Love today—extravagantly, willingly, joyously, paying the price and offering yet more.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 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, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. -- Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Life and Death, Blessings and Curses
Death and adversity. It may have been the darkest time in the history of the world. It’s hard to say, for there have been many dark times and, in truth, the darkness always is falling on one place or another, onto some of God’s children, somewhere. But this was Europe and it was the early 1940’s and the evil that was perpetrated so openly, so brazenly, against a faith, a race, a dispersed nation defies our understanding. The revulsion that we feel, eighty years after, is not just at the perpetrators, but at those who stood by and did nothing—who even denied the truth of what was happening in their own countries, so afraid were they that the evil would be turned directly upon them, rather than simply spraying them with its filthy backwash. But, in the midst of this typhoon of madness, there stood a place and its people who must have surely heard these words of Moses, words of life and prosperity, who chose to act, who acted to save, who saved to love. They were the people of a village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in South-Central France.
Le Chambon was a village on a plateau in the hilly country populated by 5,000 people, including a church pastor, Andre Trocme, and his wife, Magda. Many of the residents saw in the Jews who lived around them the evidence of God’s chosen people, and the Trocmes refused to stand by quietly, as so many others stood by, and to see those people rounded up and taken away, deprived of their property, separated from their families and, in time, deprived of their lives. And so Andre secretly arranged to have Jews from nearby places transported under cover of darkness to his village. Magda recruited homes within the village, as well as her own home, where the Jews would be hidden and fed and loved and cared for until transport to safety could be arranged. What the Trocmes and their parishioners did not anticipate—could not have anticipated—was that more and more and more would come, many from other countries further to the east, until at least five thousand Jews had come, often one family or a few people—sometimes just one or two children—at a time, No one was turned away.
The Vichy government, and the Nazis sought to break the people of Le Chambon and to capture the Jews that they harbored. But, here, goodness, blessing—life, itself—made its stand against the curse of death. The people would not be broken; neither would they be swayed from their chosen task to save the Chosen people. The Vichy authorities arrested Andre and another pastor in 1943 and held them for 28 days before releasing them. Magda—a woman who was as much steel and leather as flesh and blood—assumed the role of leader of this resistance and held the village together in solidarity in this service to God. No one broke ranks in the movement to save those who came for salvation.
Years later, a social scientist named Maggie Paxson went to Le Chambon to try to understand what had happened there, and why the people had acted in a way that most of the world had refrained from acting. Before she traveled to Le Chambon, she had studied the history of the area and had learned that this was not the first time:
As rare and extraordinary as this collective rescue was, I quickly learned that the Holocaust was not the first time that the people of this community risked their own safety to shield others from harm. They did it off and on for centuries: during the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, during the French Revolution, and during the Spanish civil war, among other conflicts that produced waves of displaced persons and trans-border refugees.
And after she arrived, she was surprised to realize that the Holocaust had not been the last:
Not long after I first arrived, I discovered that the plateau had not only a history of protecting people, but that its inhabitants were also doing so today. Asylum-seekers were flocking there, from central Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other strife-torn regions.
This was a people—the citizens of Le Chambon are a people-- who take seriously Moses’ call, at the end of his journey, to “Choose life.” Let’s pray and then go further with Moses:
God, lead us, always, to choose life. Open our eyes, our ears, our hearts and our minds to the blessings of life, even as we see on the far horizon the curses that may lead to death—eternal death. Teach us as we walk into Your Word and be our guide as we seek in Your Presence the will that You hold for us. Set our feet upon the path that leads to life—life abundant here on earth and life eternal with You when our days here are accomplished—and remind us that all who might walk upon that path are mandated to reach out to the others, to bring them along. God, we pray, remind us, no matter what we see or hear this morning, no matter what we say or do in this moment, no matter what is revealed in the light of this day or what remains shuttered and out of sight—remind us that the glory of this time and of these words is Yours, alone.
Choose life. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God and holding fast to God. I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life; choose blessings. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. The words Moses spoke, his last words to the Israelites.
