How many of you have seen the movie The King’s Speech? Even if you haven’t, it’s been so well reviewed and already the recipient of so many awards that you probably know the story. It’s about King George VI of England, the father of the present Queen Elizabeth, and his battle to conquer his stuttering problem.
As the second of two sons, the future king didn’t have a whole lot to worry about – because he wasn’t, really, a future king. In the centuries-honored tradition of the British realm, his older brother would become king..The younger brother and his own family would support the family business by taking part in various public appearances.
But his father did want him to put on a good presentation at such events, and pushed him to overcome the stutter that rendered him almost speechless. Eventually, with the help of a sympathetic wife and an unorthodox course of treatment, he reaches the point at which he can, in fact, make a dignified speech to the British people. Good thing, too – because his older brother puts romance before duty, and ends up abdicating the throne.
That change of plans puts the new King George front and center as the country prepares for war. Over the course of the next several years, he makes literally hundreds of speeches, broadcast to the nation at large. His words are designed to instill courage in a people sending thousands of young men to the front and fortitude in a people besieged at home by nightly air bombings.
The King’s Speech tells many stories, but one of them is the one I’ve just related: the story of a man for whom initial expectations are fairly low, whose life takes an unwanted twist, and who rises to the challenge: choosing the unanticipated life offered to him, accepting the only help that will make that newlife possible, and saying a yes to a call, to a vocation – becoming who he is called to become.
This morning we are confronted by three Scriptural passages in which we are called to do exactly that: to choose the life to which we are called and to become the people whom we are called to become. “Choose life,” proclaims the Deuteronomist. “Choose growth,” writes Paul. “Choose authenticity,” urges Jesus. Each of these passages is so rich that we could spend weeks on any one of them alone, but I think that it’s well worth our while to take a look a the thread that runs through each of them, linking them into a gleaming chain of God’s call to each of us.
“Choose life.” These words are proclaimed as Moses’ final speech to the Israelites. They have emerged from their forty years of wandering the wilderness and stand on the brink of the land which they have been promised. Imagine this nation – the oldest among them were children, toddlers even, when they left Egypt. The young parents and the newest generation were born in the wilderness of Sinai and have no personal memory of the years of enslavement to the Egyptian pharaoh. All they know is the nomadic life of a people with no home of their own, with nothing concrete to call their own. What they have instead is a collective memory of the God who liberated them and who calls them to the home planned for them.
But that home comes with expectations, with the expectations of their God, the God whon has initiated a covenant relationship with them. “Choose life!” exhorts Moses, and tells them how to choose it. Love God, walk in the ways of God, obey God’s commandments.
We tend to think of the Book of Deuteronomy as a book of law – that it will tell us the ways and commandments of God: how to choose God and how to love God. And yet, as Christians, we are sometimes a little leery of the law of the Jewish Bible. We tend to use words like “legalism” and “harsh” and “unyielding” to describe it. Well, let’s take a look at that law.
First, it helps to know a Hebrew word: Halacha. It’s a word that I first learned several years ago, when I was a high school teacher in an Orthodox Jewish school. I taught history and literature. Our students studied the usual high school subjects, but they also studied a full complement of courses in Judaic studies. One of their courses was halacha – “law.” In fact, we had many fascinating conversations about it – and about the 613 laws set down in the Bible, all of which they endeavor to follow.
Imagine my surprise when I got to seminary and to the study of Hebrew and learned that halacha also means “walk.” It makes sense, when you think about it: to walk in the ways of God is to follow the laws and commandments of God. And yes, to us it sounds terribly difficult. One day in my teaching years I asked one of my colleagues, a beautiful and engaging and extremely smart young woman, whether she didn’t find it incredibly burdensome to follow all the dictates of her religion. What she ate and how she cooked it – all kosher, separate sets of dishes and cookware for meat and dairy products; where she lived – within a mile of so of her synagogue, since no driving is permitted on Saturdays; how she dressed - no pants for girls and women, hair coverings for married women – all of it was according to the strict laws followed by the Orthodox Jewish community.
“It’s not a burden at all!” she exclaimed, her face alight as she explained her faith. “We believe that Hashem – God – cares about every aspect of our lives, about everything that we do. Why shouldn’t Hashem care about how we dress, or how we eat? We see the law as a great gift, as something to help us live as God wants us to.”
In other words, to walk -- halacha -- in the ways of God, to follow the law – halacha – is to choose life. To walk in the ways of God is to choose covenant, to choose relationship, to choose to follow a God who accompanies you through the wilderness and guides you home, a God who offers a goodness with the capacity to encompass every aspect of your life.
It doesn’t always feel like a gift though, does it? There’s that wilderness aspect, that desert aspect, that persists in making itself apparent in our lives. When the future King George VI decided to try to overcome his speech problems, they didn’t just magically disappear. When the Israelite people decided to follow Moses out of Egypt, they didn’t slide right into that promised destination of milk and honey. You might decide to choose life, but sooner or later it becomes clear that, even in the life to which God so clearly invites you, you are looking straight into the face of risk, of challenge. No more baby steps.
