“Choosing Life” 02/16/2014 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:17-26

Will you pray with me? May the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be guided by you, O God, so that we may ever more clearly see and ever more faithfully choose your Way for our living. Amen.

When Mark and I were first married, before we had kids, when we actually had some time and energy — we used to do quite a bit of hiking. It is something we enjoy and hope to get back to some day.

We had hiked many peaks in the White Mountains but had never been up Mt. Washington. And so one fine fall day, we decided it was time.

The sun was rising when we drove from our campsite, parked at Pinkham Notch and set out on a rigorous but well laid out trail into exquisite landscape. After a few hours and a lot of effort we finally crested the summit and were rewarded by a breathtaking panoramic view.

I don’t know how many of you have been on the summit of Mount Washington– but it is massive up on top. You can actually go for a bit of a hike just walking around the top of the mountain, which Mark and I did. We explored the summit. Found a good spot for lunch. Probably napped at bit in the sun and then in the early afternoon decided to head back down.

We had decided at the start of the hike that we would not take the same trail down that we had taken up, but would instead take a companion trail that would take us back to where our car was but down on the other side of the ravine. So when we were ready, we found the path and headed down.

At first the path was fine, but the farther down we went the more unkempt the trail became. Frequently we had to crawl over fallen logs, skirt big boulders and or slog through mud from rivulets that kept crisscrossing the path.

I think we both began to feel it before we actually said it out loud but about two hours into our descent when we really should have started to see signs for Pinkham Notch, we knew something must be wrong.

Then Mark stopped, dead in his tracks, and pointing to a distant peak he said “Isn’t that Mt. Chocorua?” “I’m pretty sure that is Mt. Chocorua.” “If that is Mt Chocorau we are in trouble! Chocorua is south of here and we are suppose to be heading east!

Sure enough! My heart started to race when I realized the magnitude of our mistake. We had chosen the wrong path. We had come down the south side of the mountain that was massive at the top but even more so at its base. There was no way to walk around to Pinkham Notch even if a path existed for it was just too far.

The only option was to turn around climb all the way back up the mountain find the right path and get down again, all before it got dark or the weather changed — for Mt. Washington is notorious for its changeable and what can be quite extreme weather. Choosing that wrong path put us in a compromised and dangerous situation that we had to get out of and get out of quick!


Such a scenario is exactly what Moses was trying to prevent in the passage Dan read from the book of Deuteronomy. The people had been walking with Moses through the wilderness for the past forty years, ever since that day when the Red Sea parted and the people were delivered from the bondage of Pharaoh. Moses has been leading them, and doing all he could to keep them on the right path, but now Moses’ time had come to an end. He would not be with them much longer and so for the past several chapters in Deuteronomy he had been instructing them in what they were and were not to do going forward so that they would make the right choices – so that they would not get off onto the wrong path and into any compromised or dangerous situations.

And today’s passage is really the capstone of that teaching. If the people are to remember one thing, it should be this, Moses tells them, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”


“Choose life!” Before we delve into what choosing life means, I think it is really rather remarkable that God entrusts us with such a choice in the first place. The path of right relationship with God, with each other and with all creation has been laid out for us, but it is up to us whether we will choose it or not.

But the tricky thing, is that it is hard to know what path leads to life amidst all the myriad paths that we continually encounter. Life does not resemble, unfortunately, that Candy Land board game, (remember that one?) where huge happy signs point the way at every bend in path. Instead we are continually faced with multiple paths. Many lead to life. Others do not. The tricky part is deciding which one to choose.


But Good News for us today is that Moses, like Jesus after him, was a very good teacher. Not only does Moses tell his people that they are to — “Choose life!” but he also tells them, tells us, how to identify and know which path leads or will lead to life.


The path that leads to life, Moses instructs, can be identified by its three markers:

“Loving the Lord your God”

“Walking in God’s ways”

“And observing God’s commandments”

If these three signs are on the path that we are on, then we can be assured that path leads to life regardless of how rough the terrain may be.


It strikes me now in retrospect that Mark and I did not see any markers on the trail we had chosen for our descent that day. There were no reassuring blazes on the trees or on the rocks of the path. Maybe if we had noticed the absence of these trail markers, we would not have gone so far before realizing our mistake.

For blazes, trail markers so to speak, are what Moses tells the people to look for. So let’s take a closer look at these three markers of the path that leads to life.[1]

The first marker, the first question to ask ourselves as we approach a choice point in our lives is “Will (or is) this path helping me love God?” And by that I think we are to ask ourselves, “Are we discovering more and more who we fully are so that we can more fully bring who we are to our relationship with God?” For Scripture tell us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and strength and soul. Loving God, therefore, is a whole self experience and so self discovery and fulfillment is key to choosing the right path.

This is a tall order because there may very well be much about ourselves that we would rather keep cordoned off and not integrate more and more fully into who we are. There may very well be parts of our self that we are ashamed of or that we fear. But it will be very difficult to love God if we do not love ourselves. If we are not first reconciled with ourselves, it will be very hard to be reconciled with God.

