6th Sunday of Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
Introduction before Scripture reading:
Today our text comes from the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book in the Torah. It originated in written form from a Book of Law found in the reign of King Josiah during the rebuilding of the temple in the 7th century BCE. It holds traditions, teaching and stories that are much older. Deuteronomy’s teaching are cast as the final words of Moses to the people of Israel entering the land promised by God to their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah and their 12 sons. After 40 years of journeying in the wilderness the people stand on the brink of the Jordan River ready to cross over. And Moses delivers them a 26 chapter sermon of lessons, traditions, cautions they are to remember in this new land. At least according to whoever put Deuteronomy in written form it is 26 chapters. Our text is the very last paragraph of this sermon. So picture the people, very weary from the travails of more than a generation of traveling as immigrants, yet eager, excited – maybe with a bit, a lot of trepidations - to see what God has in store for them in this new homeland.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Holy One your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Holy One your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 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. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Holy One your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Holy One swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Choose! Choose, choose, choose, choose! Choose this day! I’m not sure my weary brain would be able to take all that choosing in! I hope my heart would be stirred to follow God’s ways....as we had been trying to follow – most of the time – since we left Egypt 40 years ago. Perhaps I was just a child then, barely remembering all the miracles; perhaps, I was a young mother then and now I am an old grandmother at the end of my life telling stories; perhaps, I had not even been born and only know the stories of the escape through the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the miraculous water from the rock, the debacle with the golden calf and the giving of the Ten Commandments, only family stories.
The people who heard these words from Moses on that transitional day were of many generations and experiences, yet held together by the covenant of God’s promise of new life to their very ancient ancestors, held together by journeying through dangers, through tedious travel, celebrating births and deaths along the way, trying to stay together as a community of God’s blessed people. Our physical circumstances are very different from these ancient people on the edge of the Jordan River...we are not desert dwellers in make-shift tents, footsore and hungry, worn thin from travel and desert storms.
Yet our spiritual and emotional inner lives could be very similar. We are a community of many generations and experiences standing on the brink of this transitional election year. No matter what party or candidate we may support, we are heart-sore and weary, hungry for justice, perhaps angry, worn thin by the stormy tumult of our times. The people of Israel could look across the misty river and see the other side of the Jordan with real hope. There was the land that would finally be a their settled home. They had tangible reason to “Choose Life!”, to choose God’s ways for living. What can we look for with hope? What are our tangible visions? What inspires us to “Choose Life?”
In America, here in the middle class culture of Plymouth – upper, middle and lower – we are a people of many choices....how to spend our time, our money, our educational and work opportunities, what to eat for lunch or breakfast or dinner? We get to choose so many things! We have also learned to be suspicious of choices...what is in the fine print? Where is the catch? Is it too good to be true? To simple?
Moses says if you keep God’s ways, “then you shall live and become numerous, and your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. If you don’t keep God’s ways and you turn away to worship other gods, “you shall perish.” Pretty black and white, and on the surface it also feels retributive. Do what I say....get rewards....don’t do what I say....get punishment! Yikes! Does that make any of your little independent, think-for-your-self hearts and minds feel just a teeny bit rebellious? Or does it feel like being coerced by fear? Much too simplistic to trust?
I know as 21st century intellectual people we may react this way to this ancient text. However, today I want to bring you hope, not fear!
My friends, this choice was offered to the Israelites centuries ago and is offered to us today out of deep covenant relationship with the Holy One who demonstrates time and again in scripture and in our lives that God is Love and Compassion companioning us on the journey. Not retributive law and rigid rules that are hard to keep. The Holy One of Never-ending and Unconditional Love who offered this choice to the Israelites through Moses, offers us the same choice today through this ancient text. It is not a contract with late fees to pay if we slip up, it is a covenant of relationship built on mutual love. The Holy One is rooting for us to Choose Life!
Still we know from experience that even when we have tried our best to follow God’s ways of life, perhaps for years, perhaps all the days of our lives, that prosperity and happy times are not guaranteed. Bad things happen in our lives, even to the best and most faithful of people. Does this mean that God has reneged on the covenant? Not kept the promise? So why choose life when what we feel all around us it death? Where is God in the death? Where is God and God’s love in the midst of all of life?
