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Choose Life: A Sermon On Deuteronomy 30 and Matthew 5
February 16, 2014, 12:20 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

We hear some difficult texts this morning. As much as I thought preaching on Corinthians would be great, and a little easier to deal with, I didn’t think it would be right to let these other texts simply hang over us. So, I’ve been spending time thinking over and studying the texts from Deuteronomy and Matthew.

I’ve been finding myself struck by some of the demands of these texts. From Deuteronomy we hear, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… choose life”(30:15, 19) –with the implication that it would be just as easy, if not more easy to choose death.

From Matthew, Jesus’ lips speak, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (5:29).

These harsh words and no-going-back choices trigger for me an image. I had a friend in high school who had a black and white copy paper sign in his locker. If he was standing there, getting a book or putting his coat away, and you looked up at him to say hello, you’d be confronted with this sign. It read: “If you died today, would you be in heaven or hell?”

I think about this harsh clash… one moment you’re bouncing down the hallway, excited for the upcoming weekend. You see your buddy at his locker, so you head over to say hi and then you open your mouth and go… “h-arraghhhh…” and step back. This threat of hell and the responsibility for my own fate comes to me like a sharp blow.

But maybe such a sign wouldn’t affect you in the same way. And today, it would probably be something I’d simply roll my eyes at and give him a happier picture to put up instead. Maybe some Grumpy Cat memes, those photos are always good for a smile.

These texts from our scripture can hit me just as hard as that harsh poster. They can leave doubt in their wake. Is it really up to us whether we find ourselves in heaven or hell? These texts can make us confused as we remember our confession that we are saved because of God’s grace alone, through Jesus’ faithfulness. These demands can turn us into judgmental people, who are so afraid to see our own sin and feel the repercussions, that we spend our lives picking apart other people’s live. They can leave us trying to be loud enough with our judgments that no one looks too closely at our own lives.

 

 

Today, I want us to look at these texts as the grace-filled, God-loved people we are, not as people bound by fear or judgment. These are not bad texts. The chapters of commands from Deuteronomy don’t need to be cut out from our Bibles. But they do need to be more fully understood, so that we see through them the heart of a loving, life-giving God. We can find here in these words the good news, the gift, that God has written for us.

First, we need to take care of one assumption many of us may be making as we hear these texts. These texts are not primarily about what happens to you when you die. The Hebrews to whom Moses spoke didn’t have our modern conception of separate realms of heaven and hell. As Moses sums up the law, the question is whether or not you will choose life or death in this moment, with this breath, and if, as a result, you will experience health and joy or feel the suffering of your actions right now.

The most important thing to remember when reading these texts is that God has gifted you with life. God gifts us with those things that will bring life. The law was gifted to the Hebrews as they left slavery in Egypt and travelled to a new land and a new life. The law was part of God’s gift of relationship. It is a way of living that gives life: that helps form life-giving relationships with God, family, other people, and all of creation.

All that comes before this passage from Deuteronomy includes many laws and demands that many of us have never heard before, and many that, taken at face value, have no relevance for our world today. For example, not many of us have oxen, so the command to not muzzle them while treading out the grain (25:4) doesn’t really mean much to us. However, the heart of the law remains meaningful to us. In another teaching, Jesus sums the law up as living in love for God and for neighbor. The law includes special consideration for the poor and the powerless, instructing people to take action to protect and provide for the most vulnerable. The heart of the law is about living in a life-giving way, so as to reflect the purposes of our life-giving God.

By the time Jesus is teaching on the law, it seems like the heart of the law has been lost. People have become too focused on the letter of the law, priding themselves on their holiness. They follow the commandments and believe themselves to be doing all that is necessary. So Jesus pushes back. Instead of abstaining from murder, Jesus expands the commandment to uncover the death dealing aspects of anger, insults, and demeaning others. Instead of avoiding adultery, Jesus expands the commandment to include objectifying another person. Jesus locates obedience to the commandments in the heart rather than the head. It’s not about avoiding a list of don’ts so much as living in right relationship. It’s about being transformed so that the impulse to hurt another is exchanged for the desire to always do what is best for the other.

