When I was in training to be a yoga teacher, one of my favorite instructors, a medical doctor from Australia, used to tell us the story of “the wall of milk.” On his first visit to the U.S. he went to a grocery store here in Cleveland Heights to buy some milk for his hostess. He was completely unprepared for the vast numbers of refrigerators that lined the wall. They were full of regular milk, 1% milk, 2% milk, skim milk, lactose free milk. And don’t forget all the non-dairy milks –almond milk, hemp milk, rice milk, coconut milk and soy milk, all coming in a variety of flavors. He found it so overwhelming that he staggered out of the store with no milk in hand. There were just too many choices.
In today’s lectionary reading from Deuteronomy Moses gives the children of Israel a much simpler choice—life or death. Obeying God or disobeying God. Putting God first or worshipping other gods. Full stop. No overwhelming number of items from which to choose.
This is Moses’ farewell sermon to the children of Israel whom he has led for 40+years. He’s about to die and they are about to cross over the river Jordan into the land God has promised them. They will finally be home. They’ve had quite a time together, Moses and these people, first living in terrible bondage in Egypt, then escaping through the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness for years on end. They’ve been a challenging people, forgetting all too soon how terrible life was under Pharaoh, complaining about God’s care for them, whining that they had better food in Egypt, and very quickly trying to replace the God who had set them free with idol gods of their own making.
I suspect that Moses’ threat that God will put a curse on those who disobey may not sit well with our post-modern selves, but the fact of the matter is that the book of Deuteronomy is filled with curses and blessings. The book is considered a strong example of retributional theology, a belief system that bad things happen to us because God is punishing us. As we read on in the Scriptures this theology tends to shift. The book of Job certainly shows that bad things can happen to good people, and that God alone fully understands the mystery of the suffering. When, in the Gospel of John, people ask whose sin caused a young man’s blindness, Jesus responds that the issue at hand will be seeing God’s glory at work in his life, not whether he or his parents sinned.
There are many examples in Jesus’ teachings of a shift from the image of God as a punitive, vindictive deity to an image of God as a loving, forgiving parent. As John reminded us last week Jesus came not to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them. Jesus came to fill in and fill up our understanding of who God is and who we are called to be in our relationship with God. I am reminded of the message our sisters and brothers in the United Church of Christ proclaim: “God is still speaking…”
However, in the spirit of not abolishing the law and prophets I want to encourage you not to throw the baby out with the bath water as you reflect on today’s passage. In fact, I want to encourage you to go home and read Deuteronomy this week. Read it and love it, maybe with a little bit of curiosity about why Moses would preach and teach in such a fashion, about all the threats the children of Israel faced, and about God’s passionate love for the people of Israel.
That’s the filter I’m using as I read this book. I’m looking more for God’s intent than for cultural expectations and practices we no longer embrace. I’m seeing once again how much God wants to be in relationship with us. I’m seeing God as the loving parent who says, “Don’t put your hand on the hot stove.” “Don’t play in traffic.” “Don’t make choices that hurt others and destroy relationships.” “Don’t try to go it alone with your limited strength and understanding.” God is the parent who wants us to prosper. I’m also seeing how blessings and curses are often the consequences of our choices relative to the covenant. If I don’t water my plants they will die, withering from lack of hydration. If I don’t stay close to God, my soul will wither from lack of all that is good, from all that really, truly satisfies.
God’s covenant is an affair of the heart. You will find the word “heart” peppered throughout Deuteronomy and much of the Hebrew Scriptures. The heart was considered the seat of love and wisdom, of life itself, in ancient times. God wants us to love him with our whole hearts, and also wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This covenant is not a private love affair, but one that demands right relationships with others. The good life that Moses set before the children of Israel was built on loving God AND caring for the poor, caring for foreigners, respecting human dignity, fighting for justice, and embodying loving-kindness in all relationships. Does that sound familiar? Does that sound timely?
This reading from the lectionary came to me at a crucial time. I’ve been feeling really depressed about the state of affairs in our country. I’m heartsick over the issue of fake news, divisions among people, and policies that do not serve the common good. I’m devastated by the greed that threatens our democracy and the uptick in hate speech and hateful behaviors. A few nights ago I came close to curling up in a fetal position, done in by some news report. (Who knows which one it was. Pick one. Any one.)
Suddenly in my despair, I heard Moses’ sermon ringing in my ears, “Choose life!” Like the whack of the Zen master’s stick on a slumbering student those words woke me up. Choose life! Choose life, and not simply in the limited way the pro-birth movement has used the phrase, but in all its forms and fullness. Choose life, I heard Moses saying, that abundant life God intends for all creation. Fight for that abundant life with everything in your being.
Now truth be told, my whole life has been committed to that fight and I know most of yours have been as well. My husband and I first came to Cleveland to work with the justice ministries of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries. He proposed to me after a march that was a show of solidarity for the Cleveland public schools and racial reconciliation. (Nothing says romance like a good demonstration march!)
Forest Hill Church has been on the front lines of fighting for justice and healing in this city and world so asking any of us to “Choose life” may feel self-evident or redundant. The flash of insight that came to me the other night, however, was that we have to remain awake to the ways the forces of death creep up on us. It doesn’t take much to be done in by discouragement and despair. It’s tempting to think we’re all alone. Our faith can be eroded by the suffering and injustice we have experienced and seen all around us. We can be defeated not only from without, but also from within.
Choose life, the voice said to me. You must choose those things that feed your spirit, that sustain your faith, that keep you fit for the work God is calling you to do. If you don’t, the forces of death win.
After much thought I share these words of encouragement on choosing life with you:
- Join a group whose values give you hope if you don’t already belong to one.
- Stay close to one another.
- Speak honestly to one another.
- Learn to listen to one another.
- Commit yourself to growing, to learning new ideas. Reach out to someone who’s hurting or in need.
- Laugh hard. Cry hard. Play hard.
- Get off the couch and put down that glass of wine or carton of Ben and Jerry’s with which you’ve been numbing yourself.
- Practice mindful breathing at various intervals throughout each day.
- Take consistent baby steps in the direction of a goal or dream.
- Be patient with yourself and others—we’re all so exquisitely imperfect.
- Ask for help and accept it when it comes.
- Go for a walk in nature and be mindful of the beautiful world God has created.
- Clean a closet and let go of whatever clutter is weighing you down physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
- Come to church and worship with gusto.
- Play with a pet, or if you’ve recently lost a beloved pet, grieve for all your worth.
- Move your body every day.
- Call on the pastors if you need to talk.
- Find a therapist, spiritual director, or a coach.
- Limit your time on Facebook.
- Stop watching mind-numbing TV.
- Eat healthy food.
- Get more sleep.
- Forgive someone, including yourself.
- Surround yourself with simple things that bring you joy every day.
- Give thanks without ceasing.
- Play with a child.
- Spend time in meditation or prayer on a daily basis.
I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with choices. I don’t want to replicate the experience my teacher had with the wall of milk. My hope is rather to encourage you to remember the love affair God continues to seek with his people.
To that end I invite you to take small steps in the direction of an item on this list that may have resonated deeply within you. I want to remind you that human brokenness and injustice are as old as time, but God has never stopped reaching out to us, never stopped building new roads around the roadblocks we have erected. Do not let the forces of death do you in. God loves you, and God needs you to spread the news of that love in word and in deed. So when you are feeling assaulted from within or without call to mind God’s commandment and let it resonate in the deepest recesses of your heart, and like a rallying cry let it raise you up. “Choose life!”