February 5, 2017
Rev. John Aney

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Common English Bible)
15 Look here! Today I’ve set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. 16 If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them, 18 I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die. You will not prolong your life on the fertile land that you are crossing the Jordan River to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live— 20 by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The time for equivocation is over. The time to “just wait and see” has ended. The time for the choice is now. Today, you must choose between a way that gives life, or a way that takes life away. The choice you make today will make a difference for you and your descendents for generations.

Like many of you, the months since the election have left me raw and, frankly, scared, and this fear has become more acute now that we are seeing the true face of the administration. I am scared for our nation, scared for my neighbors, scared for my children, and scared for the church. But living in this fear every day is demoralizing. Not only that, but it feeds into the narrative that others want us to believe. If we live in fear, then we can be controlled. One can act while in a state of fear, to be sure, but doing the right things require that we move beyond our fear. Making the right choices means acknowledging that fear but not allowing that fear to be the prime mover behind our actions.

The Christian church is on a precipice, and how we respond to the current situation over the next months and years will determine whether we will survive. We know, of course, that there is a distinction between the church (building) and the church (people). The first is a human institution. Inspired by God, fed and nourished by the holy spirit, but still, ultimately, a human institution. However, the other church, the church that is present among your hearts and the hearts of believers everywhere – that is God’s church. I don’t think that God’s church is going away. God’s vision for all creation is eternal. God’s church will always survive, because the message of compassion, service and love exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus is eternal. But the future of the institution, the very messy human institution of the church is not assured.

So, to our reading this morning. Here we are at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. The Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt toward the promise of a new home where they could be safe and secure – their home across the Jordan. However, it took them 40 years to get there. In the midst of their wandering, God sent them the Commandments, through God’s servant, Moses. If they kept the Commandments they could expect God would protect them. If they did not, they would suffer.

This chapter is the final chapter in the wandering of the Israelites through the desert. Their promised land is just over the next range of mountains. Shortly after this chapter, God leads Moses up to Mount Nebo so that he can look out over the promised land. The Israelites are are so close, and yet they are still far away.

I discovered something interesting about this wandering band of Israelites. It included not only Israelites, rescued from Egypt, and their descendants. It also included another group of people. Those people who cut their wood and drew their water for them. Depending on the translation, these people were ‘strangers,’ or ‘aliens’ – people who, for whatever reason, decided to stay with this group instead of return to their own homes. One translation calls them ‘sojourners.’ Another reads “resident alien.” While these resident aliens did not participate in the Passover ritual with the Israelites, they were still a group to be protected and in all other ways made part of the community.

So, in this 30th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses delivers his final speech to the Israelites. And it’s a long speech – takes up most of two chapters of Deuteronomy. The reading for today is the final part of the speech. It sums up all that Moses has been telling the Israelites, and makes it all abundantly clear. The Israelites have been told (repeatedly) what they must do to love God, and now, they have a choice. If they choose the right path – if they keep the Commandments, and walk ‘in God’s ways,’ they will be blessed with prosperity in the new land. If they do not, if they turn away from God, if they ignore God’s decrees to them, they will experience adversity and suffering. Moses tells them ‘if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them…you will definitely die…you will not prolong your life’ in the Promised Land.’

This exhortation from Moses reaches across the millenia to us here today. Through Moses, perhaps God is calling to all of us, saying “walk in my ways, and you will prosper. Turn away and you will perish.” The choice is before us – choose to live and thrive, or die. The Hebrew word used here, bechar, is usually used to describe God’s choice. But in this instance, it is the people who must choose, and their choice is as important to their future as any they have made. Their future depends on the choices they make.

As I said earlier, I believe that Christianity today, particularly in the US, is at one of the most crucial junctures that we have seen for generations. Just as the Israelites had to make a choice between the ways of life and the ways of death, the church today is called to make a choice. We must make a choice between serving God and serving power. And while it may seem like remaining friendly with power can be a way to get things done, ultimately power too easily becomes a golden calf, and we begin worshipping power first, God second.

A number of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called “The Tipping Point.” A tipping point, writes Gladwell, “is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.”

No question, this is a difficult time in our country, and in the world. It seems to many of us that all of the worst parts of the American character are prowling the halls of power. That prowler is offering a hand to the Christian church, but that prowler also wants to create an America that is based on hatred, xenophobia, fear and the love of money. The rest of the world, it seems, is looking to us aghast, wondering how we could have gone from “Yes we can!” to “No we won’t” in just 8 years.

