Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
In the midst of reports about the snow and ice, a rescheduled blue basketball game, and the winter Olympics, there was news this week about a significant decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 4th Circuit is our regional federal court, which is typically the last stop for southern cases before they reach the United States Supreme Court. On Tuesday the 4th Circuit issued an opinion about the North Carolina General Assembly’s decision to require the Division of Motor Vehicles to issue an anti-abortion license plate but not a reproductive rights plate. The court ruled that this is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment because it favors one kind of speech over another.
Now before you get nervous, know that I’m not here today to talk about abortion, one of the most controversial ethical issues of our day. But the license plate question is relevant to the passage Tom read a few moments ago. This is true because the anti-abortion plate conveys the gist of advice offered to the ancient Israelites in our text: Choose life. In fact, in 29 states you can buy a license plate bearing this message, which is intended to be a public affirmation of the driver’s opposition to abortion. Now we could easily critique what “choosing life” means to those who want our state to issue these license plates. But this morning I want to explore this topic more broadly, for we all know that there is much more to choosing life than simply avoiding death.
First let me say that this text is a perfect example of why, in the words of Marcus Borg, if we take the bible seriously we can’t take it literally. It’s part of a longer portion of Deuteronomy referred to as the “final address of Moses.” It was intended to inspire hope in the dejected people of Israel who were forced into exile after their temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Except for the exodus from Egypt, the exile was the most important event in the life of the Jewish people. They lost everything when their enemies won and they were forced to march to another country where they lived as foreigners for 38 years. The exile provoked a crippling crisis of meaning and hope to which Moses responds in this inspiring speech. But there is one problem. Moses died about 600 years before the exile. So is it a fact that Moses said these words? No. But the text and the message it conveys held profound meaning for the Israelites and for generations since. Giving these words to Moses is a rhetorical device that puts authoritative words in the mouth of an authoritative figure in order to get the attention of the exiles and inspire them to believe in a hopeful future.
So what does it mean to “choose life?” In our text the implications of the choice are clear: you either choose life, which means obey God, and you live; or you choose death, or disobey God, and you will literally die. Whether this set of options and their clear consequences was truly a “be good or be punished” opportunity from God’s perspective or not, we don’t really know. But the Israelites certainly understood it that way since they tended to associate both the bad and the good things that happened to them with God. How the divine operates was mysterious to them just as it is to us. Consequently, they and we develop ways of thinking about God and how God operates in order to cope with the mystery.
The challenge for me with this text is that the approach seems to simplify our choices. The obvious correct option is to choose life over death. Except when painful health conditions or crushing circumstances make the alternative attractive, most people are eager to choose life – and we think that’s what we’re doing. In fact, most of us actually intend to even if our choices turn deadly. But this free will we’ve been given is so much more complicated than the proverbial “life-or-death” choice. So listen to a comparable passage in the apocryphal book, Sirach. Sirach is wisdom literature that includes ethical teachings written by Joshua Ben Sira about 200 years before Jesus. The book didn’t make it into our canon or the Hebrew scriptures, but it’s included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles. In addition, the Anglican Communion and Lutheran churches consider it a meaningful book for reading, devotion and prayer.
In a passage similar to our text in Deuteronomy, here’s what Sirach says: If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. (Sirach 15:15-16).
Fire and water. Now I think the author meant to use water as comparable to life and fire as an equivalent to death. But in my mind, these two elements represent well the complicated choices we face in our lives. With life and death, the preferable choice is obvious. With water and fire, not so much. Water is life-giving. We cannot survive long without it. But it also can drown us or seriously damage our possessions and as we were reminded this week, its frozen form can be beautiful but very dangerous. Fire provides light and it will keep you warm when the power goes out. But getting too close to it will hurt you and your property big-time.
So these two elements represent the nature of life. Good choices have down sides and bad choices more often than not have at least one good side. The key is discernment – learning how to identify what is water, but not too much, and what is fire, and not too much. But simply concluding that we should “do all things in moderation” – a phrase I heard a lot when I was a Methodist – doesn’t do the dilemma justice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice, says Ben Sira. God has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
A couple of examples of ethical questions we face: I believe one of the fundamental questions for people of faith, for everyone in fact, is, “How much of what I own do I keep for myself and how much do I give away?” If I keep everything I have to myself, I’m typically viewed as selfish. So then should I give it all away even if it means becoming dependent on others? Generally this would be considered foolish and those on whom I have to depend may feel taken advantage of. But what if I’ve given it all away to benefit others or to make this a more just world? What if my dependency is caused by my generosity? Is that different? What if I spend the bulk of my resources on my children, raising them, educating them, to the point that I have to depend on them for financial support in old age? Some would say this seems fair. But what if rather than depending on my children, I rely on the government (that is, taxpayers) to pay my bills after a life of generosity or even extravagance toward my loved ones? Is that just? Generosity can be life-giving water and a fire that warms and lights our way. Can it ever drown us or become destructive?
Example two: Freedom is the hallmark of Baptist life. Being free to communicate directly with God, interpret scripture, organize our churches, and avoid government interference with religion are fundamental tenets of being a Baptist – ground rules that we hold dear as “free and faithful Baptists.” But can’t this freedom be like water – life-giving, thirst-quenching, but also potentially deadly? Freedom to protect oneself or one’s family is proliferating gun ownership. Freedom to eat or drink or smoke as much as we want is killing us. Freedom can light a fire of passion that frees a nation, or degenerate into violence and destruction that kills people and ravages the landscape. Free enterprise is the crucible for both incredible innovation and incredible greed.
