A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
February 16, 2014
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-26
I noted last Sunday at the end of the worship service, in response to Carolyn’s reading her resignation letter, that she had given nine years of her life to this church… and that nine years is a big chunk of life, and in that time she has put her heart and soul into her work. I meant every word of it, of course. I really did. But there is a sense in which, I must admit, my comment was a bit self-serving. You see, next month I will commemorate my eighteenth year in this church, by far the longest tenure of any of my pastorates, and the second longest in the history of this church.
And, it represents almost thirty percent of my life. Thirty percent.
I once considered going to a church that had had only two pastors in its previous eighty-five years of existence. One had gone to the church just after his graduation from seminary, and retired there well into his eighties. He gave practically his entire adult life to that one congregation. Kind of boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
When it eventually comes time for me to do what Carolyn did last week, to stand before you and state my intentions to vacate this pulpit, the thoughts that will no doubt accompany that day will center around whether my investment in this place and in this people will have been worth that much of my life. You see, if all goes the way I plan (which, of course, is not guaranteed), my tenure here, by that time, will represent thirty-five percent of my life. I wasn’t a math major, but I think that’s more than one-third. The inevitable question will be, what will I – what will we – have to show for all those years… I mean, besides weddings and funerals and coming to church on Sundays? And will it have been worth it? Actually, I already know what the answer to that question is. Still, it will represent a big, big chunk of my life… and yours.
So imagine how Moses must have felt. He’s given the last forty years of his life not only to the leadership of these stubborn, recalcitrant people called Hebrews, but it’s all taken place in the grittiness of the Middle East wilderness. Not exactly a cushy pulpit assignment, to say the least. He’s done his share of funerals, hasn’t he? Maybe even a few weddings along the way. He’s held their hands and he’s gotten angry, he’s blessed them and he’s loved them… in his own way, of course. And now, he’s come to the end of his life.
The Lord has let it be known to Moses that he will not cross over the Jordan with his people, that he will be buried that very day. He is preaching his final sermon knowing he is about to take his last breath. But there’s one thing he does not know. He’s come to this point unaware of how his people are going to proceed.
I would do it again – I really would – but after my last youth mission trip I told the church I was getting too old for this… sleeping for a week on a gym floor in a sleeping bag. Well, imagine doing it forty years. Essentially, that is what Moses did, except, in his case, he had to shake the sand out of his bed every morning and check his sandals for scorpions.
That’s what the cowboys did in the old West, you know. Every morning, when they were out on the range, before putting on their boots, they’d thump them out, looking for creeping varmints. Same thing for Moses, who was something of a cowboy himself, except, instead of herding cattle he herded cats… er, Israelites. Forty years on the open range. Imagine.
And now, he’s come to the end of his life. The Lord has let it be known that he, Moses, will not cross over the Jordan with his people, that he will be buried that very day. It’s time to tell his people goodbye, so Moses is preaching his final, farewell sermon, all the while knowing he is about to take his last breath. It’s no wonder it’s a long sermon!
Here’s the point: he’s come to this moment – after forty years of dirt and grit, ministry and mission, pushing and pulling, cajoling and encouraging – not knowing how his people are going to proceed in his absence without having him to lead them. For all of his leadership gifts, Moses could not foresee the future. But he can reflect on the past. Forty years of leading the people of God and what does Moses have to show for it?
When they cross the Jordan River into their promised land, will they give their hearts and souls to the One who brought them out of their Egyptian bondage, or will they turn their backs on God? Or will they do something in between? Well, in Moses’ way of thinking, there is no in-between. It’s either/or, no wiggle room whatsoever. Will they, in his way of thinking, choose life or will they choose death?
As he preaches his final sermon to them, Moses does not know what they will do. He’s given them the best years of his life, and he’s not sure what all his labors truly represent when it comes to their behavior and their mission. That must have been a lonely place to be.
Not that I plan to do this any time soon, but it is my hope that when I do give up the leadership of this congregation, it will be with the full confidence that the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church is strong and going in the right direction, that this congregation will continue to fulfill its God-called ministry and move faithfully into the bright future of its second century. Moses had no such reason for that kind of confidence. He’s still not sure how or what they will do. He knows the challenges and promises that lie before them, but he’s not fully confident they will make the right choices.
Listen to him… “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… But if your heart turns away and you do not hear… 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… Choose life.” Moses is not at all convinced that his people will follow his example. They have certainly given no evidence of it thus far.
He must have indeed felt very lonely that day… and uncertain. It is not the way any of us would want to mark our exit, is it?
