February 12, 2017

“God: Choose Life”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37
I know someone who faced a terrible choice. It felt like a life-or-death decision, except that early on in the decision making process it felt to him like both options are fatal. He could stay where he was, knowing his current circumstances cause him soul crushing conflict. He could venture into the unknown, but at a terrific risk. Who is to say which would be the more difficult choice?

Sometimes he wishes that he could just forget about the spiritual compass that has lead him to this point. Sometimes, even though he doesn’t believe in it, he wishes that fate would decide for him. This is the disciple’s proverbial “being stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

This is life. It is messy, painful, ambiguous, frightening. It requires difficult decisions to remain true to yourself and that in which you believe. Decisions, and the follow-up on those decisions, are so difficult that it is easy to understand why so many people are willing to exchange life for the status quo. If I am unwilling to make hard decisions that are in keeping with my faith as it relates to the world, then I must give into the lie that it was simply ‘fate’ that brought me to this place…this intersection. The intersection is choosing to honor God, or choosing to honor our own self-centered concern.

Sometimes choosing safety is actually a decision for death, spiritual death. Sometimes choosing to ‘take care of our own, first’ is actually a decision for death. This life and death decision making can run counter to our base instincts.

It is true that there are things in life that are outside the realm of our control. We are free. Everyone else is also free. Forces beyond us act upon us without our permission. Our freedom is not absolute, and we certainly aren’t guaranteed the wisdom or the insight to be good stewards of the freedom we do have. My grandmother would frequently remind me, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As I said last week, God promises us guidance. You and I have this text from Deuteronomy. We, as if we were standing on the mountain ourselves, can hear God’s booming voice: “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Here on the mountain, in the shadow of God’s presence we cannot avoid or run away from the reality of this decision. We cannot say “nobody told me.” We cannot say, “I was forced to go along with everyone else.” We can do nothing to escape this weighty decision. The decision is ours. Do we turn toward God, or do we turn away from God.

Now that our pews have cushions we can comfortably sit here and ponder this question. As someone who spent a good deal of time in philosophy and theology courses, it is a wonderful pastime to hold up the question to the light, turn it around in your hand and observe the reflection and refraction off of the idea. In the comfort of this place it may seem easy to decide. Of course we will make the right decision, sitting here, as it were, in God’s presence and in the company of God’s people. Who would choose death? Not me. Not ever.

Well, except for the time when my neighborhood buddies and I decided it was a good idea to lean a plank on the rail of the railroad tracks making a ramp at the bottom of a 30 foot steep hillside so that as we careened down the hill the plank would launch our bikes (and us) nearly to the top of the other side. I arrived at home with bent handlebars, a chipped tooth, and cuts and abrasions too numerous to count. As my mother applied the mercurochrome to these wounds I was interrogated. “Why on earth would you do that?” My reply, “everybody else did” received that cold stone stare that only mothers of sons have perfected.

Look, We confuse so many things with choosing life. We confuse comfortable surroundings with life. We confuse reactions to fear mongering as choosing life. We confuse pragmatic business decisions with life. We confuse remaining in our own familiar surroundings with those we are most familiar with, those who are least likely to say ‘hey, wait a minute’ with choosing life. We confuse financial security with freedom. And, I am only talking about the church here. Individuals have as many or more little prisons in which we quite voluntarily serve a life sentence. In the language of Deuteronomy we have many idols that are not God that we bow down and worship.

The choice that God sets before the Israelites today echoes in our lives, and in the life of the church, every day. It’s a choice we must continue making, a path we make, as Brian McLaren says, ‘by walking.’ And it sin’t always clear which choice is life and which choice is death.

That is why the one thing that is helpful is prayer. Last Sunday our Consistory president asked us to pray for the church. I would add that you must, in this prayerful attitude, ask questions and listen. There are some keys to ‘discerning the spirits.’ Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us. Discouragement can easily move us to do the right thing, or keep us doing the wrong thing. Joy can also move us to stay in an unhealthy situation or confirm a movement in the direction God would have us go. That is why prayerful discernment of the spirits of desolation and consolation is a spiritual practice. Choosing life requires practice. And courage.

We should hear the invitation to choose life in the context of the greatest of all Ancient Lies: “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘Your surely will not die!'” The denial of death thus competes with the invitation to life. We must make a choice. We cannot avoid this choice, these choices. We have been promised freedom, and we have furthermore been promised consequences according to how we use that freedom. You will notice that Israel did not cease being God’s people when they made a bad decision. But there were consequences. Some say that if you leave Egypt today, on foot, it would take two or three weeks walking to get to Palestine. The Israelites took 40 years because they didn’t always choose well.

The hard part about “choosing life” is that instead of making one big choice that you make once and then go about your business, you have to choose life in lots of little choices that you make every day. If we want to choose God’s ways, we have to make that choice over and over again every day.

This may be hard, but it isn’t impossible. Earlier in the chapter, Moses tells the people:
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

We can grasp this terrible, wondrous freedom that God so generously gives us by the reins and courageously ride it into the land of the living. Or not. The choice is ours. To choose, or not choose. And, not choosing is still a choice. We can go the easy and wrong way or the hard and right way. But remember this: God promises life.