A sermon for 6th Sunday after the Epiphany; Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8,
1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37Epiphany 6,
In 1985 I worked for a small software company, and it was my job to coordinate all our interactions with existing customers. When the owner decided to move offices, I was tasked with keeping us available to our customers through the entire move. But remember in those days there were no cell phones, there was no internet, we did everything by land-line which meant we had to have an office. I arranged to have the existing lines left on after the new lines were turned on. I arranged for one desk and chair to stay behind and another to go on ahead. The plan for the move was to start Friday afternoon, move Saturday, finishing setting up on Sunday and be open for business as usual on Monday morning. It was a good plan. There were no obvious difficult places in this short journey.
And so, we started. Friday afternoon everything except one desk was packed and ready to be put on the truck. Then the phone rang. The contractor spoke to our boss, and everything had to be delayed to Monday. There was some sort of delay involving the paving, which kept the building inspector from doing the final inspection, which kept the fire inspector from issuing the certificate of occupancy, which meant we could not have the keys. Without getting into all the details, in a miniature Exodus style, we journeyed in stages. What was to take 3 days, took an entire week. The next Friday evening we were finished.
Moses is almost finished. His task of leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt is almost finished. His task of leading Israel through the wilderness is almost finished. His task of bringing Israel to the Promised Land is almost finished. Moses’ life’s work is almost finished.
This morning we heard the end of Moses’ 26-chapter farewell sermon (Ellingsen) (Clements). In the very next verse, Joshua assumes leadership of the camp, the leadership of the people of Israel, as they begin to take possession the Promised Land. Moses’ final words are a challenge. Israel has a choice; they can choose to follow God and thereby choose life and prosperity, or they can choose to follow something else and thereby choose death and adversity.
If you recall the story of the Exodus journey, it is not at all an obvious choice. It is a choice that is complicated with Israel’s history of choosing not to follow God, and as a result suffer all sorts of death and adversity.
This is not the only time Israel faces this choice. Scholars teach us that all the Pentateuch was actually written down while in captivity in Babylon in sometime in the 6th century BCE. In returning from exile, they are entering the Promised Land again (Bratt). It is as awesome a challenge as the journey from Egypt, and thus, they chose to re-enact the choosing liturgy. They call upon what many consider a discredited faith, after all, they are in captivity in the land of another god. They call upon the God who shepherded them through their meta-journey to shepherd them once again as they struggle to break the bonds that bind them to a strange land, as they struggle to cross a wilderness to cross the Jordan and repossess their land. And they can only do this by acknowledging their prior failures, confessing their complete dependence on faith in God, and recommitting to divine loyalty through a new wilderness journey (Clements).
But would it surprise you to know, this is not the first time Israel has been asked to make the choice Moses challenges the to make. Twice Joshua requires Israel to choose: be loyal to God and have life, or be loyal to another god and face death (Howard). Nor is this the last time. All the post return prophets put the same choice before Israel. And finally, Jesus, the Son of God, put the same choice in a different form, before Israel, before all humanity, they can choose to believe in me, as the Son of Man, and live in God’s gracious presence, or not and know darkness and chaos.
When we are honest with ourselves, we know that Jesus’ challenge to choose is not the last time we have faced Moses’ challenge. Through the first five or six centuries, there were varying versions of Christianity and the early Church faced the challenge choose God/Jesus/Spirit and life or choose darkness, chaos, and death. In the 16th century, the Church was faced with the upheavals of the reformation, and all must choose how to follow God/Jesus/Spirit, or another way. We see it as a choice of styles; then it was much closer to choosing God/Jesus/Spirit and life or choose darkness, chaos, and death. This time of choosing flows into the 18th century when some people chose to journey to a new promised land where they could choose God and know life in the presence of God’s grace.
In this country in the 19th century, after the Civil War people in the former Confederate States faced a great anxiety. There had been a surety that God was on their side and would assure their victory. Defeat, put them in a bind similar bind as Israel, in captivity. Again, it was a time to choose God and life, a time to acknowledge their failures, not only in war, but in the oppression of a peoples, and by accepting God’s redeeming work, they could accept God and know life (Bratt). Some did. But, some decided to abandon any larger issues of faith and national destiny; they chose their self-interest and gave no attention to the larger fate of the nation. That choice has led many into darkness and chaos. In the 20th century the sordid brutality of those who chose to keep oppressing a people because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their nation of origin persisted.
