Monday, 17 February 2014 00:00

"Choices", February 16, 2014

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 ?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 16, 2014
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The great theologian Albus Dumbledore said, “It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)

This is a pro-choice sermon.  But it’s not the kind of pro-choice sermon you might think about. We say pro-choice and you think we know what we are going to talk about. I just finished up my eighth and final year on the board of the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  I was recruited by our own Nadean Bishop, former pastor of UBC, so how could I say no? I had no choice. One of the things we wrestled with over the years was whether choice is the right word for what we are trying to do. It tends to conjure up images of a one-time choice as opposed to a long-term commitment to health and equity.

That’s why they are using the term Reproductive justice a lot more. Reproductive justice is about the fundamental right of women to have children, to not have children, to raise children in supportive environments, and the ability to respect and honor our whole lives as sexual beings. We recognize people's inherent worth, moral agency and ability to make the best decisions they can. Part of reproductive justice work is training clergy to sensitively counsel women who are struggling with when and how to have children. We need comprehensive sex education so people can make the very best decisions about themselves and their children. So, this is not that kind of pro-choice sermon.

We make choices every day, several times a day. Do I exercise, or click the remote?  Do I read a book, or scroll through Facebook again? Do I eat what is good for me, or what is convenient? Do I study, or hope to just slide by? Paper or plastic? Democrat, Republican, Green, Independence? This party platform or another? To have a child or not? Tastes great? Less filling? What about the life and death questions that we want to avoid, but which lurk on the tips of out tongues or are hidden beneath the veneer of the fallacy that we have it all together?


I have been asked to give the Baccalaureate address at my daughter’s school.  In those addresses, it’s often about encouraging people to make good choices.  Encourage them away from bad choices. I better choose wisely what I say.

In Deuteronomy, we have the people on the precipice of entering the Promised Land after wandering around in the desert for 40 years. Moses gives them a final word of warning, as if from God. The valedictory sermon of Moses begins in the 29th chapter, reviews all that has transpired in 40 years and it ends with today’s passage. Choose life or choose death. You decide.

Moses said later, I have seen the Promised Land and while I won’t get there with you I want you to live long in that land and prosper.  And doing so will require you making choices.  Not just once, but all the time.  These are life and death choices. On one hand you have life and prosperity and on the other you have death and adversity.  Wouldn’t you think it is the other way around.  Prosperity and Life, Adversity and death.  It reminds me of Hermione scolding Ron and Harry “be careful, you could get us killed or worse, expelled.”  

Many scholars believe that Deuteronomy was written around the time of King Josiah, around 621. In an age of threats from foreign influence, Josiah called for national unity and doctrinal purity. In Deuteronomy, God is a scorekeeper who rewards the right choices and punishes those who make the wrong choices.  Josiah enacted reforms and used Deuteronomy as the sacred text of his movement.  It was conveniently “found” in some temple closet just as he was implementing his reforms.

The people had plenty of examples of those who were disobedient and died.  Josiah wanted the people to live, to choose life, so that they and their descendants might live.

Choosing life, according to Moses was, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 “Love God with heart, mind and soul.”  But Deuteronomy also lays out other ways to choose life: Cancel debts to the poor (15:1-11); limiting punishment so as to protect human dignity (19:1-7); Pushing government to guard against excessive wealth (16:18-20); Restricting those who can be drafted (20:1-8); Offering hospitality to runaway slaves (23:15-16); paying employees fairly (24:14-15); leaving part of the harvest for those who need it (24:19-22)—an ancient welfare program.

Choose Life, says Moses.  Which means, choose to follow YHWH, not some other whim.  It means remember your heritage.  It means remember the slave and the outcast for you were once slaves and outcasts in the land of Egypt.

What choices lead to life and prosperity?  What choices lead to death and adversity? The right choice means blessing for the entire community, not just an individual.

Choose life for yourself and for others.

Choose life so that you and your descendants can live.

Establish your legacy.

Infuse the next generation with the stories of old and adapt to a changing world with integrity.

Choose life, not death.

Choose prosperity, not adversity.

Choose hope, not despair.

Choose justice, not injustice.

Choose compassion not selfishness.

Choose equity, not discrimination.

Choose faithfulness not cynicism.

Choose passion, not boredom.

Choose beauty, not apathy.

Choose hard questions, not easy answers.

Choose curiosity, not ignorance.

Choose fidelity, not selfishness.

Choose life that you and your descendants might live.

Think of the choices you have made in your life.

Not everyone has easy or equal choices.  Those with more economic and social means have a different set of choices than those with less resources. And it is often in the best interest of those in positions of domination to restrict the choices of those beneath them.

During this Black History Month, I am struck by how choice is tied up with privilege.  Some of us have more choices than others. Think about the below-surface choices that others make that impact us: racial prejudices, ideas of safety, economic opportunities, glass and even stained glass ceilings, health care, infrastructure, family dynamics, etc.

We can’t control another’s choices.  But we can control our reaction to another’s choices.  That’s our choice.