The law is intended to promote and protect life. We see this in Jesus’ discussion of divorce. This teaching comes from a place of concern for those who would be most disadvantaged from the separation. Women had no protection or support outside of their relationships with men. To be cast aside and divorced would mean suffering: it could mean death.

The law is a way of living that protects the lives of others, and also protects the well-being of the one seeking to live according to the law. Jesus recognizes that there is something death-bringing for the one who disobeys these commands. When you harbor a grudge against someone, even though it is hidden in your heart and that person may never know of your harsh feelings, is it as if you have pulled out a knife and driven it, not in the other, but through your own heart. When you become a person who needs to swear by powers greater than you to prove the worth of your promise to another, you and the power of your word are diminished.

The law is meant to shape us into people who reflect God’s life-giving work. It isn’t meant for us to use as an attack or judgment against others. It isn’t about earning our place in an eternal paradise or choosing so poorly that we are sent to a place of punishment after death.

The law is meant to show us that God cares about how we live this day. Our relationships matter to God. Our living as compassionate, truth-telling, justice giving, and forgiving people is God’s intention. This path is the path of life: life today as well as life forever.

Those of us who have been so shaped by Lutheran theology might protest that we can never fully follow the law. It’s not possible for our captive will to choose to live in right relationship with God, neighbor, or self. We cannot do this by our own power. In the midst of all those detailed commandments in Deuteronomy is the promise that God will act to make it possible for us to follow the law: In Deuteronomy 30: 6, we read, “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” God works within us to establish this life-giving way.

God intends for you to live in joy, and not in fear. Jesus has come to fulfill the law’s demands, and any punishment you may deserve from your disobedience has already been placed on him. You have been freed from any external judgment. Still, the law has its use.  It reminds us that how we live today matters. Our choices and interactions matter to God, matter to others, matter to creation, and matter for our own well-being. Choose life, choose actions and thoughts that lift other up, that sustain and promote life, and thereby you, and the rest of creation, may live. 

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Salted Brownies
February 13, 2014, 10:20 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Salted Brownies

Here’s the recipe for the salted brownies that were passed around for us to experience the transformative flavor of salt!



Salt of the Earth: A Sermon on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5
February 13, 2014, 10:18 am
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Grace and peace to you, from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The first words we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel are “You are the salt of the earth.” We see a photo of large salt grains on our bulletin cover. As I prepared to preach today, I was trying to think about our modern relationship with salt and how that helps or hinders our ability to hear who Jesus is calling us to be.

I think what we most often hear about salt is that we shouldn’t consume too much of it. We’ve lost sight of how precious it has been to the generations before us. Salt preserves food, flavors it, and has healing and cleansing properties. It’s necessary for our bodies to work correctly.

To reclaim salt as an image for today’s sermon, think of the new trend in chocolates: sea salt. We’re selling fair trade chocolate bars with toffee and sea salt. I’ve enjoyed sea salt crusted chocolate fudge. Maybe you have your own favorite.

I try to make my children’s sermons more visual and tactile to form connections to the text and theme, but I think it’s a disservice to you adults that you are expected to only need to listen. So, you’ve received samples of chocolate and brownies with sea salt. I know this probably goes against everything you’ve been taught about how to behave in church, but if you’re up for it, I invite you to take a piece, put it in your mouth and slowly taste it. We’ll take a moment for all the rustling and tasting. Experience the surprise and the enhancement of the salt. It’s a noticeable flavor and it changes the chocolate.

Salt is salty. It changes whatever it is paired with. If the salt were not salty, it would cease to be what it is, it would no longer be useful, it would be trash.

Jesus preaches, “you are the salt of the earth” to his disciples and the crowds below him on the mountain. These words echo through the centuries to us today. You are the salt of the earth- you have something life-preserving, life-giving, to share with the world. You have a flavor that is meant to alter the experience of living on this earth.

To get at what that flavor is, let’s explore our reading from Isaiah. The reading is a dialogue between God and the people with some interjections from the prophet’s own voice. The people have experienced the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem and of the temple. Now they long for restoration and rebuilding. They long for God’s protection and justice. So they have tried to do what they thought would make God happy. They’ve been fasting and praying to try to get God to do good for them again. But God doesn’t seem to be doing much for them.

