Choosing Life

Deuteronony 30:15-20, Matthew 5:43-48
It has been said that good preaching involves having a copy of the New York Times in one hand and the Bible in the other.  These days we might add CNN, MSNBC, FOX, NPR, and PBS!  It’s also been said that preaching needs to mediate the timeless but ever-contemporary word and wisdom of God with the dynamic and changing world in which we live.  I know that to be the case. I often alter much of my message after our prayer time or Pam’s time for all God’s children or as I look at the news over the weekend.

Today’s sermon was inspired by a member’s comment three weeks back in which he noted that he was concerned that our nation is headed toward civil disruption, due to battle lines being drawn over the impeachment, our overall incivility, and failure to find any common ground as a nation.  He is right.  We are a mess as a nation.  Whether you are conservative or progressive, we all recognize that we can’t go on like this forever.  WE need to rediscover common goals and purposes and find some great work to achieve as a nation. All of us, beginning with the president need to get on our knees and ask forgiveness for our complicity in creating today’s polarization and for policies that put profits ahead of persons and short-term gain over long-term earth care.  Perhaps if we confess our sins against one another and the planet in our national life, we will be able to begin again and, as Katherine Lee Bates wrote, “Crown our good with brotherhood – and sisterhood – from sea to shining sea.”

In the reading from Deuteronomy, God places before the Hebraic pilgrims the paths of life and death.  One pathway will lead to flourishing, the other to destruction.  Most of the time, life and death choices aren’t dramatic, but sometimes they are.

I grew up listening to the Haven of Rest on the local radio station.  It was a staple for my mother as she cleaned house or did the laundry. Periodically “First Mate Bob” would give his testimony.  An unrepentant alcoholic who’d lost everything, Bob found himself three sheets to the wind at a fleabag hotel in San Diego, California.  Out of control, he decided to end his life, and then in that moment of darkness, he heard three bells tolling, “three bells and all is well.”  He believed the tolling bells were a message from God. “You have a reason to live.” From that moment on, God became real for him, he took the sober path, and spent the rest of his life telling people that no sin was so great that God could not heal you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an up and coming German theologian.  In the late 1930’s, he was invited to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, not only because he was a world class theologian but to give him safe passage from Nazi Germany.  After a few months, he returned to Germany.  He believed that he must return, despite the risk, and do all he could to subvert Nazism.  He believed that when God calls you, you must take up your cross. As war was ending, Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler.

There are times in which we must choose which side we’re on.  Love or hate, life or death, health or disease.  In more subtle ways, each of us makes this choice moment by moment and day by day – will I be healthy or sick? Will I stand up for justice or let those who perpetuate evil have their way?  Will I stand with Muslims, being berated on the streets, or for immigrants being hounded, regardless of their legal status?  Will I speak for the earth or let the short-term profiteers have their way?

Today, as citizens and as a nation, we must place ourselves on the side of life.  In the midst of war, Abraham Lincoln spoke of “malice toward none and charity toward all.”  He counseled a broken nation to follow its “better angels.”  Even, as war was winding down, and victory in sight, he chose the compassionate way.  When he was asked how he would treat the Confederate states once the war was over, Lincoln surprised his questioner, who expected vengeance and punishment with the words, “I’d treat them as if they’d never left!”

Jesus counsels us to be perfect as God is perfect.  This is not a challenge to be sinless; we’ve already failed that and its only 10:40 a.m.  He’s telling us to seek to be as welcoming, embracing, and loving as God, who makes the rain to fall and sun to shine on the good and evil, those whom we love and those whose views and behaviors are an anathema to us.

How do we choose life? I don’t have the golden key, but let me suggest some of the ways we can choose life in a death-filled world.

  • First, practice humility. The prophet Micah asks, “What does God require of us?” and responds “to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” In our uncivil world, this means to see the truth in your neighbor’s falsehood and the falsehood, or limitations, of your own truth.
  • Second, look for the holiness of everyone you meet. God is often disguised in those we find most loathsome or different from ourselves.  There is something of God, an inner light in each of us, and it’s our job to see the holiness of ourselves and respond to God’s light in others.  As the Benedictines say, “treat everyone as Christ,” even when you challenge their attitudes and behaviors.
  • Third, as Teresa of Calcutta says, “do something beautiful for God.” Constantly ask yourself, “will this action bring ugliness or beauty to the world?  Will this word bring joy to the world, or subtract from the happiness of others, near and far?”

As the mystics say, the world is saved one moment at time and so is the nation.  We can be the tipping point toward national healing.  We can say no to hate and incivility, we can welcome the stranger, and discover friendship where once there was conflict.  We can be God’s companions in healing the world and our land.  As poet-pastor Edwin Markham wrote a century ago:

He drew a circle that shut me out                                                                   Rebel, heretic, thing to flout                                                                   But love and I had the wit to win                                                                    We drew a circle that took him in.