~ A sermon by The Rev. Keenan Kelsey ~
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:17-20;43-48
Valentine’s Weekend! A wonderful Sunday to declare “Choose Life!” Life in all its abundance and love.
Of course, for the real St. Valentine, choosing life meant losing life. He became a martyr to his faith. This saint’s commitment to the law of love and his love for Christ cost him all he had, even his own life
The real St. Valentine was a priest near Rome in about the year 270 A.D. In an era of required allegiance to Rome and Roman Gods, Valentine was denouncing them as false, asserting Jesus Christ to be the One God Incarnate. Additionally, the Roman Emperor had forbidden young men to marry, holding them for military inscription. Apparently Valentine continued to marry young Christian lovers. His kindness and courage and inviolate faith landed him in prison where Valentine continued to witness and minister. Legend says he healed the blind daughter of one of the guards, and the guard and his whole family, 46 people, believed in Jesus and were baptized. Our own Valentine traditions come from the fact that Valentine sent copious notes encouraging the Christian community, and he signed them Your Valentine. Often believers from the town would deliver or toss notes to him, love notes, always addressed to my valentine. Eventually, he was beheaded.
Kind of gruesome stuff. But I wager that this martyred saint would say with joyful conviction, that he chose life. He chose life by following the commandments set before him: the ones Jesus set out in his Sermon on the Mount. Be salt of the earth, light for the world. Be peacemakers; hold no grudges; reconcile with your brothers and sisters; keep integrity in relationships; worship no other gods, have no other idols; care for the needy; give thanks; pray ceaselessly. Love your neighbor as yourself. And, as we heard today, possibly the most difficult, love your enemy. Love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you. Valentine’s heart was with God, with Jesus, and he followed the teachings into a difficult but hallowed life.
On this Valentine’s Day weekend, in both Hebrew and Christian readings today, we are reminded of God’s banner, the One that God waves across all creation, this choice phrase, Choose Life! Not death. “Death I once read, is the slow process of giving ourselves to what does not matter.” As disciples, as God’s people, we need to decide what matters.
What matters, according to Moses and according to Jesus, is compassion, commitment, right actions, obedience to the laws of love What matters is sacrifice, faith, perseverance, tears, hope.
You may remember the Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a fall from a horse in 1995. The extent of his injury was huge. To quote Reeve, “Ever since childhood, I’d been used to solving my own problems. Whatever scrape I would get myself into, I was always sure of a way out. So at first I thought this was just another temporary problem. Slowly I began to absorb what they had told me: This is a paralyzing injury.” To his wife Dana he mouthed my first lucid words: “Maybe we should let me go”. She answered “I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life and your decision. But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what.” “You’re still you. And I love you.” To quote Reeve. “What Dana said made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and her commitment to me. To give up life as I knew it would be hard, but to embrace life as it was would be righteous.” Righteous. He used the word Righteous. Christopher Reeve chose to fight because of love. As the extent of his fight unfolded, his physical fight turned to spiritual fight, and his faith became central to his existence.
He wrote, “I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Once you choose hope, anything’s possible. So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
There are hundreds of stories that indicate the power of obedience to a different reality, the reality of having to relinquish something you want immediately, in order to receive what you really want in the long run. Ask any financial planner. If a client wants results, he or she must calculate, consolidate, budget, plan, and then stay true to the plan. The resulting financial security will result in more knowledge, more freedom. Ask a fitness instructor. If a client wants to be stronger and more fit, that client must do the exercises, follow the protocol, get to the gym regularly, work hard.
Ask any person in recovery. Addiction is a mighty blackness, a death of sorts. But those in recovery will say that faith is their greatest gift; it’s sharing with others is their greatest responsibility. They will tell you that by accepting the 12-Step commandments, the road to recovery has given them more freedom, more depth, more beauty, more love, more happy/joyous/free that any substance or drink. They had to give up independence and choose dependence to get there.
Today’s Hebrew reading is another such story; a call to obedience to God’s directions, a story of relinquishing in order to receive. With God’s guidance, Moses has led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, and through 40 arduous years in the wilderness. The people did not make it easy. They balked and complained and disobeyed, they wondered whether slavery had been better. It got so bad that God called Moses to retrieve Ten Commandments. Commandments for living together as the chosen people of God. Now we find them at the brink of the Promised Land. Moses, who won’t go with them over the border, gives some final instructions. He warns them that when they get into Canaan they will once again be tempted to chase false gods, and they will be tempted to forget about God and God’s love and the covenant and the commandments. But the commandments, he exhorts, are the only thing that will keep them together and insure their survival, not their death.
Remember the flight attendant who asked a man “Would you like dinner?” The man answered “What are my choices?” The flight attendant said: “Yes or No!” That’s what Moses is saying here. You have a choice to make. Do you say: “Yes or No to God!” It is time to choose!
Time to choose. Time to obey. Time to relinquish in order to receive.
Sometimes this is the grand gesture, sometimes not. More than likely, we will not be called to be martyrs for our faith, as St. Valentine was, but sometimes the smallest choices will affect our embrace of life.
Years ago a colleague was serving as a Commissioner for the General Assembly. As a member of the Peacemaking Committee, she was chosen for the small task force to write up the motion we had deliberated. She was proud of that. It felt like a rather plum affirmation! When she returned to her room that evening, she found a box of Godiva chocolates on the table. “Now who would have done such a nice thing?” Like a child surprised by a gift, she went through a list of possible donors, and a longer list of the little acts of the day that might merit Godiva’s. Just as she thought she knew who they were from, she looked at the name on the box. “Sam Watson, Room 322.” She was in room 222. She says, “I can’t tell you the transformation I underwent. The person who had gone through her list of good deeds now was tempted to keep the candies. Who would know? I deserved them! The woman who entered the room feeling good about herself, reveling in what a good person she was, suddenly felt under appreciated. Why didn’t anyone give me candies? Justice did prevail. I returned the candies to the front desk. Strange how we humans work. I had to relinquish something that was never mine to begin with, and the result was an evening of self-pity and worthlessness. “
Choosing life will mean learning to be claim an alternate sense of reality, alternate priorities. Status quo, secret selfishness, just will not do.
This is the very same lesson that we get in our Gospel reading. Jesus is giving his Sermon on the Mount, and outlining all those hard commandments to the still-new disciples who wanted to change their lives, who wanted to find a better way of being.
Jesus might well have told them the old joke: On a dark night, a policeman comes up on a man searching for something under a bright street lamp. “What’s the matter?” asks the policeman. “I’ve lost my keys. Will you help me find them?” The policeman agrees. And after several minutes, the policeman finally stands up straight and says, “Hey, we’ve searched this whole area, and I just don’t think they are here. Are you sure this is where you dropped them?” The man responds, “Oh no, I dropped them over there,” pointing to the dark alley across the street. “Then why on earth are you looking here?” “Well,” the man says, “The light is better here!”
Jesus was saying, you disciples are looking for answers in the wrong places. The answers lie in the commandments of the covenant. I am not changing God’s covenant, I am fulfilling it. Your part will be to choose obedience. Choose life. Follow me.
Obedience is not a popular word. But in faith and trust, it is a useful word. Be obedient to that which will bring the highest good to yourselves, to your community, and to the world. Ask yourselves if you are like the Scribes and the Pharisees who were only concerned with going through the motions, who were only concerned with external things. Hopefully, we will come to obey God’s law not only with our heads, but with our hearts. Let our longing for security and our fear of change be transformed by the power of a God who is forever faithful, who is forever inviting us to choose life, who is forever ready to give us life abundant.
And we will do it because we want to, with gratitude and humility. May it be so.