Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18, Year C)
“The Choice” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
How many of you — show of hands — are aware it’s an election year? Front page of every paper; lead of every newscast. And it seems like it’s already lasted forever. The real question is: When is it not an election year? This week in the Globe, Jeff Jacoby wrote a piece called “Our long national nightmare,” which I thought was pretty dead on:
Why do we do this to ourselves?
In no other nation on earth do candidates for national leadership devote as much time to running for office. Political ambition and a taste for power exist in every society and era. But the insanity of marathons for the White House that last nearly two years is uniquely, humiliatingly American.
Whatever you think of our candidates for national office, nothing’s as pervasive, as ubiquitous, as ever-present as “The Coice.”
In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, there’s another choice to consider. And as important as the presidential election may seem, the other choice matters infinitely more. So let’s look at it.
Deuteronomy, you may know, is sort a sermon series. Moses is now an old man, 120 years old, he’s led Israel for four decades since their exodus from Egypt — 40 years since crossing the Red Sea, 40 years since Sinai, 40 years of wilderness — and now Israel is finally poised to cross into the promised land. But Moses won’t go with them, so he preaches a series of farewell sermons to remind them of everything that’s happened, of all God’s done, and to sear into their minds one thing: They have to choose.
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey . . . then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land . . . . But if your heart turns away and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods . . . you will perish.
Life and death. Good and evil. They can’t have both, and they can’t opt out. There was a right way and a wrong way to understand God. When Israel crossed the river into the promised land, with all their new neighbors, each with different gods, the pressure to run after those gods would be immense. So they had to choose now: Good or evil. Life of death. No third way. That’s the substance of the choice.
What about the mechanism? When you think about it, the mechanism wasn’t complicated. All that mattered was whether they would obey. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land . . . .
Obey — love the Lord, walk in his ways, keep his commands. If you obey, then you’ll live; if you don’t, then you’ll die. That’s how the choice worked.
So here’s the jump — They had a choice; so do we. This story isn’t just history about Israel. It still says something true to our experience in 2016. So let me leave you with three quick application points to take away —
1: We do have to choose. Modern Americans have made doubt into almost a “zen” thing, an art form. The fastest growing group in all the studies of religious preference in the West is the “Nones” — not Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa after her canonization today), not Sally Field with wings on the headpiece of her habit, “None” is shorthand for a significant and growing segment of the population, as much as 25% of Americans, who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, or who practice no particular religion. Many of that 25% have a curious fascination with doubt.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Jann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, but one part always stuck with me. The narrator says this:
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the Garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
Doubt and faith aren’t mutually inconsistent, not incompatible. I think doubt is irreducibly a part of the religious life. But at what point does doubt become just a choice, a “choosing not to choose?” Struggling with doubt is different from reveling in it, from making it a way of life. Choosing doesn’t mean absolute certainty, at least not for me; it means at least we are moving toward the God who calls us.
2: We don’t choose our direction just once. I quote this all the time, but in Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis said this:
[E]very time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with another creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
We don’t just choose once and we’re all set. We course correct a thousand times a day. God graciously maneuvers almost every moment of every day to where it’s a choice — another chance to move toward God. To choose love over indifference; choose obedience over rebellion; choose God over ourselves.
And the last point — 3: The choice starts right now, today. The verses right before what we read in Deuteronomy 30 today say “This commandment that I command you today . . . it’s not too hard, neither is it far off . . . It is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deut. 30.11-14)
Today, Moses says — Today, as we ready for a new program year at the Advent, as kids go back to school and we turn our calendars over to fall (thanks be to God). Today our choice begins. There are a thousand pagan gods around for us to chase after — gods of success and wealth and pleasure and self. A first step towards God is repentance for all our bad choices. Turn around, then move toward God by coming to the altar for forgiveness and communion.
As it was with Israel, so it is with us — we have before us life and good, death and evil.
Now choose life.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go Deeper ::
- Jeff Jacoby, “Our long national nightmare,” Boston Globe, 31 August 2016, p. A8.
- Jann Martel, Life of Pi (New York: Harcourt, 2003), 28.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier, 1960): 72.
- Audio of this sermon available at http://bit.ly/2bRjsOk.