February 16, 2014
Choose Life, Pastor Fred Kinsey
“Thou shall not…”
That has a real ring to it, doesn’t it! But I don’t want to talk about that – yet. Not that I want to avoid discussing the way Jesus addresses the 10 Commandments –as we’ve just heard them read in the midst of our gathering- but if I might, let me start in another place, first?! Really, I’m not trying to weasel out of it!
So, you’ll just have to trust me – when I start with the 1st Reading from Deuteronomy, as far away as I can get, really – that I’m not trying to avoid the gospel!
But this is good stuff too – in the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch. Moses has led the Israelites for 40 years, wandering in the desert, and now finally, they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. In this penultimate Farewell Speech, Moses gives a passionate plea: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, …, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you …But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray …, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
Life, or death? Prosperity, or adversity? Your choice! But, says Moses – literally on the other side of the Jordan River, on the eastern bank, at the doorstep of the Promised Land, which he himself will not enter, his work now almost complete, and realizing a new work must be acknowledged by the Israelites and re-covenanted with their God – I say to you, says Moses, “Choose life!” “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
But the most curious thing about this speech from Deuteronomy – the last of the Five Books of Moses, that started in the beginning with Genesis, and continued through Exodus, the Laws of Leviticus, and the number of sojourners in Numbers, then Deuteronomy, meaning “a second Law” – is that it was actually written 100’s of years later, when they were exiled in Babylon! Really! Not kidding! Of course it was in development since the time of Moses, especially as an oral tradition. Some parts of Deuteronomy were written down, even as the threat of destruction by Babylon was imminent, which took decades. But these last chapters, from which we’ve read today, came together and were compiled in their final form, not until Israel had already been carted away, and so, had lost everything – their homes, their government, their land – and become captives again, slaves to King Nebuchadnezzar, in Babylon.
And what they needed now, most desperately, was somehow to have hope for the future, in the midst of this Exile, this second wilderness wandering. At their lowest ebb, the theological speech to save them, was this sermon from Moses, offering them a choice between life or death, to choose if they wanted to re-covenant with God, and live lives of justice and peace – or to turn their hearts away.
Where do we get our hope for the future, today? In the midst of a never ending snow storm in our social system and lives – a never-ending state pension crisis, high unemployment, or, fully employed and still living under the poverty line, gangs disproportionately infecting people of color and our youth, health care still controlled by corporations instead of doctors, schools abandoned in already underserved neighborhoods, and a pervasive structural racism in our institutions, as we wander in the wilderness of a false American Dream which exists mainly on TV and not in real people’s lives, and that cleverly covers-over our sins, and continues to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots, the rich and poor – In the midst of this snow storm in our lives, where do we get our hope for the future?
Jesus offers us a new interpretation of the Law (see, I told you I’d get to it!) – not to abolish it, but to fulfill it. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder…’ but I say to you that if you are angry… if you insult a brother or sister… if you say, ‘You fool,’” you have already violated the Commandment not to murder. Four times in these verses, Matthew quotes Jesus using this same formula, “you have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” This second interpretation of the Law in Matthew, or third, even, if you count Deuteronomy, was written at the end of the first century, about 90AD, addressed to a whole new crowd, a much wider audience, some three generations after Jesus.
For those followers of Jesus who were then forming the church, this new interpretation of the 10 Commandments was meant to permeate their lives, and social institutions, with the kingdom of heaven, that Jesus had already ushered in. You have heard it said that you should not murder, but I say to you, you should not even harm the reputation of your neighbors. In this, they were partners with synagogues, as well as, churches. For Jesus knew the temptation of every people, and every time, to want beautiful temples and buildings of all kinds – state houses and schools, skyscrapers and bungalows, fire houses and alderman’s offices – without fulfilling the spirit of the Law, God gave us in the generosity of Covenant. “Choose Life, for that means life to you and length of days, …”
Jesus took the “thou shalt not’s,” that we use as a bludgeon against each other, in the name of God, and transformed it into a new covenant that placed the responsibility for life in the midst of the people of faith, to live as lights for the world. God does not delight to punish, and the violence we do to one another is not, of God. When we sin, we need to be accountable. And the only thing that can help us, before, and after, is the gift of the kingdom and realm of God, Jesus gave to us. Murder, is not usually one of our biggest temptations. But anger and insults we can all relate to. Living the kingdom life, in the realm of God, refuses to live by the letter of the law, but strives in all things to live by the Spirit of the Law, and within the safe boundaries God gives us, so that all may have life and length of days.
Jesus’ Deutero, or even, third giving of the Law, created an opening for a new Covenant between God and the Gentiles. It was built on the original rock-solid Hebrew foundation, but sprang up anew, in the self-giving grace of the cross, so that it could not fail to bring new life – the choice, to choose life. And so it continues to teach us to build on those foundations of justice and love.
Recently, in my never ending quest to see every Oscar nominated film, for the Academy Awards, I saw the powerful, “12 Years a Slave.” And after watching it, you can’t help but have questions about the foundation our country is built on. Based on a book written by a free man sold into slavery, we feel the injustice with new clarity, a wound that still lives with us today. Even our text books today, have a difficult time admitting the foundations of human trafficking that existed in the highest levels of American society. I didn’t know till recently, for example, that of our 44 Presidents, 1 in 4, were slave owners, and that the first, George Washington, when deciding on plans to have the White House built, in order to save money on the project, let go the European craftsmen, and – we can’t really say “employed” – but used, slave labor. And so, how can we get a grip on the structural racism that still exists today, if we can’t first be honest about the foundations of our institutions we hold in such high esteem.
Jesus came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. He asked us to live every aspect of our lives, built on the foundation of justice and love, leaning in to the gift of life God offers us in the kingdom of heaven – right now. In a word, Jesus says – from the cross, and journeying with us by the power of the Holy Spirit – “Choose life.”