Epiphany 6A

It’s the end of the road for Moses.

He has been leading the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 long years. Now they are perched on the edge of the Jordan River, on the verge of crossing over into that land which was first promised to the childless octogenarians Abraham and Sarah so many generations ago.

Moses knows that his own death is near, that he will not live to see the people he freed from slavery in Egypt take up residence in their own land. And so he takes the opportunity to address these people he loves so dearly one last time.

It is a very long speech, full on instructions on how they are to live in the promised land, and full of warnings about the consequences of not living as God intends, of forgetting that it is God who has sustained them and given them this rich and abundant land.

Near the end of his discourse, the great prophet looks at his people and says these words, which we heard read today:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, by loving the Lord, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, then you shall live and the Lord your God shall bless you.

“But if your heart turns away, and you are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, then you shall perish.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”

Such an admonition might seem unnecessary, but Moses knows his people well. As he speaks he might well be remembering the time 40 years earlier, when the people, fresh from the bonds of slavery, looked at the unknown wilderness before them and immediately began longing to return to Egypt, the land of their oppressors.

The familiar path to death seemed more attractive than the unknown path to life.

Or he may be remembering the time he came down from a mountain meeting with God to discover that in his absence the people have made a calf from melted gold and have started to bow down and worship it, preferring to put their trust in wealth created by their own hands than in the God of Israel.

That, too, is choosing death over life.

In commanding the people to make a choice between life and death, Moses was not necessarily talking about physical death, but about an existence that lacks joy and well-being, hope and peace. A life of bondage rather than a life of freedom.

Not long ago Joe and I saw a movie that set out the choice of life and death. Ron Woodroof, whose life was the inspiration for the movie The Dallas Buyers’ Club, was on a path to death long before he was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s.

His life, as depicted in the movie, was a long succession of drug use, promiscuity, alcohol abuse, and other unsavory acts. Yet he is shocked and terrified when an accident sends him to the hospital, where blood tests reveal he is in the last stages of AIDS, with a life expectancy of 30 days.

It is that diagnosis of impending death that puts Woodroof on the path to life. In a desperate effort to save himself, he goes to Mexico to buy medicine that is unavailable in this country. When he realizes the drugs are working, he begins to smuggle them into the United States, not just for himself, but for others.

Woodroof never becomes a saint, but his life becomes much more than the search for the next sexual encounter or drug hit. For perhaps the first time in his life, he finds meaning beyond gratifying his immediate desires, meaning beyond himself.

He begins to see people he had once despised as fellow humans, worthy of care and comfort.

Old Testament scholar Ronald Clements writes that the appeal to choose life usually originates in the worst of times. It is a call to hope and trust in God that emerges from situations of deep gloom, emptiness, and hopelessness.

“Hopelessness generates despondency,” he writes. “It de-energizes and dehumanizes people so that they no longer reach to grasp the possibilities that life brings.”

The urging to choose life is an appeal to faith and hope, to enter into full humanity, to expect the future to be open and desirable, and worth fighting for.

Anne Lamott’s book, Stitches, was written in response to the murders of elementary school students and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.

She writes about her deep temptation to give into despair over the killings, and over a country that seems to value its weapons over the lives of its children.

How do you choose life in the face of such overwhelming loss and evil?

“Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it,” she writes. “We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild whole towns after hurricanes and tornadoes. We pray.

“Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the places of newness, freedom, justice.

“In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done. We do what we can, as well as we can.”

Lamott’s pastor tells the story of a sparrow lying in the street with its legs straight up in the air. A warhorse walks up to the bird and asks, “What on earth are you doing?”

The sparrow replies, “I heard the sky was falling and I want to help.”

The horse sneers and says, “Do you really think you are going to hold back the sky with those scrawny little legs?”

And the sparrow answers, “One does what one can.”

One does what one can.

“So what can I do?” Lamott asks. “Not much. Mother Teresa said that none of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love. This reminder has saved me many times.

“So I showed up to teach Sunday School two days after the Newtown shootings. I told the kids that they are loved, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it; and to keep trusting God, no matter how things look and no matter how long an upswing takes.”

What Lamott is really saying is that she is choosing life, choosing to trust God, choosing to continue to work for the good. She is choosing to be persistent in fighting for the good.

In ways large and small the choices that Moses lays before the people confront each of us every day.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”

Amen.

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