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.


Essential Grace

There is a huge debate in the ELCA today about issues of sexuality.  There are several different views on the matter, many of which are in bitter opposition to one another.  Some congregations are leaving the church.  Some people are leaving their congregations.  Some, despite opposition on both theological and social grounds, are staying.  But how can we stay together in one church with such differences?  With such heated debate over whose interpretation of the Word of God is right?

We are not the first to have a major conflict within the church.  There have been times before when serious differences of practice and belief have challenged our ability to be a unified church.  This has happened many, many times over the history of the church, over issues that continue to be major and over issues that to us today seem to be largely irrelevant.  What can we learn from our forbears in the faith?  For the reformers in the 16th century, who were trying to create a new identity as Christians after having left the Roman Catholic church that had defined Christianity in the West since the very beginning, the solution was to divide things into essentials–those things that could not be compromised–and adiaphora–those things that were largely peripheral.  Adiaphora might be (and often was) comprised of issues that were at the heart of everyday life and practice of religion.  It was often bitterly fought over.  But those on differing sides of the issues could still come together as the body of Christ.  If we apply that question today, what are the essentials, to us?  What things are adiaphora?

As Lutherans, we hold that the core of the Gospel is justification.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; we are all sinners.  But we are also all saints, called and redeemed by God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God.  We are saved by the grace of God, by his steadfast love.  No action or inaction of ours can change God’s saving will.  This is the core of the Gospel.  While other theological interpretations may change, this stands firm.  No one on any side of the issue is challenging this.

The sexuality question is not one of Gospel, but of morals.  How does God want us to live in this fallen world?  And while the Gospel does not change, morals can do.  A century and a half ago, there were Lutherans in America who believed that slavery was morally acceptable.  A little over half a century ago, there were Lutherans in Germany who believed that Hitler’s treatment of Jews was not only morally acceptable, but even praiseworthy in some cases.  There is a great deal of material in the Bible that can be taken to support either position (much of the Old Testament in the former case, though most emphatically not Exodus, and the virulent anti-semitism of the Gospel of John, in the latter).  Despite their claim to Biblical support, today we believe them to have been horribly, tragically wrong.

I believe both slavery and anti-Semitism to be of much greater concern to Christianity, much closer to issues concerning the heart of the Gospel, than issues relating to homosexuality.  There are only five references to homosexual behavior in the Bible.  Paul’s letters and the holiness codes of Leviticus each contain two one-verse references to homosexual behavior included in a laundry list of forbidden behaviors.  Then there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in chapters eighteen and nineteen of Genesis, which in the text is an issue primarily of inhospitality, violence, and xenophobia in which homosexuality is a manifestation of the depravity of those two cities, not the main problem.  (Compare with the parallel story of the Levite’s Wife in the nineteenth chapter of Judges; compare also with Jesus’ reference to Sodom in Luke 10:12 or Matthew 10:15.)  Commentators did not begin to cite homosexuality as the main problem of Sodom and Gomorrah until several centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Bible is saturated with stories about the grace and mercy and love of God, and with commands to love one another and protect the vulnerable.  And yet we are tearing our churches apart–tearing the Body of Christ apart–over four verses and one dubiously-interpreted story.

For further study, here are a collection of responses to the sexuality issue collected by the faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

From Seminary President Michael Cooper-White: On Heresy and Humility

The president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Reverend Doctor Michael Cooper-White, recently wrote a short piece on the recent conflict within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America regarding human sexuality:

When teaching about conflict, I advise folks to expect some rhetorical excesses when individuals or communities are anxious and engaged in a heavy duty struggle. So while it’s no surprise that some things appearing in speeches and print following the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly are “over the top,” I would feel remiss without challenging one of the most blatant—the accusation that by its decisions in adopting a social statement on human sexuality and changing ministry policies the Evangelical Lutheran Church has “fallen into heresy.”

Reflections on the ELCA churchwide assembly

As some of you may be aware, the ELCA recently voted to “recognize publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”  In other words, while the Churchwide Assembly did not endorse homosexuality nor give monogamous same-gender relations the same status as heterosexual marriages, it did state that homosexuality is not inherently sinful.  Now, this is a hugely controversial thing to say, even when you’re trying to be even-handed and take a middle of the road coarse (which the ELCA is trying to do).  This is particularly controversial for a church body, and there is a great deal of confusion as to the scriptural basis (or lack thereof) on which the decision rests.  There are also a great many accusations from both sides of the argument that the other side is acting based on their own personal prejudices and politics rather than the will of God.  There is also a great deal of confusion on what it was exactly that the ELCA voted to do.  What happened can be explained fairly easily from the ELCA FAQ on the subject.  The theological basis on which those decisions rested are a bit more complicated.  Here’s a helpful article by Timothy Wengert:

“If there is one rule we need to follow in the wake of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, it is this: Do not break the eighth commandment (against false witness) in order to defend the sixth (against adultery and other sexual sins).  Both those who supported the changes in policy and those who did not need to remember this.  We must speak what we know and not cast aspersions on those who disagreed with us.  Luther’s comments on the eighth commandment in the Large Catechism are helpful here.  Even when forced by one’s office to speak out, one must not lie or distort the truth.

“In light of some implied (and explicit) attacks on the decision, however, it is also necessary to make one thing clear.  The change in policy was grounded in Scripture.  In fact, the calls for justice toward gays and lesbians in committed relationships and the recitation of examples of healthy same-gender relations, as important as these are to some folk, finally do not in themselves constitute a complete standard for changing church policy, since even calls for justice must for Christians be grounded in and normed by sound interpretations of Scripture as God’s Word for us….”

Timothy Wengert is an outstanding theologian of the church.  He is an expert on Luther and the early Lutheran church, having been one of two editor/translators of the latest edition of the Book of Concord (the collection of documents that form the basis of the particularly Lutheran understanding of Scripture and the Christian life, of which the Augsburg Confession is a part). He is a professor of Reformation History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and a regular contributor to the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.