Life or Death
Based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
I am, like many of you, a person who likes to make things as simple as possible. I prefer when I have a decision to make that there are only two choices and they are close to polar opposites of each other. You know…yes or no, black or white, up or down, in or out. Life, however, rarely presents us with such diametrically opposed or dualistic choices. Life is messy, chaotic, with competing messages which vie for our time and attention. God’s messages, by contrast, are subtle and soft, not speaking in compelling tones but rather issuing invitations and stepping back to allow us to use our free will to choose God’s teaching over worldly wisdom. Paying attention to God’s words of life, in this world of ever-increasing noise and death dealing polarity, is harder than ever. Is it any wonder that more and more people are choosing to listen only to worldly messages and no longer seek the Word of life from God? The next question after you answer the first is: is it any wonder that America is increasingly divided into one of two identities, each seeking the elimination of the other?
In the Church we talk a lot about growing in our faith and making our way on our spiritual journeys. However, it is quite common for people to get to a certain point in their spiritual development and then stop growing. They want to stay in a place that makes sense to them with a God that makes sense to them. They don’t want to go farther because they are confronted with too much unknown, too much complexity, too much confusion – a choice that seemingly requires too much from them. A more simplistic approach to faith allows for polarities to exist; to be able to state unequivocally that something is good or bad, right or wrong, or that one doctrine of faith created by humans is correct and all others are mistaken. That degree of certainty is comfortable and causes many folks to step back from the messiness and complexity of life, and from challenging scriptures like today’s Gospel reading, into the relative simplicity of “nice Jesus”, dogmas, rules and regulations. Before we wrestle with the complexity of our texts today, let us go to God to ask for guidance and peace…
Moses is giving his final teaching and exhortation to the Hebrew people before they cross over the Jordan river and enter the Promised Land. For many chapters, Moses has been telling the people not to do certain activities or they will be cursed. Likewise, he has been telling them about the blessings of obedience to God’s commandments and the dangers of disobedience. In today’s readings all this teaching comes to a head when Moses declares that God has set before all the people the binary choices of life or death, blessings or curses. Moses says starting in verse 19: “…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him;…”
Paul is teaching the believers in Corinth that they are still young in the Spirit and too much in the world (i.e., “the flesh”). He knows they have not grown up because they have not become united and forgiving of one another. Rather they are still inclined to be worldly, showing jealousy and quarreling with each other. They also have chosen sides – “I belong to Paul” while others say, “I belong to Apollos”. Paul reminds them that he and the other leaders are servants of Christ within the Body of Christ, just like the people of the Corinthian church. Paul might plant (start a church), but it needs tending by Apollos and others to begin to flourish and grow. Growth only comes, Paul reminds them, from God – all else is simply service in the Spirit. Life, says Paul, comes from being unified and growing in Christ, while stagnation and death come from remaining in the world.
In this generation where we are redefining many aspects of life in community, the Gospel lesson today becomes one with which many will struggle. Murder is certainly one act that all but a sociopath would say is wrong. However, Jesus points to the root of the act of murder which is the anger and contempt which we use to wound and oppress those with whom we should be trying to understand and build community. It doesn’t take long each day for social media or news outlets to blow up with outrage over some slight, real or imagined, which then murders the reputation of a child of God. Jesus asks us instead to reconcile with each other and offer grace as quickly as possible. Like murder, Jesus uncovers the underlying lusts which lead to adultery and divorce. Finally, Jesus asks us to be so trustworthy that we will not have to swear by anything (i.e., “I Swear to God”) – make your yes or no mean yes or no – no equivocating and no backsliding! Life comes, we discover, from loving each other like we are loved by Jesus.
Human life is messy, complex, confusing and chaotic – it has always been this way. Humans, in the face of this complexity have always tried to simplify things – to make things into a choice between two competing ideas. We like to think about these dualistic choices as “Us vs. Them”, “Good vs. Evil”, “Day vs. Night”, “Black vs. White”, Republican vs. Democrat, etc. We seek out duality, because it seems to give us the ability to control the uncontrollable, to bring order out of the chaos. It is challenging, therefore, to hold the complexity long enough so that the people in the “them” category can be seen to be just like us – hardworking folks who are trying to do the best they can every day to live into a dream that’s focused on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
These are the teachings in today’s scriptures. They implore us not to over-simplify life, but to wrestle with complexity to get to the root of our shared issues. It’s not just about adultery, Jesus says, the stimulus that leads to adultery and often divorce is living in a culture that objectifies people and glorifies a certain sense of beauty that can only be attained by a few with the help of Photo Shop. Jesus reminds us about appropriate boundaries that respect the dignity and humanity of all persons. Likewise, when we are wounded, angry or frustrated by people’s actions or words, we are not to sin against them by murdering them physically or in the public space. Rather, we are to seek to understand them and reconcile ourselves to them so that we can live right relationships instead of suffering the death of polarization and isolation.
Paul notes that the believers in Corinth are living as if they had never come to be believers – dealing death by being jealous of those in the community with more worldly wealth and are quarreling with each other over minor disagreements. Paul reminds them that they are all to be in service to one another using their God-given gifts to further God’s work in the world. They are to share equitably with one another and allow that all in the community are necessary – none is more important to the health of the Body of Christ. They are to live forward in unity of Spirit and of action to bring the life in Jesus before all of the people who are currently dying in their world.
Life or death – seems like an easy choice, doesn’t it? I mean, who wouldn’t choose life over death. The complexity and distractions of the world, however, confuse us with messages that we can have it all. We can live in the world with all the trappings that come with that life AND we can be disciples of Jesus – we don’t have to choose between the two lives. The problem, however, is those death-dealing messages cause competition and jealousy toward those who seem to be happier or have more worldly wealth or toys. Yet, we understand from scripture that we need to choose the life that God offers every day. Choosing to live life governed by the mind and heart of Jesus, rather than the messages of marketing departments and social media algorithms. Abundant life which allows us to grow in unity and wholeness; to grow in life in the Spirit. God’s grace and our reading of scripture help us to choose forgiveness and love over jealousy and human competition that lead to division, tribalism and polarization. Moses, Paul and Jesus tell us to choose to live fully into the complexity and messiness of life together in community. A choice which trusts that choosing God over the world will give us blessings and not curses, life and not death. Amen!