Sermon February 13: “Masters of our own Faith”

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-37

             Paper or plastic?  Debit or credit?  For here or to go?   It goes on and on, doesn’t it?  And please, don’t even get me started about the cereal aisle at the grocery store!  What a senseless barrage of choice.   How in the world did life get so cluttered?  Is it that we hate the idea of someone telling us what to do, of anyone making any decisions for us so much, that we have swung wildly to the other extreme, of valuing options so terribly much?

             But the problem of having to make so many insignificant decisions, like paper or plastic, credit or debit,  is that we can easily overlook, become deaf and blind to the really critical, life and death decisions that face us every day.  Spending so much time on the level of the mundane and I would say – on the level of the inane, runs the risk of dulling our senses, clouding our minds, leaving us unable or unwilling to think critically about our lives and to make clear headed decisions about how we are going to lead them.  I was driving down Beacon Street this week and a car in front of me had a bumper sticker on it that said “What if the hokey pokey really IS what it’s all about?”  As if to say, what if positioning and repositioning ourselves in a kind of mindless dance of getting by really IS what it is all about? 

             Well I am here to tell you, that it is NOT.  Despite much of what our culture would have us believe, our lives are not the hokey pokey.  Our lives are and ought to be about so much more than paper or plastic.

             This is the promise and the challenge that Moses, in the passage from Deuteronomy, and Jesus in the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, speak to us today.  They are asking us to decide, what our living is going to be about?    

             In the passage from Deuteronomy, Moses is standing on Mount Nebo with the people of the Exodus gathered round.  From its height, Moses and the people can see across the valley, across the river Jordan to the land that lies beyond.  This is the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey that the people have been waiting for since fleeing Pharaoh, the land the people have been dreaming about as they wandered in the desert learning how to be the people God would have them be.  This is the moment that the people have been living for –for centuries.

             But Moses does not just issue a green light to go for it.  Do what ever they want.    Instead there is tension: he leads them to the edge of promise and then tells them:  “You have a choice to make.”  He tells them that he has brought them to the promised land, but they must decide how they will live in it.  “If you live in alignment with God’s way for you,” he says, “you shall prosper and be a blessing.”  “But if you do not.  If your heart turns away and you do not hear God’s call to you,  if you are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them then you shall perish.”  God has fulfilled God’s promise by bringing you to this land of blessing but now the choice is yours.  You now must be masters of your own faith, and choose the way of life, or the way of death. 

             Jesus is also asking that a choice be made.  Jesus has the people gathered around him on that mountainside in Galilee.  And just as the people of Moses time looked across the valley to the land flowing with milk and honey, looked out and saw God’s promise fulfilled, so too do those people gathered around Jesus see fulfillment. For the very person and presence of Jesus reveals the promise of God.  By looking in Jesus’ eyes, the people see their lives full of hope, and grace and love, they see God’s promise coming to fulfillment.   

             And like Moses, Jesus says this is for you.  The kingdom has indeed come near, but now you must decide.  You must decide how it is that you are going to live into this promise.  If you decide to follow me, to step into the Way of God in this place and time then much is going to be asked of you.   Jesus certainly asks that we stand in the tradition of the great commandments, of choosing life. We shall not murder.  We shall not commit adultery.  We shall not swear falsely.  But he does not stop there.  He goes on to raise the ethical bar.  Not only must we act in life giving not life defeating ways but our attitudes and intentions must also be in alignment with life.  Right relationship with God and with neighbor must be full of integrity.  It is about living honestly and lovingly from the inside out.  It is not about doing one thing but thinking quite another.    Jesus uses hyperbole — that we are to tear out an eye and cut off a hand if we look at a woman with lust, to make the point that even lustful thoughts can degrade her and this must not be!  In these passage, Jesus is not only telling us what to do, he is showing us how we are called to be.

             On the day before he was killed, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was addressing a gathering in Memphis TN.  He had gone there to support the rights of the sanitation workers.  King began his address by wondering aloud, What  if the God Almighty came to him and offered to set himself down in any point or place in the history of human kind where would he choose?  And he says, “you know what, Lord?  I choose the place where you have put me, right here, right now — I’ll be happy here.” And he goes on to say:

            “Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. It’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”[1]

            Paul Tillich the 20 c theologian, wrote that some point in our lives we need to decide what is going to be our ultimate concern.  If we decide that what we are ultimately concerned with is the banal, then our lives will be on that level.  But if we stretch, lift our gaze and strain to see that which is beyond our conception, that which is beyond our imagining, if we lift our eyes and strain to see the promised land, the eyes of Jesus looking into ours, then, and only then will we find the God given, not culture bound, reason for our living.

             King  put it this way.  What I see is “God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.  Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya;  Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

             “And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence.”

              “Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. ”

             You know,  at some point, each of us has to decide what it is that is our ultimate concern.  What is it that gives significance to our living?  For there is so very much at stake. The choices of life and death are as stark now as they ever were.  Our planet is groaning with the weight of human use and abuse.  Countless of thousands of people are leaving their homes and land, paying their life savings, paying with their bodies and often their very lives, making their way north — holding onto the thin hope of finding some way to earn a living, to make a life for themselves and their families.   Thousands of people are locked away in prisons that are bursting at the seams.  Thousands are becoming more and more indoctrinated in cycles of violence and shame that strip them of their human dignity and rob them of anything other than what they have known.

             King was right, there is indeed trouble in the land, the path of death is clear.  But there is also promise.  God is working out life in this period of the twenty first century, and people, in some strange way, are responding.          

            In the next month we are going to have a chance to learn from one of our own what we can do to take concrete steps to live more lightly on this planet.  To choose life.

             Through our relationships with the people of Nicaragua and the people of Zambia we will have opportunities to educate ourselves about the systems of injustice that enable a few to prosper while consigning the many to crushing poverty and dead end lives.

             Through our study and conversation, we will learn more about the culture of shame and violence that imprison so many before they even commit crimes that land them in jail and what we can do to be peacemakers in our troubled neighborhoods and cities. 

             God has entrusted to us a precious gift in our living.  Each and every one of us, each and every life in this place has a profound and significant contribution to make in bringing this beloved planet and each and every creature on it more fully into God’s promise of new life.  King saw it.  He saw the path of death and the path of life and he chose life.    He chose life with every ounce of his being.  And he lived the path of life and helped others walk it even though he knew very well that the path of life could cost him his very own.  But hear what he says:

            “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

             People of God, the promised land is before us.  It is ours to enter.  But we have a choice to make.  Will we choose life or death?  If we choose death, then  we ignore God and give ourselves to things that do not matter.  We have to be careful for “modern life keeps us so busy, there are so many choices to make but so many of them are impoverished with a lack of purpose.  We can far too often rush to meet deadlines that are insignificant and bow before ideas that are not worthy.”[2]    

             People of God, we stand on the edge of the promise land.  We look deeply into the eyes of Jesus.  Our time has come.  It is now. The choice is ours.  So let us choose life.   Let us live with intentionality and purpose so that our life will be a blessing and will help midwife the new creation.  Let us chose life so that we may be kingdom builders.  The hokey pokey is not what it is all about.  So instead of getting bogged down in the banality of too many insignificant choices, let us choose life.  Let us choose to live, as if it really matters.  Because, people of God, it does.  Our lives really matter.   Praise God.  AMEN

[1] All references to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, come from his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”  speech given at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN on April 3, 1968 as downloaded from

[2] Brett Younger, commentary in “Feasting on the Word” Year A. p. 343