But maybe, just maybe, this is our tipping point. Based on the reaction of a huge number of people over the last months, the invective we hear from our administration towards, well, it seems, just about everyone, is waking people up. All across the country, individuals, organizations, faith communities, and even many companies are stepping forward and saying “no, the policies of this administration do not represent who we are as Americans.”

This is the choice that is being offered to us. We can choose to follow the fear mongers and hatred sowers as they blindly build walls and fortresses to keep us safe from imaginary dangers, or we can say no, now more than ever we must continue to be seen as a beacon of hope to the world.

Even in Deuteronomy, God’s call is insistent. God’s exhortation is for today, right now. “TODAY I have set before you the ways of life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong….obey the commandments RIGHT NOW or I am telling you RIGHT NOW you will perish.” God is insistent. We must make the choice now, today, and we must continue every day to make the choice of life over death.

The choice we have is between that which gives life, and that which leads to death. God is calling us to choose life – not just physical well being, but to choose a life that walks in God’s ways, and follows God’s commandments – to love God with all our heart and soul and might.

What is life giving? There are a lot of possibilities. We should celebrate what we see that gives life, and refute, maybe even protest those things that do not give life. Hold on to that which is good, that is affirming, and not denying. For some, choosing life means reaching out to those in need. For others, choosing life might mean raising your voices in protest. It might mean adopting a daily prayer ritual. It might mean holding those we have elected accountable for their action or inaction. Speaking out when we see injustice, volunteering at the Food Bank, coming here to church to find spiritual sustenance for the long road ahead, or maybe simply telling our children we love them and calming their fears – all these things are life giving. And when we find ourselves flagging, and we don’t know what choice to make, remember the words of the prophet Micah –

do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Or the words of Jesus –

whatsoever you do for the least of these, you have done for me.

For each of you, what is life-giving may be different. I don’t know what is life giving for all of you, but I can tell you a few things that I think are NOT life giving. I can name a few things that serve other gods. Giving people federal protection when they discriminate against others is not life giving. Doing away with regulations that keep our air clean, that slow down climate change, or make our products safer – is not life giving. Denying millions of people access to health care is literally not life giving. Separating families through arbitrary and religiously motivated immigration bans is literally not life-giving. Should I go on? Every day, it seems, we hear about new actions and orders that are the products of fear, hatred and greed. Fear is not life giving. Hatred is not life giving. Greed is not life giving.

But choosing hope is. Every day, we can make the choice to choose hope. Yesterday on Twitter, Senator Cory Booker wrote

“no matter what, I choose hope. It is the conviction that despair won’t have the last word. It is not a state of being but of determined doing.”

So choose life by choosing hope. There continue to be signs of hope. Our courts have recently spoken out against some of the more egregious death-dealing actions of the current administration. Across the country, people are swarming to town halls with their members of Congress demanding action and answers. Senators and representatives are finding their backbones and many are speaking out, even at the risk of being censured. Nevertheless, they persist.

God’s call to each of us is to choose life. As I said, it is something we must choose again each new day. Sometimes our choice could be to stop, to rest, to tend to our hearts. Because resistance to evil is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself permission to rest when you need to, so that you can continue the struggle the next day.

But we can’t let ourselves off the hook. If we are to be honest with ourselves (and honesty is life-giving) we will recognize our own complicity in the problems facing us. As Karen Georgia Thompson writes “It is easy to look at the problems and name them as the fault of others but the bigger challenge comes when we dare to find ourselves in the midst and ask, how am I contributing to the problem? Or, how can I bring difference to what I observe around me? The text challenges us to see the world in a new way. What is our view of humanity? Do we have a vision for justice that will bring about racial healing and equality? Do we have a vision for reconciliation that will provide a hope and a future for those who are marginalized and ostracized by society?”

The Book of Deuteronomy ends shortly after this – with Moses’ death and burial. The Israelites were on the verge of a new life – a new life in the Promised Land. They had been wandering for a generation, and were almost there. They could just taste the milk and honey. They were almost to the place where they could beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Are we on the verge of our own Promised Land? The Reign of God? A place where all can live in equality and peace? Is it possible that this is the moment we have all been waiting for?

I’m optimistic in the long term, but sometimes pessimistic in the short term. I believe our current political situation will be resolved and sanity will return to Washington – I am more worried about how much damage will occur before we get there. I am confident, with Martin Luther King, that the arc of the universe will bend towards justice. But that long journey towards justice requires each of us to make a choice.

The time for equivocation is over. The time to “just wait and see” has ended. The time for the choice is now. Today, you must choose between a way that gives life, or a way that takes life away. The choice you make today will make a difference for you and your descendents for generations.

Amen