They were so close, they could almost touch it. Oh, the places they had been; oh, the things they had seen. Try to imagine—forty years of wandering in an unfamiliar territory, in a wilderness of difficult terrain, waterless deserts, thickets and rivers to pass through. Each day must have involved—required—dozens of decisions. Go left, now right, first up, then down. Stop here and try to find water; no, we should walk on and find shelter from the windblown sand. Further to the east; no, I’m sure this is where we must turn northward. The children are exhausted. Can’t stop here, for we are too exposed to those who might attack us. Decisions; choices made in faith. Guesses, sometimes, especially when there were so many who complained and criticized; every second before the decision was announced probably seemed like an hour to those just waiting to call Moses a fool, Aaron, his brother, a slave driver. Forty years of the same thing, over and again. Wandering day after day until this moment—this moment--when they could see it at last—the Promised Land, right there in front of them. It seemed they could almost touch it. Almost, but not quite. Almost, but….
Moses believed—he said—that the Lord was angry with him for the rebellion of the people. Moses told them that God was so angry with him that he—Moses-- would not be allowed to enter into the land that had been promised, the land to which Moses had led his people for forty unbearable years. That he would never be allowed to set foot in the land to which he had led them. That God would punish Moses because, even in this moment of promise fulfillment, God’s faithfulness revealed yet again, the people were again rebellious, again faithless, fearfully demanding to be told why they had travelled for forty years only to be sacrificed to the Amorites who occupied the land promised by God. Moses, as faithful as any man in the history of God’s people thus far, was being punished--allowed to see what he could not touch, to witness a miracle in which he could not share. He would not make it to the Promised Land with them. In this last moment together, at least they could share the view from across the last border. And it must have been an incredible sight.
The view, looking out from Mt. Nebo, overlooking the winding Jordan River, looking down, to the south and the west, onto the Sea of Galilee, to Nazareth and to Magdala and toward the Dead Sea and Jericho and the mount where Jerusalem would someday stand and the Temple would be built to house the Ark of the Covenant, which they carried with them. The incredible view of what they had pursued for forty years--what their ancestors had pursued as the journey began, walking and giving birth and living and dying along the way, replacing themselves with another generation, and then another, as many as might be born in the course of forty hard years on the move. Was it to be worth the journey? Soon and very soon, they would find out for they could see it, now, and almost touch it, too. He would not be with them. He was their father, and they, his children; what could he tell them now?
What would you say in such a moment as this, for such a time? How would you teach your children?
It’s what we do, nearly every day, as adults, isn’t it? We teach our children. We teach our grandchildren. We teach other people’s children. We prepare others to live on without us—others who may not understand, others who may not know-how, others who may not see that preparation is essential to life. We are so practiced at it that, I suspect, we don’t even realize, most of the time, that we are doing it. Teaching. Leading. Choosing, for ourselves and for others. Preparing them, in advance, so that they aren’t caught unawares in a time of crisis. Choose life, we tell them; live this way.
Moses, first, but then Jesus. Jesus would know the words of Moses, of course, and, so, they asked Him. His answers, boiling it all down so well, clarifying what was unclear and undoing what had been misunderstood. “You have heard it said…but I tell you….” There are three rules, and only three. Jesus taught—teaches--that these three commands contain what all the prophets have been trying to say, what all of the law has been intended to make clear; these are the Kingdom Commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Rule number one. Rule number two: you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. And rule number three, the most difficult and the most consequential: You shall love your enemies. Love your enemies; it isn’t optional.
Here’s what Jesus said: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Anybody can love his friends and hate his enemies; Jesus calls us not to do what is easy, but to do what is hard—to be perfect.
And, so, this was Moses’ last chance, the last time he would lead them, the last time he could guide them, the last time he would speak and hope that they would listen. They were about to cross over, to go where he could not go, to finish the mission he had begun but could not complete. What could he say; what, with this last opportunity, might he share that would mean the most? If you get only one chance to make a first impression, so you also get only one chance at your last words. What would Moses say to those whom he had led?
