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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 12, 2017

 Choose Life!

Deuteronomy 30:15-20;Matthew 5:21-37

            This morning we turn to Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel.  They are in Moab, about to enter into the promised land.  Moses knows he will not enter himself, but only see it and greet it “from afar.”  Moses could not be more pointed in what he says: “See, I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity….”

            Moses talks with them about the power of choice, promising that if they make wise choices, “loving the Lord your God, walking in His ways, and observing His commandments,” “then you shall live.”  Then Moses warns them that if they turn away from Yahweh and “do not hear,” “(they) shall perish.”  We make choices all the time, each and every day.

            Our choices are not usually labeled so clearly, but that does not mean that they do not have the same consequences.  We rarely think in such dramatic, extreme terms: life and death, prosperity and adversity.  But taken over the course of a lifetime, we establish habits and patterns that surely have consequences.  Neitzsche spoke of faith and life as “a long obedience in the same direction.”  He was speaking of choices.

            Our choices send us, whether we know it or not, in a certain direction, on a given trajectory.  They can lead us closer to God, or farther away.  They can bring health to us or woe.  They can lead us into joy, or ultimately cause us great sorrow.

            Moses identifies two kinds of choices: those that lead to life, and those that lead to death.  Life’s path is followed “by loving the Lord your God.”  Remember Deuteronomy 6?  Most Jews can never forget it.  They nail it to their doorposts, on what they call “mezuzas”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”  This is really the heart of the Torah, or the law of Israel’s God.  Jesus would call it “the greatest commandment,” and would add a second that “is like unto it”: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  This is primarily, and most importantly, what it means “to walk in God’s ways.”  And love is a choice we make over and over again, if it is life and joy that we seek.

            To “choose life,” as Moses pleads, is first and foremost an act of love – the choice to love God with all that is in us, and to allow that love to direct and shape and order all the other people and things and principles that we love.  Saint Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.”  Augustine was “choosing life,” allowing the love of God to shape his desires and to direct his paths.  Our problem is that too often we get caught up in all our smaller choices, and lose sight of this first and most fundamental of all choices.  Then too often we choose self over God, and love takes a back seat to ego or pride or our need for control.

            I love Moses’ notion of how crucial it is for us to “choose life.”  We all know of times when we knew what was at stake and made the right choices, and of times when we did not, and suffered the consequences.

            Connie and I just went to see the movie, Hidden Figures.  If you have not seen it, you should!  It tells the mostly true story of Katherine Goble Johnson, a mathematical genius born into a black family in West Virginia, who was hired by NASA to work on the mathematical computations necessary to put men into space.  In the movie, Katherine and her fellow “colored computers” are subjected to the attitudes prevalent in the 1950’s and 1960’s regarding race.  The movie does a fair job of recreating the times.  Racial prejudice could be very demeaning to these hard working, gifted women.  Kevin Costner plays Katherine Goble’s boss, a man named Al Harrison.  The character is really a composite of three supervisors Katherine had, but he plays the role powerfully.  Al Harrison is interested in finding the mathematical formulas to get a man into orbit and to bring him back safely.  He does not care about color.  He wants for America to win the space race.  Katherine in one scene tells Harrison that she needs to be a part of their joint meetings so she knows what the issues and questions are.  Harrison agrees, allowing a “woman” into their gatherings for the first time.  Some were shocked by his decision, but Harrison did what he believed was right.  Al Harrison was “choosing life.”

            When an aerospace engineer in the meeting wants to see the formulas that are going to lift the capsule into space, then bring it out of orbit and back to earth, Harrison hesitates, then he picks up a piece of chalk, and calls on Katherine Goble, the only person in the room able to show these scientists the math they ask to see.  The camera captures Harrison’s white hand placing the chalk into Katherine Goble’s black hand.  Harrison was choosing life, and my heart soared.  Indeed, I wept through much of the movie.  It was so much a story of choosing life, and of “walking with the Lord your God.”

            On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln stood on the platform of our nation’s capital to deliver what would become, arguably, the greatest speech ever given in American history.  Richmond had fallen, and the surrender of Lee at Appomattox was just weeks away.  But instead of crowing over his successes, Lincoln spoke honestly and deeply about the tragedy of the war.  He spoke as a broken man.  He also ruminated on the mystery of the Divine will in this national tragedy.  “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God.  The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been fully answered.”  Lincoln added: “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

            Then Lincoln said it: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us the right to see, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle, to care for his widow and his orphan….”  Lincoln was “choosing life”; he was counseling a nation to let love rule us as we ended this awful war.  He was bidding us to allow God’s healing love to forge a lasting peace and to heal a broken nation.

            To “choose life” is ever and always the choice before us – each and every day of our lives.  And in one way Moses seems to be offering the traditional language of “conditional covenantal love.”  “If you obey, then I will bless you.”  “If you disobey, then I will curse you.”

            But above and beneath his words, I hear an open-ended offer from Moses, indeed from God: “Choose life!”  No matter what the choices are that have brought you to where you are, it is never too late to choose life.  It is never too late “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”  It is never too late to choose to love – to love God, and “to love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  This always leads to life and blessing.

            We either get busy living, or we fritter our lives away dying.  Choose life!  Love God with all your heart.  Care for the hurting.  Listen to someone who needs to be heard.  Show respect for everyone you meet.  Look them in the eye always, affording them the dignity God gave to them.  Enjoy simple things – sunshine, the turning of the seasons.  Play with children.  Laugh.  Laugh some more.  Cry too, when your heart is moved.  Surround your life with what you love – family, friends, faith, nature, books, beauty.  Reach out to welcome the stranger.  Open your heart to the love of God.  Choose life!

            “Behold, I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live….”



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