time of his life making 200 people feel bad. He clearly didn’t have the wisdom to know himself, and afterwards my friends and I had to debrief some very disturbed, discouraged young Christians.
It can be quite sobering if we ask ourselves, ‘Is this all about me?’ when we thought something we’d said or done was about God, or about other people, or even for the good of the Church. Is it actually about me? Self-searching – not very comfortable always.
Oscar Wilde said, ‘All criticism is a form of autobiography’. Now, mine can be. I’m a conductor. Ask any conductor about another conductor: you may get praise, but there’s usually a bit of edge, a little bit of jealousy, maybe, a bit of disappointment, the odd agenda. And not just conductors; it probably happens with every job. On rare occasions I have even heard it from clergy! (Not here, of course.) So the wisdom to know ourselves is something really worth praying for, isn’t it?
Our gospel reading tells of another choice: Matthew made the choice of his life – Matthew, patron saint of one of our churches in the parish – to leave his lucrative tax-collecting business and to follow Jesus as a disciple.
Yes, there are choices. It has been said that all the choices we make in our lives, big or small, add up, or average out, either to a great big Yes to God, or a great big No to God. Matthew’s choice here definitely was a Yes. But what about his future? After Jesus was arrested, all the disciples forsook him and fled – and that includes Matthew. That would have been a No choice to God. What about St Paul, our other patron saint? Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do, that is what I do’. So Paul is admitting here that his life was a mixture of Yeses and Nos to God. How about St Peter, saying to Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’? Definitely a Yes to God. Then after Jesus was arrested, Peter denied him three times, and I call that a No. I think you would as well.
Our lives are a patchwork quilt of the choices that say Yes to God, and the choices that say No to God.
Our lives, you and me, are a patchwork quilt of the choices that say Yes to God, and the choices that say No to God. We may even be tempted to wonder, or even fear, that all our choices add up to a great big No. And then we get down the road of questioning, ‘Am I a sheep or a goat? Am I with the wheat or the tares?’
No! To think like that is to think like the Pharisees, who were stuck – those critical Pharisees, they were stuck in their interpretation, their understanding of the Old Covenant. They were stitching a new patch on an old garment, to use Jesus’ illustration. They were putting new wine into old bottles.
Because there is another choice – a choice far greater than choosing wisdom; a choice far greater than all the mixture of Yes and No choices made by St Paul, St Matthew, St Peter; a choice far greater than all your choices and mine added together, whether they add up to a No or a Yes to God in our estimation.
And that greater choice is this: it’s the choice that God made, when he chose to come to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In the words of St Paul: ‘In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them’, not counting the Nos we have said in our lives against us.
Now I said that the Pharisees, those critical Pharisees, were stuck in the Old Covenant. This is the New Covenant, the Good News, the gospel which we believe. When we say the Creed, affirming our faith, we embrace it, we proclaim it, we make it our own. (Although I did have a friend who kept his fingers crossed when he said the Creed, just in case some of it wasn’t right.) So, that is the New Covenant, when we say the Creed. And we take it into our very selves at the Eucharist.
So, however we may look at our own patchwork quilt of choices, some saying Yes, some saying No to God, God’s choice is greater. He looks at you and me and says a resounding YES! And as we grasp this, however gradually, its effect transforms us, because instead of asking, ‘What must I do to be acceptable to God?’ we can say, ‘I am accepted! Right. Now, what shall I do?’