Choose Life – sermon from 2.12.17

There was a book and a course I led some years ago called “Love and Logic” by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. The book and class were all about helping parents gain practical, effective, and fun techniques for fostering respect, responsibility, self-control, and good decision-making skills in children. My kids were very little when I first read the book and lead the course and I don’t remember much except one of the tools for getting your kiddos to listen to you was to give your kids control through giving them choices. The rules on the choices were that:

  1. If the child doesn’t choose, you had to be prepared to choose yourself.
  2. You had to pick two choices you could live with.
  3. Never give a choice unless you are willing to allow the child to live with the consequences of his/her bad choice.

So an example of a good choice would be “Would you rather clean your room or rake the lawn so I’ll have time to clean your room?

Or “Would you rather clean your room Saturday or Sunday?” or “Do you want to settle the problem yourselves or draw straws to see who sits by the window?”

So it was one day that I found myself in the midst of a battle of wills with Owen – who was only about three or four years old – we were standing in the kitchen and I was trying to get him to pick up his toys. Being a toddler, he wasn’t interested in what I was saying when suddenly I remembered the choices technique and I started saying, “Would you rather pick up your toys or – but I hadn’t thought of the other choice before I started talking – so I had to think on my feet and so I said the first thing that came to mind, “Would you rather pick up your toys or that I dump a cup of water on your head?” I knew it maybe wasn’t the best set of choices but I remembered that follow-through was very important – so when he proceeded to not pick up his toys, I walked over to the sink and I grabbed a small cup of water and proceeded to dump it on his head.

It may not have been one of my finest parenting moments, and the Love and Logic people probably wouldn’t like it because the choices aren’t supposed to sound like threats – but I tell you what – it got his attention. He looked at me like he couldn’t believe I had done it – and I said, “I told you – you had two choices.” I gave him a towel to dry off his little head and then he put his toys away.  Since then, I’ve often used the cup of water technique and it has surprisingly become my secret weapon although I’ve never had to follow through again because they know I will use it – “Get out of bed now, or I’ll dump a cup of water on your head.” “Do your homework now, or I’ll dump a cup of water on your head.” Choices are magic.

In the Old Testament reading for today, God gives the people a clear choice – that a beautiful and prosperous way of living exists for those who choose God’s way. “Choose life”, God says.

Unfortunately, when we think of God’s commands we don’t think of them in this life-giving way – but rather as a set of rules we better follow “or else.” Do this and do that or the fires of hell await you. Do this and do that or God won’t be happy. Even worse, God’s laws often get translated into something like “if it is too fun, God probably frowns upon it.” I grew up in a home in which there was a long list of things that I was assured God didn’t like: drinking, of course, dancing, playing cards, spending time with people who weren’t Lutheran, dating before the age of 18, long hair on boys, short hair on girls, tattoos, listening to loud music on Sundays, Listening to rock music anytime and spending money on anything frivolous. The God of my childhood was a stern taskmaster I couldn’t please. Perhaps that is why instead of veering way toward Law, I tend to veer way toward grace. “Jesus loves you” is the message I want my kids and all our kids to know the best. Forgiveness and mercy for mistakes made is what resonates with me and I think is such a life-giving message the church can uniquely bring.

But the law has its place – an important place – and that is why Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – which began with the text we read a couple weeks ago with the Beatitudes (blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the poor in spirit) and continued with his instructions for being salt and light in the world as we heard last week – continues today with these laws. These laws aren’t new to the people, but Jesus is expanding on them in an interesting way.

First, he talks about murder – “You have heard it said “you shall not murder” but then he adds, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council.” He encourages that before making a gift to the altar of God, you are to make amends with anyone with whom you are having a fight or have had harsh words.”

Martin Luther expanded upon this in his explanation of the ten commandments in the small catechism – you probably remember this from your confirmation days – The Fifth Commandment is Thou shalt not kill.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.

Anger is a normal, human emotion but we mostly hurt ourselves if we don’t work hard to resolve anger. If it is anger about a wrong done to you, be patient with the feelings of anger that might be hard to shake, but do what you can to let go of those feelings. Prayer helps. Sometimes we need to speak words of forgiveness or sometimes we need to put as much distance as we can between ourselves and the person who has hurt us.  C.S. Lewis talks about the fact that loving one’s neighbor does not mean liking them.  This is where we can find the strength to forgive.  Loving our enemies doesn’t mean we have to think they are nice, or invite them out to coffee.

In addition, it’s fair to say that righteous anger over injustice we see in the world can even be a good thing but not if it stays only anger – only if that small hard stone of anger evolves into a seed for working for change can it do any good. Choose life, God says. Choose to let go of anger.

Next, Jesus talks about adultery – “you have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery”.  Jesus expands this so that we remember it’s not just our actions that matter, but our thoughts. Don’t entertain thoughts that might cause you to sin. Luther expanded on this saying: “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.”

Jesus uses vivid imagery: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” It’s a powerful way of saying, “you know, if you are attracted to your co-worker, don’t start sharing personal things with each other. Don’t confide in him or her in a way that starts feelings of intimacy to grow.” We maybe can’t help if we find someone besides our partner attractive, but we can control our behavior. We must. The love shared between married partners is a gift from God, and as with any gift, it must be cherished and nurtured. This isn’t always easy by any means, but it is a holy and sacred task, nonetheless.

I like the story of a couple married for 15 years when they began having more than usual disagreements. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had. For one month they planned to drop a slip in a “Fault” box. The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach: “leaving the jelly top off the jar,” “wet towels on the shower floor,” “dirty socks not in hamper,” on and on until the end of the month. After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The husband reflected on what he had done wrong. Then the wife opened her box and began reading. They were all the same, the message on each slip was, “I love you!”

