Sermon 09/08/19: Life & Death Matters

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Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 & Luke 14:25-33

 

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Three Premises



  • No matter where you live, it's probably Egypt.

  • However, there is a Promised Land.

  • And, the only way to get there is by walking together.  


In Stand Up! Jewish author and community organizer Gordon Whitman writes that the world is "on fire."  He describes the social and political struggles of this country–especially with respect to racial inequity and poverty making a case for faith communities to engage in social justice.  Whitman regards the Biblical story of a people liberated from slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, as a key narrative for our time. Whitman says: No matter where you live, it's probably Egypt.  In other words, there are systems of top-down control that benefit a few (or seem to), while harming many.  These systems are morally corrupt and under judgment. This is true. No matter where you live, it's probably Egypt–a place at least somewhat corrupted by oppressive power.  Now the second premise is good news: there is a Promised Land.  In other words, we can imagine–and have historical and contemporary examples–better ways of living as households, neighborhoods, communities, societies.  The Bible and the message of Jesus was not just an exposé of how bad empire is. There's a better future, a different order, a Promised Land. Jesus called it:  the kingdom of God. By the way, the kingdom is not arriving after we destroy what's wrong. The kingdom is emerging among us, within us, bubbling up with possibility like sourdough starter in a lot of flour.  


So, no matter where you live, it's probably Egypt.  But, there is a Promised Land.  And thirdly, the only way to get there is to walk together.  Whitman doesn't bank on the pillar of cloud and the fire by night, but his third premise–the only way to get there is to walk together–is so fitting for people like us who are walking with Jesus through life and death.


Deuteronomy


Which brings us to Deuteronomy.  This book of the Bible is about decision, about choice.  Behold:  I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  Choose life!  The people of God liberated from the enslaving oppressive endless brick-making of Egypt walked toward God's Promise.  Moses, Miriam and Aaron were their faithful and flawed leaders through the wilderness. Earlier, in Exodus and Numbers, there are 14 times when these walkers complain.  They want to turn back to Egypt. They complain about the food. They complain about the water. They definitely complain about Moses. They rebel. They outright reject YHWH as God and make their own gods.  If you read the Torah, the first five books of the Bible–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy–you will notice both the discipline/judgment experiences of God's people as well as the abiding faithfulness of God.  God doesn't give up on these people–well, almost. Apparently we push God to the brink…of incarnation. You can see where this is going.  


In our story, the people liberated from slavery pretty much all die in the wilderness.  The setting of Deuteronomy is at the end of Moses' life. He's very old. He repeats himself a lot.  Moses calls the younger generation to make a decision for God, for covenant faithfulness, for life and peace and Promise. Then he teaches them a song (ch. 32 for the lyrics) and goes up on the mountain and dies.  Moses also had some historical hunches–first that there would one day be a liberating prophetic leader like him (that's ch. 18) and that this generation, like his own, will fail in their covenant relationship and even experience exile and death.  But–as good prophets must– Moses has a divine hope for transformation for this people and all nations that extends beyond his own lifetime. This is the context for Moses' urgent message in ch. 30.


Behold:  I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  Choose life!


Cognitive behavioral therapists use the term "choice point" which seems fitting for both the Old and New Testament scriptures for today.  These scriptures urgently call for decision. We can't wander forever. We can't rely on the previous generation, Moses, forever. We have to make our decision about whether to trust and obey this covenant-making God who leads us out of empire.  Moses keeps saying: today–the time is now, the pressure's on. We don't want to rush, nor should we dither about matters of life and death. Jesus says, count the cost, consider the struggle, but choose.


The Biblical choice point is:  God or false gods–the kingdom or the systems of the world.  Scriptures Old and New are clear that serving false gods leads to decay and death–not just individual loss and confusion, but community disintegration.  False paths of wealth, war, sex and success are always attractive, seductive, even sinister. But the faithful God who knows our past, prepares our future and speaks today says:  choose life.    


Our Choice Points


To carry this Biblical wisdom into our daily lives and the decisions we're making individually and together right now, let's take a moment to consider choices or decisions we're facing.  I've talked with folks in the past month about job transitions, whether to start a family, how to raise children, how to relate to children or parents once everyone is an adult, how to prepare well for dying and death, how to relate to the church community, how to pray, how to be a Christian.  As a church we're facing a choice about our conference affiliation within Mennonite Church USA. And with the congregations of Faith in Action, we're approaching a decision about our next campaign for social justice. What choices are set before you?  