Russian writer Solzhenitsyn once said “It is not our capacity to think that makes us different [from animals] but our capacity to repent and to forgive.” To be fully human then is to know and practice forgiveness first with ourselves so that we may know what it is to love more and more fully each other and our God. Hard but powerful stuff!

So is there something that you need to forgive yourself for? Is there a hurt that you hold that is keeping you from being fully who you truly are? What would it take for you to bathe that hurt with forgiveness and entrust it to God’s care?

The second question to ask ourselves as we approach a choice point in our lives is “Will this path lead me (or is this path leading me) to walk more and more faithfully in God’s ways?”

To walk in God’s ways is to be attuned, I believe, to where and how God is moving in the world and to awaken to a desire to follow God’s lead. If healing, reconciliation, peace, and love are some of the ways that we see the presence of God moving in the world, which I believe they are, then we are to ask ourselves, is the way that I have chosen leading me into that current of healing, reconciliation, peace and love that is moving in the world?

Discerning that can be hard. It takes listening to what is moving on our hearts and listening to what is moving in the world and discerning if the two are in alignment. And it takes cultivating an alert inner stillness in the midst of the clamor of the days.

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges in our lives is to be still at the center of our being. Mark and I often comment on how hungry we are for silence. Silence and stillness is countercultural in this fast paced and noisy world of our and yet it is key to discernment. So I wonder how you cultivate an alert stillness in the center of your being? Perhaps you join Larry Phillipps for meditation, or Sandra DaDalt for prayer group, or Jay O’Beirne for Bible study, or Tom Vawter for spiritual autobiography? Or perhaps you have another practice that help you exercise the capacity for alert stillness that is so important in being able to discern God’s ways and to walking in them?

Finally, the third question to ask ourselves as we approach a choice point in our lives is “Will this path lead me to observe God’s commandments more faithfully?” Or another way of saying this is “Will this path help transform me to be more and more in accord with the heart of God and the life of Christ?” As Jesus teaches in the Gospel today, walking in the path of God — “choosing life” is not just about playing by the rules. Instead, it is about having our outer actions be informed and transformed by the state of our inner being. Jesus teaches that not only are we not to take another’s life, but we are to explore and transform the anger within us that would lead to such a hurtful act. We are to be reconciled first within our hearts so that we can be reconciled in our relationship with others. And again that requires a disposition of self awareness and curiosity — recognizing and creatively and compassionately engaging the barbs of anger, resentment, self righteousness, entitlement or whatever else we may find there within us.

Are you giving yourself the time and attention to attend to the storms that may be raging within you so that the hurt, anger, resentment, wounding, whatever it may be may be surfaced and transformed with the good work we may do for ourselves in the light of God’s love or that we may need to engage the expertise of others to help us do?

Sometimes it is possible to discern at the trailhead which path to take. Other times, like it was for Mark and I that day, we may be well into it before we realize that something has gone terribly wrong. And it may take a lot of effort to retrace our steps. In fact I was so exhausted by the time that Mark and I finally closed in on the parking lot of Pinkham Notch that long day that I had to take the last mile of the trail, the right trail this time, walking backwards because my quads were so shot that I did not trust that they would hold me any longer in the descent!

But the hope and promise is that no matter where we find ourselves there is a way for us. It is a way that is marked by an invitation to more fully bring who we truly are out into the world. By an invitation to cultivate stillness within us so that we may discern and participate in the movement of God’s love, peace, justice etc in the world. And it is marked by an invitation to let our inner life be transformed by the example of Christ and the love of God. ~~~

Now if we consider for a moment the life of someone who we think is an example of a life well led, we will see in their living evidence of these three markers of which Moses speaks.

I think of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela walked out of prison he had to decide what path he was going to take. He had a choice and he chose the path that would enable him to be more and more fully the person God created him to be so that he could love God and all the world more and more fully. To do this he had to forgive. He had to be reconciled to all that had transpired and to let go of the hate, bitterness and whatever else threatened to imprison him still.

I think of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero who reached a choice point when he stood looking upon the murdered body of his friend and fellow priest Rutillo Grande. Romero had to choose what path he would walk. Would it be the path of life or the path of death that so many of privilege in his country were walking. Romero choose to put his life in alignment with God’s presence of healing, reconciliation, peace, and justice and to take a stand against the human rights abuses that were tearing his country and the Salvadoran people apart. It was a path with rugged terrain, a path that ultimately cost him his life, but it was the path of life and he chose to walk it.

And I think of you. I think of how I have seen you choose the path of life when you choose time and time again to act on an impulse of generosity and kindness within your heart when it would have been more convenient and easier not to do so.

So let us choose the path that leads to life. Let us look for the markers of loving God, following in the ways of God and keeping God’s commandments that show us the way. The path may not always be easy to find. And once found the terrain may be rugged, but let us walk it.

Thanks be to the path. Thanks be to the company that helps us discern where that path may be. And thanks be to the gift of walking that path together and with our God. Amen.

[1] Here I draw on the teaching of Tyler Mayfield, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY as presented at www.workingpreacher.org.