I found a cartoon this week depicting a gentleman at a bookstore, standing in front of the Bible section. “What I really need,” the customer tells the salesclerk at the counter, “is something that won’t make me feel guilty, convicted, or in need of making some kind of decision.”
There you go: Something that won’t make us feel guilty, convicted, or in need of making some kind of decision.
Well, in today’s texts we hear some words that sound fairly simple and easy to understand – and yet they demand a great deal from us. Just as they demanded a great deal from those who first heard them: Moses’ followers in the desert, and Paul’s followers in the first century church – so they ask a lot of us, here in 21st century Boulevard Church. Maybe they even make us feel guilty, or convicted, or in need of some decision making.
In our readings, we are presented with two preachers, two times and places, two sets of challenges. Let’s imagine for a moment:
In Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Hebrew people, who have followed him through the desert for forty years. FORTY YEARS. It has been forty years since God used Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, forty years in which they have journeyed toward the land God had promised them. Now, they are almost there, about to cross the Jordan River into the land of milk and honey. Moses is near the end of his life, about to pass the mantle of leadership to Joshua, but he pauses to speak to his people and to give them a final message from God. “I have set before you life and death. Choose life that your descendants may live.”
And how do we choose life? Moses elaborates: Obedience to God. Love of God. Walking in the ways of God. Holding fast to God.
Let’s pause there for a moment and look at the object in each one of those sentences. Obedience to GOD. Love of GOD. Walking in the WAYS OF GOD. Holding fast to GOD.
Always God. The object is always God. Not the other things which we turn into gods. When Moses tells the people, “Don’t be led astray by other gods,” we nod in self-satisfaction, don’t we? We aren’t misled by other gods – or are we? What about the gods of money, or possessions, or work? Homes, neighborhoods, even family? Even our church congregation or building? Do we turn those into gods?
I think we do, as sure as the ancient Hebrew people were tempted to worship that golden calf in the desert when Moses disappeared for awhile. It’s difficult for us to direct our obedience, or love, or our walk consistently toward God. It’s hard to hold fast to God when so many other things vie for our attention. And yet Moses is clear: We choose life by always, every time, looking first and completely to God.
Fast forward about 1500 years. The preacher is the apostle Paul and the congregation is the church in Corinth, in Greece.
Paul is really, really unhappy with this little congregation. They are such a divisive and quarrelsome lot. And one of their problems is that they argue about their leadership, with different internal groups among them throwing their allegiance to different individuals. In today’s passage, it appears that some have lined up behind Paul and some behind Apollos, another important leader in the church.
Now, that never happens in our own churches, does it? We never debate which pastor is better than another, do we? We never say things like, “I like his sermons better” or “She does a better job of choosing the music,” do we? Surely we don’t make our LEADERS the object of our faith, do we? And we DEFINITELY don’t say things like, “I only want to do church the old way” or “We can’t be church without our building, or our neighborhood.” Do we? I’VE certainly never said anything life that!
Well, it seems that perhaps people in Corinth have said things like that. And what does Paul tell them? That it’s not about him, or about Apollos. They planted, and they watered -- but God has been giving the growth. Wow. Same lesson as Moses gave his people: It’s all about God.
Choose life. To choose life means to grow – and to change. And to grow according to scripture means to receive the growth which God offers. Not necessarily the growth we invent for ourselves.
Let’s talk for a minute about how we choose life, and about how we grow.
Sometimes it’s easy, and fun, and delightful. Think of a healthy baby turning into a toddler, pulling himself up and charging ahead for a few steps until he lands on his bottom. He’s all about choosing life, choosing growth, choosing change – because life, growth, and change mean walking instead of crawling.
Later in life, it can become more challenging to choose life. Think about a young woman applying to college. That can be scary, yes? Scary and exciting at the same time, especially if a move to a new location, a school in which she doesn’t know anyone, is involved. But if she hangs on to the old instead of reaching for the new, will she grow? It’s hard for God to give the growth if we ourselves resist choosing life.
Sometimes, God is waiting to offer growth, and we find it terribly difficult indeed to choose life. Losing a job can feel as if there is no life left to choose – and how hard it can be if the growth, the new possibility, is offered in a different city, or requires more training or education. Don’t many of us who bump into the wall of unemployment get stuck and have a hard time seeing where God is providing the space for growth?
Sometimes, it’s REALLY hard. People injured in big ways in accidents, in war, by illness. Older folks who can no longer care for themselves.
“I have set before you life and death,” says God. “Choose life. Receive the growth I have to offer.”
Last year, an elderly couple I knew encountered one health problem after another. They wanted to stay in their own home, far out in the country, although hearing and driving and even just getting from one room to another were big challenges for them. “I have set before you life and death,” said God. “Choose life.” It was difficult for them to see a move to assisted living as a choice for life. And yet – and yet the seeds had already been planted, seeds of resiliency of spirit and seeds of care from family and friends. And so they chose an unexpected life – in a new place among new people – and God has provided the growth.
Now: Let’s talk about the church.
We know that we are in a challenging time at Boulevard Church. We are no longer the toddler church of 1960, delighting in every step forward. We are no longer the young adult church of 1970, making all sorts of plans for the future. We are well along into adulthood, facing choices.
We have to face changes in our city and culture – the idea of church as something people just naturally did on Sunday is long gone. That’s not a terrible thing – God wants people in church who are focused on God and not on “everybody’s doing it” expectations.
We have to face a decline in our membership and income – we have to ask: Can a small group pf faithful people grow into a larger group of sustaining and nurturing people?
We have to ask huge questions: How do we choose life in the face of hard and uncertain realities?
Do we choose life by going along as we have and hoping for the best? Like an elderly couple saying, “We’re going to stay in our house and things will probably be ok?”
Do we choose life by tinkering with our programming and our outreach here and there, believing that if we just do things a little bit better, God and God’s people will be served? Like an elderly couple saying, “We’re going to stay in our house; we’ll just get a little help from Meals on Wheels and our neighbors”?
Or do we choose life by holding fast to God as we take big risks? As Moses told the Hebrew people to hold fast to God as they crossed the Jordan? Like an elderly couple saying, “We’re going to take a chance on life by holding fast to God and making big changes.” Like that?
Do we choose life by planting and watering, as Paul and Apollos did, and recognizing that God grants the growth? And by receiving instead of resisting what God has to offer?
At the end of today’s epistle passage, Paul says to the Corinthians: “We are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.” How interesting! Paul does not say: The field over there across the street is what God needs. Paul does not say: This church building is what God needs. Paul does not say, “The way you’ve always done things is what God needs.”
Paul says, “YOU are God’s field. YOU are God’s building.” YOU. The community of YOU.
This should sound familiar.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
You are the people of grace and peace.
You are the beloved.
You are God’s field and building.
Believe it! Choose life! For God gives the growth. Shalom.
Believe it! Choose life! For God gives the growth. Shalom.