Sunday, September 4, 2016

2016.09.04 Choose LIfe!

I visited a dying woman today in a hospice facility. Although it was a final goodbye and sad, I became suddenly and intensely aware, as I’d never been before, of the near-ultimate importance of setting. I mean if you’re going to die, it’s such a gift to die surrounded, yes, by family and friends and love, but also by beauty—inside and out.

Writers are always instructed to pay attention to the place or the setting of a book or poem. Actions and inner reflections and dialogue and other things are important, but where it all takes place provides both stability and ambience. Setting enhances or diminishes whatever is taking place

This hospice is clean, sweet-smelling (not artificially so), and set in a woody space with well- groomed bright gardens. The furniture is attractive, comfortable and not heavy— not Motel 6. And of course the professional and volunteer staff mirror the setting, just as cheerful and just as gracious. Also, you can order anything you want to eat. My friend ordered a strawberry frappe for her lunch—that’s all. There is nothing institutional about this place. It’s peace itself.

Today in church I spoke about the passage in Deuteronomy 30, the one in which God invites the people to choose life. God declares:

See! I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . .life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live in the land I swore to you and your ancestors to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  I would add: and to Jesus, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, Hagar, Mary—you and me.

First, a word about Land values. Not real estate. According to Amy-Jill Levine, author and professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, the land is in the drinking water for Jews. Whether religious or not, Jews are imbued with the value of the land. Land meant God’s faithfulness and gift. God never forgets God’s people. It is not necessarily literal, as some may think, but symbolic of God’s love and of the covenant. It’s the relationship in God that gives life—not the dirt.

I believe that Jesus Christ is to Christians what land is to Jews—a place in the divine soul forever.  Such a setting!  In this context God invites us to CHOOSE LIFE. If you obey and follow you’re okay, and if not you’re outside the covenant.

Christians pale at this. Love is too conditional. We want grace, grace and free grace.

Still, I ask: are these the facts of life or a threat?  I think we are so afraid of divine punitive action that we perceive threat not choice. And we impose threat into the text and into our understanding of God.

I love the Old Testament for its crispness, stating it like it is, and God always offering a recipe and a choice. We all know that if we choose X YX will probably happen, or if we choose another way, something else will happen. Not rocket science. The most powerful phrase in this Deuteronomy text, however, is God’s passionate plea, issued twice: CHOOSE LIFE!  It would not say choose if it did not mean just that.

Choice of course is complex, loaded—rarely as simple as it looks. For example, for many of us we can choose to have a glass of wine or not with our meal. For an addict that choice is neither free nor easy. OR… a choice to skip church and have a brunch with my family. OK for some, even for off-duty clergy. But for someone who has been strictly conditioned in religious obligation, believing it God’s will, there is deep threat, and that choice is emotionally fraught.

We should never judge, mock or stigmatize anyone’s choices, including our own.

A Choose Life ethic requires lots of wisdom, reflection, and compassion for yourself and others. It also requires remembering: when and how in the past have you been able to choose life? We choose it, and we remember that Jesus did, every time we receive the Sacrament of Eucharist.

About 15 years ago  a friend and parishioner in Connecticut was dying of cancer. I’d loved this woman, and I didn’t even know she was dying, because we had moved. One day she emailed me and briefly told me her circumstances: she had cancer, she’d left the church, she was still in touch with God and praying, and she remembered the Education for Ministry (EfM) group I’d mentored where she’d learned so much about the bible. Then she asked a question: What is that passage in scripture you loved and always used to blat on about you—you know the one that says Choose life. Where is it in the bible? I know you know. Email me right away. I’m dying and I still want to choose life.”   I did. Before she died she wrote again to thank me, to ask me to preach at her funeral, and to tell me:
                           “I’m dying and I’m choosing life.”

You’re wondering about grace?
    God’s grace is in the invitation to freely choose, well apprised of the facts, and even when you face the unknown.  
    God’s grace is in the oft-repeated invitation to choose life.
    Grace too is in the openness of this covenant. It’s never closed, no matter how many different times and ways you choose life—over and over and over.  So drop the closed-door fantasy!

What today does choose life mean to you? What in your past gives you courage? What does it mean for the Church, for Christianity, for all religion to choose life?

                                             CHOOSE LIFE.