What is the thing I won’t change?

The Rev. Courtney Reid, preaching

Joy J Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary posed the following question on this week’s Working Preacher Podcast, “What is the one thing we refuse to change to follow God’s higher call?” It’s a question that has hounded me all week.

What is the thing I won’t change? The thing that keeps me from choosing God’s law, from choosing life? It’s a simple question, with no easy answers, and one that has challenged God’s beloved children (all of us), made in God’s image since the dawn of time. Again and again, God calls us into relationship; and again and again we find ways to resist, to defer, to refuse, to choose a different way.

What is the one thing we refuse to change to follow God’s higher call?

In our reading from Deuteronomy today, the Israelites are perched at the edge of the Promised Land listening to Moses, who has been delivering speeches filled with God’s law and commands for thirty chapters. It’s been a long and hard 40 years to the border, and Moses won’t be crossing into the promised land with them. This is his farewell address, and he urgently wants the people to understand the choices before them, and these choices seem stark: life or death, blessing or curse, good or evil.

Moses sums everything up with these words, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Moses lays it all out for the Israelites, and now the choice is left to them. To love, to hold fast to, and obey … God.

And I think it’s this word “obey” in which I get hung up. You better obey me, or else. Obey without question. Follow the rules. If you screw up you’re finished. It’s an entirely transactional understanding. I resist “obeying.” And it’s never been a word I was fond of – until I encountered the Rule of St Benedict, where obedience (along with stability and conversion of life) make up the footstool of Benedict’s rule. I realized I had it all wrong.

While choosing life is choosing to be obedient; obedience is not about achieving personal perfection by following the rules. It’s not a checklist for achieving righteousness or salvation. Obedience is instead rooted in deep listening and discernment. Obedience is saying “Yes” with our whole person to the infinite love of God. Saying yes to relationship.

And while it may seem that Moses is posing a one-time choice for the Israelites, an obey these commands or face doom scenario, we have the benefit of knowing more of the story. While that initial response to Moses’s call to choose life was “yes,” the Israelites require regular reminders about that choice, regular moments of re-choosing, re-committing, re-orienting, re-turning. Reading the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah – reveals to us time and time again our human tendency to stray from God’s way. To forget our commitment to love God and neighbor. To forget our “yes.”

To choose and re-choose life means starting something, not a one and done – being in a relationship with God that can be messy, difficult, and beautiful. We fall far from God’s way and yet the God who has already chosen us invites us to return. Striving to live in relationship with God yields life, even when we mess up.

God keeps longing for our yes, for our complete and full turning to him and his way. And it’s into this world, that God sends God’s son, born as one of us, born to share with us his life-giving, liberating way of love.

We hear Jesus today, still preaching to the crowds gathered round. We heard the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount two weeks ago with the beatitudes, the naming and calling of what makes us blessed. And last week, Suzanne reminded us of Jesus’s call to each and every one of us to be light to the world. And that passage concludes with what is really the prelude to today’s reading – Jesus telling those gathered that he’s not come to overturn God’s law or the prophets but to complete it. Jesus building on the Torah doesn’t change the law, but expands the law, radicalizes the law and sets before us a deeper way of understanding what it means to choose life, to choose love.

You have heard it said, you shall not murder, but I say to you, do not be angry, do not insult. Blessed are the merciful.

If you are out of relationship with someone, I say to you, go and be reconciled to one another before you do anything else. Blessed are the peacemakers.

I say to you, do not objectify others, do not dehumanize them. Blessed are the pure of heart.

Once again, a choice is before us. A choice of life over death, love over hate, justice over oppression, freedom over bondage.

Jesus is laying out for us a way to be in relationship with God, with one another.

Even when the choice seems clear, we struggle to hear God’s call to life and love amidst the cacophony of voices that say to just let things be, don’t rock the boat, choose the easier way, don’t worry about it.

What is the one thing we refuse to change to follow God’s higher call

On this day in 1865, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave who was pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., became the first African American to speak in the U.S. Capitol Building. His sermon was delivered less than 2 weeks after Congress adopted the 13th Amendment banning slavery and was titled, “Let the Monster Perish.”

Garnet’s biography notes that he was a gifted orator and preacher so I imagine his voice thundering in the vaunted House Chamber, that chamber built by persons who had been enslaved.

He laid out a choice for those legislators and guests gathered in that chamber – a choice for life, a choice for justice.

“Let slavery die,” he preached. “It has had a long and fair trial… Its death warrant is signed by God and man. Do not commute its sentence. Give it no respite, but let it be ignominiously executed.

“Great sacrifices have been made by the people; yet, greater still are demanded before atonement can be made for our national sins. Eternal justice holds heavy mortgages against us and will require the payment of the last farthing. We have involved ourselves in the sin of unrighteous gain, stimulated by luxury and pride and the love of power and oppression; and prosperity and peace can be purchased only by blood and with tears of repentance.

“I beseech you that you say to the people that they go forward. With the assurance of God’s favor in all things done in obedience to his righteous will, and guided by day and by night by the pillars of cloud and fire, let us not pause until we have reached the other and safe side of the stormy and crimson sea.”

For Garnet, the choice was clear. Choosing life is to advance the complete abolition of slavery, to acknowledge the full humanity of formerly enslaved people, to fully repair the breach caused by declaring some persons as not fully human. Choosing life, he declares is a personal and communal choice and it includes sacrifice and repentance.

What is the one thing we refuse to change to follow God’s higher call?

We know that our nation and its people, we did not live up to Garnet’s call to choose God’s way, to embrace God’s vision of human relationship and community. We fell short., far, short, and the work of overcoming the sins of racism and enslavement is not complete. And the challenge for us is not to throw up our hands in despair or resignation, but to remember (again and again) that God’s invitation is eternal and that we can re-choose, re-commit, re-turn to the way of life, the way of love. Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, is calling forth a new community, a beloved community, a community that understands itself as accountable to one another and to God, a community that knows that it is beloved by God and must do the hard work of being reconciled, of speaking the truth, and of living faithfully with one another.

We do this in big ways and small ways each and every day. And most of us won’t have a good sense of where a lot of our choices will lead until we’re looking back on the life we’ve been given to live. But as we make choices, I invite us to consider two questions.

In this choice, am I loving and worshiping God?

In this choice, am I loving my neighbor?

And while most of our daily choices may not seem to be life or death choices, perhaps they are choices that lean toward life and death. And perhaps those choices prepare us for the time when the choice we are offered will be monumental and life-altering.

That day when you will need to dig deep to find the courage to speak the truth, even knowing the consequences for you may be less than desirable.

That day when you are called to choose between the comfort of what you now know and the terror of what is yet unknowable.

That day when you choose to leave a relationship or a job because it is not about life, but about death.

That day when you choose to stand in solidarity with those seeking justice at the risk of your own privilege and status.

Choose life. Choose love. Choose the One who invites us to change that keeps us from his higher call to share in his beloved community.