And so Paul tells us: Choose growth. Accept the nourishment offered to the mature. He is writing to the rowdy, disagreeable, conflicted church at Corinth, a church in which appropriate conduct is a matter of constant debate and in which factions in support of different leaders seem to crop up at a moment’s notice. He tells them that he has fed them with milk, not with solid food, as they were not, and even now are not, ready for the food of an adult. Yet he urges them on, urges them away from human conflict and toward God, urges them to understand that they each have a part, some to plant and some to water, but that the growth will come from God.
Now most of the Greek-speaking people to whom Paul writes in Corinth are gentiles, not Jews. They know nothing of the great story of the Exodus, nothing about a God who chose a people with whom to enter into covenant, a people to liberate and nudge along and save, with the promise that from them would come the savior of the world. That story is not part of the Corinthian backdrop.
But it’s part of Paul’s family history. Paul knows well the story of the God who saves: that that God is also a God who helps us to grow by challenging us, by asking us to contend with discomfort and frustration and difficulty. We see that path toward growth in the very human story portrayed in The King’s Speech. The future king will get nowhere by being coddled, by people bowing to him and calling him “Your Royal Highness.” He has to venture forth into new territory; he has to accept a path that causes more consternation than comfort.
We know this story, and Paul knew it, from the Israelite journey through the wilderness. They were nourished there by manna in the form of literal bread from heaven, but also by manna in the form of harsh conditions, manna in the form of a nomadic life that refused them the shelter and warmth of permanent homes, manna in the form of a God who accompanied them but insisted that they conform themselves to the ways of the one God and not wander off in search of the idols of their ancestors and neighbors.
Nourishment for grown ups. The solid food of challenge and difficulty, of loss and starting over, of uncertainty and determination. The kind of food that enables children to grow into women and men capable of following a God who gives all and requests all in return.
Choose life. Choose growth.
And, says Jesus, Choose authenticity. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’ Say yes to walking the path of God, and say no to those things which knock you off that road. Say yes to solid food, and turn down the jars of baby mush.
Matthew, in relating Jesus’ words to us, is speaking to an audience with a communal memory of the Exodus, of Moses’ words to his people. We know that while Paul’s mission was primarily to the gentiles of the Mediterranean world, Matthew wrote his words to a group of Jewish Christians. He sought to affirm to them that Jesus was the new Moses, the Son of God who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. And so Matthew tells us that the life of authentic discipleship, the life in which the law is fulfilled, is a life in which, as my teaching colleague told me all those years ago, God cares about everything that we do. A life in which not only do we not murder, but we do not insult. A life in which we seek reconciliation not only with those we call our bothers and sisters, but with those we have wronged. A life in which, as Jimmy Carter once famously reminded us, lust in the heart is adultery as surely as the physical act of unfaithfulness.
Choose authenticity. Choose – courage. Be who you are called to be –say yes to that call. Say no to mediocrity. Say no to half-baked expectations. Say no to the idea that God is not engaged in all things.
Does it sound like too much of a challenge? The King of England, when he stepped up to the plate – or, to the microphone – to say “yes” --he was a hero. And maybe most us don’t feel anything like heroes.
But these words of Jesus’, difficult as they are to hear and impossible as they might seem to fulfill – they are intended to be reassuring. They are intended as words of hope and encouragement. These words are not designed to coerce us into behaving in undesirable ways. They are intended to invite us into the fullness of life. Jesus speaks them to remind us that the God to whom we say yes is feeding us with solid food – with God’s very presence and care in all of life. Jesus invites us to walk -- halacha – with God, with the God who is interested – no , not just interested, and not just in the details of our lives –but completely committed to a vibrant, joyous relationship with us.
At the same time that the future King of England was being transformed from a hopeless stutterer into a man who could make a speech, a young Lutheran theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was returning to his German homeland. Bonhoeffer left behind a brilliant future in the United States to stand with his people in resistance against the Nazi regime. His became one of the most eloquent voices on behalf of the Confessing Church, a movement in Germany in defiance of the state church imposed by Hitler and quietly acquiescing to his policies. He was executed only a few months before the end of the war, but today Bonhoeffer’s prophetic voice continues to remind us to choose life, to choose growth, to choose authenticity. "Being a Christian,” he said, “is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will."
Choose life. Walk in the ways of God.
Choose growth. Accept the solid food, the challenges, the conflicts, the sorrows, that come your way, so that you can be nourished and grow into disciples of Jesus Christ.
Choose authenticity. Choose to be the people you are called to be, to serve God in the ways that you are called to serve. Let your ‘Yes’ to God be a resounding and courageous ‘Yes.’