Deuteronomy 30: 15-20, Psalm 119: 1-8, I Corinthians 3: 1-9, Matthew 5: 21-37
We are a nation of choosers: paper or plastic? Small, medium, large or super-sized? Fries or chips? Coke or Pepsi? Organic or conventional?” Having a choice has become a staple of the American dream. Political agendas of all flavors are sold on a platform of choice—everything from private school vouchers to health-care reform. More choice is always the preferred value.1
On the international scene the year 2011 may be the year of choice between autocratic regimes or democracy and liberty. It started in Tunisia and now in Egypt. What history really teaches us is that humans holding authority over other humans are dangerous. Last Friday President Hosni Mubarak’s thirty years of oppressive regime came to a halt. People of Egypt declared a “Day of rejoicing” as they chose freedom over a dictator. We saw on our Television screens Egyptians celebrating all through the night with firecrackers, chanting, and honking their car horns for freedom. We give thanks to God for the choice of the people of Egypt.
The making of choices is consequential. It's something we should take very seriously. Two hundred years ago Thomas Paine during the American Revolution put it this way: “We have it within our power to make the world over again.” In other words, our choices can be so consequential that it can have direct impact in the world we live.
Let me now share with you a similar story of freedom that happened in history 3,600 years ago. It is told in the appointed lesson of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30: 15-20. The people of Israel had experienced the hardships of Pharaoh’s bondage followed by a forty years long march of freedom through the wilderness. Moses had just led his people from slavery of Pharaoh across the raging waters of the Red Sea to enter into the Promised Land. Here they find a new day of rejoicing to celebrate their freedom. It is well expressed in the canticle of Song of Moses (Exodus 15: 1-6, 11-13, 17-18 and BCP p. 85):
1 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. 2010, p. 338
I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted
the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea…
The chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea;
the finest of those who bear armor have been
drowned in the Red Sea.
The lesson from Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel. He reminds them, with freedom comes certain responsibilities. He declares to them that they have two choices:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
We understand that such teaching may not sit well with us as it does not offer a choice so much as a requirement that a particular choice be made:
“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…then you shall live….But if your heart turns away…you shall perish” (16-18).
Most of us do not like such kinds of dictation. In the free world we are schooled in a society that shops around for a “wider selection.” We resist any attempt to have our choices limited, because it threatens the illusion of our autonomy which is the central value of our culture. God sounds too autocratic and in conflict with the free grace we have come to expect from Jesus.
However we look at this passage, the choice and consequences are clear, receive life; reject covenant, or choose death. In this particular context God who blesses the people of Israel with freedom demands obedience. The choice between life and death isn’t chocolate or vanilla. God is talking about life or death, blessing or curses. We are talking about major issues of life that have real impact. This is a tremendous set of choices laid before us. Let me present this in plain words what God is saying. If we make choices which run counter to God’s commands, there will be hell to pay.
As a priest I counsel people. Sometimes I learn horrible stories about us as human beings. Recently, I learned a young lady made a choice to abandon her little boy and, instead, feed her habit of drugs and sex by being on the street. The choice the Word of God presents before us is to consider “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Making a choice against God’s wishes is not only hurting one’s self but, also, grieving the Holy Spirit.
I have seen people in troubled relationships. How many marriages are destroyed because of broken promises and wrong choices? Marriage in the eyes of God is a sacred act, a sacrament. There are people in financial trouble. Irresponsible financial decisions run for many an ultimate course which has severe consequences on individuals’ lives and world economies. In recent years the markets of the world economy have crumbled because of individuals and institutions making choices based on self-indulgence and greed.
God’s commandments and choices we are asked to make are meant not as restraints but, rather, as prescriptions that lead to the fullness of life and wellbeing of all humanity. Let me give you another example of choices we have made. Scripture says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it (Psalm 24:1).” We are called to be stewards of God’s creation. What does our report card say?
The earth is being destroyed in ways that it cannot recover fast enough. The EPA (environmental Protection Agency) estimates every year over 26 million TVs are thrown in the trash, while only 6 million are recycled. The problem is that each of our older cathode-ray tube televisions contains roughly four pounds of lead. Do we realize the increasing demand of cell phones; BlackBerry’s, iPhones, iPads, desktops and notebooks are creating disaster for our environment? Landfills are filled with hazardous materials that are now leaching into our groundwater systems. To use a biblical image, it can seem that the whole creation is “groaning.” She “waits with eager longing” for we children of God to heal our earth by making right choices in our lives. Jim Wallis of Sojourner says, “Change begins when some people make different choices. Change grows when people make different choices together. Change never starts until some of us start believing that change is possible and then bet our lives on it.” Jesus made that choice, to give his life on the cross that “Humanity
may not perish but have life everlasting.” He asks us to make a choice in our lives: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”2 (Matthew 24:16). Will we choose to follow him? To accept his yoke on our lives? Moses challenged his people “Today I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” That life is the eternal life Jesus offers us from the cross. The choice is ours to follow him, or walk away from him.
2 Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values, Howard Books, 2010