“Choose Life” Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9; Matthew 5: 21-37
You may be relieved to know I’m not going to ask you to turn to your neighbor and share, but here’s the question of the day for you to ponder privately: what’s the worst choice you ever made? For some of us, there is a single obvious answer to that question. For others, there’s a wealth of terrifying options from which to choose. In today’s text from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people, “I put before you today two choices: life and prosperity or death and adversity.” The consequences are equally straightforward: “If you obey” God’s commandments and ways, then you shall live. “If your heart turns away,” then you shall perish. It is as cut and dried as a teacher setting out the rules of the classroom on the first day of school.
To be faithful to the God who brought you up out of captivity in Egypt, to adhere to the 10 Commandments—the boundary lines that God put in place to build community—leads to abundant blessing. Choose to give other influences in your life top priority and allegiance and you will suffer terribly and die. It doesn’t seem like much of a choice, does it? But God didn’t make these laws as a cosmic cop trying to maintain order, but as a loving parent who admonishes a child: “Don’t pull the cat’s tail or you’ll get scratched,” or “Don’t touch the hot stove or you will get burned.” These kinds of warnings are not about justice or judgment, but about natural consequences. God’s laws are made out of compassion and care for all God has made.
But the choices we face seldom feel as clear cut as choosing life or choosing death. Though this text from Deuteronomy is a favorite among anti-abortion groups, we know that there’s a lot more to choosing life than merely choosing birth. There’s a whole lot of grey out there. If choosing life were an easy matter we wouldn’t gather here seeking forgiveness and reconciliation every week. Sometimes we encounter a situation in which we know exactly what we ought to do or not do, but we deliberately choose another path because it seems less risky or more appealing. We do not even TRY to choose what it right, because we want what we want, regardless of the consequences. We can’t help ourselves.
If you’re one of those people who mistakenly believes that the Old Testament is a book of rules and the New Testament is a book of grace, take one look at today’s Gospel lesson and tell me how that applies. Here Jesus is not speaking not of easing the weight of the choice between life and death, but adding to the consequences. Jesus tells his followers it isn’t enough to stick to the letter of the law (“Don’t commit adultery”); they must also adhere to the spirit of it (“Don’t even look at someone else with eye to cheating on your spouse”). Now it isn’t just the deed, but also the intention that is sin. Neither Moses nor Jesus offers a distinction between mortal and venial sins, big sins and little ones—those are human inventions. Moses and Jesus present only with stark basics: either keep God’s commandments—choose life—or don’t, which equals choosing death. There are no degrees. Just thumbs up or thumbs down.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that today’s Gospel lesson is not a stand-alone sermon from Jesus. It is a continuation of the famous Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been reading from these past three weeks. The overarching theme of this sermon explores what choosing a life of beatitude would mean for the whole of creation. We—and the choices we make—are part of a larger picture. Our choices have ramifications not only for us, but for the well-being of all of creation. In God’s perfect dream, every person, every creature, every atom, every quark of the universe, is honored and treasured, capable of embracing life whole-heartedly. How we live inevitably contributes to or detracts from that dream, so it behooves us to make decisions thoughtfully and with deliberation. That’s why Mary Denny’s recent classes on discernment have been such a blessing to this congregation. Because what gives life and what does not is not always easily determined.
The sad truth is that, both intentionally and unintentionally, we’ve dashed God’s longing for wholeness and harmony over and over, choosing again and again to pull the cat’s tail. We have repeatedly broken the mutual trust, partnership, freedom from shame, and equality of relationship God designed for us. No matter how you answered today’s question of the day about your worst choice, no matter what variety of mistakes you consider candidates for your worst choice ever, it’s not hard to see that we do not routinely live lives of Beatitude.
So what’s the Good News for us? The Good News is that God sees the scars we’ve gotten from our misjudgments. God sees that even when we discern carefully as we can, and risk much in attempting to do what is right, we have a tendency is to choose death at least as often as we choose life. So how does Jesus treat those who do not heed this sermon about living lives of blessing? Does Jesus double down on expectations that we humans clean up our acts or else? The question of the day, no matter how varied our responses, can all be addressed by the answer for today and every day.
Knowing our inability to live as we pray, Jesus does precisely what no one else could do or even want to do. He comes to us in our brokenness, tells us we are precious and loved, and gives us the power and courage to try again. Recognizing our inability, even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, to put ourselves, our homes, our churches, or our society together again, Jesus comes to eat and laugh and work with the broken-hearted, the broken down and broken up, bestowing gifts of redemption and hope not because we have earned them, but because Jesus wants to bless us with them. Jesus offers himself to us and our world as torn fragments of bread and as wine made from crushed grapes. In, with, and under these broken pieces is God’s promise to choose life for us when we cannot do it ourselves. Wholeness is God’s gift.
When we are breaking others or feel broken by others, Jesus invites us to come home. Return to the baptismal font again, retrace the mark of life on our foreheads—the mark of the sinful self drowned, and the new self brought to life. In retracing the sign of the cross that is imprinted on us, we remember that we will never be able to outrun God’s desire to choose life for us. We have been reconciled to God through Christ. No matter what other people do or don’t do to us or for us, no matter what we ourselves do or don’t do, God is with us and for us.
Because we are cherished in the midst of our inappropriate choices, it is therefore our duty and delight to pass on this same blessing to the whole world. We, who cannot keep the commandments; we, who wander off accidentally or on purpose; we, who speak when we shouldn’t and stay silent when we ought to be vocal—for us God chooses life and love. God wraps us up in mercy like a warm blanket, enveloping us forever. Our calling is to make room for others under the shelter of God’s reconciling embrace.
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