In some of his final words to the Israelites, whom he had been leading to the land of safety, security, and prosperity for many years, Moses said, “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may truly and fully live, loving and holding fast to the Lord your God.”
It seems obvious, and sometimes it is. But of the many actions and words—and even thoughts—we choose during a day, or an hour, or a moment, how do we know when we’re choosing life?
How do we know during those tiny moments—choosing what to read on the train or listen to on the drive whether to pick up the phone, or not what to say to a friend or colleague, or not say whether to show up to that thing on our calendar, or stay home --how do we know when such decisions will inch us toward full and true life?
Or rather, how might our choices make us more whole, rather than more broken?
In these days, we find ourselves in a post-truth world, in a culture that has prized convenience and the self for so long that it neither recognizes nor cares what is real.
But this is also nothing new—for certainly since Jesus’ time and Moses’ time and let’s also say Adam and Eve’s time, we have looked outside of ourselves to that thing, that person, that place, that job—or that apple—that will make us whole. That will make us at peace with ourselves. That will let us breathe.
Should we dare to look inside, we do not always like what we find. We do not always like the truth that is in us. The truth that compels us forward and yet sits uncomfortably. So maybe we don’t look.
This morning we hear two sermons. (Well, three, if you count this one.) We hear a sermon from Moses and one from Jesus. Moses is toward the end of his sermon to the Israelites, his brothers and sisters and friends with whom he has been traveling for years. From where they stand today, they can see the Promised Land. Yet Moses knows that his days are numbered, and that he might not—and indeed he does not—make it to the Promised Land with them.
So Moses really is thinking about life and death. He’s thinking about what really matters. He’s thinking, “If this might be my last chance to talk with them, what do I want them to remember above all else?”
What does it mean to choose life? To Moses, it means first of all to love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). And from there come the decisions to act. Moses reminds his beloved brothers and sisters of the many actions they had chosen along their long journey together. Do you remember, he says, when we chose to forgive the debts of the poor (15:1-11)? Do you remember when we pushed our government against too much wealth (16:18-20)? When we did everything we could to protect human dignity (19:1-7)? When we fell all over ourselves to care for the strangers and refugees among us (23:15-16)? Do you remember, he says, when we started to leave some of our own harvest behind in the field, in case someone would come along hungry and need a little food (24:19-22)?1
During these times, he said, we were close to God. During these times, my friends, our ancestors were close to God because they stood for what they believed. They resisted and they persisted. And we, like them, are close to God when we act out of wholeness rather than fear, out of integrity rather than scarcity.
Jesus, in contrast to Moses, is toward the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount—which we began to hear two weeks ago and will continue to hear for another few weeks. He is also at the beginning of his public ministry. People are just starting to follow him and listen to him, more people every day. In his jarring hyperboles that we should cut off our hand or tear out our eye, Jesus is recalling Moses’ sermon and taking it further. He is impressing upon us that not only are we to act out of wholeness, but that our internal world of our thoughts and our feelings really matters.
Of course we can’t control all of our thoughts and feelings. Things just come to mind and things just happen in our hearts. But to the extent that we can become aware of these things, then we have a choice. We can choose what would draw us toward full, true life, or what would draw us away from God.
To continue Jeanne’s message from last week, faith is the pursuit not only of joy and wonder, but it is also the pursuit of truth and candor. In this age of alternative facts, the most countercultural and most Christian thing we can do is be truthful to and within ourselves. How many alternative facts do we subsist on?
In this fractious world that spins further into chaos each day, the most countercultural and most Christian thing we can do is to act out of wholeness. If wholeness is not something you’d say describes you right now, as is the case for many of us, can you imagine it? Are there things you can do to get in touch with those parts of yourself that remind you of who you really are inside? Maybe it’s talking with a friend who’s known you since forever. Maybe it’s revisiting works of art or pieces of music that have spoken to you over and over again through the years.
The many choices before us in a day do not come with labels, “life” or “death”, but they are still many opportunities, large and small, to choose wholeness over fear, integrity over scarcity.
We do all of this not only in the name of self-help or self-improvement, although those are good and necessary, but in the name of God, who sees us in all of our complexity, our pain, our weakness, our grief, our confusion, and does not look away. God does not look away.
And so we pray: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid. Cleanse and guide the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you with our whole heart, mind, soul, strength, and worthily magnify your Holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.2
1 Brett Younger in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume I, p. 341
2 Collect for Purity, adapted, Book of Common Prayer, p. 355