The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 16, 2020
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Over the past few years, we have discovered that the planet is on fire! Flames engulf Australia and two years ago, the town of Paradise was destroyed by the raging Northern California fires. In an event similar to the legend of the fall and expulsion from the Garden, our behaviors are once again destroying paradise. Global climate change and longer fire seasons threaten to engulf some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, and we continue in our ways of death and destruction, heedless of the impact on future generations.
More than apt to our current situation, today’s scriptures speak of life and death, spiritually, emotionally, physically, and institutionally. Each moment is an opportunity for decision-making. Many paths are available, some leading to abundance and beauty, others to scarcity and ugliness. Our choices are not just for ourselves. They shape our relationship to God and the world beyond us, including our own future. They can contribute to greater and lesser embodiment of divine values in the world. Indirectly or directly, our decisions and the decisions of our leaders can lead to life and death for people across the globe and can shape the future of generations we will never meet, especially as our decisions relate to planetary well-being and climate change. The intentionality of political leaders in promoting racist policies and dismantling of environmental policies surely reflects the choices that always lie before us.
Deuteronomy poses the question in terms of two pathways – the ways life and death. While at first glance, the passage seems to support a linear acts-consequences approach to ethics and our relationship with God, the passage is much more nuanced. The immediate results of our actions do not necessarily lead to prosperity or punishment. Nor can we claim that flourishing is a sign of morality and destitution a sign of immorality. But, over the long haul our decisions can have beneficial or disastrous effects on ourselves and others.
In 21st century America, we often interpret this passage individualistically, and while our decisions shape our future possibilities as individuals, it is likely that these passages equally relate to institutional decision-making. What we do opens or closes the door to God’s impact in our world. While God is ever-resourceful, we shape the character and concrete manifestations of God’s presence in the world. Our governmental and business leaders can make significant contributions to the welfare or demise of the planet as we know it. Deuteronomy challenges governments and businesses to choose life, that is, to make decisions that promote the well-being of employees, clients, and the ecosystem. Prophets trump profits in God’s eyes, and our institutional success is measured by our positive contribution to future generations of humans and non-humans.
Like Jesus Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, Psalm 119 asserts that happiness and joy result from our alignment with divine statutes. This is more than obedience to divine law in the narrow sense, or a narrow legalistic fundamentalism of do’s and don’ts but a commitment to being God’s partner in healing and beautifying creation. Happiness comes from world loyalty, from looking beyond self-interest and aggrandizement to care for the wider world.
As we look at our religious beliefs, we would do well to remember that we have this treasure – our theologies, ethics, liturgies, and ecclesiologies – in earthen vessels. In a similar fashion, Paul’s words from I Corinthians invite us to go beyond partisan politics, ideologies, theologies, and ecclesiologies. All our dearest denominational and theological distinctives are finite and relative. There are many paths to divine truth, yet all healthy paths aim at unity amid diversity. The pathways of truth – here described in terms of followers of Apollos or Paul – are intended to complement and enrich one another. While each path has a unique perspective, each of the many paths lead to Christ. Accordingly, we need to see our path as relative and partial, and positively related to other healthy spiritual paths. We also need to remember that each of us brings different gifts to our faith communities and to the ongoing Christian movement.
The passage from the Sermon on the Mount invites us to synch our inner and outer lives. Beliefs and behaviors flow together. Our beliefs and values form our character and our reflected in our behaviors. Jesus’ words describe spiritually healthy relationships. Spiritually healthy relationships lead to life abundant. They are grounded in the healing of inner life reflected in positive and life-supporting relationships. Spiritual transformation is a matter of mindfulness or self-awareness in which we creatively respond to our emotional lives and past traumatic experiences so that we will not inflict our pain on others. Self-awareness involves a regular moral and spiritual inventory to determine where we have hurt others and to discern ways we can move from alienation to reconciliation.
The bar is set high and we all fall short. The inner life is reflected in outer behavior, and outer behavior can be a matter of life and death in relationships and communities. Words matter and so do deeds. Self-talk, our inner dialogue, matters and so do the fruits of our inner lives. Much of the current national malaise has emerged from acceptance of bullying, incivility, and denunciation of contrasting positions. Our inner anxieties are manipulated political leaders, and then spill out into the national discourse rendering common ground difficult at best. Stuck in our siloes and judging those who differ ideologically, ethnically, or ethically as inferior, we intentionally turn our backs on the diversity inherent in reality and in democratic life.
Jesus’ words on divorce and adultery seem anachronous today. They seem inflexible and condemnatory in a culture in which a large percentage of marriages end in divorce and that reality will be true in the congregations who will hear this scripture. Like the strictures against homosexuality, these passages must be nuanced and challenged in light of deeper spiritual realities, and cannot be understood as damning those who divorce and remarry, including many pastors who will preach on this text. It is clear that divorce often results from and eventuates in some form of alienation, but that doesn’t necessarily make all divorces evil. Some are necessary as a matter of spiritual, emotional, or physical self-preservation. Moreover, while divorce has economic consequences, especially for women, the impact of divorce is no longer catastrophic economically for every couple. Perhaps the text is a reminder that grace is essential for relational well-being. If our relationship does not survive, we are not condemned by God, but given the opportunity to find healing and new life. Divorce isn’t optimal in most situations, and yet divorce may be God-blessed or, to use Whitehead’s phrase, “the best for that impasse.” Choosing life for ourselves and our children may mean leaving certain dysfunctional or abusive marriage. While such choices are often painful, they may be part of the healing process for ourselves and those we love. Regardless, God is with us, providing us with new possibilities of creative transformation, for us and the world. This passage reminds us of the ubiquitous nature of sin and cautions us against taking moral high ground and judging others.
The scriptures counsel us to choose life, individually and corporately. What does it mean for you to choose life in your marriage…in your congregation…in your community…and for the planet? What will you need to sacrifice to go beyond self-interest to world-loyalty in an interdependent world?
To choose life is to choose beauty rather than ugliness for us and those whom we love. What does it mean for us, as Mother Teresa counsels, to do something beautiful for God? To be part of a life-giving universe, shaped by life-giving decisions at home and in the body politic?
Bruce G. Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. and member of the D.Min. faculty at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of forty books including “Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children,” “The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh,” “A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care,” “Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.” He can be reached at email@example.com