You get the point and you know it well. We live in a world that includes both life and death, water and fire, heaven and hell right here on earth. Even if we weren’t all so busy and had lots of time to sit around and ponder the meaning of life, the choices we face are so complex and so unique to each individual even as they are common that it’s often hard to know what to do. I wish I had some great advice for how to navigate our ways through the ethical thicket in which we necessarily live. I don’t. But as I’ve pondered how we can know that we are really choosing life and not death, that we are pursuing the life-sustaining, soul-warming, way-lighting nature of water and fire, I have come up with only two things: love and justice. The challenge is discerning in any given situation what is love and what is justice. On the surface, this may seem easy. But, as you know, it definitely is not.
First, a word about love to remind you of what you already know. Real love is about long-term good, not short-term feelings. Pleasure, happiness, emotional attachment – each of these may be part of love, but they aren’t love. Someone has said that love is a decision-commitment. D.H. Lawrence said love is having “the courage of your tenderness.” Tenderness alone isn’t love. Tenderness is not enough to sustain even commitments to a beloved partner much less to children or parents or strangers or the planet or God. If you’re a reader of the “God Squad” series by Rabbi Marc Gellman printed weekly in the News & Observer, you may have seen his article about love this Valentine’s week. Hear what he said about the connection between love and faith:
Faith expands our experience of love by teaching us to love God. Loving God allows us to see the universal power of love because it teaches us that all people, not just those we choose to love, are made in the image of God. Love of God thus expands our ability to love each other. The Hebrew Bible understood this by commanding us to love God and by commanding us to use that love to help us love our neighbor and the stranger in our midst. Jesus knew these foundational Jewish teachings and made them the heart of Christian ethics.
But can you go beyond those close to you to also love your neighbor and the stranger without loving God? Certainly that seems to be the case. We all know people who do not claim a faith commitment but are true lovers of other people and the planet. Thank God for them. But even if we struggle to find language to describe it, many of us are here this morning because find ourselves drawn in some mysterious way to the sacred, creative force some of us call God and that sense of being drawn in also nudges us outward toward others. If we can find the courage of this tenderness and commit to it, we can become lovers of the world. This kind of love is not an emotion but a courageous choice that leads us toward life.
The hard part is that we often confuse love for others with getting our own needs met. Sometimes love does meet our needs as well as those of our beloved – but probably less often than we think. There are lots of jokes about the sweet husband who gives his wife a puppy for Christmas – a pup that just happens to be a hunting dog. (This actually happened in my family.) Or the wife who gives her husband a snow shovel for Valentine’s Day, which may have been a common occurrence this week. But beyond these stereotypical relationships and patterns, we humans are very clever at projecting our needs onto others. To some degree, we can’t help but do this because we can’t get inside another’s head or heart. Being a self-contained collection of thoughts and emotions is what it means to be human. As a result, we have to learn how to love day after day throughout our lives. When we’re on this journey toward deep, sustaining love – God-like love, we are “choosing life.”
We also choose life by choosing justice when justice is a way of life, not a political position. In the incredibly polarized culture we live in – especially in our state, the way groups dismiss their opponents is to label their calls for justice as “political.” Whether it’s about last week’s march or any other attempt to link our laws or government policies with inclusive values, opponents use the “P-word” to discount the integrity of the effort. Actually what I think they mean is “partisan” rather than “political.” But those are just words. I think the bigger concern for us is this: charges that our causes are simply partisan or political gain more traction when our ways of living and our calls for justice aren’t in sync. I find it a lot easier to call for hungry people to be fed through increases in SNAP, the food stamp program, than to examine my own relationship with food to determine how just it is. That’s why the Missions and Outreach Council is leading us in a discussion of food justice this year – beginning with a presentation by Norman Wirtzba of Duke Divinity School this Wednesday night. The goal is not to make us feel guilty or pass judgment on any particular way of eating, purchasing or relating to food and its producers. Instead the hope is that each of us in our own way will make our actions more consistent with our calls for ending hunger and protecting the planet.
The same thing applies to every other justice issue. Does how I treat the earth match my advocacy against the Keystone pipeline or offshore drilling or fracking or any other environmental concern? Does my call for worker justice and an increase in the minimum wage line up with how I treat my employees or co-workers or how much I’m willing to pay for goods and services? Is my support for public education apparent in how I treat a teacher who appears to have been unfair to my child? Do my calls for immigration reform match my preferences for who lives in my neighborhood? Do the transactions in my bank account align with the values I express in letters to congressional representatives?
This is hard stuff – at least it is for me. It’s what my mother would call “living the way we pray.” It takes time and deep reflection, creativity and a willingness to change long-term patterns of behavior. But I know in my head and my heart that choosing life includes not just calling for justice, but living justly.
So, my friends, “choosing life” is more than the opposite of choosing death and much more complex. Choosing life is not just choosing love or justice or anything else, but trying to embody them faithfully as best we can for all our days. It’s demanding work, it’s complicated, and it requires a long-term commitment. But if we “choose life” by making love and justice a way of life, we won’t need a special license plate to advertise it. The world will know.