Moses tells the people in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, “I put before you today two choices: life and prosperity or death and adversity.” On the one hand, you can choose to be faithful to the God who brought you up out of captivity in Egypt, adhere to the 10 Commandments—boundary lines that God put in place to build community—leading to incredible blessing—OR you can choose not to stay in relationship with God, give other influences in your life top priority and allegiance, in which case you will suffer terribly and die. Which do you pick?
Um, is this a trick question? ‘Cause I really can’t see the upside to that death and suffering option. As usual, when the Bible appears to be saying something perfectly obvious, I feel compelled to look at it again. In doing so, I often discover more than I bargained for and, generally, more radical expectations placed on us than I like.
If our choices were always as clear cut as “choose life or choose death” I like to think we might be willing and capable of hitting the mark some of the time, keep a couple of the commandments. But usually the choices aren’t as clear cut. Sometimes a doctor has to choose between saving the life of a pregnant mother or saving the life of her unborn child. Which action is choosing life and which is choosing death? The truth is, it isn’t always easy to choose between life and death, good and bad. If choosing life were an easy matter we wouldn’t gather here seeking forgiveness every week.
Making matters worse, sometimes our predicament isn’t about our choosing the right way if only we knew what it was. Sometimes we encounter a situation in which we know what we ought to do or not do, and then we deliberately choose another path because it seems less risky or more appealing. You parents know that as soon as you tell a child, “Don’t touch that stove. It’s hot and will burn you,” that sooner or later that kid is going to touch that stove. We can’t help ourselves. There are many occasions on which we do not even TRY to choose what it right, because we want what we want, regardless of the consequences.
Jesus comes along in today’s Gospel lesson to make the lesson even more difficult. Now, we don’t just have to stick to the letter of the law (“Don’t commit adultery”) but also to the spirit of it (“Don’t even look at someone else with eye to cheating on your spouse”). Now it isn’t just the deed, but also the intention that is sin. And Jesus doesn’t indicate any wiggle room. Neither Moses nor Jesus offers us levels of sin, layers of guilt. There is no distinction made between mortal and venial sins—those are human inventions. Moses and Jesus put it out there much more basically: either you keep God’s commandments—choose life—or you don’t, which equals choosing death. There are no degrees. There’s just thumbs up or thumbs down.
It isn’t just about us, of course. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what a life of beatitude would mean for the whole of creation. We are not simply choosing life for ourselves, but for the well-being of all of creation. In God’s perfect dream, every creature, every atom of the universe, is honored, treasured, and able and willing to embrace life whole-heartedly. But the sad truth is that, by the third chapter of the first story in our family book of faith, we’ve dashed that dream; humanity has already plunged deeply into disobedience. When Adam and Eve willfully turn away from God’s rules, then mutual trust, partnership, freedom from shame, and equality of relationship are all broken. And sadly, creation has never recovered. We do not live lives of Beatitude.
That’s where I start when people ask me why Trinity officially took the designation of being a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Because even though every church should be a living symbol of choosing life over death, ought to embody God’s generous relationship with creation, and longs to be a community where all are welcome and safe and loved, that is not the case. Too often people who are claiming to choose life, trying keep God’s commandments as they understand them, end up choosing death—death for others and for their own spirits.
Misuse of the Scriptures wounds some of the most vulnerable of God’s children. Too often in our society the adjective “Christian” is equated with “homophobic” and, alas, there are abundant stories to back up the truth in that connection. Too often people who think their theology lines up with Biblical commandments end up inflicting pain and alienation and sometimes literal death for our LGBTQ siblings, who become victims of shame or bullying or exclusion or hate crimes.
It is not enough to passively hope that people of different sexual orientation or gender identities will come to a church and find a haven. It’s not going to happen. Too many churches have said, “All are welcome” and then shown that statement to be untrue. In the face of such things, Trinity has tried to choose life—life for ourselves and life for others. We have chosen to actively name this as a home for all of God’s children—and that means being deliberate about embracing those who have been crushed by others in Christ’s name.
Every summer I volunteer at the Naming Project’s summer camp, a Bible camp for LGBTQ teenagers. Every summer I hear stories of families and pastors and congregations who have told these precious children of God that they are damned and that they are unwelcome—that because of who they are and how they love, they are irretrievably lost. Is it any wonder that the suicide rate in the LGBTQ community is disproportionately high compared to the general population? Maybe actively calling ourselves RIC is another way of doing what The Naming Project tries to do: making sure that, no matter what else these teens hear themselves called in their lives, in this time and this place they will hear themselves called by their true name: Beloved Child of God. Maybe this is the church’s way of choosing life over death—for these kids, for our society, for the world.
Of course, Jesus sees that we are broken, and knows that our tendency is to choose death at least as often as life, and so Jesus comes to us in the brokenness. Recognizing our inability, even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, to put ourselves, our churches, or our society together again in the way God envisioned it, Jesus comes to us—to the broken families, the broken-hearted, the broken down, offering redemption and hope. Jesus offers himself to our world as torn fragments of bread and as wine made from crushed grapes. In with and under these broken pieces lies God’s promise to choose life for us when we cannot do it ourselves. Wholeness is God’s gift to us.
When we are breaking others or feel broken by others, Jesus invites us to come to the baptismal font again, there to retrace the mark on our foreheads—the mark of life. The mark of the old self drowned, and the new self brought to life. In retracing that sign, we remember that we will never be able to outrun God’s desire to choose life for us. We have been reconciled to God through Christ. And now, no matter what other people do or don’t do to us or for us, God is with us and for us. And we are invited to pass on this blessing to the whole messy world. We, who cannot keep the commandments we, who wander off accidentally or on purpose; we, who speak when we shouldn’t and stay silent when we ought to be vocal—to us and for us God chooses to come down with life and love, and wrap us all up in it like a blanket. Our calling is to invite others to seek shelter in God’s reconciling embrace.
Thanks be to God!