Sunday, June 14, 2015

June 7, 2015 - Free Will

Have you ever walked into a grocery store to pick up something and been overwhelmed by the choices in front of you? Like laundry detergent. Now you probably know exactly the brand you like, and the precise type that you want, but if you've ever had to make a new choice - because your brand was out, for instance - it is overwhelming! Do you want liquid or powder? Do you want high efficiency or regular? Do you want it for cold water or hot water? How about colour? Is it for brights? Or whites? Or darks? Bleach-free? Bleach-alternative? And how about fragrance? Do you want unscented? Or do you want sporty scent? Or flowery scent? Do you want fabric softener added? Or do you want the kind that is safe for the environment - with no phosphates? Or the kind that comes in the environmentally friendly packaging? Do you want the refillable kind? Or the kind where you add water? The wall of choices are endless. And the irony is that in our culture of independence, where we value having the freedom to make whatever choice we want, having so many choices can be exhausting. We want to make the *best* choice, but deciding which is *best* can be too much. There is a phrase, "the tyranny of choice," which means that too many choices can enslave us, this is most clear in stores. And sociologists have studied this, and concluded that whether you're buying laundry detergent, or peanut butter, or shampoo, the sheer number of choices us can cause consumer anxiety. Too much choice can be a bad thing - admittedly, a problem that exists only for us in the overabundant first world.

So what are we to do when the choice isn't about something we find in a grocery store, but about how we are supposed to live our lives? How do we choose how we are going to spend our days? As Christians, we want to make choices that reflect our commitment to Christ. We want to live lives that respond to Jesus' proclamation that whoever does the will of God is his brother and his sister. We want to avoid the fate of the Israelites who chose a king against God's will, and ultimately ended up with Solomon, who enslaved most of the population, as Samuel warned he would, in order to build his temples and palaces and compete on the international scene. We want to make the right choices for our lives, so that God will be happy with us and so that we will be deserving of the title, "Christian."

For those who take these choices seriously, this is really challenging. How do we follow God's will? What *is* God's will for us? Unfortunately, most of us don't have a prophet like Samuel in our lives, who will directly tell us what God wants us to do. God leaves us to figure it out on our own. God gives us this free choice because God wants to be in relationship with people, and not with slaves. Just as we gave our children more choices as they got older, even the choice to make the wrong decision and learn from it, so that they might grow into responsible adults, God also gives us the freedom to choose what to do with our lives. God is not interested in being worshipped by automatons or robots, God created us in God's image - with freedom - so that as free people we might worship God. When God left Adam and Eve in the garden with the forbidden tree wasn’t a trap. It was God allowing them to make decisions and learn from them and grow. God gives us freedom to choose whether and how we will follow God. And, since you are all here this morning, I’m guessing that you have chosen to do what God wills - "thy will be done on earth as in heaven" - and so the question is, What is God's will?

Martin Luther struggled with this question. He likely suffered from depression and anxiety, and so his struggles were more acute than most people, but he was incredibly torn about what God's will for him was. In the beginning, he thought God’s will was that he honour his father and mother - the fourth commandment - and so he went to school to become a lawyer. But that did not make him feel closer to God. So he become a monk, thinking that would make God happy. But even that was a problem, as we know, and he began to think that God was not happy with that either. Luther spent his early life struggling to make choices that would make God happy. And Luther thought, early on, that what would make God happy would be Luther doing God's will.

But Luther came to realize that he was terribly mistaken about what he thought would make God happy. Because what he realized is that nothing that we do - no choice that we make - will make God happy with us. Not because God is unhappy with us, but because God is *already* happy with us. Because God made a covenant with us, to be our God forever, and through the death of Christ on the cross, God is already happy with us. We can't make God happy through our choices because God is already happy. We can't make God more pleased with us because God is already pleased. Doing God's will, as Luther discovered, is not about making the best choices so that God will accept us. We are already accepted. Doing God's will is simply about responding to this acceptance. We do God's will because we want to show that we are happy to be in the relationship that God already as with us. We do God's will out of thanksgiving for God's acceptance of us, and because we want to follow Jesus. Not because we have to, but because we want to.

Luther described this as the freedom of a Christian. Through Christ, we are freed from living so that we might be saved - because we already are. And we are free to live however we want. Nobody can tell us what we are *supposed* to do. Luther described this by saying that we are "Lords of all." We are the kings and queens of our own lives. We are free to spend our days however we want. God's will is that we make our own choices. We can, if we choose, make the choices all about us. 

But, as you have probably experienced by now, and as Luther also knew, living for ourselves isn't particularly rewarding. Making only ourselves happy leaves us feeling somewhat empty. And that is because God created humans to be in relationship with one another, and being in relationship means helping our fellow humans. God's will for us, as it turns out, is that we choose to love our neighbours as ourselves. God's will is that we choose to share what we have with those who have less - whether that is sharing our food, or shelter, our clothing, and even our love. Luther described this as being a servant to all. We are lords of all, and servants to all. This is what it means to be a Christian. That we are free to choose how we live our lives, and that we are most fulfilled when we are servants to others.  

Which brings us back to the tyranny of choice. We are servants who have chosen this work, and not slaves who are forced to do it, and so we are free to choose how we want to serve. But with so many choices as to how to serve our neighbour, because there are so many in need, how do we know which is the best choice? Do we serve those across the street from us? Do we serve those across the world? Do we serve our friends, or do we serve complete strangers? Do we serve with our time? Or with our money? Do we serve other Christians? Or do we serve non-Christians? Which is the best choice?

Well, we should know by now that there is no "best" choice. Or, rather, that they are all "best" choices. We are free to make whatever choice we want - we are free to serve whomever we choose, in whatever manner we choose. But here is something to think about: we serve out of thankfulness for what God has done for us through Christ. We serve because we have *chosen* to serve. And this thankfulness and choice means that our service to others should bring joy and pleasure and be carried out with eagerness. Serving others is not meant to bring suffering and pain and misery. While it is the case that serving might bring physical pain - if we choose to discipline our bodies through fasting or physical labour for others - it should never bring spiritual pain. Our spirits should never suffer as we carry out God's will. If you are serving others, and it is making you miserable or resentful or driving you away from God, choose something else. God has given you the freedom to choose how you will serve.

Luther was very emphatic about that, actually. Luther was quite keen to convey that Christian service to others is not meant to destroy us. He actually said that part of serving others is taking care of our own health. While of course we want to discipline our body so that it follows our spirit in serving others, Luther said, "It is the part of a Christian to take care of his or her own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and well-being, he or she may be enabled to labour ... for the aid of those who are in want, that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another's burdens." It's like when you're on a plane, and the flight attendant tells you that you have to put your own oxygen mask before helping others. How much help can you be to others if you pass out from lack of oxygen before you get to them? How much service can you do as a Christian if you neglect your own needs and end up needing the help of others, rather than helping them? As Christians, we are free to serve all, but first we must make sure that we are able to serve. Doing the will of God by serving others is meant to free us, not to burden us.

God's will is that we serve others, as a blessing to us and as a blessing to the world. God wants you to have a good life, and so God frees you from being obsessed with your own salvation, and frees you from being constantly anxious about how you will make God happy. The will of God is that you serve others however you want and however you are able, in whatever way you choose, in whatever way brings the most joy and makes you the most thankful to God for the opportunity. Just as it is with laundry detergent - whatever you choose will ultimately wash your clothes just fine - so it is with the Christian life. Whatever you choose to do will ultimately be just fine, because God has already chosen you. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

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