Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Proper 1A] - February 12, 2017 (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37)

Moses makes it sound like such a no-brainer!

He stands there with all the people of God on Mt. Nebo at the very boundary between the wilderness of their wandering at their back and the Promised Land of milk and honey in front of them and he says, “Choose this or choose this.” The way behind them, remote and dangerous and filled with the peril of the competing tribes, was like choosing death and adversity, and the way in front of them, with the land they could occupy, beautiful and promising and filled with abundance, was choosing life and prosperity.

Yes, Moses makes it sound like a no-brainer, and you’d better believe that if I had been an Israelite standing there that day, after having lived through forty years of wandering and wondering in the harsh, godforsaken desert, I think I would have known exactly which choice to make. To choose life was to choose a home, a future, the good things God had promised me. To choose life was to realize that the commandments and laws God had given us weren’t arbitrary rules that made life less fun, but were a way of blessing and honor and right living. The commandments were, as Moses pointed out, a gift to help God’s people live in community, the way to prevent them from surrendering to the chaos of their desires and to fully enjoy the freedom God was giving to them.

But choices, even when they are pared down to the basics and set in life-or-death contrast to each other, are rarely no-brainers. We find a way to make it more complicated that it should be, to make everything seem equal. The stakes aren’t quite as high as what Moses was presenting, but I can tell you that Melinda and I have had the most intense disagreements of our marriage when it comes to making decisions about where to eat when we’re travelling on the road. Even when we have learned to narrow down options offered on those blue highway signs to just two alternatives, we seem rarely able to come to some sort of clear decision. It’s as if we’re choosing life or death: fast food or sit-down dinner. Cold subs or hot meal. If Bojangles’ isn’t listed as an option, then we’re really lost. Sometimes, at complete loggerheads, we have inadvertently made the decision not to decide and instead travel on down the road, ever hungrier, ever angrier. The fact of the matter is no matter how clear and obvious the choices are—even if they are laid out before us as getting food and staying hungry, blessings and curses, life or death—we still find we are unable to make the right choice so much of the time. And so to some degree I can imagine those ancient Israelites, frozen in their bickering and looking at Moses’ obvious choices on the blue sign by the side of the wilderness road and still wondering what to do.

Martin Luther spoke a lot about this. His understanding of Scripture and observation of human behavior led him to believe that we don’t really have the freedom to choose what’s good for us. He called it the “bondage of the will,” which is a fancy way of saying that even our ability to discern and decide is tainted by sin. There is a darkness in here (our heart) that we must acknowledge. Captive to an innate desire to put ourselves first, we tend to do whatever we want to do, to satisfy some of our most immediate desires, which aren’t always innocent and harmless. There are interpretations of the Christian faith that say we need to “make a decision” for Christ, or that our salvation is dependent on accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, but Luther would have said that just can’t be done. To say so doesn’t do justice to that inner darkness and assumes we are somehow moral or pure enough on our own to bring about God’s grace. To say it another way, Moses can stand on the edge of the Promised Land and lay out the choices as if it is a no-brainer, and the people of God are still going to struggle with it, are still going to choose death and adversity, if not now, then at some point down the road. And God, in God’s infinite grace, will hold out the option of life again and again.

Then along comes Jesus, a new prophet and rabbi and descendent of Moses, and he sits down on a small mountain not too far from the River Jordan and gives another description of the land that lies before them which his followers could go in and occupy. And as he speaks about it and their choices, they learn this land they could dwell in, this kingdom of God, is far more beautiful and abundant and complex than they might ever imagine.

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Gustave Dore)
In this land, for example, no one expresses or maybe even feels anger with one another. They certainly never insult one another, label one another. In this kingdom people practically jump at the opportunity to practice forgiveness and reconciliation with one another. They apologize readily when they’ve done wrong and hurry to show mercy to those who’ve offended them. People in this land don’t manipulate relationships for their own benefit. They don’t objectify women or men or children and don’t take advantage of anyone who is vulnerable. When they speak, their words are trustworthy in and of themselves and they are so honest in their speech with each other that there’s no reason to take oaths or get anything notarized.

It’s a kingdom that anyone would want to lay claim to and live in, far better than the purposeless wandering they find themselves in now. It’s a place where each person deals with one another in the perfectly correct and most beautiful way, and even though, deep-down, they know it resonates as something really right, the people still hear it all as just more commandments and more laws they’re supposed to follow. “Do this, don’t do that”…in fact, now it seems to be a place even more rule-bound than what Moses had described.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes each commandment, here the fifth, the sixth, and the eighth, and rather than lessening them, loosening them up a little, he expands them, makes them more strict and detailed. What is meant by murder, as it turns out, is actually broader than just physically taking someone’s life. What is meant by adultery is broader than just having sexual intercourse outside of marriage. What is meant by bearing false witness is more than just gossiping and lying. And the choice to enter there and live in that land is, once again, not as much of a no-brainer as we might expect.

There was a story this week where a prominent news organization that had recently aired a story about people’s views regarding the recent election and politics. The organization posted it to their Facebook page, like usual, and got thousands of comments lambasting one of the people interviewed in the article. Most of the comments were quite rude and mean-spirited. So, in an interesting twist, the news organization reached out to ten of those people who made the comments and offered them the chance to sit down and learn from the person who was interviewed in the story, the person they had insulted and called an idiot. Only two accepted.[1] Life is offered—a chance to live in abundance and harmony—but so often we just can’t seem to choose it.

The good news is, however, that God knows this. After travelling with us in the wilderness, God knows about that inner darkness. And the Teacher who sits on that small mountain and offers up this beautiful kingdom for us understands we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. He is not content just to stand at the edge and explain what his Father’s kingdom is like or point us how to get there. He is going to take us there, himself. He is going to become that kingdom, giving himself over to us. And to do so he is going to confront the darkness we bear within and die to any belief system that is based on our choosing and deciding.

He is going to represent a choice, you see, but not our choice, not our choosing. Jesus is God’s choice for us. Jesus is God’s life for us. Jesus is God loving us, and redeeming us from ourselves. And henceforth having faith and living as one of God’s children will be more about God’s decision to have us than our decision to have God. Having faith and living in God’s kingdom will more about God’s holding fast to us in love and mercy than about our holding fast to him.

Last week in one meeting here one person shared the story about an elementary school teacher in Charlotte, NC, who has created a personalized handshake with every single one of his fifth-grade students. Each day, when they arrive at school, they form a line at the door and, one by one, as they enter the classroom he has prepared for them, he extends his hand and holds fast to each one of theirs in their own unique way. Some of the handshakes are pretty elaborate and involve turning around, waving limbs in the air, incorporating fist bumps and snaps. He has committed them all to memory—that is, how he holds fast to each student, how he claims them for the day and offers them the classroom. The administration loves it. “The only way to help our scholars achieve at high levels every day,” says the principal, “is to embrace the need for meaningful and deep relationships.”[2]

So there is Jesus, the Teacher, embracing relationship with us, holding to us fast so that we can enter the kingdom and live with him forever. See him there, at the font in the water, welcoming us in, maybe giving us a fist bump. Then again at the table, with his body and blood, reaching out his hand for a high-five. One at a time, over and over, the decision is made and we respond, held fast: “I’ve chosen to love you deeply, my child,” he says. “You are a no-brainer.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No comments:

Post a Comment