The Spirit of God gives us guidance at these choice points, helps us overcome our dithering, so we can make decisions and move into God's future with some courage.  Here are a few queries that may help connect you with the Spirit of God, our guide for decisions. First, are the choices clear?  Sometimes we need more light to see clearly the options and opportunities we have.  We may need time, friends, prayer, information to gain clarity. Another question I'm using these days is:  Which choice will help us love and follow Jesus?  Notice how that's different from asking "which choice will put me in the best financial position?" or "which choice will make me more popular at school?" or "which decision will be easiest?"  Sometimes our decisions are quite individual, but I find myself trying to consider choices these days in terms of 'we' and 'us' because our individual decisions often affect a lot of other people.  Which choice will help us love and follow Jesus?  


Did any of you look up the Möbius Loop on the internet this past week?  This loop with a single twist is an image for our worship series on An Undivided Life because the loop has an unusual property–appearing to have an inside and an outside, it is actually a single-sided, undivided unity.  Bringing your current decisions and choices to God in prayer, I encourage you to make a little Möbius Loop as a tactile way to pray. How is this choice an opportunity to reveal my interior values in the world?  How is this choice in the world an opportunity to re-examine my deepest values?  


Gospel


Maybe you've already forgotten our gospel reading this morning.  Or maybe it still feels like a kick to the gut, but let's briefly consider Luke 14.  You gotta love Jesus. He's kind of like Moses here. He's got a following, but it may just be the miracles and stories that keeping them together.  So Jesus ramps up his speech to provoke decisions for the kingdom of God. The way Jesus ramps up is to first tell a parable about a great dinner. A bunch of people are invited, but when it comes to decision, there are flat out refusals–I bought some land, so I can't attend.  I bought some oxen; I won't be there. I got married, so I decline. There are other dimensions to the parable, but the decisions seem misguided.


Then Jesus takes us to the next level.  This is the part you might remember: Unless you hate your family… unless you take up the cross… unless you give up all your possessions… you can't be my disciple.  For the ancient world the patriarchal family system seemed like the only way to survive.  Few would leave for a new family structure of fishermen, widows, orphans, the formerly demon-possessed, unattached women and tax-collectors.  And most of us don't want to face hardship of any kind, let alone a cross of humiliation, suffering and death. Need we mention that giving up possessions is never popular?  Jesus calls us to follow him in a difficult, counter-cultural, and unlikely path. None of us is fully qualified. But perhaps a kingdom in which family and gender does not determine our rank in society could change us all.  Perhaps even our experiences of exile and suffering can be redeemed in the kingdom of God. And if we start today, perhaps relinquishing possessions will be freedom from enslaving powers.  


Some chose Jesus.  Some do today. We're all under qualified to enter into the kingdom, but in a world on fire, it's a matter of life and death, it's the best decision we can make.  And after we choose Jesus, many other decisions throughout life gain clarity in the light of Christ. Jesus is a mediator who comes between us and the obstacles to faithful discipleship.  The Spirit of Christ will supply enough grace for those who have wandered away, fallen behind or dropped out.


Decision


In I Once was Lost:  What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us about their Path to Jesus authors Everts and Schaupp describe 5 thresholds that are typically part of contemporary decisions for Christ in the US.  These include: trusting a Christian, becoming curious, opening up to change, seeking after God and entering the kingdom.   That last threshold–entering the kingdom–is a choice point. And possibly where you are this morning.   


Having pushed God to the brink of incarnation, our covenant-making God came to us in Christ.  Jesus' message in the Bible shows us where we are. (We're always living amidst systems of oppressive power–like Egypt.)  And Jesus gives us a vision for the kingdom of God (the Promised Land), or as it says in I Timothy "the life that really is life."  And, finally–and daily–the Bible gives us a community of voices, a living community of the people with whom we share the scriptures who receive both personal and communal guidance by the Holy Spirit.  The only way to move into God's promised future is to walk together, making a shared journey as the church, with Jesus Christ as our mediator, prophet, savior and Lord. I'm grateful to be walking with CMC.  In whatever decisions are placed before you, whether today you are taking your first step into the kingdom, correcting your course in the light of Christ, or helping us, like Moses, to sing as we make the journey together–choose life.  AMEN.  


Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

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