Remember the Exodus story... how the people of Israel complained that they were starving; and they most likely were. God sent manna, bread made from the excretions of insects on the leaves of the plants, to feed the. They could have said, ”Gross! I’m not eating that!” But they trusted and it was good. When God made water pour from a rock because they were dying of thirst, they could have said,” Oh, No! I bet there is dirt in that water. We might get sick!” But they trusted and they were saved. When they turned from God to worship the golden calf, God and Moses were angry. Through Moses, exhortations they repented, chose life again, and God forgave them. God restored the tablets of the 10 Commandments to them – commandments that lead to covenant community and life.
Moses says at the end of his long sermon, “Choose Life by loving God so that you and your descendants may live!” Life and Love are the ultimate words from God. They are always available. The Holy One is always on the side of choosing life, even when we turn away and choose the habits of death. Habits of scarcity thinking, fear, anger, arrogance, greed. When we find ourselves in the midst of death-dealing situations in our lives....how do we choose God’s life and love? Because we may not be feeling it at the moment and we may be really scared!
Practical advice: first, take three breaths. Feel your feel on the floor, your hand on the table, the arms of a loved one who may be holding you. Think of the love of a community – such as this one – that has promised to reach out and be a safe place. Breathe again. Keep breathing. Then when the temptation comes to fall back on death-dealing habits or if you are bound by the terrible, traumatic pain that death-dealing situations can bring, say “Help!” Even with that one word of spoken or silent prayer, the Holy One who is Love and Life will honor your claim on the covenant relationship of love and life.
In the day to day frustrations and anger of our times, say, “Help!” Then still your heart with breath. Listen with your heart and your mind as you go about your day, as you work for justice, as you do simple and humble kindnesses, walking in God’s ways. Holy help will come. Help always comes. Through someone, through an idea, through an unexpected event, through an unexpected experience of beauty. Keep putting one foot in front of the other on the journey with the God who loves us beyond all measure. The Israelites were not free from trouble after settling in the Promised Land. They were not free from failure to follow the ways of God. They messed up royally time after time even to the point of occupation and exile. Still God, the Holy One, was always there offering the choice...”Choose Life...in relationship with Me....choose love and compassion and forgiveness!”
My friends, in these very tough times, breathe, feel your feet on the ground, remember you are not alone, God is in the midst of it all, say “Help!” and Choose Life!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Rev. Carla Cain has just begun her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years). Learn more about Carla here.
Micah 6.1–8 & Matthew 5.1–12
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, CO
Today’s New Testament reading — the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel — is paired in the Lectionary with a brief, important segment of Micah’s prophecy: “He has told you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
If you know nothing else about the Christian tradition, you probably know the Beatitudes. And if you can quote only one line from the Old Testament, you ought to know Micah 6.8, especially if you’re a member of a UCC congregation. These might even be considered the two dominant, formative texts for progressive Christians. In fact, I would use both texts if I were doing a very quick summary of the gospel message…sort of Good News 101.
When I was a young person growing up in the UCC, we didn’t learn a whole lot about the Bible…not a good thing. But, I do remember memorizing Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. What Jesus does with these rejoinders of blessings is to set out a social agenda – an agenda that turns the conventional wisdom of his day on its head. I mean, really, who wants to be poor in spirit or grief-stricken or meek or hungry for justice or persecuted for the sake of righteousness or to be despised because of what you believe? Not to many of us, I’m sure. Yet, Jesus says that we are blessed to be in these dire straits. And sometimes it’s not easy to be compassionate or pure in heart, especially when our country is up to its neck in political turmoil. Yet, Jesus claims we are supposed to rejoice and be glad. Now, that’s countercultural!
* * *
Have you ever noticed how some Christians erroneously perceive a dramatic discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament? You know the stereotype: The God of wrath versus the God of love. Wrong! The prophet Micah ends his prophecy this way: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” [Micah 7.18–19].
So much for the Old Testament God of wrath! (Of course, we can find references to horrendous actions people attribute to God in the Hebrew Bible, but it’s not a uniform account of an avenging God of war.) Likewise, in the New Testament, we have a really hideous account of a couple named Ananias and Sapphira, who withheld some of their wealth from the apostle Peter and the community which was committed to sharing all property in common. The Reader’s Digest version is that both Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for their greed and deception. So, the God of the New Testament isn’t always the God of forgiveness and agape.
