Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Prov.1:20-33; Mk. 8:27-38[1]
We are a people with a distinct aversion to consequences. We want to be able to do whatever we please, and if we get caught doing something we shouldn’t, we want to be able to get out of the consequences.  In fact, we think we should be able to get off the hook, because people get away with things every day.  As a people, we’re not very fond of “you reap what you sow.”  And yet, the principle of reaping what you sow is one that has pervaded human culture from the beginning.  Hindus and Buddhists call it “Karma.”  More practical-minded folks say, “what goes around comes around.”  But throughout history there has been a profound awareness that our choices and our actions bring their own consequences with them.
As Christians, we may be more comfortable with concepts like forgiveness and grace than reaping what you sow.  But our lesson from Proverbs for today makes it clear that our choices make a difference.  “Wisdom” is personified as a woman crying out in the streets, offering insights, guidelines, and instructions for living, and the rewards that come from living by Wisdom’s teaching.[2]  But, in ancient times as in our day, it seems that many, perhaps even most people, prefer to go their own way and ignore Wisdom’s counsel.  For example, when will we ever learn that “a gentle word turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1) instead of trying to overcome violence by violence?  How many of us really believe that our lives don’t consist of the abundance of our possessions (Lk. 12:15)?  Or when will we learn that when we indulge in promiscuity we’re actually harming ourselves (1 Cor. 6:18).  Or how many of us really believe and live by the principle that we are all children of one Creator (cf. esp. 1 John 4:19-5:1), and therefore what I do affects you and what you do affects me.
Some of these precepts are obvious in daily living.  Others are not, because it takes time for the consequences to show up.  This is true of our spiritual choices as well.  When we choose a path that is essentially selfish and ignores the effect of our actions on others, we may not see the consequences of that choice right away, but they will eventually make their appearance.  When we live a life that ignores justice and compassion for others in our world, we may not see the consequences immediately, but we will eventually and inevitably “eat the fruit of our way” (Prov. 1:31). [3]  When we choose to ignore the divine dimension that fills and defines all of life and simply go our own way, we will at some point become “sated with our own desires” (Prov. 1:31).[4]
Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about consequences, but he did address the issue—especially to the spiritual hypocrites of his day.  But I think our Gospel lesson for today presents us with a similar kind of choice.[5]  Like Wisdom, Jesus calls to all who would hear him, and challenges them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him in a life of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.”  If we reject the path of discipleship because the price is too high, because Jesus asks too much of us when he asks us to give ourselves away for the sake of others as he did, we may hang on to some things we hold dear, but he warns that we will lose our very soul.  If, on the other hand, we choose to follow him, we may very well face losses in this life.  We may face significant losses.  But Jesus promises that if we follow him we will have gained our very souls.[6] 
I will be the first to admit that a life of giving ourselves away for the sake of others is not an easy one.  It’s one that asks for all the very best we have to give, and continues to ask for that over and over and over again.  It’s easy to burn out when you’re always giving to those around you.  That’s why it’s so important to maintain some kind of spiritual discipline—reading, prayer, meditation, something.  It’s essential to have some way to build yourself up, to maintain your own inner resources if you’re going to continue living a life of giving yourself away.
Consequences are built into the very structure of life.  We can accept that fact, or we can spend our lives in an effort to get around them, to get out of paying the price of our choices, to get off the hook for our actions.  But it will be a futile effort.  Because, in the end it is always true that we reap what we sow.  We will “eat the fruit of our ways” as Wisdom reminds us.  And as Jesus points out, this is not only true for life in general, it is also true for the spiritual life.  It is especially true for the spiritual life!  Jesus not only taught us, he showed us that the only way to truly live is to give yourself away for the sake of others.[7]  If we refuse that choice because the price of surrendering our own self-interest is too high, the consequence is that we will lose the very heart and soul of what it means to really live.  But if we have the courage to follow him, then we will find that this path of self-giving is the way to freedom, and true joy, and all the life that God wants to give us each and every day.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/16/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. R. E. Murphy, Proverbs, 12, where he points out that “Wisdom” in Proverbs speaks and acts like God.  He says, “What was referred to God is now referred to her. It is she who feels rebuffed, and who threatens those who refuse to listen. She has divine authority, and she hands out reward and punishment. She does not mention the Lord; she does not urge conversion to God, but to herself!”  Cf. similiarly, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:428-430.
[3] Cf. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “The Book of Proverbs,” New Interpreters Bible V:41:  “Sometimes, ‘I like myself just the way I am’ is not a healthy affirmation of self-respect, but a denial that life requires growth and correction”!
[4] Cf. Van Leeuwen, “Book of Proverbs,” NIB V:41: “Wisdom is a matter of life and death not just for individuals but for families, corporations, universities, nations, and cultures. They, too, reap what they sow.”
[5] Cf. similarly, Joel C. Marcus, “Uncommon Sense,” The Christian Century (Aug. 30, 2000): 860.
[6] Cf. H. W. Attridge and A. Y. Collins, Mark, 409 on the play on words in Greek between “life” and “soul.”
[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:190, where he emphasizes that the call to self-denial is based on Jesus’ example, which in itself is a reflection of the Christian conception of who God is!  Cf. also Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 20; and Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” in New Interpreters Bible VIII:628.

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