Sermon by Burton Cooper
Deut 30:15; 1 Cor 3; Mt 5:21-37
See, I have set before you today life and death …
Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.
Loving the Lord your God, obeying him, holding fast to him.
“Choose life.” Thus says Joshua, Moses’ successor, the man who three thousand years ago led those escaped Hebrew slaves into the land of Canaan. And you and I find these words in the Book of Deuteronomy, a book written over twenty-five hundred years ago. So these words, “choose life,” are old words, and yet they have such a topical ring to them, even a philosophical ring, for they lie at the heart of our still popular existential literature --- in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, to name just a few of the illustrious ones --- existentialism with its strong accent on the individual, the subjective nature of our choices, the absolute importance of human decision making, our personal responsibility for living a life true to our humanity. And what is more in line with our American values of democracy and capitalism than that word, “choose?” We choose everything from our political leaders to our breakfast cereals, which nowadays fill up a long aisle in our super-sized, over-stocked, choice-filled supermarkets. Even that philosophically inclined columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, has recently advised his readers to choose to be virtuous rather than simply asking ourselves what we desire. So we’re great believers in choosing, and if we ask ourselves to choose between Brooks and Joshua, it might seem a lot easier to go with Joshua, choosing life, than to go with Brooks, choosing virtue. For virtue is hard, and except for those times when we find ourselves deeply depressed, it seems rather an easy, and natural, thing to choose life rather than death. Don’t we always think we are choosing life? Doesn’t our president believe he is choosing life, not death, when he seeks to ban refugees from seven countries, arguing that he is preventing terrorist atrocities in this nation, thereby saving life. And those that oppose the ban, are they not also choosing life, not death, arguing that welcoming refugees into our midst enhances our life, while banning them only inspires more death dealing terrorists. Similarly, in so many of the issues that divide us as a nation --- abortion being an obvious one, military engagement another, even the nature of our health care system --- people on opposite sides of these issues believe they are choosing life, though in each case there is a shift in meaning. Perhaps, then, knowing how to choose life, not death, may not be as simple as perhaps it first appears. So let’s spend a little time this morning seeing if our faith can help deepen our understanding into Joshua’s ancient call to “choose life, not death.”
It’s grue that when Joshua says, “choose life;” it sounds very modern. It’s also true that when he lays down three conditions for choosing life: love God, obey God, hold fast to God, that doesn’t sound very modern. Of the three, “holding fast to God” may well be the hardest for us twenty-first century people, bombarded as we are with the persuasive, seemingly scientific, notion that our universe is the meaningless result of mindless forces. We need to constantly remind ourselves that, of course, the scientific method does not, and cannot, uncover God, for God is spirit and the scientific method is geared to uncover matter, something measurable. We can almost define faith as the refusal to conceive life as accidental, mindless, meaningless, groundless, rooting that refusal in our own intuitions, our own feelings, for a transcendent reality grounding this world in purpose and direction, haunted as we may sometimes find ourselves, deep in our being, (haunted) by a vague sense of an order beyond this all too finite cosmos of ours in which everything is fleeting, in which everything perishes, in which everything is ultimately lost. It is this haunting sensibility, this vague sensing of an eternal order in which nothing is lost, all is saved, a sensibility we hardly know what to do with in our modern age. Even so, it is this sensibility that brings to mind, at least to my mind, something Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal, something that I note now because it throws light on the relation between choosing life and holding fast to God. Kierkegaard wrote this: “I am nearer to myself by approaching nearer to God in my understanding of myself.” I am nearer to myself by approaching nearer to God. Nearer to myself in my understanding of myself. Talk about haunting. What questions more haunt the modern psyche, even, perhaps especially, the secular psyche, than the questions, “Who am I?” How am I to understand myself? What trouble we go to these days in search of self-understanding, in search of our identity: with our psychoanalysts and therapists, our searches for our ancestors, our DNA testing, our identity politics, our fears of a false consciousness, our fears of not being true to ourselves. Joshua’s words, in this morning’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, which are words of faith, of course, are words which are a response to our fears, for whatever else faith is, it is a response to our fears, to our anxieties, to the cries from our soul for meaning, direction, comfort. For the promise of faith is that it builds up, builds up understanding, builds up courage, builds up hope. To our cries from the heart, Who am I, how am I to understand myself, we hear Joshua’s words coming down to us from three millennia ago, “You are one who is to choose life, hold fast to God, love God.” To which Joshua might well add, if only he were a learned nineteenth century citizen of Copenhagen and had read the works of that unbelievably profound Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, (Joshua might well add) “in loving God you will draw nearer to God, and in drawing nearer to God, you will draw nearer to understanding yourself.”
If we ask ourselves, how is it that in loving God I come to a deeper understanding of myself, the answer lies in one of the affirmations of scripture that we need to hold onto for dear life: that we are created, male and female, in the image of God. We are to love God because we are in the image of God, for God’s being is love, the Ground of Being is love, and we, in our finite way, participate in our Ground, image our Ground, so that we most come into ourselves by drawing near to our Ground, by going out to others in love, by receiving love from others, and, as much as possible, let love be present in all that we do. This multi-relational character of love accounts for why Jesus, in summarizing the law, supplements Joshua’s statement by saying that the first commandment is to love God, but there is a second commandment, which is like unto it, and that is to love our neighbor. Love God, love others … and we draw nearer to understanding ourselves. Thus we choose life, not death.
I know all too well that terrible things happen in our world, unloving things: wars, murders, rapes, hatreds, deceptions, lies, and, of course, racial, ethnic, religious, gender discrimination. No matter how far back we look, we see such things. We human beings have the capacity to do great harm to each other, and all too often that is
exactly what we do, not only to our fellow human beings but to other living beings, even to the earth itself, poisoning its land, its waters, its air. For all that we love life, for all that we have a strong will to live, we can become death-dealing, we choose death, so to speak, sometimes tragically so, involving ourselves in doing evil in order to avoid an even greater evil. Faith knows all this. Faith is not naive. Faith’s old way of saying this is that we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, that we are sinners, thinking more of our own welfare, our own desires, and discounting the welfare, the desires of others. Today we turn to psychological or sociological or evolutionary theories to account for our inclination to distrust, to fear, hate, kill, destroy. And existentialist philosophy supplies us with new terms for sin: labeling us estranged creatures, estranged from ourselves, estranged from others, alienated beings, living inauthentic lives. But it all comes down to the same: we have good reason to fear our capacity, our willingness, to do harm, to destroy.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, when atrocities, terrors, abuses of power in our world undermine our courage, our confidence, our love of life, remember this: love abides. Love abides because God abides, and God is love. In the long history of human life, there have been many great discoveries, but surely the greatest of these is that God is love, eternal love, and that God’s love has creative and redemptive powers. It is the discovery that mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation are not merely human ideals, but is what the love of God is doing in human life. For it is love that builds up, builds up communities of love, calls us into communities of love. And when we think of the work of Christ, whatever else we may think, we think of the church as the work of Christ, a new community whose spirit is the spirit of Christ in whom God’s love abides. We think of the church as a community of upbuilding, a community which calls others, all others, to itself, to relate as brothers and sisters in the spirit of Christ, to belong to a community which chooses life, to belong to a community which gives us hope that love will prevail.
Praise God for this great mercy.