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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Sirach 15:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

I’m the cook in our family.  Sometimes I ask Margie (my wife), “What do you want for dinner tonight?”  She may get cute and just say, “Something to eat.”  A little more seriously, she may ask, “What are my options?”  It’s equally likely that I may come to her initially with choices.  “Do you want chicken or pork?”  “Do you want it glazed or breaded?”  “Do you want cauliflower or beans with it?”  “Rice or baked potato?”

Actually, all my life my family has known me as one who offers options.  “Do you want to go to the zoo or to the beach?”  “Do you want to go to Denny’s or Burger King?”  It meant they felt like they were participating in the decision and kept their choices within the bounds I felt were appropriate for the occasion.

Talking about options is another way of talking about choice.  One of the definitions of “option” is “something that may be or is chosen.” Of course, the word has made its way into the financial world as well where an option is an agreement to buy or sell an asset before some future date at a price specified now.

Although I’m not specifically writing about finances today, we could look at options and choice from a number of different angles.  We are a nation of choices.  Immigrants are sometimes overwhelmed by the varieties of foods available in our supermarkets.  Just take a stroll down the cereal aisle:  Kellogg’s, General Mills, Post.  Each has its rice and wheat and, corn cereals, flakes or bite-size with or without raisins or dried peaches or blueberries.  I didn’t count the different varieties of mini-wheats yesterday when I was at the grocery store.  Too many, for sure.  I had a coupon which gave me a discount on two boxes, so I came home with “frosted” and “brown sugar.”  Okay, so I didn’t make the healthiest choices.

Some of us may even suffer from choice overload.  I don’t want to have to make so many decisions.  I recently saw a report on some research recently about grocery stores which put up stacks of some products at the end of two different aisles.  Did you every fall for that?  It’s called “impulse buying.”  One stack had more choices than the other.  Things sold better from the stack which had fewer choices.

While we are surrounded by choices, some of them probably quite trivial, we may overlook the more basic values that underlie our choices.  This week’s lectionary readings challenge us at the most fundamental level of choice.  Are our choices life-affirming, life-giving, life-enhancing, or do they deal in death, literally or figuratively?  Do we choose that which blesses or that which brings a curse?

Deuteronomy means “second law.”  It may be the book found by the priest Hilkiah during the repair of the temple in Jerusalem in the 7th century before the common era. (See II Kings 22:3-10)  The Law had been missing for many years, so King Josiah stood before the people and read this book (Deuteronomy?) in its entirety and based major reforms on it.

Whatever its exact history, Deuteronomy retells the history of the people who escaped from slavery in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and are now about to occupy a new land.  It is written as if it were three speeches spoken by Moses.    

We could dwell upon this occupation which became something of a “conquest.”  We still live with the consequences.  We can’t undo or avoid this part of biblical history, nor should we glorify it or use it to justify current injustices resulting from occupation.  Wringing our hands and living in guilt and/or being appalled are not going to move us forward.

Encountering the reading this time , it made me think of immigrants who enter into a new land.  They bring with them customs and values, some fearing that those customs and values may be lost.  They may lose their identity, especially if they are entering a land with glittering lights and a tempting plethora of choices.  Moses was addressing such people.  It may help also to think of it as a book that became the basis for reformation, calling people to remember their roots.

Whatever your take on the overall writing and its context, this week’s portion comes from the third speech, a speech which challenges the people as they enter into this new place.  Moses isn’t going to be allowed to go with them. (See Deuteronomy 31:1-2)  He is putting before them the possibility of blessings and curses that await them. (See chapter 28 and 30:1)  The reading before us begins, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  (Deuteronomy 30:15)

Behind all choice is the contrast between life and death.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day 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 . . .”  (vss. 19-20)  Joshua, whose story was told as part of the continuing “history” recounted in Deuteronomy, also emphasizes choice as he addresses the people after they have occupied the new land.  “ . . . choose this day whom you will serve . . .; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  (Joshua 24:15)

Sirach, a reading in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox Bibles, probably comes from the third century before the common era.  It may have been written in Alexandria in Egypt, meaning that it too can be read in the context of a mix of cultures.  It is another of this week’s readings that emphasizes choice.  “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.  Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”  (Sirach 15:16-17)  Before this, the writer has said, “To act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” (vs. 15)

Too often this contrast between life and death has been part of an approach which tried to scare people with threats of a fiery hell.  One doesn’t have to go that route to realize that choices can be life-affirming or death dealing.  I once owned a book by J. Kenneth Shamblin, Life Comes As Choice.  It is impossible to live a single day without being faced with choices, big or small.  While we can hardly agonizingly analyze every choice, they all have consequences.  They build up or tear down, again in large or minuscule ways.  I believe that the loving heart of the universe wills us to make decisions that are attuned to that love, choices that contribute in even the little things to the building up of love and justice and peace in this world.

In the readings, choosing for life is connected with following “the commandments of the Lord your God.”  (Deuteronomy 30:16)  The reading from Sirach begins, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments,” and later observes, almost tongue in cheek (?), “He had not commanded anyone to be wicked.”  (Sirach 15:15 & 20)  Psalm 119 celebrates the Law (commandments?) throughout its 176 verses.  The lectionary portion for this Sunday does not specifically speak of choice, but it is implied.  “Happy are those . . . who walk in the law of the Lord . . . who seek him with their whole heart.”  (Psalm 119:1-2)

Emphasis on commands and law can lead to a legalistic judgmentalism.  The Gospel reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount emphasizes that the Law is more than outward behavior.  It is rooted in an inward attitude of the heart.  Repeatedly Jesus says, “You have heard it said . . . But I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 33-34)  Being angry, even calling someone a fool is put right up there with murder.  (vss. 21-22)  Looking at a woman with lust in one’s heart is linked with adultery.  (vss. 27-28)  No amount of swearing, even by heaven, can add to the purity of a simple “Yes” or “No” from the heart.

Choosing life starts in the heart, in one’s inner attitudes.  Even the other readings which emphasize the commandments and Law move below the surface.  Psalm 119:2 speaks of those “who seek him with their whole heart.”  Deuteronomy 30:20 defines life as “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”  The prophet Jeremiah (not one of this week’s readings) tells of a time when the Lord says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . .” (Jeremiah 31:33)

The Epistle reading is less clear on the topic of options and choice.  There is the implication that choice requires a maturity that the church in Corinth had not yet reached.  (See I Corinthians 3:1-2)  I spent much of my life among the Baptists who frequently spoke of “the age of accountability,” the age at which a person is able to make an informed choice for himself or herself.  Of course, there was much disagreement about the age at which that was achieved.  Much is sometimes made in the political and legal arenas of “informed choice.”  Choice is not simply a blind knee-jerk response.

The Epistle reading also reminds us that our choices can separate us as well as unite us.  Just look at the political debates of almost any age!  In Corinth they were choosing this leader over that leader and it was leading to “jealousy and quarreling.”  (vss. 3-5)  Paul’s call was to focus on God, not their loyalty to this or that leader so that they could “have a common purpose” and work together. (vss. 8-9)  Choices can unite or choices can divide.  They can be life-giving or destructive.

What are our options?  In all things, may the Spirit within guide us to choose Life!


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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