The author of Ecclesiasticus writes:
“Before each person are life and death,
And whichever one chooses will be given.”//
He is echoing the words the Lord spoke through Moses
in Deuteronomy centuries before:
“I have set before you life and death . . . . Choose life.”//
Every moment of every day,
each of us is given the choice between
the way to life and the way to death.
We have a chance to speak to each other in a way
that invites life-giving relationship
or in a way to offend, to put someone on the defensive,
to wound and distance.
We have the choice to greet each new day as a fresh start
or to spend our days rehashing all that went wrong in the past.
We have the choice to open our hearts or to close them.
It is our choice – ours alone.
But we are creatures of habit
and our habits are shaped by the culture we live in.
If we live in a family, a neighborhood, a society
that habitually chooses the way of death
in any of its many forms,
then our first impulse is apt to be
the way of death.
The Bible is a rich guide to the ways of life and death.
Those ways are all about how we treat other people
both in the big ways and the small ways.
In our Epistle lesson, Paul says the Corinthians are not ready
for the solid spiritual food that could give them life.
Why? Look at it. “There is jealousy and quarrelling” among them.
Jesus says if we cling to anger against someone,
we are liable to judgment;
if we insult someone, we will be held accountable
by the community where we live;
and if we call someone a fool, if we shame them,
if we demean them, we put ourselves in hell.
Strong talk, isn’t it?
But Jesus isn’t threatening us with punishment from God for being bad.
He’s just telling us how life works.
And he’s right.
There’s a new field of study called social neuroscience.
It clinically proves what we have always known.
Emotions are contagious.
In his book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says,
“Our brain’s very design makes it sociable,
inexorably drawn into an intimate brain to brain linkup
`` whenever we engage with another person.
That neural bridge lets us affect the brain
-- and so the body – of everyone we interact with
just as they do us.”
This isn’t just the preacher talking.
It’s a medical fact.
What we say to people, how we look at them,
how we listen to them affects their total being
– body and mind, thought and feeling.
Sometimes that isn’t a kind thing.
Goleman says, ,
“When someone dumps their toxic feelings on us
-- explodes in anger or threats, shows disgust or contempt --
they activate in us circuitry for those same distressing emotions.”
So what happens when we treat each other with disrespect
or suspicion or hostility?
It tweaks cells in their brains called mirror neurons.
So the people we interact with
feel about us the way we feel about them,
think abut us what we think about them,
and one way or another, sooner or later, they hit back.
“Do not judge if you don’t want to be judged.
The same judgment you dish our will be the judgment
that gets laid on you.”
He’s not making that happen to punish us for being bad.
It’s just how it works.
People adopt the same attitude toward us that we adopt toward them.
The good news is that works for blessings as well as curses.
I can’t guarantee this will work every time.
But on the whole, when we are kind to people,
they teat us better.
When we respect people, we get more respect back.
And you know what happens then?
Our brains produce more natural dopamine and we feel happy.
Our T-cells get stronger and stay healthy.
It’s the way of life.
The most important thing a church can do for its people
is to be help them to form the habit of living
by being a culture of life.
But not all churches are cultures of life.
Far from it.
The great Catholic novelist, Walker Percy, asked,
“If Christ came to give life, why do the churches smell of death?”
Churches choosing death is all too common.
I never cease to be amazed at how worked up we church people
can get over small matters.
Churches can hang up over a single word in a contract with their priest.
I have seen a church lose a third of its membership in squabbles over bylaws
that once they were passed would be ignored until the next time
they felt the need of a blood letting.
It’s a rule of thumb in church life that the less there is at stake
the hotter the negative passions will burn.
“If Christ came to bring life, why do the Churches smell of death?”
Walker Percy asked.
Moses said, “I set before you life and death. Choose life.”
Does our squabbling matter? I say “yes, it matters.”
It matters because when churches choose the way of death,
they instill in their members the way of death.
But churches can also instill life in their people.
You know what it’s like to be in a meeting, a party,
a class or a social gathering.
If certain people walk into the room,
the energy level goes up.
If other people, walk into a room,
the energy level goes down.
The test of a church’s mission is what happens
when its members walk into a room.
The living church recharges people with life energy
that they share with everyone they meet.
They make the world a better place, a more godly place.
A church is a Christian training ground.
This is where we practice the arts and disciplines
of smiling, listening, caring, and respecting one another.
We use the neural bridge to bless and not to curse.
There is an gracious exception to all this neuroscience.
By the grace of God we can overcome our mirror neurons.
If someone treats us badly, we can choose not to respond in kind.
We can surprise them by treating them well.
By the grace of God, we can be the game changers,
like Jesus turning the other cheek
and forgiving from the cross.
But usually it isn’t that hard.
Usually we meet people on fairly level ground
and can start the tone of the relationship on the right foot.
This is when we remember to “do unto others as we would have them
do unto us” – because 9 times out of 10 they will.