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The sermon for week February 12, 2017

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You Have Heard It Said... But I Say

Sermon “You Have Heard it Said, But I Say” February 12, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his (God’s) ways, and observing his (God’s) commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him (God) , and holding fast to him (God), for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Matthew 5:21-37
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God…

“Choose life, l'chaim!”
“You have heard it said, but I say to you…”

There is a Jewish toast that I want to lift up and use today for the sermon. “l'chaim,” or in English, “Choose life.”

Many years ago as a teenager I remember that on one occasion when I went to get my hair cut at the local barbershop, the woman that was cutting my hair got shared with me a struggle that she was having in faith. This woman was from a fairly traditional church with fairly conservative teachings. The teaching that was causing her a bit of a faith crisis had to do with baptism. Her church taught that baptism was a prerequisite to having eternal life. Therefore the unbaptized were not welcomed into heaven. Her faith crisis happened when one of her friends had a baby that died shortly after being born. Due to the suddenness of the child’s death, the child had not been baptized their pastor. Now this woman, my barber, was struggling with her fear that this child, due to the lack of being baptized, was not welcomed into heaven, into eternal life. Her faith told her that the only outcome here was death. Now I do not remember exactly what I said to her but what I do remember of that time in the barber’s chair was that I could not imagine that the God we believed in could be so cruel as to bar an infant from baptism for the lack of being baptized. I chose to believe in a God that offers life.

A second thought on eternal life was triggered by my attendance at funeral not long ago where another pastor was giving the message. In an effort to offer hope in the midst of death, this pastor on several occasions remarked that the deceased through his death had entered eternal life. Each time it was stated, I was thinking, I am not so sure about that. You see, I believe that his entrance into eternal life did not happen at death but happened much earlier than that. I believe his entrance into eternal life happened the moment he experienced life.

Each of these stories speaks to an understanding of eternal life and of faith. Both give voice to what I believe is a bit of a limited view of both God and eternal life. Each is limited in that the emphasis on life with God is placed after one dies. Plus, neither does justice to either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. I think of Jesus’ words, “You have heard it said, but I say to you” as a way to challenge us to think in new ways.
For instance, consistently both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures are concerned about the here and now. Neither the Hebrew or Christian scriptures places its emphasis on what happens after death. But historically though, there has been a part of the Christian faith that has placed an emphasis on the eternal life (after death), ours included. By so doing, those who chose this emphasis in belief then did not have to seriously address issues of faith in the current life. As a result, as long as Christianity was only about the afterlife, then it had little or nothing to say about the current life. For instance, here in the United States for decades the church read scripture in such a way to justify slavery. (Who among us today would do such a thing today?) “A century and a half ago, Frederick Douglass, as he led the faith-rooted struggle against slavery in America, wrote, ‘Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference -- so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked.’”1 Douglass clearly saw that the Christianity of this land, not that of Christ, by placing its focus on the afterlife not only had little to say about the issues of its day but found justification its support of the great evil of slavery.

So in this enlightened age, let us not like those in the past error by dwelling only on life after death but let us be challenged by Moses and by Jesus to choose life in the here and now. Let us consider what is meant in the Hebrew scriptures when it says to choose life. What doesit mean to choose life? Or easier yet, what does it not mean? For Moses, choose life did not mean worshipping the crazy idols of the Canaanites, the people who occupied the land where the children of Israel were headed. This is good advice for us too. We all have things that we idolize or covet or prioritize over God's teachings, things such as money, power, fame, big houses, fancy cars, or our cell phones. None of us have these as gods, right? So tell me, how anxious were you the last time you went someplace and realized that your cell phone was not with you? What emotions did you experience? If you experienced any anxiety, then that phone has become more than just a telephone. Moses tells us that these things that cause us to be anxious do not lead to life. In fact they only lead to destruction and death.

Idols can be powerful things. If we worship money, for example, we become greedy. If we worship power, we can become corrupt. If we worship another person, we can become co-dependent. As Ralph Waldo Emerson explained, "That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming." Beware of the idols, for they do not lead to life.

So what is life? Moses answers in verse 20: "Loving the Lord your God, obeying God and holding fast to God; for that means life to you." This is all in the present tense. It is what we do now during this life that makes a difference - that gives us life, eternal life.2

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus challenges us to choose life as well. First of all he stresses that the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, is present now. And if it is present, if God is present among us, then our lives ought to reflect that reality. If we trust that God is present, then we have the power to choose life and to live life to its fullest. He challenges us to choose life in such a way as to not limit what God has in store us. He suggests that life is threatened when anger and judgment and insult reign. So he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” He suggests that life is threatened when women are objectified, or merely seen as fulfillment of sexual desire or the carrying on the family name. So he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” He suggests that life is threatened when you do not follow through with oaths you make. So he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”

In other words, Jesus is saying that interpreting the law is far more complex than you make it out to be. And if your interpretations lead to death -- the silence of voices, the discounting of the personhood of the other, the disrespect and demeaning of entire groups of people, the labeling (which is a nice way to say calling names) thereby putting people in their place -- then you have to think long and hard about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.3 Consistently the teachings of Moses and of Jesus, those about choosing life, are at their root all about how one lives in community with one’s neighbor.

I came across this poem recently that speaks truth to how to choose life and to live in community.
I
you
us
them
those people
wouldn’t it be lovely
if one could
live
in a constant state
of we?
some of the most
commonplace
words
can be some of the biggest
dividers
they
what if there was
no they?
what if there
was only
us?
if words could be seen
as they floated out
of our mouths
would we feel no
shame
as they passed beyond
our lips?
if we were to string
our words
on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud
as our thoughts
flapped in the
breeze?4

To choose life is to enter into eternal life in the here and now. By entering in the here and now we begin to fully experience what it means to live in the presence of God! When we realize that we are in God’s presence, that is living life at its fullest. “l'chaim” --choose life!



1. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/oped-moral-outrage-after-national-prayer-breakfast-n716261
2. The Rev. Susan Sparks, Sermon - L'Chaim, and Don't Mess It Up! February 16, 2014
3. Karoline M. Lewis , Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching
4. "clothesline," poem by Marilyn Maciel. Published in Patti Digh, "Life Is a Verb: 37 Days To Wake Up, Be Mindful, And Live Intentionally." (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 42


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