How are they to do it, to choose life? First of all, Moses says they are to love the Lord their God. That’s not exactly ground-breaking for its profundity, nor is it a new message to them. All the while they’ve been wandering around together in the wilderness, if Moses has said it once he’s said it a thousand times: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. It’s one of the ten commandments, written on those stones he brought down from the mountain with him. Of course they’re supposed to love the Lord. It’s in their constitution and by-laws.
But saying it and doing it are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, loving God was not an altogether pleasant thought for them, at least not in the way we might think of it. Love, to the ancient Hebrews, was a different concept than it is to us. Love, to them, was not a warm, fuzzy feeling (you can see that in the stories that fill the pages of the Hebrew scriptures); it was an act of obedience. It was faithfulness, sometimes in the face of overwhelmingly difficult circumstances. And believe you me, the Israelites knew some overwhelmingly difficult circumstances. Try wandering around in the wilderness forty years and you’ll see what I mean.
And you know what? They had a point. Borrowing a thought from the late Madeleine L’Engle, I once stated in a sermon in another church that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a policy. It is something you decide you will do, and then you do it. A young man in that congregation took issue with it. He preferred to think of love as an emotional feeling. He wanted goose bumps. I didn’t agree with him then and still don’t. I think love is an intentional choice we make, not something that comes to us simply as a feeling.
And I think that the choices we make determine how far our love will go and what kind of life we choose to have. I believe those choices aren’t dependent on feelings, nor on whether we get things right or wrong, but how we determine the kind of life we want for ourselves and those we meet. And I think that when all is said and done, love is just as much a matter of grace as is anything else… freely given to us so it can freely be shared with others.
That river they were about to cross – the Israelites, I mean – the one referred to as the Jordan, was more than just a free-flowing body of water. It was a very important symbol, marking a new day for God’s people, and obviously a new way of life. No longer would God provide his people with manna. They would now have to find their own food, though admittedly, there was plenty of it… they didn’t call it the Promised Land for nothing, you know. No longer would God give them a leader who told them everything to do, how to do it, and when. Now, they would have to take responsibility for their own actions and then have to answer for it. It was going to be a new day. Best now to prepare for it and decide before they ever put their toes in the cool waters of the Jordan just how they’re going to respond to these new challenges of life and faith.
What will those challenges be? Well, for one thing, the Promised Land is not uninhabited. There will be those who live there already, and won’t take kindly to these new folks coming in and staking out their property. These people will also have gods of their own, rules of their own, and ways of living that differ from the way Moses has led them. All this may be foreign to them at first, but if they’re not careful it will become an enticing way of life for these who follow the One, who from their perspective, is the one, true God. The fancy word for it is syncretism. When those gods – with a little “g” – start to encroach on their way of life, how will they respond?
Perhaps a better question is, what do we, you and I, have in common with these people who lived so long ago? On the surface of it, not much. But when it comes to life and faith, we don’t live on the surface… or at least we shouldn’t. So let’s scratch down a bit and see what we come up with. My scratching tells me that every day, when I get out of bed, I am faced with how I am going to choose to live my life in a messy, messy world. I have to determine if love will be my policy. You see, choosing love is choosing life.
Edwin Searcy, a pastor in Vancouver, says that the pulpit he inhabits on Sunday morning has the Hebrew lettering etz hayim inscribed on it, from right to left. That’s how you read Hebrew, you know, from right to left. It means “tree of life.” He notes that those who gather in his church on Sunday morning also see, over his shoulder, a large wooden cross. To his way of thinking, it symbolizes the tree of death.
It is an upside-down logic, he says, the logic of the gospel that faces his congregation every time they gather for worship, the logic that Paul referred to as a scandal. Tree of life, tree of death. Which is which? He then says that when they come together for worship, they come in from a world in which choosing the good life looks like this: securing the bottom line, building up a good portfolio, bolting the door against trouble, playing one’s part as a consumer. Yet, on Sunday, in worship, he and those in his church enter a different world, a world in which trying to save one’s life leads to the loss of everything, a world in which losing leads to finding and finding to losing. So he sees the door of his church as a portal from which they come in from one world to a totally a different world.1
For Moses’ Hebrew people, their portal was not a door but a river. If Moses were standing here before you today, rather than me, he might suggest – no, he would flat-out tell you – to make a choice. Our choice may be to determine what our portal, our door – maybe even our river – is that connects us between the world in which we live and the place in which we worship. And, he would tell us that there can be no real difference between the two.
The world is our church, and the church is our world. And the only real choice before us, wherever we are and whatever we do, is to choose life. May we be found choosing well.
Lord, we make no real choices of our own. We depend on you for your guidance and care. Grace us with your mercy, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
1Edwin Searcy, “Living the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, February 8, 2011, p. 20.