Saturday, February 11, 2017

Loving God on Either-Or Mountain

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Ordinary 5
February 12, 2017
William G. Carter

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his 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. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I 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. I 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, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; 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.

Next week, I am looking forward to meeting with one of our women’s circles. They are doing a Bible study on the letter to the Hebrews, a document that probably circulated as a sermon in the early church. So they have invited me to spend some time talking about sermons. How do you put a sermon together? Where do the ideas come from? Where do sermons come from? It’s a wonderful invitation, because a lot of sermon construction happens in isolation.

Where do sermons come from? The quick answer is this: a blue wingback chair in my living room. That’s the sermon writing chair. Most Saturday mornings, that’s where I am. A lot of thinking happens in that chair. A good bit of procrastinating happens in that chair. Sooner later, I start tapping out words on a rapidly aging laptop computer. The sermons come from the blue chair.

Of course, there’s more to the answer. Before the words ever getting written down, there are books to read, thoughts to organize, prayers to offer, and rhetoric to arrange. That blue chair is located close to an imaginary compost heap, where I dig up the words that have been fermenting for a while. A lot of the sermons begin to percolate during a week in January, which I spend studying the Bible with my friends. In a deeper sense, that’s where sermons come from.

But here’s the thing I wonder: how do sermons end?

It’s a good question. I know the answer for some of you: “The sermon should end as quickly as possible.” I happen to agree. There’s no need for any extra blathering. Say what you need to say and sit down.  In fact, there’s an old dictum about making speeches: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. In my mind, that speech is three times as long as it needs to be. Why not tell them?

But how should the sermon end?

My friend Jim and I visited Yale Divinity School back in October. The setting was the Lyman Beecher lectures in preaching, the most important lectures in preaching in the world. The lecturer was Dr. Tom Troeger, a longtime friend. In addition to sermons, he writes poetry and lyrics for church hymns.

The title of the lecture series was this: “The End of Preaching.” Not just the question, “Will this sermon ever end,” but what’s the end of it all? What follows the sermon? And Tom’s answer: “The end of preaching is prayer.” What should follow the sermon is an expression of honest prayer, a life of prayer, a relationship of devotion and commitment. That’s how the sermon should end. I like that.

As for me, I have often followed the advice of Fred B. Craddock, a short little man who was a giant of a preacher. Fred used to say, “Always end your sermon about two minutes early.” Some of you may have noticed I like to do that. End the sermon before you’re done, and then the congregation has to end it for you. They have to complete it in the lives that they live. They have to finish it in the work that they take forward.

That is to say, the end of the sermon is in what we do with what we have heard.

What started me on this rabbit trail was not the invitation from the Presbyterian Women. It’s the passage we heard from Deuteronomy. You see, the book of Deuteronomy is a sermon, a very long sermon by Moses. The passage from chapter 30 is the end of it. Before we talk about the ending, let me give you the whole sermon in a nutshell.

Ready? Got something to write this down? Here is the sermon of Deuteronomy: If you follow the ways of God, it’s good for you.  

Saints of God, some of you will notice Moses takes thirty chapters to make his point. No doubt, many of you are accustomed to a preacher going on far too long to say too little. If I may defend the preacher, sometimes the preacher needs to repeat things in order for them to sink in. And sometimes the preacher has to spell it out in depth in order for the message to have any gravity.

Welcome to Deuteronomy! The theme of the long, long sermon: If you follow the ways of God, it is good for you. So the conclusion of the sermon is “Choose the ways of God.” Do the commandments. Walk in God’s ways. Choose the ways of abundant life. Love the Lord your God by doing what God says . . . and it will be good for you. 

That’s the end of the sermon. At least, that is the end of Moses’ sermon. I’m not quite done with you yet. I want to reflect with you on the connection between living in God’s ways and the experience of well-being.

You see, Moses has two assumptions here. The first is that we are able to follow the ways of God. The second is that we don’t always follow the ways of God. There you have it – the human situation. We’ve been told what’s right, we know in our bones what’s right, but we don’t always do what’s right. Our greatest challenge is dealing with our own resistance to the ways of God that would make us well.

