Choosing What Matters
Texts: Isaiah 551-9; Revelation 21:3-4
Lily is a young white girl haunted by the memory of her mother, who died tragically before her eyes. Rosaleen is Lily’s black nanny who takes no mouth off Lily or any white man or woman. T.J. is Rosaleen’s harsh white boss and Lily’s abusive father. Set in the South Carolina of 1964, in The Secret Lives of Bees, Sue Kidd Monk tells of how Lily and Rosaleen escape the abusive T.J. and move to a nearby town. There, they find a home in the eccentric house of three African American, bee-keeping, sisters – May, June, and the eldest, August.
August soon becomes a surrogate mother for Lily. On one of their evening walks, August says, “The whole problem with people is . . .” But before she can finish her sentence, Lily interjects, feeling proud of herself for doing so: “They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t.” August hardly pauses and says, “I was going to say, ‘The problem is that they know what matters, but they don’t choose it’. You know how hard that is, Lily? . . . The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters” (Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Lives of Bees, page 147).
I was a rotund, nine-year-old, boy when the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. closed his magnificent oration with these words: “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
Midway through King’s speech, he dreams of a day when our nation will choose what matters. He writes: “I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together . . . With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
For those raised in the bosom of Scripture, King’s words are all too familiar; his speech draws on the language of the Isaiah. This prophet stands in his Babylonian pulpit and preaches after fifty years since the people of Israel were forced marched out of Jerusalem into exile, while the city lay burning behind them. Fifty years have passed since that day that would live in the annals of infamy.
Some exiles have made peace with living in Babylon. Sons have married Babylonian wives; businesses have been established; life has taken on a certain normalcy. After fifty years, most of the original exiles have either died or only have a child’s remembrance of their home in Jerusalem. Some have long since taken to worshiping Babylonian gods who seemed to be far more powerful than the Hebrew’s God who had turned a back to them years ago.
Isaiah preaches, then, to a congregation that has come to terms with the way things are. They are tired of having their hopes manipulated by preachers ranting about returning to Jerusalem “one day.” Isaiah preaches to stir them to imagine something more than a repeat of yesterday, to consider something more than settling for the false comfort of what only seems like home, to trust that Babylon is not their final destination, to reach down deep and choose what matters by placing their life’s trust again in the living God.
Sounding like a street vendor, Isaiah shouts, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” The prophet teases his listeners to remember when God provided manna for their ancestors in the wilderness when they were hungry and water when they were thirsty. The prophet says that God is ready to provide for all who turn away from the tempting, but fleeting, comforts of the Babylonian empire and choose to trust in the everlasting provisions of God.
Then, Isaiah goes on the offensive, sounding like a scolding parent, as he says, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Isaiah says, in effect, “Why do you choose that which does not matter?” That is Isaiah’s pressing question to his comfortably exiled compatriots; it is August’s question to Lily about human existence; it is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s question to the American Republic, and it is a recurring question of Jesus to his disciples: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” “Why do you choose that which does not matter?”
I often ask the same question of myself just after I waste another hour watching an insipid television show or spend another dollar on a meal that I really did not want or need, or use considerable emotional energy worrying about something well beyond my control. I have spent the better part of my life listening to Jesus. I honestly believe that he knew what mattered and he chose to do it or say it or be it. So, when the life and teaching of Jesus tells me what matters, why do I so often lag so far behind Jesus in choosing what matters?
Why do any of us not choose what matters? Maybe it is because Lily is right; we are confused about just what does and what does not matter. Mostly though, we do not choose what matters because you and I are living in our own Babylon, more content with the way things are than willing to risk how God might change them. For change stirs up fear in us, even if it is change that we long for and pray for. So, we decide that we do not have what it takes to choose what ultimately matters and instead, we choose not to disturb the ways things are.
That is just when Isaiah catches us off guard, just as he caught the safely secure exiles off guard. He asks why they settle for less than what matters and goes on to preach this vision of God’s future: "For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Do you know how ridiculous those words must have sounded to people fifty years after their bright future had turned to the darkest night? Even as a young boy, I can remember how ridiculous King’s vision sounded at the same time when Jim Crow ruled supreme in the land and Lincoln’s vision for our nation was, at best, a dream deferred.
The Reverend Heidi Neumark tells of leaving her New Jersey home one summer to work Johns Island, South Carolina. There she met an elderly, black woman named Miss Ellie. A stream ran by Miss Ellie’s house and she had to walk some distance around the stream to visit her friend, Nettie. Not long after arriving, young, student pastor, Heidi decides that elderly Miss Ellie needs a walking bridge over the stream, so she can visit her friends more easily.
So, Heidi arranges for the bridge to be built and cannot wait to tell Miss Ellie. She practically drags the woman to see her new shortcut to freedom. Heidi writes: “[Her] face did not register the grateful, happy look I expected. There was no smile, instead, for a long time, she looked puzzled, then she shook her head and looked at me as though I were the one who needed pity; `Child, I don’t need a shortcut’. And she told about all the friends she kept up with on her way to visit Nettie. A shortcut would cut her off from Mr. Jenkins with whom she always swapped gossip, from Miss Hunter who so looked forward to the quilt scraps she would bring by, from the raisin wine she’d taste at one place, in exchange for her biscuits, and the chance to look in on the `old folks’ who were sick.
“`Child’, she said again, `can’t take shortcuts if you want friends in this world. Shortcuts don’t mix with love’” (Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space, p. 18).
Heidi had the best of intentions to help this poor, old, destitute woman. What she learned that day was that Miss Ellie was neither poor nor destitute. Miss Ellie returned to her rocker, sipping a glass of sweet tea, knowing what matters, for she had been choosing it long before Heidi was even born.
I wish I could say the same, because I know what it feels like on those all-too-rare occasions when I know what matters and I choose it. It feels like getting caught up in the jet stream of Isaiah’s and King’s, August’s and Miss Ellie’s view of the world, set free to see the world as God sees it, set free to live as liberated men and women, no matter how much change is in our pockets, no matter how many diplomas hang on our walls, no matter what we drive or the zip code to which our mail is delivered. To choose what matters is to be set free from all those things that may matter some, but finally never matter enough, not nearly enough to give them all the attention we give them.
Isaiah preaches that freedom will come not some day when Hebrew armies overthrow Babylon and the exiles can go home; freedom will come when people stop living as if they are chained to the way things are and start living in the way God intends for them to be. Freedom will come, says Isaiah, when we defy anyone to make us live somewhere else than in the blessed assurance of God, by whose wisdom, we know what matters, and by whose grace, we choose it.
Preach it, Isaiah, for I, for one, need to hear it.