I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live.
(Preached on Sunday, February 12, 2017)
I imagine you might be sitting there thinking to yourself this morning after having listened to that Bible reading, “Okay, Pastor Steve, what are you going to do with this passage?” After all, I imagine that you probably had not heard many sermons on this passage from Deuteronomy in your life. I have rarely heard some televangelist or prominent preacher speak on it or write about it in one of their books.
Now, on the one hand that might be because it seems like a straight-forward teaching. Moses says to the Israelites, I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life… Well, of course, who wouldn’t want to choose life? That sound like a no-brainer. It sounds like the choice a boss might offer her staff at an appreciation lunch on a workday: “Anyone want to see a dessert menu?” Faced with choosing between dessert – chocolate decadence or crème brulee – and going back to work, is there really a choice? Faced with the choice between life and death, presumably everyone would choose life. But simply stating our preference isn’t enough. Other decisions and actions are required on our part. To choose life means we are also choosing God, which means we are choosing obedience to God rather than disobedience. After all, Moses said: And I command you today: Love God, your God. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments, regulations, and rules so that you will live, really live, live exuberantly, blessed by God, your God, in the land you are about to enter and possess.
It does seem rather straightforward, doesn’t it? In fact I considered just reading the passage as my morning message and then sitting down. It doesn’t really require interpretation; it clearly describes the choice that needs to be made every day in the life of a follower of Jesus: Is today about God or about cultural imperatives; about divine worship or about idolatry?
Those earliest followers of Jesus understood serious nature of this choice. They would not let the message of Jesus be co-opted by political agendas, and they put their hope in Jesus alone. This is how the good news of Jesus was spread: by standing up to powerful rulers and refusing to compromise the gospel for anything. We can directly link our faith today to the sacrifice of those countless Jesus-followers who wouldn’t bow to Rome, or to Caesar, simply because they chose instead to follow Jesus. They understood the dangers of political idolatry, but their legacy has often been lost on contemporary followers of Jesus.
Down through the centuries there have been periods where we have not always chosen Life over Death. For instance it has been under the trappings of populist patriotism and nationalism that historically recent atrocities such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, segregation, racism, the internment of Japanese citizens, among other acts of injustice were committed by the United States and many of its Christian citizens. Despite having some notable exceptions (there were followers of Jesus who stood up against such evil), we must wonder what the vast majority of people of faith were thinking. Because whatever excuses, logic, or reasoning was used, now with the perspective of history, we understand that it was completely wrong. They made the wrong choices, and countless numbers of people were unfairly treated, injured, oppressed, and even killed.
Yes, our times are radically different from those in which Moses lived, even from the time of Jesus. But the urgency for being attentive to God is not different. How will history judge how we live today as followers of Jesus? More importantly, how will God judge us? Will our opinions about national security, foreign policy, financial security, economic impact, and political arguments appease God when we’re asked about how we treated the refugee, the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, and “the least of these”? Can we follow Jesus even if it means going against our favorite politician, political party, national interest, or whatever entity or idol usually prevents us from seeing the gospel clearly?
God doesn’t want American-followers, or Republican-followers, or Democrat-followers: God wants Jesus-followers. God wants those who truly wrestle with the choice of Good and Evil, Life and Death and who, however imperfectly, nevertheless still choose Good and Life. Which means God wants those who seriously struggle to view everyone – regardless of their ethnicity, culture, nationality, politics, worldview, religious faith, or socio-economic background – as people divinely loved by God and created in the image of God. Instead of classifying people as refugees, immigrants, “illegal” immigrants, Muslims, Iranians, or whatever other association we use to judge people, God wants us to see humanity as fellow loved ones, children of God.
This is what Jesus was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew’s gospel: that relationships matter most of all. That it is not enough to comfort yourself as not being a murderer if you harbor harsh feelings or attitudes toward another human being. This is especially true and important if those feelings or attitudes manifest themselves in hurtful, harmful behavior. Words do matter; words can hurt; words can kill. Beyond the passage we read Jesus ups the bar on several other commandments: adultery, divorce, and oath-taking by pointing out how to his listeners – “You have heard it said … but I say to you ….” With this teaching Jesus takes us right past our comfort level. For a brief, sharp instant we are reminded that our sins matter ultimately. They are not mere trifles; they are a profound sundering of cosmic relationship, primarily because they really are a sundering of our human relationships. After all, what following Jesus and serving God is all about are the two commandments: Love God and Love others as you would like to be loved.
Theologian Walter Brueggeman reminds us: The good news calls our whole way of existence into question. If we are indeed “in God’s image,” then the central task of our life is covenant-making and covenant-keeping. It is a promise both rich and heavy for us to say that finally we shall be like God…. Our Central human vocation is to be with brothers and sisters and for brothers and sisters. That is who God is … that is who we are called to be, expected to be, promised to be. At some point, inevitably, we will have to choose between Jesus and our preferred political party and ideology.
So what can we do? How can we choose Life? We start with ourselves. We begin by be scrupulously honest – first with ourselves and then with others. We can seek to ensure that our words and actions never, never, foster the prejudices we know to be wrong – racism, homophobia, misogyny, and bigotry. We can strive to exemplify and incarnate the virtues we claim to value. We can try not to remain silent when we hear racial, sexual, or religious slurs, but bravely, gently, but firmly stand up and state how such statements, or so-called jokes, are hurtful and not right. We can stand up and speak the truth when we hear what we know to be out-and-out lies.
Doing the right thing might mean offering hospitality to marginalized minorities regardless of their origins or religions. It might mean also standing up for and with oppressed people. In the 1980s, when indigenous people of Central America were being slaughtered by government-backed death squads, representatives of North American churches risked standing with them. They went to simply be present in solidarity and as potential witnesses to atrocities. Perhaps, once again, we need to be companions, to stand in solidarity with those being demonized. A recent report says that the new Administration plans to change the program “Countering Violent Extremism” to “Countering Islamic Extremism” – despite an FBI report showing that the primary danger to Americans now comes from home-grown white supremacist groups. So we may want to attend worship in mosques and be present, in solidarity and as witnesses.
While Jesus appeared to simplify the Law of Moses down to just two commands, he also showed us that those two commands have profound implications throughout our entire lives. They really encompass everything we do and everything we do is vitally important. Everything we do is a choice, for life and good or for death and evil. That can be an overwhelming approach to life, unless we remember that we are ourselves children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus. This means that God indwells our flesh just as God indwelt the flesh of Jesus. The light of God which shone through Jesus’ life shines through my life and your life as well. The more we can remember that truth the easier it becomes to choose life – the easier it becomes to love our neighbors.