Choose Life

Sermon for February 16, 2014 ||  Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A ||  Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; 1 Cor. 3: 1-9; Psalm 119: 1-8; Matthew 5: 21-37|| The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

When I was growing up, one of the phrases my mother often used that I swore I’d never use when I had kids of my own was, “It’s for your own good.”

As in, “Why can’t I go to the Grateful Dead concert with guy up the street in his VW van?”  To which my mother would reply, “Honey, you’re 14 years old.  It’s for your own good.”

Well, it sure didn’t seem like it to me.  In my haughty little teenaged mind she was obviously impinging on my freedom and ruining my life.

Then I had a daughter of my own, and well, you know how it goes: “It’s for your own good,” suddenly seemed like a totally reasonable thing to say.  And I understood, of course, that my mother never meant to ruin my life anymore than I meant to ruin my daughter’s life.  My mother loved me, and the rules she and my father set for me really were for my own good.

In our Old Testament reading today, Moses is wrapping up the last of three very long sermons, in which he’s been elucidating for the Hebrew people the rules and regulations God has set for them.  He’s been imploring them all along to obey these “commandments, decrees and ordinances” so that– as he has said repeatedly– “…it may go well with you.”

In other words, God has given them these decrees and statutes and ordinances, for their own good.

And now Moses wraps it all up by saying,  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life… so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…”

God does not make His covenant with Israel to ruin their lives or impinge on their freedom.  Quite the contrary.  The commandments, decrees and ordinances spelled out in the Deuteronomic code are a life-giving gift, a road map to human freedom; like an instructors manual on how to live a life that works.  Because a life lived in accordance with God’s will is a life that works.

“Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts!” declares the psalmist.

But of course, the Deuternomic code was also written to a particular people in a particular culture.  We do well to keep the Ten Commandments, but we no longer demolish the worship spaces of other faiths; execute psychics and interpreters of dreams; or stone to death stubborn and rebellious sons.  God’s word is a living Word after all.

And it is that living Word that we find Jesus reinterpreting in this morning’s gospel, in yet another culture and another context.  It’s not enough, Jesus says, to obey the letter of the law if what’s going on in your heart is hateful.  It’s not okay, he says, to look at women like objects instead of human beings; or to dispose of them like unwanted animals.  Being in right relationship is what matters—treating each other with honesty and kindness and respect…loving the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.  That’s what matters.  And that’s a far more radical and demanding commandment than all of the others put together.  That’s what it means to “choose life.”

But what does it look like on the ground?  How do we reinterpret the living Word of God in our own context, without choosing at our own whim or convenience which words withstand the test of time and which need to be “adjusted” for our time and place?  How do be sure we’re choosing life, loving God above all else and loving our neighbors as ourselves?

I’m not sure any of us has a definitive answer to that question.  But I think one place we can look for guidance as Episcopalians is at our Baptismal Covenant.  When we’re baptized, we choose life.  Little Charlotte is about to choose life by being baptized into the life of Christ.  And in her behalf, her parents and sponsors are going to promise to put their whole trust in Christ’s grace and love and to follow and obey him as their Lord.  That’s a very good start for choosing life.

And when we renew our own baptismal covenant, we will make promises embedded with life-giving wisdom.   We choose life by continuing in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. We choose life by persevering in resisting evil, by repenting, and turning back to the Lord when we fall short. We choose life by proclaiming the Good News of the gospel by word and by example, and by seeking and serving Christ in all people. We choose life by striving for justice and peace among all people and by respecting the dignity of every human being.

If we are faithful to these baptismal promises, we will be loving God with all of our heart, and all of our mind, and all of our soul, and our neighbors as ourselves.  If we are faithful to these promises, it will, indeed, go well with us.  Because if we are faithful to these promises, we will be choosing the life God intends for us.

Choose life then, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, this day and always. Amen.


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