A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise, Idaho on Feb 16 by Marci Auld Glass.
There are weeks when I wish it were clear and easy to follow Jesus, to know exactly what to do, what to say, how to treat each other, how to interact in the world, how to read scripture.
According to Deuteronomy, it should be. We’re told the commandment we are to follow is not far away. It is not up in heaven or beyond the sea. It is very near—in our mouths and in our hearts.
All we have to do is choose.
Behind Door Number 1 is life and prosperity. Which is a good option for sure.
Let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2: death and adversity.
Which one should I choose?
Could I have some more information, Wink?
Sure, Door Number 1 involves loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances so you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
Okay. That sounds pretty good.
What about Door Number 2?
If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
Okay. Got it.
Life and prosperity on one side. Adversity and death on the other.
I kid. The book of Deuteronomy is not a game show.
It does give us a choice to make, however.
So why is the choice so difficult?
Who wouldn’t choose life and love and prosperity and blessing?
We look at the world around us, though, and realize it is a much harder choice than we want it to be.
War, addiction, pain, violence, judgment, bullying—wherever we turn, we see how the wrong choice is made, again, and again.
A part of “choosing life” involves “obey(ing) the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances”.
That’s where the difficulty begins.
We aren’t to obey commandments for the sake of the commandments.
Following rules is not the point of faith.
They are there to guide us to better life with each other in community.
And yet we sometimes use them as weapons. “You didn’t obey this commandment, so we can’t be in fellowship any more.”
We use them to exclude, and judge, and justify our own preferences. Susan B Anthony, famous suffragette and civil rights leader, said,
“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
We should not get rid of the commandments, or pretend they don’t exist. We are called to live them out in our own lives, not in others’ lives.
It is much easier to look at other people’s mistakes and start quoting scripture at them. It is much harder to quote scripture to ourselves. It is much harder to hold up a mirror to our own behavior—are we living together as God dreams us to live? Are we using our gifts for the benefit of the community? Are we loving God and neighbor as ourselves?
And sometimes, even if people can apply commandments to their own life, they do so in shame and self loathing. And this is not what God calls us to do either. We are not called to choose shame. We are called to choose life.
And we know life is messy and imperfect and beautiful. And we choose it all.
When I was in seminary, in a pastoral care class, a classmate was telling a story of the “redemption” of two teens in the youth group he served who had gotten pregnant. There are cultural differences that play into this story too, but he described calling them up in front of the youth group, where he had them acknowledge their sin, accept their shame, and serve as a lesson to the other teens, to not stray from their faith.
If you know me and my story at all, you can imagine what I thought of this illustration.
I said, “do you really think what they needed in that moment was to be told they had made a mistake? Don’t you think they already knew that? Why wasn’t grace a part of your redemption for them?”
He replied, “There is no place in faith for sinful behavior. They were not obeying the commands of God and needed to atone for that.”
It’s possible this was not my finest moment in seminary. I may possibly have reacted to that somewhat strongly.
I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation.
My heart hurt for those teens, not only the ones shamed before their peers, but also for their peers who had to watch this impossible goal of perfection being perpetuated.
My heart hurt because I had been in their shoes. While only a few people judged me out loud to my face when I get pregnant in college, I assure you I didn’t need to be reminded of it from them because I was too busy judging and shaming myself.
Luckily, though, my church helped me choose life instead of shame. They suggested that “choosing life” meant more than “choosing perfection” or “choosing not to make mistakes”. They reminded me of grace so I could choose to live a life of joy and beauty and grace. They reminded me God loved me and would be with me through it all, helping me choose life in all of its beauty and pain and joy.
Jesus is facing some of these same issues when he delivers the sermon on the mount. He knows how important the commandments are. And he knows how people use them to narrowly prescribe God’s blessing. And he says “you have heard it said….but I say to you”.
You have heard it said “do not murder”.
The crowd relaxes. “Good point, Jesus. We agree. Murder is bad. We’d never do that. Those horrible sinners who murder should rot in a hell of fire.”
“But I say to you if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Really? I thought the command was about not murdering people?
And then Jesus goes on to talk about how we need to seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. The command not to murder is expanded to help us choose life by calling us to live together daily in harmony and with forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jesus does a similar set of instructions about adultery, divorce, and swearing falsely.
He doesn’t erase the original commandments. He expands them.
He reminds us that choosing life is not just in the big decisions. It is in the little ones. Adultery? Still not the way to choose life. But neither is lust or pornography. You really want to honor your spouse so you can choose life together? Then be careful how you interact with other people and make sure it doesn’t compromise your relationship with your beloved.
And then there’s divorce.
There are lots of modern dilemmas Jesus never addresses.
He doesn’t say anything about driving slow in the fast lane on the freeway, or about being a jerk online, or about homosexuality, or about abortion. But we do have this section about divorce.
And divorce has touched all of our lives, whether we’ve been divorced or not. We’ve seen the pain. We know of the difficulties. We know it isn’t ideal, even if we also know of the redemption that is possible after divorce.
One of the problems for us is that while we use the word “divorce”, it is hard to make a direct comparison. Men, in biblical times, could divorce their wives at any time. Yes, there were disincentives for it because her dowry would have to be returned to her family.
But if a wife burned your porridge, looked at you sideways, or forgot to pick up the dry cleaning—you could divorce her. If women committed adultery, divorce wasn’t really the solution—that would be death by stoning.
Here’s Deuteronomy 24:
“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad Jesus spoke against this kind of divorce, where women had the same amount of determination in their future as did cattle or a used car.
Everything I know about Jesus convicts me that anything he preached was offered to help us live life in grace, harmony, and peace.
Would monogamous lives of fidelity help with that? In most cases, in a perfect world, yes.
But does that mean there is no room for us when it doesn’t work? Certainly not.
Here’s a portion of a sermon I heard this week about this passage:
Where is life in that sermon? How does it call us to choose life?
I hear a lot of judgment and sanctimony.
I hear smug conviction (and even laughter?) about those horrible people who sinned and aren’t worthy of being in their community.
But I don’t hear any good news of the gospel.
I don’t see grace on display.
Or an invitation to bring all of our lives into the life of faith.
As much as I disagree with him, I was hesitant to critique another pastor’s sermon. I’m certain he could read one of mine and disagree with what I preach, or the fact that I’m preaching at all, with equal vehemence.
But that just gets me back to my original question after the Deuteronomy passage. If the choice is so simple—between life and death, between a future and a dead end—then why are we still arguing about it all thousands of years later?
Why are we facing culture wars where good and faithful Christian people see things so differently? So many issues—sexual orientation, human rights, abortion, military intervention, immigration, food stamps, unemployment assistance—the list goes on and there does not seem to be a single one of them where God’s followers speak in unison.
It seems so daunting to discern God’s dream for us when there are so many competing views and interpretations battling for our allegiance. Yet Deuteronomy encourages us to believe God’s dream is not too far away, it is not hidden. God’s word to us is very near, in our mouths and in our hearts.
“Choose life” is a good phrase to remember in the midst of our discernment.
Will our choice make life better for ourselves or for others?
Will our choice extend God’s love and grace to someone?
Will our choice help the world be a more life-affirming place for all of God’s children?
Will our choice help someone else see there is life after mistakes, and tragedy, and loss?
You have heard it said, choose life. But I say to you, don’t define that too narrowly.
Choose life in the little decisions and the big.
Choose life for you in a way that invites others to choose it for themselves, because we can only choose life for ourselves.
Choose life with humility and grace, recognizing others may choose differently.
Choose life with joy and hope that the God who created us is working with us to redeem it all for beauty.
May it be so.