I’ve been intrigued by choices made by developers, community activists and elected officials.  I spent most of Thursday in meetings at City Hall and in Dinkytown shops where we discussed whether or not to demolish buildings that have been here in Dinkytown to make way for new development. The developers argue that property owners ought to make the decisions. They should be the only ones with a choice. It’s their property and they ought to be able to do with it as they please. Neighborhood activists say that they want to preserve the flavor and architectural diversity of our neighborhood, part of what makes us unique. They choose to use their words and passion to advocate for a different vision of the future. And they were very articulate about it. And then there were the City Council members. We voters chose to put them in power. They choose which side to listen to and then make decisions. The Zoning and Planning Committee chose to approve demolition of two buildings and preservation of a third. The full City Council gets to choose this Friday on whether to affirm or overturn one or more of those decisions. I spoke in favor of preservation on Thursday. But I was intrigued by the power differential as these choices make their way through the political process.

Choosing to use your voices to preserve and build what we feel is sustainable and a community good is powerful and necessary.  Actress Ellen Page and football player Michael Sam chose to not hide in a closet anymore and came out.  Courts across the country are choosing whether to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.  But we don’t need to be powerful or influential people to make faithful choices.

When I was on the Island of Iona in Scotland almost three years ago, I spent a day of a prayerful pilgrimage walk around the seven-mile island.  We stopped at significant places to read scripture, remember a significant piece of the island’s history and reflect on our own lives.  As we were on our journey, we stopped on a rise in the road halfway between the Benedictine Abbey and St. Columba’s beach.  Our leader stopped and said, we are at a decision point on our journey.  There are two roads that cross here.  One heads downhill, the other uphill.  Each will hold a different discovery.  It is like most of our lives.  Think about the decisions you have made. The roads looked like a cross. And there we were standing on it.  Someone read a Robert Frost poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;…

George McLeod, the founder of the modern-day Iona Community said of the cross:

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek (or shall we say in English, in Bantu and in Afrikaans!) at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.  Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about. And that is where the church should be and what the church should be about.”

We often stand at crossroads in our lives.  Before us is always a choice.  But it’s seldom one choice.  It’s a series of choices. Choices that we make every day.  Think about the choice to forgive.  Peter asked Jesus, “how many times must I forgive my brother?”  Seven times?  How many times do I need to make that choice.  Jesus said, no not seven.  Try seventy times seven.  I heard one preacher say that sometimes we need to make the choice to forgive someone several times a day.  That’s a whole lot of choices.

I like Brett Younger’s paraphrase of today’s scripture: “Listen to what I have said today.  I have laid it out for you, life and death, good and evil.  Love God. Walk in God’s ways.  Keep the commandments so that you will live, passionately, joyfully, blessed by God.  I warn you.  If you have a change of heart, refuse to listen, and serve little gods, you will die.  It is your choice, life or death, blessings or curses.”

Younger goes on to say that “Death is the slow process of giving ourselves to what does not matter.”(Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1 p.341)

Younger then gives us plenty of life-affirming ideas:

“Learn things you have told yourself you would never learn.

Enjoy simple things.

Play with children.”
(It’s starting to sound like a baccalaureate sermon…)

“Laugh often, long, and loud.

Cry when it’s time to cry.

Be patient with your own imperfections as well as the imperfections of others.

Celebrate sex with the one to whom you have given your life.

Surround yourself with what you love—whether it is family, friends, pets, music, nature, or silence.

Walk around the block.

Turn off the television.

Get together with friends.

Invite a stranger to lunch or dinner.

Clean out a drawer.

Read a book of poetry.

Quit doing what is not worth your time.

Do something so someone else will not have to.

Give money to a cause you care about.

Stop arguing.

Apologize to someone, even if it was mostly his fault.

Forgive someone even if she doesn’t deserve it.

Have patience.

Stop having patience when it is time to tell the truth.

Figure out what you hope for and live with that hope.

Worship with all your heart.

Pray genuinely.

Love your church.

Believe that God lives you.

Remember the stories of Jesus.

See Christ in the people around you.

Share God’s love with someone what has forgotten it.

Delight in God’s good gifts.

See that all of life is holy.

Open your heart to the Spirit.

Search for something deeper and better than your own comfort.

Live in the joy beneath it all.

Let God make your life wonderful.” (FOTW p.343) Year A volume 1

Choosing life according to Micah is “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Choosing life according to Isaiah is choosing compassion and becoming a repairer of the breach.  Choosing life according to Jesus might very well be to leave your nets and everything that ensnares you and follow a new way that leads to live.
My daughters hate it when I say that not making a choice is making a choice.  What choices are you avoiding?  What choices have you made because you avoided making a choice?  Some of us choose inertia because it’s easier.  But does it lead to life?

There is a new members class starting today for people who might be considering a choice to formalize their presence here at UBC.  Imagine those choices.
When I was at the Biennial convention in June, I was in a small group of people talking about Church Covenants.  I was especially intrigued by the congregation that had one-year church membership.  In January and February, they entered into a tie of discernment that culminated in the membership choosing to be active members for the next year.

We have made the choice to be here in this place here on this morning.  What does that represent?  What choices do we need to make? Will you choose to walk in the ways of discipleship?  Will you choose a way that leads to life for you and others?  Or will you make another choice?  You need people to surround you to make choices and to follow through on those choices.  Some of those are right here in this room.

So many choices.  Choose wisely.  Choose faithfully.  Choose for yourself and choose for those you share in this journey.  For our choices affect them.

Let us walk in the way that leads to life for us and for our descendants.  A way of justice, compassion, mercy and beauty.  May we recognize it and celebrate it wherever we see it.

Choose so that you and your community can have life and have it abundantly.  It will make all the difference.