Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Choosing Life

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2011. The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37.

In our first scripture reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is giving Israel an enormous pep-talk. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, of wondering if God was till directing them and leading them, of worrying about what might come next, Israel is on the edge of moving into the Promised Land. I don’t know the geographic setting for the speech, but from its imagery and majesty, I wonder if it wasn’t on a hill somewhere, overlooking a great expanse of land down below, and far away. Moses speaks to the occasion in grand terms, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…[You will be blessed.] But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [then] I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in [that] land….” Life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord you God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Choose life.

Choosing life can be every bit as dramatic as Moses makes it sound. We choose life when we move into a new relationship. We choose life when we plan for a child. We choose life when we make a new and better decision about the direction in which we’re headed.

But choosing life also involves smaller decisions. The decision of conversations entered into, and conversations avoided that help us choose life. There are decisions of what we eat and drink, of how we move or exercise that go into choosing life over death.

Those who study the relationship between the mind, the body, and the spirit would say that we choose life whenever we pray or mediate—that this calms the body and the mind and the spirit and opens a way for God to live within us and among us. Choosing life is not so hard, but it means choosing life at every moment, not just when we’re at the edge of a precipice.

The Gospel today can sound like a real “laying down of the law.” It can be off-putting and scary. It can sound like a faith that leaves out people. In fact, if we were to miss the fine points of the Gospel, most of us would probably find ourselves left out.

Jesus is re-interpreting the old law, saying, “it’s not enough just to keep the law. That probably won’t work very well, anyway. The key to living faithfully is to try to understand the things that move under the surface, the motivations and moods, the fears and fantasies that lead us off-track.”

Jesus repeats the commandment, “You shall not murder.” But then he goes further by uncovering some of the things that lead to murder. We might hear the talk of murder as extreme, until we begin to think of the anger, the frustration, the road-rage, the minor annoyances that can all too easily escalate. We might begin by harboring a grudge or nursing a resentment, and if we’re not careful, we can end up in court.

Instead, Jesus says we should work at reconciliation. He speaks of going to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, but if you remember your neighbor has something against you—stop your worship and go work things out with your neighbor beforehand. Notice how Jesus puts this—he doesn’t even say, if “YOU” have something against your neighbor, but rather, if your brother or sister has something against YOU. That changes the responsibility for reconciliation, doesn’t it? Our tendency is to ignore the problems. Especially at church, or in any organization, we think that if we just avoid “such and such” or act a certain way or say a certain thing, then future conflicts can be avoided. But when we come to the altar, we feel the break in community and it haunts us. Here, Jesus is exaggerating his point. If one left the temple in Jerusalem to go and be reconciled to a neighbor, it might take hours or days. You wouldn’t just leave the goat or turtledove or whatever you sacrifice might be sitting there on the temple steps. And yet, his point is made, isn’t it? Until we at least begin to pray for the person who has a problem with us, or with whom we have a problem, whatever we offer at the altar will be less than what it might be. And we will not quite be free. Prayers of confession are a beginning. A note, or phone call, or email, or conversation with another person is a beginning. A prayer for one’s enemy or one’s hard-to-get-along-with brother or sister, is a beginning, and that opens the heart to God’s grace. If we took Jesus’ words literally, we would have a whole lot of unused communion wafers every Sunday. But instead, we confess that we are broken people on the mend, and we ask for God’s grace to restore us and help us restore broken relationships.

Jesus goes on in the gospel, and it gets even messier. “You shall not commit adultery,” he reminds us. But then goes on to warn about lust and about all the urges and senses that, if given energy and encouragement, lead to adultery. Answer is to watch the emotions, watch the heart.

Jesus talks about divorce. And this is one of those topics (like abortion, like homosexuality, like many issues) that really warrants an entire series of looking closely at what scripture says, at how the culture of the time influenced the scriptures, at how faithful people through the ages have understood the movement of the Holy Spirit, and how we, today, live openly and honestly believing that “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) but also, that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret scripture for our own day and our own lives. There are times when a divorce is an unfaithful decision, made out of selfishness or spiritual immaturity. But there are also times when divorce is the ONLY faithful decision, and then one really needs all one’s faith to continue choosing life even in the midst of dark days. Choosing life means reconciling as much as possible. Choosing life means praying for the other people involved, it means working on one’s issues, and choosing life after divorce or the ending of any relationship means being open to a new relationship or re-marriage when God opens that possibility.

The Ten Commandments, and the shortened versions we read at every Mass (that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul and with all our mind, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.)”—these commandments aren’t kept by pronouncement or decree, but by the little, daily decisions we make to be faithful.

In a short video we saw this morning during the Adult Forum, we heard Karen Armstrong talk about dogma as being very much like the rules to a board game. Reading the rules is boring and abstract—it makes no sense until we begin to throw the dice. It’s that way with living into the commandments and hopes of God.

We choose life with the attitude we adopt when we wake up in the morning. We choose life in our thoughts, in our conversations, in our willingness to apologize, in our ability to forgive, in our faith to move on in the Spirit of God, and in our thinking about what will follow us in the future.

What we do (or don’t do) affects those who come after us.

This idea was used as a motivation by Coach Mike McCarthy last Saturday night as he sought to motivate the Green Bay Packers before the Super Bowl. Not only did he have the whole team fitted for their Super Bowl rings the night before (a bold move and show of faith, by any standard), but he also brought in a motivational speaker. When he was asked later what the speaker said, McCarthy explained that the message had to do with getting the players to think about what people would remember about them later. “Outlive your life,” he said. The Super Bowl they were about to play would, indeed “outlive their lives” as family and friends would remember it for ever.

We can all make mistakes and hurt other people in such a way that we leave behind us a whole way of wreckage. Broken relationships, hurt feelings, words that can’t be taken back.
But Christian faith gives us daily opportunities to outlive our life—to live in such a way that what is positive, what is good, what is uplifting, what is forgiving, what is encouraging, might follow us.

Before us is set “life and prosperity, death and adversity.” If we obey the commandments of the Lord our God, walking in his ways… then we shall live, and we shall live in such a way that our life is outlived by the one who is Love Himself.

Redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us choose life this day and for ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments:


Subscribe in a reader

Religion Blogs - Blog Top Sites