50 Shades of Grey. That is the title of an erotic novel which was both an international bestseller and widely panned by the critics. Not having read it I can not tell you whether the book’s any good or not, but I am fascinated by the title. Instead of an exploration of sexuality a book with that title could just as easily be about contemporary attitudes toward ethics and morality.
Perhaps there was a time when most people thought in terms of simple good and evil, black and white. But these days we seem to be dealing with 50 shades of gray. The debate over intervention into Syria makes it clear that every possible option is morally ambiguous and strategically murky. Each day some family has to make excruciating decisions concerning a loved one at the end of life—and what’s moral and what’s humane and are not always obviously the same. This moral murkiness is uncomfortable, but we have come to regard such confusion as the norm to be accepted and perhaps even embraced. One young adult puts it this way:
I exist in a world of diversity and globalization….I am comfortable with (and actually excited by) the mashing up of ideas and concepts and sources into a cacophony of stories and thoughts and experiences in which there isn’t any one right answer or message save for the one that YOU take away from the whole thing. I am deeply postmodern. This is the world I live in. This is my experience of existence.
“There isn’t any one right answer;” that seems to be the fundamental assumption our society makes about most thorny issues. So today’s lessons hit us like a slap in the face because they demand a choice. They suggest that discipleship is not about keeping your options open, it is about make a hard, committed choice.
In our gospel lesson Jesus makes perhaps the worst recruiting speech in the history of the world. In sharp contrast to the watered down version of discipleship we often hear today—the version that says following Jesus is the no-risk way to meet your ideal mate, find financial success, and even lose weight—Jesus lays out the brutal cost of following him. “Count the cost,” he says, “don’t sign on unless you are prepared to leave your family, lose your fortune, and suffer all manner of indignity in following where I lead.”
Our first lesson, on which I want to focus this morning, strikes a similar tone, calling the faithful to unequivocally choose life over death. First a little context: The book of Deuteronomy is essentially the farewell speeches of Moses, his final words of warning and counsel to Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. The people have had a long and arduous journey out of Egypt, through the Wilderness, to the banks of Jordan. As the book of Numbers ends the children of Israel are poised to cross over and enter into abundance. Deuteronomy picks up at that point. This is a time of rejoicing, a time of new possibilities, but it is also a moment of peril. Israel is in danger of forgetting the God who has led and sustained them during the hard times. In today’s lesson Moses calls on them to renew their covenant with God, to reaffirm that amid the many options which lie before them, they will stay centered in their distinctive identity as God’s people.
These words from Deuteronomy are especially appropriate for us on this morning. Like the children of Israel we have sense of new beginnings and new possibilities. Summer vacations are over; school is beginning and the demands of our jobs are heating up. For college students the university offers a plethora of possibilities: new ideas, new friends, new freedom to chart a path which is theirs alone. Today we observe Rally Day which is an opportunity for us to celebrate the fellowship we share as a community of faith and welcome others to share it. Rally Day is also our opportunity to recommit ourselves to learning, to growing in faith and action as people defined by Jesus.
So what do these words of Moses spoken to Israel long ago have to say to us? Perhaps the most important word we need to hear is that God desires only the best for us. When god calls us to make a hard choice it is ultimately rooted in our best interests. Moses tells the people, “Today I set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.” It’s easy to hear the threat more loudly than the promise, but the whole reason Moses is speaking is because God has been faithful to these people for many long years and God longs for them to enjoy abundance and joy in the future. The life of discipleship is not always easy; sometimes it requires that we turn our backs on what is pleasurable in the short run. Yet the witness of Scripture is that God always desires our long term good and that in going where God leads we will find fulfillment which is better than mere pleasure.
If the first thing we need to hear is that God desires the best for us, perhaps the second is that choices have consequences. If you follow in the ways of God, says Moses, you will know abundance, but conversely, disobedience leads to pain and suffering. I grew up in a religious tradition that was very good at talking about the wrath of God, so good in fact that it was hard for me to be interested in a petulant potentate who was all set to lower the boom for the least transgression. So it is important for us to understand what Moses is and is not saying. The point is not that “god is gonna getcha”; it’s that God has created a world where evil carries its own punishment.
A few weeks ago in a sermon I confessed that I am a lousy car owner, that my poor Volvo suffers all manner of outrageous neglect. But that was only half true. I seldom wash it but I am pretty meticulous about doing the mechanical maintenance. The manual tells me to do certain things periodically and I have learned that if I do not do them, bad things happen. Neglect carries its own consequences.
In the same manner Scripture calls us to be a certain type of people. We are free to go our own way, but if we choose to ignore that counsel we can expect problems. When we love things more than people, we lose the joy of deep relationships. When we allow ourselves to be sedated to the suffering of others, we find ourselves going emotionally dead. When we cease to care about justice, we should not be surprised when the social fabric frays around us.
Theologian Herbert McCabe has written, “Sin does not consist in wanting bad things; there are no bad things; all things are created by god. Sin consists in how you want small things.” The great choice which we have to make is not whether or not we should enjoy the good gifts which God offers us. It is whether we will use God’s good gifts well or wrongly, in a way which brings suffering. For example, sex is one of God’s most beautiful creations, but used exploitively it leaves people emotionally devastated. The bonds we feel with others create a sense of community which see us through tough times, yet that same feeling easily mutates into racism, hypecurcurr-patriotism, and fear of the stranger. The only way to keep good gifts from curdling is to place God’s loving, expansive vision at the center of our lives.
And that is finally what today’s lessons are about, the necessity of having a solid center for our lives. When Moses and Jesus speak so forcefully about the necessity of making a clear choice they are posing the question, “What is going to be your anchor in a world where there are 50 shades of grey?” I’ve been told that when spelunkers go about exploring a strange cave they begin by anchoring a line to an immovable formation. Then they are free to follow all sorts of twists and turns without getting lost in the act of exploring.
Christian discipleship is like being a spelunker; we are called to be both anchored and bold. When we are centered in God’s love revealed in Christ we are free to explore without getting lost in all the options of life. Both Jesus and Moses lay before us the necessity of taking a stand. But let me be clear, that is different from simply holding on to religious language and ideas which served well in the past, but do not speak to new challenges. The anchor is Jesus, not anything we say about him. Life comes in serving God, not in simply being loyal to the past. Choosing life means choosing to go wherever god leads us.
In The Variations, a novel by John Donatich, Father Carl, old priest nearing his death addresses his younger colleague, Father Dominic on the difficulty of faithful discipleship, “Listen Dominic, the big challenge is not to keep believing but to believe again and again, to start all over…Day by day. Day by day. From scratch, every day.”
My friends both as individual pilgrims on the journey of faith and as a congregation our goal should never be to simply hold on to what has been. No, our challenge is much more exciting than that. Day by Day we start again on the road of discipleship. We anchor ourselves in what others have found trustworthy and then explore new ideas, dreams, and paths of service. We live in a world of 50 shades of gray—that is unavoidable—but in a murky world of shadows the light of Christ still guides our way if we dare to follow him.