Sermon: “Choosing Love, Life, and Happiness”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Deuteronomy 30.15 -20; Sirach 15.15-20; Psalm 119.1-8; 1 Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37
Today’s lectionary readings have a lot to say about choosing love, life, and happiness and the shape that takes in community. In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses and the Israelites are encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River; they are poised to occupy the Promised Land. Moses has led these stubborn, stiff-necked people for forty years in the wilderness; he has tolerated their murmuring and grumbling. Because of his own failure to do as God commanded, God has told him he will die before entering the Promised Land. Thus, Moses makes three instructive farewell speeches – the content of Deuteronomy. In his final speech, Moses, speaking for God, warns the people and confronts them with a choice between life and prosperity or death and adversity. If they choose to obey God’s commandments, they will experience life and prosperity. But if they choose to turn from God and worship false idols, they will experience death and adversity.
When we sign contracts or covenants, we customarily have others sign as witnesses. In ancient cultures, prominent natural features frequently served as witnesses. Thus, Moses told the people, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses” (Deuteronomy 30.19; NRSV). Then Moses, undoubtedly with his own failures in mind, pleads with the people: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Vss. 19-20; NRSV). Alas, as we see in the historical and prophetic books, wrong choices – choices which brought terrible consequences.
Although we did not read Sirach 15.15-20, it is worth citing, for it tells us the people were without excuse:
If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action.
He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin (Emphases added; NRSV).
We are confronted with an “either/or” and we are encouraged to choose wisely.
True happiness comes from having chosen wisely, for as the psalmist says, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts” (Psalm 119.1-2; BCP). Even so, we are prone to failure. The psalmist recognizes this failure when he says, “Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes! Then I should not be put to shame” (Vss.5-6; BCP).
Paul’s letter to the Church of Corinth provides us with a picture of that failure as it is often played out in the divisiveness of Christian community: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3.3-4; NRSV). When feelings of jealousy and quarreling are present, our own egos are too heavily invested; the emphasis is on “I” as in “I belong to Appollos” or “I belong to Paul.” Our egos encourage us to seek our own way as opposed to God’s way – they encourage us to join the Israelites in pursuit of other gods and idols.
As Paul tells us, one may plant, another may water, but God gives the growth. The Holy Spirit is the active agent in building the Kingdom of God; anything that we might contribute comes through the grace of God’s Spirit. And the Spirit can only use us to the extent that we choose to empty ourselves and embrace God’s love. As Paul reminds us, “We are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3.9; NRSV).
From what we have considered thus far, it is simply a matter of choosing to live in accord with God’s commandments. If we do so, we will be happy. Do the right thing and you will be blessed! Well, that is part of the story, but Jesus gives us the rest of story. (I wonder if that is where Paul Harvey got the idea?) Jesus enters the picture, and proceeds to recast many of the ten commandments in a somewhat formulaic manner: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient time, ‘You shall not murder … you shall not commit adultery … Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce … You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord’” (Matthew 5.21, 27, 31, 33; NRSV). “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment … everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart … anyone who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery … do not swear at all, either by heaven … or by the earth” (Matthew 5.22, 28, 32, 34; NRSV).
What is Jesus doing? Jesus is telling the disciples, and us, that keeping God’s commandments involves more than what we are doing, involves more than acting – it involves our very being and thinking. It involves our character – what God desires is purity of heart. Extreme emphasis on actions by the scribes and the Pharisees led to a stultifying and arid legalism lacking in love. It is for this reason that Jesus introduced this section of his sermon by saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.20; NRSV). The scribes and the Pharisees often get a bad knock, but they were the epitome of keeping God’s law. Jesus’ sermon on the mount invites us to interiorize the heart and mind of Jesus. It is not what we do, but why we do it (Gillick, Larry: https://liturgy.slu.edu/6OrdA021620/reflections_gillick.html). It is not so much about action as it is intention.
John Kavanaugh, S.J., insightfully comments on the essence of the sermon on the mount as follows: “The Sermon on the Mount is not there to cast us down into helpless and hopeless guilt. No, it is an invitation to that high holiness that we have hitherto not seen or heard about. It is an excavation into our deepest loves, so that seeing what we love most, we will finally be given our heart’s desire. But it is a harrowing trip down into the mines of our motivation. (https://liturgy.slu.edu/6OrdA021620/theword_kavanaugh.html0) The sermon on the mount invites us to a new order and a new ethic – the order of God’s Kingdom.
Regretfully, many Christians choose not to journey into the deeper aspects of love, for this is a level of love which demands we empty ourselves that God’s Spirit might fill us. In choosing not to make this journey, we deny ourselves the happiness that attends living out of the be-attitudes which Jesus purposely set forth at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. God desires, longs for us, pleads with us, to choose love, life, and happiness – this is the Promised Land God would have us enter!