Since 1790 when only male property owners had the right to vote there have been 28 legal changes affecting the right to vote. Since 1870 when the 15th amendment gave the right to vote to former slaves and protected the voting rights of adult males of all races there have 23 legal changes affecting the right to vote (Rowen). In the 21st Century, we have faced more choices; some have chosen to make a stand of non-discrimination against those differing sexual orientation and to continuing to fight for racial and gender equality, and religious equality.
In the past two years, we have seen how we are asked to choose life. But have you ever wondered what this looks like this time? It looks like it was before, choosing life looks like
- Loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and to keeping his commands, decrees, and laws.” (Deut 30:16)
- tilling and keeping creation’s gardens (Gen 2:15) (Howard)
- nurturing leading causes of life (Gunderson)
- loving our neighbors – all of them
- doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) (Bratt)
- feeding the hungry, dressing the naked, and tending to widows and orphans
- releasing the oppressed
- allowing a voice for the silenced
- showing deference for the disrespected
- finding the image of God in those declared un-human, humanizing the objectified, and sharing Solomon’s song with those made sexual objects (Lewis).
What have we, as a nation, chosen? I suspect we have chosen economic prosperity. We have commoditized or monetized:
- agricultural products
- and seen small local farms collapse
- retail business
- and witnessed far too many local stores and business close
- airlines, car manufacturing and seen all sorts mergers lead to bigger profits
- at the cost of millions of jobs, and decline of the related families
- corporate citizenship as many leading US corporations, have chosen to go overseas for tax benefits
- a move that also deprives our nation of revenues, which could be used to help those in need; and it also, deprives stockholders of dividends, which are important to those living on 401ks
- you know the continuing story of 2008 collapse
- and are seeing school loans that are so large they are delaying graduates from buying cars, starting families, and buying houses
- there has been merger after merger of pharmaceutical companies and medical suppliers sometimes to improve business but often to eliminate a competitor and rarely, if ever, to get a badly need product to the people who need it
- and now insurance companies.
As a nation we have not chosen to live in the presence and service of God.
I believe that as a nation we are standing at another border. Once again, we are being asked to choose:
- life and prosperity, or death and adversity (Deuteronomy 30:15)
- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness or the tyranny of false hope
- living in the presence of the Lord God or the formless void, darkness and the chaos of waters (Genesis 1:2).
It is not an easy choice (Lewis). To choose God is messy (Howard). It is not a majority decision no matter what we hear people say. It stands over against many cultural values revealed in decisions, that so many others make. It may be costly, just ask the prophets. It requires true trust in God/Jesus/Spirit. It is the subtlety of what Paul is talking about: choosing God/Jesus/Spirit not Paul or Apollos or whichever religious leader is popular today. It is what Jesus is doing when he is saying “you have heard … but I say,” and then lays out choices that emphasize the values of relationship (Howell).
I believe that as a nation we are losing our ability to choose God as seen in our relationships with other people, especially those who we disagree with. Watch Facebook and social media carefully, and you will see it. More and more frequently I see people defriend another, or just give up what has been a value to them. More and more I hear leaders not arguing about diverging views of this or that policy but about the quality of a person who holds a dissenting view. We are losing our ability to disagree and still be in a relationship that reflects the image of God. And that is death.
Today is set before us life or death, being and seeing the other as the image of God or being and seeing the other as less than, which means as not human, and this is death for both. Today is set before us life or death, trusting the power of God who raised from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep or the all-consuming formless void, darkness and the chaotic waters of nothing.
I know you are a good and generous people; you give of your time, your considerable skills, and your money to supports Jesus’ ministry to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now. Which is a measure of choosing. I know that all of us are all free to: continue living into that choice, are free to make the choice for the first time, or free to renew a choice gone fallow.
As for me and my house we will choose (Joshua 24:15) to continue the journey and follow the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5) loving our neighbors as the image of God in whose image we live and breathe and have our being (Acts 17:28).
Bratt, Doug. Epiphany 6 A Deuteronomy 30:15-20 . 12 2 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy (NIBC) Numbers 36:13. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 12 2 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 2 20127. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Howard, Cameron B.R. Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:1520. 12 2 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Howell, Miguelina. “The Gift of Reconciliation, Epiphany 6 A.” 12 2 2017. Sermons that Work.
Lewis, Karoline. Choose Life. 12 2 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Rowen, Beth. U.S. Voting Rights. n.d. 12 2 22017. <infoplease.com/timelines/voting.html>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.