THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.” Psalm 1:1-2.
The Didache is one of the oldest pieces of Christian literature outside the New Testament. Most scholars agree that this ancient text served as a catechetical instruction manual for converts preparing for baptism. It begins with these words which echo the sentiments expressed in our Psalm for this Sunday: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.” Binary declarations like these tend to grate on our modernist ears. We are accustomed to believing that there are many ways to the good life. That is, in fact, true. Goodness, beauty and truth are not the sole possession of any one person, religion, philosophy or culture. It does not follow, however, that these three things, goodness, beauty and truth are all relative. Neither goodness, beauty nor truth exist merely “in they eye of the beholder.” Genocide is not good, no matter how many sophisticated religious and philosophical arguments are put forward in its defense. A woman’s beauty is not measured by male fantasies. An “alternative fact” is just a plain lie. Both the psalmist and the anonymous author of the Didache insist that moral choices between right and wrong must be made and that there are life and death consequences riding on those choices.
This dire warning is important precisely because most of the choices we make throughout any given day do not seem to be matters of life or death. But appearances are deceptive. Contrary to much popular folk lore, the devil does not win souls through any single transaction. The devil wins a soul one white lie, one slightly dishonest act, one failure of compassion, one small theft at a time. I have learned from personal experience how all of this works. In my career as a lawyer, lying was part of the job. Understand that my lies were not violations of “legal ethics.” I never lied to a judge, withheld evidence or encouraged perjury. My lies were all told in the acceptable context of settlement negotiation. As a defense attorney representing a person or entity assigned to me by an insurance company, I typically was given settlement authority up to a certain amount-with the understanding that I was to seek a settlement as far under that amount as possible. That meant, of course, that when presented with a settlement demand from the opposing attorney, I would represent that I had only X dollars in authority when, in fact, I had Y. When the opposing attorney lowered the settlement demand, I would pretend to make a phone call to the insurer and then come back with a higher offer that was closer to the demand, but still well within my settlement authority. So it went on until the case settled-or not.
Of course, I tried to convince myself that this was all morally above board. Nobody was really being deceived. Every half way competent plaintiff’s attorney knows that defense attorneys, like me, are trying to settle as low as possible and that we have or can get more money in our pockets than we are letting on. So, too, defense attorneys know that plaintiffs’ attorneys always make demands well above their clients’ bottom lines. We both understand that there is wiggle room in our respectve positions. We have all done this little dance many times before. Bluffing, posturing and, yes, lying are all part of the way the game is played. I was never successful, however, in justifying all of this to myself. It was all the more unsettling that, over time, I got rather good at it. If I could get comfortable with lying in this context, I wondered, how long before I could get comfortable lying in other areas of my practice? How long before I could get comfortable lying to my wife? Would I ever arrive at the point where I lie reflexively? Would I ever reach the point where I start believing my own lies? Would I finally become unable to distinguish lies from the truth?
I am thankful that, throughout my eighteen years of practicing law, I remained part of a community that valued truth, honesty and integrity. I am thankful that I left Sunday worship with words like St. Paul’s admonitions “do not lie to one another” (Colossians 3:9) and “putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25) ringing in my ears. I would like to think that my participation in a community that values, proclaims and practices truthfulness limited whatever damage professional lying did to my soul by keeping me properly uncomfortable with that unholy practice. My church community saved me from straying too far down the way that leads to death. You could even say that my church saved my soul from death.
The Didache goes on to say, “the way of life is this. First of all, thou shalt love the God that made thee; secondly, thy neighbor as thyself.” As in the gospels and Paul’s letters, these “great” commandments are the polestar for discipleship. They are, in fact, one commandment. The only way to love God is to love and serve the neighbor made in God’s image-the only true image we have of God. Any religious belief or practice (Christian or otherwise) that leads one to harm a neighbor is contrary to the way of life and leads to death.
Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures also implores us to choose life over death. Deuteronomy 30:19. That choice, however, is not a one time decision. It is a daily struggle against the pull of race and class biases bred into our minds and built into our schools, workplaces and government. It is a daily struggle against the pull of consumerism that is destroying the air, water and soil we need to live. It is a struggle against the false promise of peace through violence fueling global conflicts, gang warfare and the endless parade of mass shootings in our schools, parks and shopping malls. To choose life is to choose the wellbeing of our neighbors over the claims of nation, tribe and even family-no matter what the cost. Choosing life is not a struggle we can win on our own. We need the love, support, discipline and correction God offers us through the community committed to taking up the cross and following after Jesus. I am thankful God has always led me to such communities of faith that have kept me on the way of life.
Here is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge speaking of the struggle to choose life over the way of death.
Gently I took that which ungently came,
And without scorn forgave:–Do thou the same.
A wrong done to thee think a cat’s-eye spark
Thou wouldst not see, were not thine own heart dark.
Thine own keen sense of wrong that thirsts for sin,
Fear that–the spark self-kindled from within,
Which blown upon will blind thee with its glare,
Or smother’d stifle thee with noisome air.
Clap on the extinguisher, pull up the blinds,
And soon the ventilated spirit finds
Its natural daylight. If a foe have kenn’d,
Or worse than foe, an alienated friend,
A rib of dry rot in thy ship’s stout side,
Think it God’s message, and in humble pride
With heart of oak replace it;–thine the gains–
Give him the rotten timber for his pains!
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772- 1834) was an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England. He also had a major influence on American poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was known by his contemporaries as a meticulous craftsman and perfectionist who was rigorous in the careful reworking of his writings. Throughout his adult life Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression. He was physically unhealthy, suffering the ill effects from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. He was treated for these conditions with drugs that helped foster a lifelong addiction to opiates. Despite these impediments, Coleridge was enormously prolific as a writer and critic. You can read more about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.