Lectionary Scripitures: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121 (UMH 844), Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
It’s scout Sunday, so I want to begin with a letter from a famous boy scout- Stephen Colbert, the late night host. It seems a scout about to become an eagle scout wrote to Stephen, an agle scout himself, to let him know. Stephen wrote back. Let this be a lesson, those of you going for Eagle scouts, or Gold Awards- if you write to celebrity about it, they might just respond.
Here is what he said:
The first things you learn in scouts are oaths and promises, and a set of laws. They teach you what you’re supposed to be about as a scout and serve as a reminder when you get a little off track. We take oaths and make promises for all kinds of things- when we are baptized or join the church, when we get married, certain kinds of jobs, especially those that have some implied public trust, begin with oaths- I took vows when I became a pastor, doctors swear an oath, lawyers take an oath when they join the bar, we’ve seen these past few weeks that governement officials take oaths. Any time we are in a position that we need to be reminded from time to time that it’s not just about us, we try to make promises we can come back to.
The last couple of weeks our lectionary texts, the passages of scripture that we follow for worship, have been sort of a greatest hits of scripture– the Beatitudes, most famous passages from some of the prophets- the things we learned early on about what we are supposed to be about, that remind us when we begin to wander of who Jesus called us to be, the promises we can come back to and remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Our scriptures today definitely break that pattern. None of these scriptures generally go down as people’s favorites. In fact rarely does anyone’s favorite Bible verse come from Deuteronomy. Though the book of Deuteronomy is often thought to be a series of sermons from the Moses, to the people of Israel just before their entrance into the long-expected Promised Land, it is really a book from a much later time, that offers a look back on a primarily failed Israel, one that didn’t keep the covenant God made with them, who forgot their promises and found themselves in a mess because of it. They forgot the promises they made, forgot the law they were to live by, forgot the kind of people they were meant to be. And so it retells Israel’s earlier stories in hopes of reminding them of they are and how God called them to live.
I am always glad when we read about Israel, in the same way I am always glad when we read about Jesus’s disciples. The Bible is a long story of people not quite getting it right. Since I so rarely get things just right, I am thankful to be part of story that has a lot of grace for getting things wrong. This reminder of the covenant that we read from Deuteronomy is a chance to try again after getting it wrong. In Micah a couple of weeks ago, God was not happy with Israel and so their solution was to bring animal offerings to God, when what God had really asked for was them to live a holy life. Last week, in Isaiah we read that there was a problem with their wanting to bring an offering of livestock without offering their lives. They were only willing to give a little…something easy, that they had more of. They want to be God’s people, but found that doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly were just pretty difficult.
These are not bad people. They know what they have promised to do- they are just having trouble doing it. They want God’s protection and promise but not the calling to a certain way of living that honors other people, that refuses to oppress others, that works for justice and points to hope. All that stuff if hard though, and they struggle. To put in terms for today, they want their eagle scout or their gold award because it looks good on a college application, but without the burden of actually being honest and fair, friendly and helpful, trustworthy, loyal, courteous, kind, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Because life with God can be a challenge- with the covenant comes responsibility and so the people chose other gods, other interests.
So God says to them as they look to Promised Land as they stand at a major crossroads in their journey “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”
“Choose life.” Choose life has been in my head this week. That phrase is frequently co-opted by politics and culture, when you hear me say it you immediately go to political and religious debates that are important, but it’s bigger than any of that here. The people are reminded that God has offered them abundance, real life- life without fear, a life of love and mercy and community- promised to care for them and guide them if they’ll only be faithful to the covenant made- if they’ll be God’s people, remembering that God invited them to be people of justice and mercy who walked humbly with God. It’s not really an announcement of an inevitable cause and effect—if you do well, you will be well—it shows them their own history which tells them the possible results of failure to keep the covenant- that people are left dazed and wandering, unsure of the right things to do and feeling frightened and vulnerable. But God reminds them that they can still have the promises made- they can choose life. Choosing life with God means that we not only worship God, but we serve God in the world, we love those whom God loves, we choose those things which draw us closer to God. We try to be in the world who God is, and pray for a time when our communities will reflect the justice and compassion of God.
But choosing life means all of life. That was the part that was hard for Israel and hard for us. It’s hard enough to get up and get to church on a Sunday morning and actually try to focus heavenward for a couple of hours…how are we supposed to choose life each day amid all the other choices we make? What does it even look like to choose life?
I think Jesus is trying to help us with that in his words to us from the sermon on the mount this morning. A large section of chapter 5 is devoted to Jesus saying “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” Jesus takes the conventional ways of living that are the most basic- things like not murdering people, being faithful to your marriage, swearing, being honest…and tells the people to take it even further. Choosing life means not just that we do not hurt others, but that we try to keep in check even the impulse to do it-we examine what makes us angry so that it does not have power over us.. It means we not only refuse to lie, but that we are true to our word in all things- that our yes means yes and our no means no. It means that our worship is not just our checking a box on Sunday morning, but that it is something we hope shapes all of life– that we do in the world what we practice here- sharing bread, confessing and forgiving, praying, singing, offering a hand of friendship and love. Everything we have read from scripture these last few weeks has asked us to make sure that our words and actions match up- something that is often very hard to do.
The Israelites got it wrong often. So do we. They worshipped God in the Temple but didn’t really want that to mess with the rest of their lives too much. We are often the same. But that’s why we have covenants and oaths and promises- they remind us who we are and what we are aiming for even if we get it wrong. the whole story of the Bible is one getting chances to try again and again. It is a story of the vastness of a love that holds fast to us even when we do not hold fast to it. It’s the story of all things being made new, even us. It’s a story of choosing life- the life God wants to give us- one where hope takes the place of despair, where faith takes the place of fear and where love breaks open our hardened hearts. That story is promise worth keeping.