Good story as Valentines’ Day comes up, I think. Choose life. Choose love. Choose faithfulness in your words and actions – But also this:

Sometimes relationships do break apart – and sometimes it can even be for the best if there is abuse or if trust gets so shattered it simply can’t be repaired. Divorce happens, and when it does, remember grace. I know very few couples who have divorced without trying very hard to make things work. If divorce has been part of your journey, remember you are loved. I pray you feel God’s grace surrounding you. Our vows and commitments we make to each other matter to God, but we matter even more. When things fall apart, God is still here to help us put the pieces back together and start again. Always.

So – God says to us – “Choose Life” – Choosing life means paying attention to God’s laws, taking them to heart, using them as our guidepost for living the best, most whole life possible.  Choosing life also means we remember at the beginning, middle, and end of all our striving, there is grace. 

 

Slippery Strands of Faith

Faith is a funny thing.

For some faith is just a lifelong journey beginning with the waters of baptism. It is a beloved relationship. Spirituality may not be something completely understood, but there is nowhere else we are likely to be found on a Sunday morning than right here with our eyes fixed on the cross.

For others, faith is like a wrestling match – trying to reconcile all the pain and suffering in the world with the belief in a loving God. Worship and time spent with the Scriptures is equal parts soothing for the spirit and fuel for the flames of our questioning as faith is both loved and something with which one struggles.

For others, faith is a lot like a love story. At some point or another, this person falls deeply in love with the Gospel – perhaps through some life-changing experience. But like all love stories, after the initial swooning and falling and deep, sweeping emotion, and after all the fire of first passion has burned away, hopefully there is still enough heat left in the embers to keep the flame alive over the years.

Faith is different for each of us. There are different reasons that bring you and I to this place each week to think about God and thank God and show our devotion to God and wrestle with God.


Many famous words have been written about faith to try to convey the many different facets and understandings of faith.

Martin Luther wrote: God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.

Oswald Chambers wrote: Faith for my deliverance is not faith in God. Faith means, whether I am visibly delivered or not, I will stick to my belief that God is love. There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.

And my favorite is from E. Stanley Jones: Faith is not merely your holding on to God–it is God holding on to you. He will not let you go!

I really like Nicodemus, the Pharisee leader of the Jews central to our Gospel for today. Here was a man who was publicly a religious leader, kind of supposed to have matters of a religious nature figured out. So when you think about it that way, perhaps it is no surprise that he comes to Jesus by night to ask him questions. He has seen the amazing things Jesus can do, he has seen his miracles and he wants to know more. He is drawn to Jesus.

To tell you the truth, I’m so jealous of Nicodemus. I covet what he gets to do here – because he gets to share this quiet moment with Jesus and ask him the deepest questions of his heart. Just he and Jesus, alone together, sharing in conversation about the kingdom.

And I love how Nicodemus peppers him with questions and Jesus is trying to explain his answers and Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” And Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Because I know that if I were ever to have a quiet evening conversation with Jesus, I would be asking Jesus questions like this and many others and eventually he would say to me something like that, too – “Ruth, are you a pastor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, and yet you do not understand these things?”

But I am certain he would say it with a twinkle in his eye – because he would know already how desperately little I understand. He would know already how slippery the strands of faith can feel on my fingertips some days. He would already know that every day I long to feel closer to him and my only comfort is the knowledge that he is closer to me than my own heartbeat – whether I feel him near or not.

There’s an old story that illustrates this thought pretty well. I’m sure you may have heard it before. One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

Our vision is small and we can only see so far. This life is such that we are oftentimes only given glimpses of the glory of God. We spot him in those moments of grace or deep truth or mercy, when we witness true, selfless love, the perfection of sunlight rippling on the water or the scent of a baby’s cheek next to our face. We catch glimpses of God all the time. And yet, for those countless times when we do not, there is something else – and it is quite something. It is a promise.

Jesus and Nicodemus, I don’t know how long they were able to speak that evening, but we know that after spending a great deal of time talking about the questions in Nicodemus’ heart, Jesus finally tells him what it all comes down to.

It’s a verse we all can probably quote by heart, John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But it doesn’t stop there – praise God it doesn’t stop there. Verse 17 reads, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I think about the context of this conversation, it is so particularly beautiful. Nicodemus, a man coming to Jesus in secret at night, because he doesn’t want everyone to know how he questions and how he feels a desperate need to know Jesus more deeply – and Jesus tries to explain all these inexplicable things to him patiently and with care – but finally he sums up everything for Nicodemus and for us saying, “I didn’t come to condemn you, I came to save you.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our questions, or for our lack of faith. He came to love us and save us in spite of those things. Although faith may feel like wandering in the dark much of the time, may we never doubt that Jesus is right there in the darkness beside us, closer than we could ever know.

When my mother was dying back in 2011, I was surprised the moments of comfort that would come. Of course, none of them could take away the pain that I was going to lose her, but they helped me catch glimpses that even though I had to travel this road of her death and the grief to come, I was not forsaken. I would be okay. Mom would be okay. I wouldn’t know how until I journeyed into that unknown – but we would be okay.

And out of nowhere, the lyrics of old hymns that my family used to sing together when my brother and I were children, those lyrics would run through my mind over and over. “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.”

I took those moments of peace and comfort as the gifts from God I know they were. I held tight to them and hold them close still. There have been times in life when God has seemed remote to me – but that was not one of those times. And I know that peace wasn’t given to me because I am good but because God is good.

Brothers and sisters, the good news for today is that no matter how you feel about your faith or how near or far God seems to you, he is here. God is journeying with you and holding you close – and God will not fail to remind you of that just when you need it most.