God says, “Don’t lie. Tell the truth.” Sounds good; but if you make up a story to explain to your friend why you didn’t want to go to her birthday party, she could find out the truth and it would damage the relationship. You might not be friends anymore -- because you lied.

God says, “Honor your father and mother.” The commandment is not spelled out, so we have to figure it out anew in every season of life. When we are young, it means honoring them by not sassing and talking back. When we are teenagers, it means we honor our parents for their authority, even if we tell our friends that we think they’re crazy. When we reach midlife, we honor our parents as partners in wisdom. When our parents advance in years and decline in strength, we honor our parents by ensuring they are safe and cared for.

What I like about that commandment is what it goes on to say: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long, that it may go well with you (5:16). Ever notice that? Taking care of our parents is not only good for them, it’s good for us.

The assumption here is that we can do these things, that we can choose to follow God. Daily life does not have to be random, it is intentional. If God says do not lie, then don’t lie. If God says, “Don’t take away somebody’s  life,” then don’t take a life.

And this is intended in the deepest possible sense. As we heard from the Gospel reading, Jesus pushes the commandments beyond a superficial application. “You have heard it said, ‘don’t murder,’ but I say to you, don’t let your anger toward another person linger. Don’t ever attack another child of God through your words.” (Matt. 5:21-26).  Why? Because living in deep resentment or murderous rage is not really living. As somebody once quipped, “When you’re angry, you lick your chops at somebody else’s misfortune, but the skeleton at the feast is you.”[1]

Every day is full of choices. Thousands of years ago, Moses knew that. And do you know when Israel remembers him giving this sermon? When the nation is on the brink of going into the Promised Land! After forty years of camping in the wilderness, now it’s time to receive the land that God wants them to have. It’s stretched out in front of them, all that milk and honey.

That’s when Moses says, “Watch out. Don’t forget about God. Choose the life that is given to you as a gift. Never take it for granted.” He says this on the mountain as they face the temptation of unlimited possibilities. “You can either do this, or do that.” Either life or death, either blessing or curse, either love God or forget about God. That is the choice. We make that choice a hundred times each day.

That doesn’t mean it is easy. I remember a season when I was feeling worn out. As I thumbed through a magazine one day, I saw a good review for a book about taking care of yourself. So I bought the book. Chapter one said: You are a person who makes choices. If you want to live a balanced, healthy life, you have to choose that every day. When you’re tired, choose to take some rest. When you’re hungry, choose something to eat. If you’re bored, choose to get up and move around. If you are eating too much, choose to practice restraint. It’s really quite simple. That’s why it’s so difficult.

So Moses stands on the mountain and says, “I am setting before all of you a choice, a life or death choice. If you love God enough to follow his ways, you shall live. And if you don’t, well…”

So what are you going to do?

My friend Terry Chapman sent along a poem the other day. It’s a poem about saying no to death in all its many forms, and about saying yes to life. The poet is Edwina Gately, a woman of faith who works in Chicago with homeless women and victims of domestic abuse. The title is “Called to Say Yes.”[2]

We are called to say yes / That the kingdom might break through
To renew and to transform / Our dark and groping world.

We stutter and we stammer / To the lone God who calls
And pleads a New Jerusalem / In the bloodied Sinai Straights.

We are called to say yes / That honeysuckle may twine
And twist its smelling leaves Over the graves of nuclear arms.

We are called to say yes / That children might play
On the soil of Vietnam where the tanks / Belched blood and death.

We are called to say yes / That black may sing with white
And pledge peace and healing / For the hatred of the past.

We are called to say yes / So that nations might gather
And dance one great movement / For the joy of humankind.

We are called to say yes / So that rich and poor embrace
And become equal in their poverty / Through the silent tears that fall.

We are called to say yes / That the whisper of our God
Might be heard through our sirens / And the screams of our bombs.

We are called to say yes / To a God who still holds fast
To the vision of the Kingdom / For a trembling world of pain.

We are called to say yes / To this God who reaches out
And asks us to share / His crazy dream of love.

That’s the sermon. When you depart the sanctuary, your job is to finish it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] To paraphrase Frederick Buechner.
[2] Edwina Gateley, There Was No Path So I Trod One, (Trabuco Canyon, CA: Source Books, 1996)

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