February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:21-37, Deuteronomy 30:15-20
How many of you have those awful school dreams? You know the one where you forget to go the final or you show up and discover you studied for the wrong test. Whatever the dream is, it leaves you with that terrible assurance that you have blown it and there is nothing you can do about it. In the dream, it often feels like so much more than just a test; it is life and you have failed. I don’t know about you but hearing the words from Deuteronomy feel a bit like that. This passage is Moses’ final sermon. He’s traveled with these people for forty brutal years. They experienced all kinds of misery as they ran for their lives, thirsted with no water in sight, and had to eat manna day after day. How many times did they ask, “Couldn’t we have just stayed where we were? If this is what freedom looks like, we choose slavery.”
Here is Moses saying to this motley crew, “Look over there. You see that beautiful land? That will be your home. We have made this long arduous journey together. I will not finish it with you. I will not be there to tell you what to do so I’m going to give you a simple multiple-choice test to guide you:
The question is: How will you live? Your choices are:
a) Choose life
b) Choose death”
On first hearing, it is easy to ask if this is some kind of trick question. I mean really, who is going to say, “I choose death”? But sit with it a minute and you will realize, this is not some giveaway test. In fact, it is really difficult. Do you ever think about how many choices you make in a given day? Let’s start with the easy ones: what will you eat for breakfast? What will you wear today? Which route will you drive to your destination? Will you eat that cookie or not?
Not too bad so far. These aren’t life and death decisions though. They may get harder as the day goes on: someone cuts you off in traffic. How do you respond? Someone says something mean. Do you call them on it? You get $100 you weren’t expecting. Do you spend it on something you want or do you give it away? There is a meeting about climate change. Do you go or go home and watch TV instead?
You may be thinking, “I’m still not feeling life and death here.” You are right. These aren’t going to make or break us. Let’s turn up the heat a little and switch our focus to the gospel lesson. Jesus is continuing his Sermon on the Mount. Remember that Moses is preaching his last sermon. Jesus is just beginning here and he isn’t taking it easy on people. A minister in New York recently read the entire Sermon on the Mount one Sunday and some people really didn’t like some of what she said. I don’t know if they ever realized that the words they found offensive belonged to Jesus.
There is a thread in both Moses and Jesus about choosing life and death. Jesus starts off by saying anger is not a good thing, but then he goes on to say more or less, “You are going to get angry so your task is to figure out what to do with your anger. I’ll make a suggestion here…don’t let your anger have the last word. When you are sitting in church and it gets quiet and you remember that you have a broken relationship with someone, take care of it. Don’t let a broken relationship define you.” Jesus is telling us to choose how to be in relationship and to reconcile with another. That can be the hardest thing in the world. Have you ever experienced a relationship that you thought was beyond repair and somehow you were able to work things out? In this amped up atmosphere do you find yourself wanting to write whole groups of people off? Perhaps we should listen to the words here.
Jesus always chooses relationship and reconciliation over being right. You may be thinking, “I wish I had just stayed home this morning. I just want to be right.” You will be disappointed when Jesus doesn’t stop here. He starts talking about adultery and divorce. We got hung up on some of the details here in text study this week. It is easy to do. It is easy to say, “I don’t like what he’s saying and it must not really apply today. Things are different now.” I encourage you to spend some time with these difficult words. I would sum up Jesus’ message in this text by saying, “Don’t throw people away. People are not disposable. When you mess up…and you will…do everything you can to make it right.” I can hear Moses chiming in here, “Choose life…yours and everyone else’s.”
I did a little research into multiple-choice tests. There are tips online to succeeding when you are faced with a multiple-choice test. One of them is what to do if you reflect on your original answer and it seems you got it wrong…CHANGE IT! Ah, I’m hearing Jesus now. That didn’t go so well? Your relationship is broken? Go back and give it another shot.
One of my favorite tips was what to do if more than one answer seems correct. Oh yes! How often does that happen? That is what we call life. My spiritual director used to tell me when I had too much on my plate that it is possible to have too many good things. It is not always a choice between good and bad. Sometimes it is choosing between good and good, but choosing them all may not be choosing life. So the tip around more than one correct answer is to try and vividly imagine each of the answers as the right one. It may be in spending time with each option, you get a feel for one over the other and that is often the right way to go.
One of the powerful things about Moses’ words is the rest of the story. He says, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” So, this act of choosing rarely affects just the person making the choice. More often than not, there are many affected. Last week our youth talked about what Black History month means to them and one of the statements made was about the importance of white allies. We choose life not just for ourselves, but also for others because as we are reminded in Corinthians “when one suffers, all suffer and when one rejoices, all rejoice.”
I am not trying to simplify this because choosing life is not always obvious. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to the Broadway musical “Hamilton” which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a scrappy young immigrant who came to this country alone with nothing. He was determined and talented. He found his way into George Washington’s cabinet where he had profound shaping impact on this country. He wanted nothing more than to be a war hero. Washington needed Hamilton’s skills as a writer. Every time Hamilton asked to be appointed to lead in the war, Washington would tell him he was needed in the cabinet. In one conversation, George Washington says, “I was just like you when I was younger. Head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr. Dying is easy young man, living is harder.” (from the song Right Hand Man)
Even in the most oppressive conditions, when everything has been stripped away, no one can take away our choice to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. Viktor Frankl, who lost his pregnant wife, parents and brother in the Holocaust and spent 3 years in concentration camps, wrote, “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”
I just finished a mindfulness class and am reminded again that all day long I am making choices – what to eat, what to say, how to spend my time. At the time, many seem insignificant, but with each choice I am saying yes to life or I am choosing something that may look more like death. That may seem like an exaggeration, but we need to be reminded that our choices matter…all of them.
Your multiple-choice experience called life begins now. Choose life. When you choose life you are not just choosing for yourself, but for all the beautiful people God created. Choose life so that all may live.