Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality.  They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior.  The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.”  And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be.  Or take the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Of course you shouldn’t.  But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much.  I know some very nasty people who could say the same.  If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.

This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them.  Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it.  But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment!  We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause.  These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.

Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment.  Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others.  Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence.  But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed.  Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world?  Then it was good.  Did that anger fester inside you?  Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people?  Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good?  Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally?  Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused.  We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault.  We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important.  No.  We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned.  Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter.  Our thoughts matter.  They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.

That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson.  It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people.  God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible.  After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today.  But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them.  Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson.  Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking.  They’re not about making life harder.  They’re about choosing life.

From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives.  God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole.  But since the Fall, humans turn away from that.  We make choices that make the world a worse place.  We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others.  We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil.  And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up.  We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil.  And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else.  Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.

That’s why Moses talks about life and death.  Because we do have a choice to make.  We have choices to make every hour of every day.  We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up.  We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life.  In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths.  It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death.  It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate.  That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day.  Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.

The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky.  The law is a guideline to how to choose life.  This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament.  For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous.  This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous.  Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.

As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets.  (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.)  Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job.  If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution.  In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all.  And so Jesus forbids divorce.  I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce.  Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant.  But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.

It all comes down to one question.  Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation.  Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism.  It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be?  Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives.  We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God.  We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift.  We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be.  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.

Amen.

Choose Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 16, 2014

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Deuteronomy is one of those books of the Bible that most people will never read.  It takes place just before the Hebrew people enter the Promised Land.  God had used Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, and they had been nomads in the wilderness for forty years while they learned to be God’s people and live as God wanted them to.  They had learned to trust God and follow God even in the harshest conditions.  It hadn’t been an easy time; they kept backsliding, grumbling, and rebelling against God.  Now they were finally ready, and had been led to the area we call Israel today, the land God had promised to give them.  They were standing across the Jordan River from the land, they could see their future home.  But before they crossed, Moses had a few things to say.  Well, actually, Moses had a lot to say.  And the book of Deuteronomy tells the story of his speech.  Moses knew he wasn’t going to live much longer—he died before they crossed over the river.  And he wanted to help them remember the things they had learned in their years of wandering.  So he gave them the Law—chapter after chapter of legal minutia, everything they needed to know to establish a just and lawful society.

Our first reading comes from his summary, as he’s wrapping up his speech.  In this reading, he reminds people why the laws are there.  The law isn’t given so that people will trip up; it isn’t given so that lawyers can have a job; it isn’t given as a way for the powerful to oppress the powerless by wielding unjust rules.  The laws are given so that the people can live good, honest, and open lives.  We all have many choices in our lives, things we can decide to do or not do.  Some of them seem to be hard, but yet worth it in the long run.  Other choices are easy and seem good at the time, but lead to problems down the road.  It’s not always easy to lead a life of honesty, integrity, and love; sometimes it’s so much easier to be petty and deceitful and selfish.  But a life filled with love of God and loving your neighbor as yourself leads to, well, life.  A life filled with pettiness and selfishness, on the other hand, doesn’t.  Or, at least, it doesn’t lead to the kind of abundant and joy-filled life that God wants for us.  Choosing badly may not be a literal death; it may be a death of hope, a death of love, a death of possibility, a death of joy.  An addition to the brokenness of the world.

When we make choices about how we’re going to live, how we’re going to treat ourselves and others, that’s what’s at stake: are we going to choose the abundant life God has promised us?  Are we going to choose healing and wholeness?  Or are we going to turn away, and choose death and brokenness?  Choose life, Moses says, and reminds us that when we make those decisions every day, we don’t just make them for ourselves, but for our family and community.

Jesus is also talking about laws in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, and again it’s about choices.  What kind of life are we going to live?  Chapter 5 is the sermon on the mount.  You may recall a few weeks ago when we heard the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn.  Why?  Because they will be comforted, filled, lifted up; because in those times of grief and loss, some of the deepest connections and relationships are forged.  Whether or not the world can see it, God is with those who are last, and lost, and least.  Then, last week, the Sermon on the Mount continued with Jesus talking about being salt and light.  God has chosen us to be the light of the world, to let God’s light shine through us on the whole world, and participate in God’s work.

