Choose life

What a week this has been. On Wednesday, we had enough snow to bring traffic in and around Nashville almost to a complete standstill for hours. On Thursday, we heard the shocking news of the death of our friend Evelyn, whose body was found in the snow, only a block away from her home. Throughout the week, there was the up and down of hope and uncertainty triggered by the courageous actions of the Egyptian people and then finally the resignation of President Mubarak.

What a week this has been. I for one haven’t had nearly enough time to talk about it all, think it through, hold it in prayer; and I suspect it hasn’t been any different for most of you. There are those times when life happens at a pace that’s just impossible to keep up with.

I went to Wightman chapel on the Scarritt-Bennett campus during my lunch hour on Tuesday, and I’m glad I went. The preacher told a story I already knew, but it was one worth hearing more than once or twice.

A group of tourists from Europe and the U.S. had booked a trip to South Africa. So much there to see! So much to do! So little time.

So they planned very carefully, every portion of every day, in thirty minute segments, and they hired a local guide to help them stay on schedule. On the first day, they traveled fast, and they traveled far, and they saw many things, and at night they fell asleep, glad that they hadn’t wasted any time. The next morning, they rose early, they traveled fast, and they traveled far, and they saw many things, and at night they fell asleep, glad that they hadn’t wasted any time; the second day. The next morning, they rose early, they traveled fast, and they traveled far, and they saw many things, and at night they fell asleep, glad that they hadn’t wasted any time; the third day.

The next morning, they rose early – but the guide just shook her head when they asked her to get on the bus. She sat on the porch of the hotel where they had spent the night; she was sipping her second cup of coffee; her eyes looked far across the land into the blue distance. “We have traveled fast, we have traveled far,” she said, “and today we must allow our souls to catch up.”

Good words; very good words. Today we must allow our souls to catch up. We need those moments when body and soul, heart and mind, the world around us and the world within can meet again and become one.

Moses said, in the paragraph leading to the passage from Deuteronomy we heard this morning,

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. Deuteronomy 30:11-14

We long for life in fullness, and we tend to think that we must climb high or travel fast and far to find the key that can unlock the secret of fullness amid the busyness. No, says Moses, the word is very near to you, in your mouth, in your heart. The word is in your mouth; take time to repeat it to yourselves and to speak it to each other. The word is in your heart; take care to listen for it in each other’s words. The commandment of life, the word that brings fullness and meaning to life, is not something to chase after, but something to attend to.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” says Moses. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20

Did you notice how in this urgent appeal to choose life, obedience is nestled between loving God and holding fast to God? It’s almost like Moses wants to make sure we understand that the commandment of life cannot be reduced to merely obeying a set of rules. Life in fullness emerges from the interplay of love and obedience and determination not to let go. Another way to say this is, life in fullness emerges when we are drawn into relationship with God in every dimension of our being – body and soul, heart and mind, world without and world within.

I imagine that some of you came here this morning to find in the worship of God the focus our lives need, especially in turbulent times, only to hear hard words about anger, adultery, cut off limbs, and hell. As if you weren’t unsettled enough already.

When I first looked at the readings for this day, sometime back in January, I thought that I might talk about the place and meaning of hell in our imagination, or perhaps about the Christian understanding of marriage, with a nod to tomorrow’s high holiday of romance. But both the historic events in Egypt and the sad circumstances of Evelyn’s death demanded something more fundamental, something solid that can bear our joy and our cautious hope for the people of Egypt as well as our shock and our pain over a friend’s cold and lonely death. Something like righteousness.

Jesus talks about righteousness. He says to us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 5:20

He says, consider the standard set by those Torah experts most concerned with knowing God’s will and obeying God’s commands – and then go beyond that standard.

With a short list of examples, Jesus unfolds what that greater righteousness is about. He begins with the commandment that addresses what many consider the greatest sin, murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Anger, of course, is as common as dirt. Who doesn’t get angry, especially with a brother or sister?

Jesus opens the commandment like a door, and he points to the issue that lies at the bottom of the stairs, the motivation underneath our violent behavior: anger, jealousy, frustration. The heart of the commandment against murder is not merely the prevention of homicide; it is the promotion of relationships that aren’t defined by anger, jealousy, or hostility. Righteousness is not merely about not breaking any rules. The righteousness Jesus embodies and teaches is about our actions and about the interests and feelings from which our actions flow.

Now Jesus doesn’t say that the commandments of Moses are outdated and need to be replaced with a new and improved version or with a set of sub-clauses, as in

Article VI: You shall not murder.

Section 6.1. You shall not be angry.

Section 6.2. You shall not be jealous.

Section 6.3. You shall not call your brother a fool.

Section 6.3.1. Section 6.3. applies to sisters as well.

Righteousness is not about not breaking any rules, old or new, general or specific. More is at stake. The commandments against murder and adultery are crucial for our life together, but they are not fulfilled by not murdering or not having an affair. What needs to be addressed are anger and lust, internal motivations that cannot be regulated by law. Motivations can only be healed and transformed. The righteousness of God’s reign goes beyond following rules to the reorienting of our desires toward love of God and neighbor.

Sets of rules fool us into believing that all will be well if we just do everything right. But we can’t do much, let alone everything, right unless all is well with our heart and soul.

What Jesus teaches follows closely what Moses taught with urgency. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.” Obedience to God cannot stand legalistically on its own, but must be accompanied by love for God and the determination to cleave to God.

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Matthew 5:17

Jesus confirms and fulfills the law and the prophets by revealing the relationship that lies at their heart: the loving surrender of God to us all and the loving surrender of us to God and to each other. Jesus embodies the beautiful interplay of love, obedience, and faithfulness that is God’s own character and God’s will for us. When Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, he does not offer us a new set of rules so much as he offers us himself. He invites us to inhabit his righteousness, to live in his righteousness.

After a week that has sent us up and down, to and fro, and round and round, we need a moment so our souls can catch up. We need a community where we can celebrate the new possibilities for the people of Egypt and the nations of the Middle East. We need a place where we can talk about our shock and our grief in a classroom or in the hallway or over lunch. More than anything we need Jesus the Messiah in whose presence we remember that love is the fulfillment of every commandment and in whose company we find fullness of life. The word is very near to us indeed.