The biblical concept that is translated as “justice” or “righteousness” points to something different than either our familiar concepts of “criminal justice” or “self-righteousness.” God’s justice (which is often distributive or restorative justice, and not so typically vengeance) provides a dramatic point of continuity between the Hebrew social prophets and Jesus. It’s also what made them tremendously unpopular, and it’s one of the reasons many prophets didn’t (and still don’t) lead long, relaxed lives that extend well into old age. This is probably a good week for all of us to remember what Cornel West said, that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
* * *
One of the concepts that Micah and Jesus lift up is something we are not so likely to address: humility.
For a lot of us, especially women, being humble in our culture meant or means being “less than,” or being lower on the totem pole, that you’re not quite as worthy as someone else. Let’s just eliminate that connotation of humility right now. Neither Micah nor Jesus is talking about that kind of oppressive force. Humility does not mean being a doormat.
Nor is being humble anything like Charles Dickens’ awful character, Uriah Heep, who feigns humility. If you remember that oily character from David Copperfield, you might remember that he is a snakelike creature who is the very embodiment of obsequiousness – the very opposite of true humility. Humility is not a show we put on for others; it’s got to be a deep, inner attitude. Humility is not what others think of us, it’s a way we can think of ourselves. And perhaps it is seeing ourselves as God sees us, warts and all.
So, perhaps humility is about seeing ourselves in perspective. It’s about seeing ourselves in relation to other people, in relation to the earth, and in relation to God.
At the end of February, we will observe Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent, and one of the things your ministers say as we apply a bit of ash on your forehead is “from dust you come, to dust you shall return.” Acknowledging our mortality is one of the things that church tradition does to help give us correct perspective. We may be “a little lower than angels,” but one of the things that unites everyone in this room is that at some point, each of us will die. Now, that doesn’t play well in the mainstream media. Advertisers want to us delude ourselves to believe that we can stay (or look) young forever (if we just take Geritol or drive a Lexus SUV or get a couple of strategically placed Botox injections). In doing so, they’ve lulled us into a national state of denial about our finitude and our humanity.
Both the words “human” and “humility” derive from the Latin humus, which means earth. So, when I say “from dust you come; to dust you shall return,” it’s reinforcing not just our humility but also our humanity.
Being humble is acknowledging that none of us is the center of the universe, and that neither are we collectively – as Christians or Americans or even as human beings – the center of the universe. Sometimes we even begin to think of ourselves as being ultimately in charge. The retirement information I get from Fidelity Investments tries to convince me that I’m in control of my retirement. But the reality is that I may never live to see my 401(k) payout; in the final analysis, I’m not in control. So, part of humility is letting go of the pretense that we can control what will be, and instead turning some of that control and worry over to the Holy Spirit.
In Greek tragedy, hubris is the distinctive sense of being anything but humble, and it usually results some form of disaster, often for a king. Hubris is the opposite of humility, and it implies both excessive pride and impiety…playing the role of a god. So, where do you see hubris in your own life? Are there times in your life when you think “it’s all about me,” and you lose track of what’s going on with those around you? Are there times in public life in this country when we see the same sort of thing? Did you see any hubris emanating from Washington, DC, this week? And like any Greek tragedy, hubris will be the downfall of petty tyrants in our own time.
We need to see ourselves in accurate perspective within God’s universe. True humility is neither self-abasement nor self-aggrandizement, but rather knowing our true place among others, in the cosmos, and in relation to God.
Which gets us back to the Jewish tradition of Micah: How do we walk humbly with God? We should see ourselves not as we wish to be seen by others, but rather we ought to see ourselves as God sees us: as God’s children; as imperfect; as one significant, small part of humanity; as part of creation; as God’s beloved. When we have a true sense of ourselves – the sense that God has about us – it will enable us to be in closer communion with the divine with others and with ourselves. An attitude of humility will also help us engender an attitude of thankfulness to God. And as we live with both humility and with gratitude, the fruits of our hands and our hearts will be justice and peace.
May we walk humbly with God, knowing our true place in the world. May we be inheritors of the earth. And may we be live in the knowledge that we are connected to self, to others, to the cosmos, and most intimately to God.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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