I want to ask you to imagine something with me. Not because this is what I think is the case, but because it puts us in the right place to learn. I want you to imagine that you are ninety-nine years old and that you feel the end of your life coming near. Imagine that, as you feel life drawing to a close, you are told—authoritatively—that there is no heaven, nor a hell, no afterlife, but only this life. You are told that salvation and, thus, heaven are in this earthly life only. Now, again, don’t run off telling everybody that Andy says there’s no heaven. I’m not, and I don’t. I just want to put you in that mindset for this reason: I want you to plan the celebration of your one-hundredth birthday, with your children, and your grandchildren and your greatgrandchildren, with friends and neighbors younger than yourself, when someone will tap gently on a glass and insist that you say a few words. Armed with the knowledge that your life is drawing to a close, and that this life is the only one—what is your advice? What are you going to say to the people you love more than any others—more than your life, itself—about how to live this life, here on earth?
I have known blessings in my life, and I have known curses. Fortunately, for me, at least, the blessings have outweighed the curses. I could certainly tell you what was the best day of my life, and tell you the best four, or nine, but the days of blessings in my life have been so many that I could never count them all. The truly bad days—well, I can probably count them on the fingers of two hands. Maybe a toe or two. I think that I have chosen life. Choosing life hasn’t prevented those truly bad days. Choosing life has increased the days that I regard as blessings. Because I put my faith in the God of abundance. Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:
The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance. Genesis I is a song of praise for God's generosity. It tells how well the world is ordered. It keeps saying, "It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good." It declares that God blesses -- that is, endows with vitality -- the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind. And it pictures the creator as saying, "Be fruitful and multiply." In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God's creator spirit. And as you know, the creation ends in Sabbath. God is so overrun with fruitfulness that God says, "I've got to take a break from all this. I've got to get out of the office."
But, in the Israelite’s exodus from slavery in Egypt, Brueggemann finds a different response to God’s abundance:
In answer to the people's fears and complaints, something extraordinary happens. God's love comes trickling down in the form of bread. They had never before received bread as a free gift that they couldn't control, predict, plan for or own. The meaning of this strange narrative is that the gifts of life are indeed given by a generous God. It's a wonder, it's a miracle, it's an embarrassment, it's irrational, but God's abundance transcends the market economy. Three things happened to this bread in Exodus 16. First, everybody had enough. But because Israel had learned to believe in scarcity in Egypt, people started to hoard the bread. When they tried to bank it, to invest it, it turned sour and rotted, because you cannot store up God's generosity. Finally, Moses said, "You know what we ought to do? We ought to do what God did in Genesis I. We ought to have a Sabbath." Sabbath means that there's enough bread, that we don't have to hustle every day of our lives. There's no record that Pharaoh ever took a day off. People who think their lives consist of struggling to get more and more can never slow down because they won't ever have enough.
And Brueggemann relates those two narratives to our lives today:
The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things -- nothing can separate us from God.
What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for. But if you are like me, while you read the Bible you keep looking over at the screen to see how the market is doing. If you are like me, you read the Bible on a good day, but you watch Nike ads every day. And the Nike story says that our beginnings are in our achievements and that we must create ourselves.
According to the Nike story, whoever has the most shoes when he dies wins. The Nike story says there are no gifts to be given because there's no giver. We end up only with whatever we manage to get for ourselves. This story ends in despair. It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality. It produces child and wife abuse, indifference to the poor, the buildup of armaments, divisions between people, and environmental racism. It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves….
Blessings and curses—peace and anxiety--life and death. A choice. All wrapped up in three commandments from Moses, set straight by Jesus—the Kingdom Commandments, simple words defining the difference between the myth of scarcity and the life of abundance. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Sounds simple; after all, love is free—right?
Well, love is free—love is free--but loving costs everything you possess. Love is free, but loving costs us everything we possess. That’s where abundance comes in. Loving costs us everything we possess, but with God there is enough and more. With God, there is always enough, and more. Moses called them—Jesus calls us—to reject the myth of scarcity; refute the Nike story. Love the God of abundance, so much that you become men and women and children who love, willingly, joyously, eagerly, at the cost of everything you possess. You get to decide. You get to choose.
