Monday, September 9, 2019

Sermon: “The Choice Beyond Black and White”, Deuteronomy 30:15-20/Philemon 1-21 (September 8, 2019)


As people of faith, choice is often front-and-center in our lives. In every moment, we have to decide whether or not we’re going to choose to follow God’s will. Sure, there’s that whole “predestination” thing that John Calvin burdened us with, but a deeper exploration of that doctrine reveals that it doesn’t necessarily preclude free will. There’ve been many ways of explaining the coexistence of the two concepts over the years, but at the end of the day, both ideas are important to our theological heritage.

As important a theologian as John Calvin was, he can’t supersede the Bible’s authority. And the Bible tells us to make choices ALL THE TIME. Joshua told the post-exodus Israelites to “Choose this day whom you will serve.”[1] Elijah challenged the prophets of Jezebel by asking, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”[2] The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom regarding the choices that we should be making.[3] Isaiah warns all the time about humanity “choosing what [God] doesn’t delight in.”[4] And of course, why would Jesus have bothered teaching anyone anything if our choices had no role to play in our relationship with God? Repentance of our sin is meaningless if we don’t have choice. So according to scripture, we can’t weasel out of our bad behavior by crying “predestination”: although God already knows what we’ll choose, God’s still given us the responsibility to decide for ourselves.

Which, of course, brings us to today’s reading from Deuteronomy. In this passage, Moses implores the Israelites to “Choose life”—one of the most concise yet powerful statements in all of scripture. Now, this seems a simple enough instruction; we already have the commandment that “thou shalt not kill”, so this must just be that same commandment, just with a more positive spin. This reads like a simple, black-and-white choice: choose to preserve the spark of life that God has endowed each of us with, or choose not to. The former obviously sounds preferable—easy choice.

But I’d argue that that’s far too simplistic a reading of God’s Word. If we see God’s intention for us as just a series of black and white choices, we miss all the marvelous opportunities to explore the options God offers us within the gray spaces. God’s intention for us goes beyond just “staying alive at all costs”, and we have some say in the matter.

Don’t get me wrong; preserving life is an important responsibility of God’s people—we do still have that “thou shalt not kill” commandment, after all. But if it were ALL that mattered, if the choice to follow God’s will were really that black and white, it’d be the only commandment that we needed. And we have nine others of equal importance. Being born isn’t the most important thing we’ve ever done (how depressing would THAT be?). It’s a gift that we certainly shouldn’t take for granted, but it’s just the beginning. Jesus himself declares that he came not just so that we might have life, but that we might have it ABUNDANTLY.[5] How can you have ABUNDANT life if the choice consists of nothing more than either “yes” or “no”? Obviously, it must be more involved than that.

See, there’s a difference between choosing “life” (with a lowercase “L”) and choosing “Life” (with a capital “L”). When we prioritize lowercase “life”, the literal spark or breath that animates our bodies, what we’re really doing is deifying our own existence. We’re committing idolatry by considering the preservation of our life more important than all that God intends for us to do with it. When we deify our existence, we forget to look at its intersection with the rest of God’s creation. We forget that God created us for relationship and love and joy and community and all of those other wonderful things that aren’t possible if all that we care about is whether or not we’re literally alive. When we deify existence, we sin by forgetting WHY we’ve been given the gift of life in the first place.

When we prioritize “Life” with a capital “L”, on the other hand, we recognize the importance of using our existence in a way that fulfills God’s intention for us. THAT’S what God’s saying through Moses here. THAT’S what it means to “choose life.” When explaining himself, Moses doesn’t give instructions for CPR or the Heimlich Maneuver. He says, “Obey the commandments of the Lord; love the Lord your God, walk in God’s ways, hold fast to the Lord”. THESE are the things that lead to true life …not racking up as many years as we can, not preserving existence at any and all cost. To put it another way, perhaps Moses could have said “Choose to live” (using a verb instead of a noun) to emphasize this distinction between Godly living and simply existing.

Although the choice we’re given is between “life or death”, the proper response isn’t equally black and white—“live” or “don’t live”. It involves the grayness of figuring out what honors God, what celebrates creation, what nurtures relationship. And it involves discerning, trying, messing up, repenting, and trying again. The decision to choose life goes far beyond a one-time, binary choice. It’s a messy, challenging, frustrating, wonderful process.

