Toorak Uniting Church

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Do you Choose Life or does Life Choose you

Mark 8: 27 – 36
Pentecost 16
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
16 September 2012

 Sefton Irving  Life is a Gamble
Sefton Irving – Life is a Gamble

Sefton Irving’s painting on display in the church this morning is titled Life is a Gamble. An interesting topic as we come toward the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival. I think I do believe that there is such a thing as luck in life. Maybe that’s not something a religious person often admits to. But I have come to that conclusion from listening to those who don’t believe in luck; those who hold the view that what they have in their life is a result exclusively of their hard work, their talent and their entitlement. Good fortune, chance and good luck have nothing to do with it. I am a self-made man or woman!

Now let’s be clear here, it is true that we do, by many of the decisions we make in life, create our own good luck. There is a cause and effect that operates in life. It is not mathematically precise, but there is a good chance that if you live a good, healthy and moderate life, things will turn out OK for you – well, sometimes.

I know a man who has lived, more than anyone else, a good, moral, healthy, religious and moderate life and in his 50s he was struck with cancer. He had never smoked, he never drank or lived a raucous life. He had all the medical intervention possible and all the prayers that could be offered. He survived. But then in his 60s the cancer hit him again and this time even worse. Bad luck? Well, it is hard to say. But I think the simple answer is yes. We don’t choose our parents and their genetic history, nor also do we always choose the experiences and situations of life that we are exposed to. There is in a life a kind of "sliding door theory." That is, if you walk through this door, your life will move in this direction. But on the other hand if you walk through that door your life will take another course and will move in another direction.

I think that leads to a couple of conclusions relevant to the spiritual life - to the life of faith.

First, I don’t personally think there is a single plan for your life. The sheer wonder, awe, mystery and diversity of life points to the fact that there are many good and worthwhile courses your life and my life can take. I grew up in a religious environment that believed that God has a plan for my life and that my purpose in life was to find that plan and follow it. Yes, God does have a plan for your life and it is that you live a rich, whole and fulfilling life and that you are true to yourself and that you share who you are and what you have with those around you. And the details of that life are really left up to circumstances, the choices that you or your parents make, and dare I say, to chance and luck.

I’ve quoted Paula D’Arcy several times where she has said "God comes to you disguised as your life." And Fr Richard Rohr, who I also quoted in the article in the TUC Update this week. It was Richard Rohr who introduced me to the quote from Paula D’Arcy, who said:

Why didn’t someone tell me that earlier—that this life is the raw material that I need to take seriously? Every day, what’s right in front of me is the agenda. And even more, the natural world all around us has all the lessons that we need for life, love, death, and salvation. Really! Just look and listen, and note how Jesus himself seems to have looked and listened to lilies, birds, hens, sheep…. You can see how merely believing doctrines and practising rituals is very often a clever diversionary tactic to avoid my actual life—to avoid the agenda that is right in front of me every day, which is always messy, always muddy, always mundane, always ordinary—and all around me."

So the first point is to take life, your life, my life seriously, but not in a judgmental way. Not always saying is this good or bad; right or wrong; holy or unholy? Rather it is the sense that all that passes through our lives has something to show us about ourselves and the world in which we live. There is a sense that life chooses us and brings to us what we need to become richer, more whole and more fulfilled.

But secondly, life is unpredictable and no amount of religion or prayer or forced control will ever change that. The exchange between Jesus and Peter in this morning’s gospel reading shows at least the possibility of different outcomes for the life of Jesus. Remember the writer pitches Peter and his view of the Messiah against that of Jesus. For Peter, following the traditional line of Messianic thinking, believed that Jesus was to be a military, political leader who would usher in the new Kingdom of God. Jesus, in Peter’s thinking, was a new King David, a powerful and authoritarian ruler. Jesus on the other hand lives out a very different vision of the coming Kingdom of God.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: "The Human One (the Son of Man) must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead."

This was the life and death that in some sense chose Jesus. You see, the way Jesus lived his life, through his actions and his attitudes particularly toward the religious and political leaders of the day, actually led him in the direction of the cross. He was true to his life values, to the vision he believed God was calling him toward. So when Peter challenged that vision, we hear the oft repeated words, Get behind me Satan! Remember, as I have mentioned before, he is not calling Peter the devil. Satan is rather the one who is the tester or the tempter.

So while I can say that life is at least to some degree a gamble and that there is what we might call good luck or bad luck in the world in which we live, there is also the capacity in each of us to make decisions and stick with a vision of what we hold to be of value. Perhaps that’s why we need more and more in our lives the practice of discernment. We reduce the misfortunes in our lives by taking time to explore more deeply the decisions we need to make each day.

So do we choose life or does life choose us? The answer is yes! There are times when we do make choices that are life-changing, but there are also times in our lives when we experience the power of not making a choice, with life itself taking us instead where we may or may not want to go.

The passage in the Book of Deuteronomy gives one aspect of how we might best live:

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!

Of course the message in that passage is to choose that which is life-giving. And it was what perplexed Peter in the story read earlier. He was unable to see that even though Jesus was choosing what Peter saw as death, Jesus was in fact choosing life, new life and abundant life.

What first comes to us as misfortune may be the making of us. What we first see as bad luck can, we know, be the raw material we need in order to create the well-lived life. Regardless of whether we choose life or life chooses us, it is our response to it that is more important. As the author Robert Collier said:

All of us have bad luck and good luck. The person who persists through the bad luck -- who keeps right on going -- is the person who is there when the good luck comes -- and is ready to receive it.

After the service, come to the front of the church and look at Sefton’s painting and see whether or not you think Life is a Gamble.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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