February 13, 2011
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
“I have set before you life and death... Choose life.” These words from our first lesson today are recorded as some of the last words that Moses spoke. They are the ending of his rather lengthy farewell speech to the people of Israel or perhaps they can be seen as his last will and testament. Literally, the next thing that happens is that he passes on the mantle of leadership to his successor, Joshua, and then dies.
“I have set before you life and death… Choose life.” In this speech, Moses is giving his final wisdom to the people he led. He is passing along his reflections, his thoughts after more than forty years as their leader. These words are the summation of his experience. Before this passage, Moses looks back and recounts the history of their time together. As you read or hear the retelling, you realize that throughout his many years of leadership, Moses and the people have been faced with numerous choices. Moses had to choose to follow God’s calling to lead the people in the first place when he first heard that voice in the burning bush. He hesitated out of fear, but ultimately took the risk. The people had to choose to trust that God was calling Moses to lead them, which they ultimately did. Moses and the people had to choose to keep on pushing Pharaoh each time after Pharaoh relented from his promise to free them. Moses and the people had to choose to keep moving forward through the Red Sea when Pharaoh went after them.
Once free and wandering in the desert, Moses had to choose to stay faithful to God when the people wanted to worship idols. Moses had to choose to keep on encouraging the people in the wilderness when they wanted to turn back and return to their slavery in Egypt where they said it was more comfortable. Reflecting back on these 40 years together, it becomes clear that each one of these moments was a choice to choose life. Following God is life; refusing is not. Freedom is life; slavery is not. Faithfulness to God is life; idol worship is not. Taking risks is life; cowering in fear is not.
“I have set before you life and death… Choose life.” Moses wasn’t just speaking to the people thousands of years ago, his words were meant to still speak to us today. “I have set before you life and death… Choose life.” We face this same choice every day in our decisions. Sometimes it is a fairly literal, concrete choice, like when the doctor lays out the treatment options for whatever medical problem is afflicting us. Sometimes it is an ongoing, daily choice like when fighting against an addiction and having to regularly choose life by not giving in to the addiction. Sometimes the choice is more subtle, perhaps even metaphorical, like choosing how we live our life – the food we eat, the activities we choose, and with whom we choose to spend our time. Do our decisions fill us with life and energy and joy or do they drain away our life, slowly leaving us dead, even if we still walk?
“I have set before you life and death… Choose life.” The choice of life or death sounds stark, black and white, but often when confronted with the actual real-world decisions we have to make, there is a lot of gray. For instance, which is choosing life and which is choosing death when confronted with another surgery or hospice? My experience of being with folks who are making that decision is that the answer is rarely easy or obvious. Sometimes fighting with all we have is choosing life. And sometimes, letting go and letting the natural course of events take place, which include death, is actually choosing life. Christ chose life when he sacrificed himself so that he could be raised again on the third day. Sure didn’t feel like choosing life to his disciples that dreadful Friday; and I think even he may have had his doubts when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But on Easter morning, it became clear.
“I have set before you life and death… Choose life.” We as a congregation, we as the people of St. Mary’s, have to face this same choice, too, with every decision we make. As people of the Resurrection, as an Easter people, we are asked to make the same resurrected choice of choosing life with every decision we make. Do the decisions we make nurture and nourish us as a community? Do they foster our life together as we serve God and our neighbor? Or are the decisions life draining, leading us to the way of death? As we move into the future together, are we willing to confront the challenges we face by taking life-affirming risks like Moses did or do we always play it safe and slowly choose death? This parish has faced challenges in the past and taken the risk of choosing life. Back in the 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression, we took the risk to build a new building. A few decades later, we took the risk of planting new churches, sending out our own members, literally reducing the number of people here, to build those new communities. We are able to reach more people with the life-giving Good News of God’s love found in Christ Jesus today because of that life-affirming choice then. Within the past few decades, we took the risk of opening our doors to the community and making our church a place where the hungry are fed and the addicted find healing and the wider community can gather. We took the risk of adding new worship services so that more could find a connection to God. All of these challenges were risky, but all of them were a decision to choose life. We would not be the exciting, dynamic, healthy, life-filled parish we are today if we had not made the choice to take these life-giving risks. As we move together into the future, we need to continue to make that choice with every decision that confronts us. “I have set before you life and death… Choose life.”