It’s critical that we understand this, because when we mistakenly think the choice before us is a simple one, we often choose death without even realizing it. I know of churches with enormous endowments who’ve fallen into this trap. Believing that their existence was of the upmost importance, they hoarded their financial resources in fear that their pledges one day wouldn’t be able to sustain them, instead of investing in outreach or making their space more welcoming to visitors. They chose “to turn their hearts away, to not hear, to be led astray and bow down to the god” of their own existence. As a result, they never really grew and became cut off from the larger community. Their congregation may have technically survived, but their life was a hollow one. They thought that they’d chosen life, but they’d actually chosen death in God’s eyes.

On the other hand, I’ve known churches who’ve had to close their doors because they’d used up all of their resources—and it was the most holy, life-affirming choice that they could have made. They’d given all that they had in response to God’s call on their community, and although their congregation would no longer exist, they’d brought God’s light and life to their neighborhood, as they’d continue to do in new and different ways. They were willing to undergo literal death for the sake of choosing true life in God.

Choosing the sort of life that God calls us to sometimes also means choosing risk, choosing sacrifice, choosing the needs of others, or even choosing a sort of death. If choosing life were easy, we wouldn’t need to be encouraged to do it so often. It’d be a lot less complicated if God could just force us to make the right choices. Who wouldn’t want choosing life to be mandatory?! But the very value of the choice lies in its voluntary nature. Choosing life involves choosing connection and community and love—all of which lose their significance entirely when done under compulsion. We may wish that choosing life were a simple matter of God telling us to choose black or to choose white, but God’s desire for us goes beyond that. God wants US to determine for ourselves which shade of gray is the most life-giving to us and to God’s creation.

This is the premise behind Paul’s brief letter to Philemon. We read almost the entire thing today in worship, excluding only the very end, where Paul arranges for his post-prison lodging and adds, “five of my other friends say hi.” The ENTIRE REST OF THE LETTER is basically imploring Philemon to make a choice that reflects life: to welcome his escaped slave home as a brother in Christ. There are many ways this choice could lead to “death” (of a sort) for Philemon—it could be economically devastating to him to lose a slave; it could irrevocably damage his reputation with his business partners; it could destroy his authority within his own home. And yet, Paul not only affirms this as the faithful choice, but he insists that Philemon make that choice OF HIS OWN VOLITION. He must not only endure the life-giving option; he must actively choose it himself.

One could argue that leaving it up to Philemon was the wrong thing to do. After all, we don’t know what Onesimus ultimately went home to. Perhaps Philemon didn’t choose life after all and continued to enslave Onesimus. Paul could have avoided this situation entirely by just commanding him to do the right thing, as he says he has the authority to do. But in Christ, we’re beyond black and white, beyond blind obedience. We get to choose which shade of gray to embrace. And just as God lets us make the choice for ourselves, Paul let Philemon decide how to act, not just as a public figure or a slave-owner, but as a Christian. To be sure, Paul’s letter was strategic and diplomatic, but at the end of the day, he left Philemon the same freedom that God offers us, turning his choice from an act of mindless obedience into a moment of potential holiness.

Deciding to choose life is complicated and messy, but it’s so important. It’s not a state of being or a single choice between black or white. It’s an ongoing orientation of the self, one that’s constantly seeking the right shade of gray for that moment. Deciding to choose life over and over again—real, full, purposeful life—is what allows us to take part in God’s ongoing work in the world. God’s ALWAYS doing a new thing, so we have to keep choosing, in every moment and situation, that which creates life in and around and through every aspect of humanity. That’s what God ultimately wants for us, after all. Don’t just choose to be alive, choose to live: in joy, in love, in community, in relationship with God. Choose to thrive, and help others do the same.

We don’t know what path Philemon ultimately chose, if he chose the black and white route of preserving his existence or if he chose to look beyond that to find a better way of living in Christ. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But God has given us each this same choice. What will you choose? Amen.


[1] Joshua 24:15.
[2] 1 Kings 18:21.
[3] Proverbs 2:11, 3:31, 16:16, etc.
[4] Isaiah 65: 12, 66:4.
[5] John 10:10.

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