You get to decide today for this day, tomorrow for tomorrow. That’s what I want to tell my kids. That’s the lessons I want them to learn, above all other lessons, both because the life of generosity, the life where one feels at peace to care for others as he or she has been cared for—even the life of responding to evil with good and to hatred with love—that’s the best life they can live, and it makes the world a better place for my children and your children and their children, and for all of God’s children. Yesterday’s bad choice doesn’t matter. Today, choose the best life—the life of loving God, loving your neighbor, loving your enemy—extravagantly, prodigiously, empathically and emphatically, today. Make this world a better place. A blessing. Choose life. The choice that you make today is a reflection of your faith; in fact, it announces your faith. Risk it all; give it all away, in faith in the abundance of the God who created you.
Have faith in the abundance of our loving God, so loving that God put on human flesh and chose the indignity of living as one of us, walking in the mess we had made, healing and teaching and loving us so much that He accepted crucifixion as a means of showing the depths of that love. Choosing life means to embrace the creative and the re-creative work of God—the realization that we are offered salvation in this life, as well as in the next. It is faith in that abundance that invites us—nay, that compels us—to love our enemies.
Who wouldn’t choose life? Well, there is a cost. Oh, there is a cost. I remember Bob Knight—back when he was the coach at Indiana—responding to a question about a player’s will to win. And Coach Knight responded something like this: “Everybody has the will to win. But not everybody has the will to do what has to be done in order to win.” To all good things, whether it be winning or choosing life and blessings, there is a cost. Who would not choose life over death, blessings over curses? Who would not save the Jews from the Nazis, but for the cost to themselves? Without the cost, everyone would choose life, and blessings, over curses and death. But there is a cost. Who is willing to pay it? Each day, we are required to ask ourselves, when facing a decision, “Which choice will lead to life, and what will it cost me? Am I willing to pay?” There is a cost to loving God, a cost to loving our neighbor, a cost—will we pay it—a cost to loving our enemy. Will we choose life and blessings?
That’s what Moses told the people—his people, the ones who had followed him for forty long years, grumping and grousing and griping all along the way, but, still, following. He pointed to the Promised Land. There—across the river—there is your reward. Promised, but not easy and not free. Don’t expect it to be easy, any more than the journey to this place has been easy. You will be challenged, you will be tested, there will be moments that seem intended to break you and to cause you to give in, and there will be neighbors and enemies. Be prepared to pay the cost; trust in the abundance of the God who has brought you here and given you this place. This day, and always, choose life and blessings over curses and death.
The Nazis could have overrun Le Chambon at any time. They could have stormed the little village, entered every house and garage and attic and barn, stolen away the Jews hidden there, pulled the village residents out into the street and shot them for their seditious acts. Burned the village. The people of the village knew what they were doing and they knew the cost. And, yet, they loved—as they love today—extravagantly, willingly, joyously, paying the price and offering yet more.
And, so, I call on you, and on myself today, my friends, to reject the narrative—the myth—of scarcity. We are, yet, alive. And there is enough for today; God is abundant. Shall we, together, share the faith that tomorrow there will also be enough? Shall we heed the call to choose life over death and blessings over curses—and love for all?
Let me close with a poem by Edwina Gately from her 1996 book There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013):
We are called to say yes.
That the kingdom might breakthrough
To renew and to transform
Our dark and groping world.
We stutter and we stammer
To the lone God who calls
And pleads a New Jerusalem
In the bloodied Sinai Straights.
We are called to say yes
That honeysuckle may twine
And twist its smelling leaves
Over the graves of nuclear arms.
We are called to say yes
That children might play
On the soil of Vietnam where the tanks
Belched blood and death.
We are called to say yes
That black may sing with white
And pledge peace and healing
For the hatred of the past.
We are called to say yes
So that nations might gather
And dance one great movement
For the joy of humankind.
We are called to say yes
So that rich and poor embrace
And become equal in their poverty
Through the silent tears that fall.
We are called to say yes
That the whisper of our God
Might be heard through our sirens
And the screams of our bombs.
We are called to say yes
To a God who still holds fast
To the vision of the Kingdom
For a trembling world of pain.
We are called to say yes
To this God who reaches out
And asks us to share
His crazy dream of love.
So let us share God’s crazy dream—love God, love our neighbor, love, even, our enemy—choosing life and blessings every day, now and forever.
Amen, and amen.