Sunday, August 28, 2022

Sermon: “Make Another Choice”, Genesis 4:3-16/Matthew 5:21-24 (August 28, 2022)


I don’t know why I recall this so vividly, but when I was in first or second grade, I remember a poster that my teacher had hung front and center in the classroom. It read, “Make another choice,” and on the first day of class, we were told that if we disrupted the lesson or treated another student disrespectfully or anything like that, the teacher would point to the sign, and we’d have an opportunity to change our behavior. If we continued to misbehave after this warning, then there would be consequences. I’m not sure that my six- or seven-year-old self was able to fully grasp the lesson in personal responsibility that this sign represented, but I remember thinking how cool it was that we wouldn’t get in trouble right away. Instead, we’d get the chance to – well – make another choice.

As the type of kid who always strove to be good but was, after all, still a kid, I found this poster a great comfort. I knew the difference between right and wrong; I knew the rules, and I wanted to follow them. But I also knew that sometimes, despite my best efforts, my emotions could get the better of me. Sometimes, I just needed a little reminder to help get me back on track. The inevitability of my childish transgressions was obvious to me, so the knowledge that a single misstep wouldn’t necessarily lead to academic ruin (as my anxious brain assumed it would) was truly a relief.

Some might say that this is coddling, that bad behavior should always be met with swift and decisive punishment in order to nip it in the bud. But that approach makes no allowances for human nature. We’re not animals who need Pavlovian conditioning to be able to tell right from wrong, or robots that require a specific input of data to change a particular behavior. We’re autonomous children of God who have the capacity (and the need) to make choices for ourselves. Swift punishment may change the behavior, but lingering discernment provides the opportunity to change the mind and heart. That’s the case whether we’re children or adults, whether our misbehavior is unintentional or malicious – and whether our actions are mere classroom hijinks or actual sin.

Usually when we read the story of Cain and Abel, we focus on what we perceive as Cain’s despicable character. He’s an angry and resentful young man whose fraternal jealousy reaches a breaking point. We assume that he’s a lost cause; that violence is inevitable from him. But that’s not the approach that God takes. When God sees Cain’s anger begin to take over him, God does the biblical equivalent of pointing to that poster in my first-grade classroom: “Cain, you’re heading down the wrong path. If you let your anger overcome you, it will open the door to more sin, and nothing good will come of it. You need to make another choice.”

God could have punished Cain right then and there. “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t commit murder’,” Jesus tells us, “…but I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” Cain had already broken the rules. He already “deserved” divine judgement – not for his anger itself, but for the fact that he was allowing it to come between himself and his brother. Instead of treating Cain like an unthinking beast and punishing him, however, God offers him the chance to make another choice – to realize for himself where his actions were pushing him and to fix his relationships instead of just his behavior.

Unfortunately, Cain didn’t seem to hear God’s words, or else he chose to ignore them. The next choice that he made was clearly the wrong one, and it had tragic consequences. But that just goes to show how committed God is to humanity’s self-determination. If God can give Cain the opportunity to make another choice in the face of such high stakes, how much more is God willing to give US the same opportunity in response to OUR sins? And how much more ready should we be to respond in faith by paying attention and making another choice?

We shouldn’t make the mistake, of course, of interpreting this as a “get out of jail free” card. We already know that divine mercy isn’t a license to commit “the juiciest, sinny-est sins” (as my husband would say) that we can; likewise; the chance to “make another choice” isn’t the same as an opportunity to undo whatever wrong we’ve done. We can NEVER “take back” our sin, and there will always be consequences of one kind or another. But it recognizes that making the right choice can be a really difficult thing for us to do by ourselves, and it assures us that we CAN do better with God’s help. This isn’t about taking advantage of God’s goodness. It’s about responding to it in the most faithful way that our flawed human nature can: with repentance and growth.

Certainly, this would all be much easier if a giant, disembodied hand would descend from heaven and point to a sign that says “MAKE ANOTHER CHOICE” every time we’re headed down the wrong path, but most of us aren’t six-year-olds anymore – we shouldn’t need moral coaching to point out every single time we’ve made a bad choice. We have the requisite knowledge by now. We’re perfectly capable of recognizing our own errors and figuring out when we need to turn ourselves around. The problem is that we get too wrapped up in our own emotions and schemes to actually WANT to pay attention to how our sin is impacting us and those around us. God may be more than willing to offer us the chance to make another choice, but we don’t give OURSELVES the time or space that we need in order to actually do it.

So, in his infinite wisdom and grace, Jesus has patiently told us what we need to do in a lesson that could mean the difference between a healthy, resilient community and Cain’s bleak fate. Jesus says that as soon as any of us recognizes anger in our heart, we should drop what we’re doing – even if it’s something as important as worshiping God – and try to make things right then and there. That’s it. That’s all it takes. That purposeful pause, that intentional reconnection, can be enough to redirect the path you’re on from one that leads to desolation to one that leads to new life.

That’s not at all to say that this is easy to do. Even in a best-case scenario, our anger insists that we distance ourselves from our perceived adversary, and in a worst case, it demands that we lash out at them, hurt them in some way. Cain’s actions were a result of his obedience to his anger. But we shouldn’t listen to our anger more than we listen to our God. And our God is saying, “Stop what you’re doing. Make another choice.”

The question is not whether or not we will sin. We will, and we have. The question is what we’ll choose do next. God doesn’t WANT to punish us. God wants us to recognize what we’ve done wrong and learn from it. God wants us to grow, both in our personal character and in our relationships with one another. And so, God gives us the opportunity to “make another choice” over and over again, even in the wake of our very worst sins.

There’s always another chance with God. Don’t squander this gift. Use it to create a life full of healing, full of reconciliation, full of trust, full of transformation, full of renewal. Your sin doesn’t stand in the way of any of these things. Only its unrelenting perseverance can do that. No matter what you’ve done, it’s never too late to turn around and make another choice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment