Sermon From the Rev. Linda Mackie-Griggs for Epiphany 6
I have been told that I am a perfectionist. Fair assessment. I’ve found that being a perfectionist is both a gift and a source of anxiety. That which makes me the go-to person in the office for proofing bulletins is the same thing that makes me fret for days if a typo gets past me. It’s a blessing and a curse: Whether this is a trait that will be life-giving or soul-sucking is a choice; one that I regrettably seem to be faced with on a pretty regular basis.
When we hear about blessings and curses in this morning’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we see even starker choices:
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, … then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear… I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
This is the conclusion to Moses’ farewell address to his people before they cross the Jordan into the Land of Promise. What has come before is what as known as the “second law-giving” that comprises the bulk of the Book of Deuteronomy; an expansion of the Ten Commandments that details how the People are to live in right relationship with their God. Undergirding it all is a single theme: That the people should be faithful to the One God. And No Other. And a corollary to this is that there is to be a bright line of separation between those who worship the One God and those who don’t.
Deuteronomy, like all of the other books in the Bible, did not originate in a vacuum. It is a product of its time and culture; probably written over the course of the late 8th through the late 6th centuries BCE. The portion we read today was written well after the establishment of Israel, and after the traumatic period of the Exile when the Temple was destroyed and the people of Israel were taken into captivity in Babylon for seventy years. In other words, the Deuteronomist (as the writer is sometimes called) had the benefit of hindsight when writing this account of Moses’ speech. The Jews read this in the context of what had happened to them in the Exile and concluded that unfaithfulness to God’s commandments resulted in tragedy:
You shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
As a genre of literature, Deuteronomy is also a product of its time. It was once thought to be in the form of a kind of treaty that was imposed by a stronger party upon a subjugated one. But later scholars determined that in form and structure this is a more mutual arrangement; a particular kind of covenant with the People that requires the assent of both covenanting parties. According to W. Sibley Towner, the book of Deuteronomy’s chief purpose is to win the assent of the People by laying out the argument that faithfulness to God is to their ultimate benefit as a community. They will prosper and become numerous in the land that God is giving them. They will have blessing, life. Lack of faithfulness, according to this covenant, means curse, adversity, death. Towner notes that as persuasive arguments go this is admittedly a hard sell, but the Deuteronomist knows that there is a great deal at stake—the very survival of Israel.
In the book of Joshua, Joshua puts a similar choice before the People: choose this day whom you will serve… The People seal the covenant, saying: we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. But interestingly, this sealing of covenant doesn’t happen in Deuteronomy. The People are commanded to choose, but the narrative doesn’t record their response to Moses’ imperative, as it does in Joshua. This is a significant omission. This covenant demands a response—a choice. What will it be, life or death? Blessing or curse?
The lack of response isn’t an omission. It’s an invitation. God’s People are called to make the choice of blessing or curse, life or death, not just at that single point in time, but continually henceforth. To be faithful to God, then, is to be ever mindful of God’s call to faithfulness and to choose, at each fork in the road, the way of life and blessing.
It gives a whole new meaning to the words of Moses: I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. Today. Right now, and now, and now. Whew.To choose life and blessing is to choose the way of justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness. Love. To choose life and blessing is to choose to be part of God’s Dream of reconciliation with God, Creation and one another. Every moment of every day.
The Deuteronomist, in leaving space for the People’s response, has shown them and us a door that is wide open. This is the Good News: that all of God’s beloved children stand perpetually on the threshold of Kingdom welcome.
This is the blessing–the Good News. But I confess that I am troubled by something. There is a risk inherent in the message of Deuteronomy that can’t be ignored. Since we are required to engage critically with Moses’ message and its implications, that means we must acknowledge not only the blessing in the passage but the curse as well; and that is the bright line separation that I referred to earlier between the People who believe in the One God and those who don’t – us and them.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…
As many of us discovered in our reading of The Story last year, the commandment to worship only the One God and to shun the worship of idols resulted in, to put it mildly, violent confrontations between the People of Israel and, well, everyone else. How do we reconcile this with a God who loved all of Creation into being and called it Very Good? Who commanded His People to care for widow and orphan and to welcome the stranger? Whose chief commandments are to Love God and Love Neighbor, and who called His people again, and again to return and never gave up on us?
We are left to struggle with how to reconcile competing messages from the Deuteronomist. Fortunately, a life of faith is defined by questions and wrestling, often leaving us with more questions than answers. Here we wrestle with our belief in a Trinitarian God–Father, Son, Spirit– that is defined as diversity in relationship; that Trinitarian God having created a world in his image, a world that reflects that image by teeming with diversity. Deuteronomy’s message of faithfulness to that God goes head to head with the writer’s own tendency to Other, that is, to pervert the blessing of diversity by equating difference with inferiority, even evil.
A critical reading of Deuteronomy, then, invites us to consider that God’s command to exclusive faithfulness carried with it negative consequences that were born of the human tendency to Other; that is to see the world from a fearful dualistic (us vs. them) perspective. Having written in an era when the consequences of the Peoples’ lack of faithfulness resulted in destruction and exile, it is perhaps not surprising that the Deuteronomist felt the need to pin blame on idol worship—on Others.
Ironically the Christian household has done its own version of othering by saying that Jesus’ objective in the Sermon on the Mount was to correct a flawed Commandment. This perspective risks opposing Christians and Jews by implying that the Gospel somehow invalidates the Hebrew Scriptures. This does our rich Jewish foundation a grave disservice. In last week’s readings, Jesus said that the Commandment isn’t the problem—it’s the execution that’s the problem. Using vivid and admittedly provoking images, Jesus calls his disciples to listen more deeply to the commandments, not to disregard them; to recover the life-giving roots of God’s call to his people—a call that asks us not to Other one another but to use our hearts as well as our minds to discern God’s vision for us. Jesus is in effect validating the open-ended nature of the Deuteronomic covenant, saying that every day we are called to choose to cross the threshold toward the Way of compassion and reconciliation. And when we choose that way—the way of blessing and not of Othering, we do our part to help realize God’s Dream.
Beginning on Tuesday in our Atrium you will see an example of what this can look like. We have an interactive exhibit created by a South Providence organization called Youth in Action. In their own words, “YIA envisions a world where young people are at the forefront of positive social change and believes that with their natural ability to innovate, capacity to lead, and desire for positive change, that world is possible.” In a time when youth are often Othered– denigrated as naïve, lazy, narcissistic, frivolous, or disrespectful of authority, this is a group of young people that has chosen to counteract that narrative; to be a blessing to each other and to the community through their leadership, their stories, and their belief in a better world. I encourage you to spend time engaging with their work.
I will leave you with a story of another group faced with a choice of blessing or curse: A young lawyer got on the subway in Manhattan recently and was dismayed to see that Swastikas and anti-Semitic insults had been drawn with Sharpie on every advertisement and every window of the car. His fellow passengers were just staring at each other uncomfortably, unsure how to respond.
Then somebody stood up, pulled some tissues out of his pocket, and said, “Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.” Immediately people all around the car reached into their bags and pockets looking for tissues and hand sanitizer, and in very short order all the hateful words and symbols were gone.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.
We stand on the threshold of the Kingdom, not just as individuals but as a society. History has shown that we tend to take two steps forward and one step back. And sadly sometimes the other way around. But we have been assured from the beginning and in the fullness of time through Jesus Christ that God’s mercy is bountiful and the invitation to faithfulness stands firm. The door to life and blessing remains open.