When the people complain that they’ve been working so hard at trying to be holy people, pleasing God with their sacrifices, God quickly rebukes them. They’ve been trying to look good, with their signs of fasting, but all the while they haven’t been living a truly repentant life. They are ritually and symbolically turning to God and asking for justice, all while they are oppressing those over whom they have power. God declares this half-hearted fast won’t cut it.

This outward, half-hearted fasting is the same as being salt that has lost its saltiness. There is nothing flavorful, nothing transformative about it. Their hearts and their impact on the world aren’t being affected by this shallow fast.

God declares what a righteous fast, what a salty life looks like:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 

God calls us to have an effect on the world around us. Our faithfulness is a reflection of God’s justice that has a real impact on our daily lives and our interactions with all creation. Our faithfulness is not meant to only change our Sunday morning. The light of Christ is not meant to be covered up and tightly held within our own hearts. It is meant to spill out into our actions so that the world can see them.

God declares:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday. 

 

God created you, God claimed you, God fills you with God’s own light, so that you can enter the places of darkness and gloom, where hope is lost, where poverty crushes, where oppression is strong. You are called to act as light, to act as salt, protecting, preserving, and restoring life.

Faith is not meant to be private, as if God wanted us to hold all of God’s love in our heart and not let it spill out in our words and actions. This was the problem of the people who listened to Isaiah- they thought they could show their repentance and be right with God through little signs of righteous penitence that affected no one but themselves. They thought these outward gestures would win them God’s favor.

God has come into your life to transform you. God doesn’t want your pious words, your perfect church attendance, or even memorization of the Small Catechism, if that holiness is only a veneer on your surface. God has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within you: to transform you into salt that flavors the world, into light that brightens your surroundings. In whatever you do, you are meant to be aligned with God’s priorities and purposes: to care for the poor, feed the hungry, free the oppressed, and act for the well-being of all creation.

This comes about by your living as God has created you to be and the Spirit empowers you to live. As God spoke through Isaiah to say God didn’t want fasts for the sake of earning favor, neither does God want that kind of relationship from you. Rather, God calls you to action that arises from your identity as a beloved, saved, claimed child of God.

This is the new identity we welcome Colton into today. He is baptized and united with Jesus Christ forever. He will be a child of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and sent into the world to act as Christ. The promises parents Jenny and Dave are about to take on, the promises of his sponsors     Sarah and Andy  and the promises you all will accept are promises to help Colton enter into the kind of relationship God wants with him. He will need to be nurtured in his new identity as salt and light, and helped to understand how to live as a baptized Christian. God is coming to Colton to form this life-transforming relationship with him. God needs each of you to live up to the promises you make today, so that Colton knows how to live out of God’s relationship with him, experiencing the joy of a full relationship that transforms deeper than a holy veneer.

 

The Christian life comes from Christ’s presence within us, transforming us to live as Christ lives. Our work for justice and peace, our care for the poor, our sharing of the gospel, does not arise from a desire within ourselves to somehow score points in God’s record of who’s been good. Rather, these works arise from Jesus’ presence within us. In Luther’s commentary on Galatians chapter 2, VERSE 20. But Christ liveth in me., Luther writes, “Good works are not the cause, but the fruit of righteousness. When we have become righteous, then first are we able and willing to do good. The tree makes the apple; the apple does not make the tree.” (http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/gal/web/gal2-17.html)

By uniting you with Christ in baptism, God makes you righteous. In Luther’s image, you are the righteous tree and the works of justice are the apples you produce because of who God has created you to be. Producing fruit is a natural growth of what it means to be a tree. This fruit is the salty flavor, the illuminating light, given to you by God for the sake of the world’s transformation. God has made you to be salt and light. Your works of bringing flavor and light to the world is simply your living out your God-given identity. Be who you have been claimed and created to be. In this way you will be joined with God’s life-giving and ever-loving mission. Thanks be to God for entrusting to us such an amazing joy and responsibility.