Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
“Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord,” writes the Psalmist. Who here has got that down? I’m guessing none of us qualify as blameless. So what’s the worst choice you ever made? For some of us, there is a single obvious answer to that question. For others, there’s a wealth of terrifying options from which to choose. In today’s text from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people, “I put before you today two choices: life and prosperity or death and adversity.” The means to achieving them are equally straightforward. “If you obey” God’s commandments and ways, then you shall live. “If your heart turns away,” then you shall perish. It is as cut and dried as a teacher setting out the rules of the classroom on the first day of school.
You can choose to be faithful to the God who brought you up out of captivity in Egypt, to adhere to the 10 Commandments—the boundary lines that God put in place to build community which lead to incredible blessing—OR you can choose to give other influences in your life top priority and allegiance, in which case you will suffer terribly and die. Seems like not much of a choice, doesn’t it?
Especially since we know that God didn’t make these laws as a cosmic cop trying to maintain order, but as a loving parent who admonishes a child: “Don’t pull the cat’s tail or you’ll get scratched.” These kinds of warnings are not about justice or judgment, but are made out of compassion and care for all God has made.
In our defense, the choices we face are seldom clear cut as choosing life or choosing death. There’s a whole lot of grey out there. 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? If choosing life were an easy matter we wouldn’t have to gather together here seeking forgiveness and reconciliation every week.
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 exactly what we ought to do or not do, and then we deliberately choose another path because it seems less risky or more appealing. We do not even TRY to choose what it right, because we want what we want, regardless of the consequences. We can’t help ourselves.
We look to the Gospel for words of hope for us sinners, only to find Jesus speaking not of easing the choices, but adding to their consequences. Jesus tells his followers it isn’t enough to stick to the letter of the law (“Don’t commit adultery”); they must also adhere 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. Neither Moses nor Jesus offers a distinction between mortal and venial sins, big sins and little ones—those are human inventions. Moses and Jesus present us only with stark basics: either keep God’s commandments—choose life—or don’t, which equals choosing death. There are no degrees. Just thumbs up or thumbs down.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that today’s Gospel lesson is not a stand-alone sermon from Jesus. It is a continuation of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been reading from for the past three weeks. The overarching theme of this sermon explores what a life of beatitude would mean for the whole of creation. We—and the choices we make—are part of a larger picture. Our choices can have ramifications not only for us, but for the well-being of all of creation. In God’s perfect dream, every person, every creature, every atom of the universe, is honored, treasured, and able and willing to embrace life whole-heartedly. How we live contributes to or detracts from that dream.
The sad truth is that we’ve dashed God’s dream over and over again. As far back as Adam and Eve, God’s people have willfully turned away from God’s dream, choosing again and again to pull the cat’s tail. We have repeatedly broken the mutual trust, partnership, freedom from shame, and equality of relationship God designed for us. We do not live lives of Beatitude.
The Good News for us is that God knows this about us—knows we’ve pulled the cat’s tail and been scratched repeatedly. God sees that we are broken, and recognizes that our tendency is to choose death at least as often as we choose life. So how does Jesus treat those who do not heed this sermon about living lives of blessing? What do we know, based on how Jesus lived and taught? Does Jesus double down on expectations that humans clean up our acts or else? No.
Jesus does precisely what no one else could do or would even want to do. He comes to us in our brokenness, and tells us we are precious and loved. 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, Jesus comes to us. Jesus eats and laughs and works and prays with the broken-hearted, the broken down and broken up, bestowing gifts of redemption and hope not because we have earned them, but because Jesus wants to bless us with them. Jesus offers himself to us and 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 home. Come to the baptismal font again, there to retrace the mark of life on our foreheads. The mark of the sinful 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, no matter what we do or don’t do, God is with us and for us.
Because we are cherished in the midst of our inappropriate choices, it is therefore our duty and delight to pass on this blessing to the whole 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—it is for us that God chooses life and love. It is us God wraps up in mercy like a blanket. Our calling is to invite others to seek shelter in God’s reconciling embrace.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider