Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Hard Choices: a sermon (1 Samuel 16:1–13, John 9:1–41)

Once I attended a conference where the main speaker was a noted Australian clergyman and social justice advocate. In one of his talks, he told us about an offer he received one day. It was from an advertising agency. A used car dealership - he didn’t say which one - let’s just call the dealership “Honest Harry’s” - a used car dealership wanted a more credible spokesperson in their TV ads than the sport and showbiz people that they usually used. To be blunt, “Honest Harry’s” wanted this noted cleric to flog their used cars on TV.
Now at first, he wasn’t sure if this may not have been some sort of practical joke that a friend was trying to pull off, but the man from the advertising agency assumed him that he was in earnest. The agency even had a script for him, which went something like this:
I’m .... and I want to tell you: don’t gamble on a used car.
Buy your next used car from Honest Harry’s.
Honest Harry’s used cars: that’s gospel, brother!
The agency offered him thirty thousand dollars to make the commercial. When he turned the offer down, all the advertising bloke could say was, “Well if you want to negotiate for more, I’ll see what I can do.”

Needless to say, he still hasn’t made the commercial. His choice was pretty obvious (although the advertising guy is probably still puzzled as to why he turned down an easy thirty thousand).
We all face choices. And many of our choices are much less obvious than the one that faced the clergyman in this incident. We agonise over many of the decisions we are expected to make. Sometimes in church, we hear lessons from the Bible that seem to make these complicated decisions appear very easy, almost automatic, with God invisibly whispering the right choice into the ear of the person making the decision. If anything, this makes our choices even harder. We hardly ever - for many of us, never - hear the whisper of God in our ear, the whisper that makes the hard decision easy or the amibiguous decision straightforward.
I think that part of the problem is that these stories about decisions we find in the Bible were written down some time after they happened. Before the stories were written down, the people involved in the story were telling the story to others - who then told the story to others - repeatedly. In the process, the internal struggles that existed at the time the story happened were forgotten.
So, when Samuel visited Jesse’s family to choose a successor to King Saul, Samuel really may have struggled over which of Jesse’s sons to pick. “Well, Eliab looks reliable . . . but, then, so does Aminadab . . . Shammah looks intelligent . . . but David really seems to be the pick of the lot . . . I think.”
And Samuel chose David. And, over the years, the appropriateness of that choice became so obvious to Samuel that his memory of the events may have developed so that his choice became - at least a bit - more obvious in the re-telling than it was at the time.
But Samuel had a difficult choice, a choice that required him to use his intelligence and his judgement. And we shouldn’t assume that the choice was easy.
And we see something similar in our New Testament lesson. It was the Sabbath, a day when all Jews were expected to rest from working. Jesus’ attention was called to a blind man. Technically, healing was work. If Jesus healed the man, he would be breaking the Sabbath. We don’t have any information about Jesus’ train of thought, but he probably weighed up a few things.
  • On the one hand, there was his deep compassion for human suffering.
  • On the other, there was his deep respect for the Torah, the Jewish law.
  • He may also weighed up whether he and his disciples were ready yet to confront the anger of the ultra-conservative element in the community, once word got out that Jesus healed (in other words, worked) on the Sabbath. (And let me say that this is not just a Jewish thing. Every faith - without exception - has an unfortunate element that is more concerned with people obeying the rulebook than they are with human compassion.)
Jesus weighed it all up and chose to heal the blind man. He chose compassion. And the appropriateness of that choice became so apparent to the disciples that Jesus’ choice became much more obvious in the re-telling than it was at the time. In later years, as the disciples told the stories of Jesus and as some stories were written down, elements of struggle in Jesus’ life were downplayed, although we still see some signs of struggle at some places in the gospels.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of the choice facing Jesus at the time. We shouldn't assume that the choice was easy.
We also face difficult decisions in our own lives. On a day-to-day basis, in our life and work, we encounter complicated, ambiguous decisions. We face decisions which often lead us to questions the relevance of our faith in a world of such tough decisions.
In the scriptures, we also hear of people:
  • facing difficult choices,
  • struggling with the choices,
  • making a decision, and
  • taking action with faith and integrity once the decision is made.
If the way the story is told makes the decision look easy, look again.
Discipleship is about facing difficult choices: about
  • using our God-given abilities to decide between the choices, and
  • taking action with faith and with integrity.
Discipleship is about seeing God’s presence even in the times of hard choices.

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