Then, today, Jesus’ sermon takes a more legalistic bent.  What kind of life should followers of God lead?  Jesus’ expectations are pretty high—much higher than was required by the Law of Moses.  But the expectations are high for the same reason.  Some choices lead to life; some lead to death.  Jesus wants us to choose life, not just for our sake but for the sake of the world.  Jesus wants us to live lives that let God’s light shine; Jesus wants us to help build up God’s reign on earth, where the poor are loved, where those who mourn are comforted, where the meek and lowly aren’t trampled underfoot, where mercy and peace are everywhere.  So here are some practical tips on how to live that kind of life.

The first is about reconciliation.  There is conflict in life.  There will always be disagreements, inside church and outside church.  Sometimes those conflicts are small, and sometimes they’re not.  But we human beings aren’t very good at dealing with conflict.  All too often, we’d rather nurse our resentment and anger than forgive; we’d rather sweep things under the rug than take the hard work of rebuilding the relationship.  How many of you have had an argument or problem with somebody in the community that lasted for a long time?  Think about that conflict: did it affect other things in your life?  Did it take a toll on other people?  Did the resentment creep into other things you did?  That’s no way to live.  Jesus calls it a kind of murder: not of lives, but of relationships.  It destroys possibility; it breaks down the whole community.  So, Jesus says, if you have a problem with someone or someone has a problem with you, you should handle it immediately—don’t sweep it under the rug, don’t bury it and seethe, go and be reconciled.  Even if you’re in the middle of worship, take the time to work through the problem and rebuild the relationship.  By the way, we actually allow time for this in worship.  Have you ever wondered why we stop in the middle of service to pass the peace?  It’s not just to catch up with people and say hello.  It’s a time intentionally set apart so that if you have a conflict with someone, you can take the first step of healing the breach: sharing peace with them.

The second area of behavior Jesus talks about has to do with more intimate relationships: marriage and sex.  Jesus focuses on adultery: actions which break those relationships.  And, specifically, he focuses on things men do that break up relationships.  Why?  Because men had the power in society.  A man could blame a woman for his own misbehavior.  A man caught in adultery got a slap on the wrist, but a woman caught in adultery could be killed.  A man could beat or kill his wife with few if any consequences.  A woman had very few circumstances in which she could get a divorce, even if she were being abused; a man could get a divorce for virtually anything.  A meal he didn’t like could be grounds for divorce: and while a man who got divorced didn’t face many problems in society, a woman who was divorced had very few options.  She could live with her father or brothers as a servant; she could marry again (if she could find someone willing to marry her); she could become a prostitute.  There weren’t many other choices.

So I don’t find it surprising at all that Jesus told men not to divorce their wives lightly or for trivial causes.  When you get a divorce, that’s a death of possibility.  It kills the relationship, and often it kills more relationships than just the couple’s: parents, children, siblings, friends, all are caught in the conflict; all are affected.  It can be devastating.  And in Jesus’ day, you added to it a very real possibility that the woman’s life would be ruined even if she had done nothing wrong.  Divorce for trivial reasons was the opposite of everything Jesus was trying to teach.  It was the opposite of the love and mercy and peace that Jesus was sent to bring.  For that reason, I don’t believe that Jesus would apply this teaching on divorce to cases of abuse: abuse, also, is the opposite of love and mercy and peace.  Marriage, like all relationships, should be good and positive and life-affirming.  Jesus wants us to make choices that lead to life, and that includes choices about marriage.

The third thing Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading is oaths.  Not cursing, but swearing.  For example, when a witness is sworn in court, and they put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  And at first when I was reading this passage I didn’t get the connection.  Then I realized: why do we make people swear oaths?  Because we don’t trust them to do the right thing on their own.  We don’t trust that witnesses in a court will tell the truth without an oath and penalties if they don’t.  We don’t trust that people who hold government positions will do their best if they don’t have to stand up and give an oath—and maybe we’re right not to trust.  Certainly, some people try to lie and cheat.  But Jesus’ point is that we as Christians shouldn’t need to take oaths—we should tell the truth even without them.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether we’ve sworn an oath or not.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether or not there are consequences.  We should make the choices that lead to trust, and integrity, and the kind of life worth living.

There are a lot of laws in the Bible, and sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in them.  Some people study the letter of the law, and forget the spirit; some people use the law as a club to beat other people over the head with.  But that’s not why God gave the law to Moses to give to the Hebrews, and it’s not why Jesus talked about the law, either.  God gave us guidelines for behavior to help us make good choices, choices that lead to life and love and wholeness and healing.

Moses said: “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.”

Amen.