Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, February 16, 2014

Choose Life!
[Deut. 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37; I Corinthians 3:1-9]

            Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Almost a no-brainer! Who would NOT choose life?  If we look around at our friends and neighbors, and honestly reflect on our own choices through the years, “choosing life” may not be as simple as it sounds.
            Deuteronomy 30 is the conclusion of Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel, after their long and circuitous journey through the wilderness.  They stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, where Moses will not enter, and Moses reminds them of the open-ended covenant promise of God who led them out of Egyptian bondage. They are standing on the bridge to their Promised Land and Moses makes it clear: keep your hearts focused on God, love God, walk in God’s ways and observe God’s commandments. That is the ticket… to abundant life… over-flowing joy… and blessings. Who would not choose life?  Keep your hearts focused on God.
            Most of our choices seem more trivial than life and death; however, the truth is whenever we ignore God and choose something inferior to God, we are choosing death, which is “a slow process of giving ourselves to what does not matter.” What delighted me this week with 3 full days of snow on the ground was the opportunity to stay home and focus on what was most important, to be present to God and my family and to be present to my own needs and God’s calling upon my life as your pastor.  I had time to listen to God’s voice, read books and soak in God’s instructions for the coming weeks and months. I thank God for the snow, which wrapped our community in a blanket of winter rest!  Schools closed, meetings were canceled, and some of us had an opportunity to exhale the tensions and stress of highly structured lives. I realize some peoples’ stress increased: emergency work crews, power companies working over-time to restore energy outages, businesses that thrive on emergency conditions, people who are isolated, lonely or in strained relationships.
            Moses’ words are simple: choose life or death, there is no middle road. Every choice we make in life brings us closer or leads us further from God. As a Stephen Leader, I acquired a beautiful diagram which I often use when I am counseling people. The diagram shows how some people going through a personal crisis never recover, because they choose the path of greater brokenness and isolation, whereas others choose the path of wholeness. We do have choices about how we respond to tragedy, loss, & illness in our lives. God does not expect us to deny our pain or repress our feelings, but to work through them by seeking outside help, seeking God and eventually by helping ourselves, when our strength begins to return.
            Jesus words in Matthew 5 are also about choices, but he challenges us to reflect upon our heart intentions as well as our outward actions.  Jesus does not contradict the laws of Moses, but transcends them and calls us to a higher way of life than dutiful obedience to the externals.  Jesus shows the deeper intentions of God’s law and all four themes in this passage revolve around a common theme:  broken relationships.
            Each of the laws that Jesus calls us to transcend are centered in relationships.  You have heard, “You should not murder…” but I say: if you are angry, insulting or dismissing towards another human being, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  When Jesus extends the law against murder to include all of these intentions that find a home in our hearts, we are ALL liable to the hell of fire, are we not?  Is there anyone in here that has not harbored ill will towards someone, even if it is for a just cause?  I know I certainly have and probably still do if I am 100% honest with myself.
            Jesus invites us to get very REAL in this passage, so real in fact, that if we harbor ill will towards anyone, Jesus does not want us to bring our gifts and offerings in worship, until we have made an effort to be reconciled with our brother, sister, or even our enemy.  That’s how REAL and practical Jesus wants us to be in worship.  We may be clean as a whistle on the outside, but we may harbor death and destruction within us, which is how Jesus portrayed the Pharisees in Matthew 23:
 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside you are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Jesus applies the same criteria to adultery, saying if you even look at a woman with lust or desire to have her for your own pleasure, which would also apply to a woman looking at a man for her own pleasure outside of marriage God knows your intentions and God knows you have strayed from the path of life.
Finally, Jesus challenges his listeners to ALWAYS speak the truth in season and out of season. Let your word be “Yes” or “No” – and do not swear by anything on earth or in heaven, because every word out of your mouth should be trustworthy and reliable.
Living in a small town is GREAT for people who seek to live their lives transparently and with integrity, but for those who try to do things behind closed doors, illegally, or under the radar, it is pretty difficult to keep a secret in a place like St. Pauls.  That’s a good thing really, because people who know us hold us accountable.
Our last Scripture of the morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul is chastising them, for failing to mature in their faith. His words are as relevant in 2014 as they were in Corinth.  Many people in churches are still drinking milk rather than eating solid food, because we are living according to our flesh and our limited human wisdom, rather than seeking the Spirit and living in God’s will.
One clear piece of evidence for spiritual immaturity is jealousy and quarreling.  The Corinthians were split up into all sorts of factions:  some said they belonged to Paul, others to Apollos, who were two different messengers of the Gospel. When Christians splinter apart based on which leaders they follow, or which teacher they like best, they are still drinking from a bottle, they are not sitting at adult’s table.  ALL OF US are God’s servants, working together to plow God’s fields in St. Pauls and build God’s church in St. Pauls.
Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God is the One who gives growth.  We who are the workers share a common purpose and each one’s labor is precious in God’s sight, but it is GOD who is at the center of our LIFE TOGETHER and God is the One who gives spiritual growth and guides our mission as a community of faith.
In the past several Sundays we have talked about getting beyond ourselves and finding God’s will and purpose for our church’s present and future.  I want to tell you about one particular church that prayerfully discerned God’s mission for their congregation.
Brenda Buckwell was pastor of a small declining urban congregation. When she asked the leadership team:  “What is your greatest desire in ministry?” a tenderhearted gentleman in his early seventies, with head held high, stated, “To keep the doors of the church open until the oldest generation dies.”   Buckwell says no one seemed particularly surprised. Everyone recognized the signs of hopelessness and poverty in their town: the closed stores, drug dealers standing on the corners. There was no market for church renewal.
Brenda writes that she took a deep breath and the infilling of the Holy Spirit and replied: “You can certainly do that if you would like. I can speak to the bishop about sending someone here to your declining ministry to do just that, close the congregation. But I am not that pastor. If you would like to venture forth with me, we can discover God’s desire and mission for this congregation together.” (p. 50)
Her words DID surprise them, but they began a prayerful journey of discernment at First United Methodist Church in Zanesville, Ohio.  Making a long story short Buckwell describes how the leadership team set aside their personal agendas at each church council meeting for six months. Then, with a unanimous uplifting of the Spirit, a collective aha! – birthed new vision and life into the fragile congregation. They practiced “Lectio Divina” collectively during those six months until the leadership team came to the unanimous and heart-felt decision to create The Lifewell Free Store where no money changed hands and throngs of people came to find what they needed.
            When the Leadership Team first shared this plan with the congregation, the next week 80-year olds were on the floor or climbing ladders with paint or mops in their hands.  The church turned empty rooms into new possibilities; an ecumenical leadership board was formed to govern the Free Store and a television broadcast announced its grand opening.
            As the Lifewell Free Store grew and thrived and brought life to their community another gentle-spirited 70-year old woman summed up the miracle in words that Brenda Buckwell will never forget. She asked:  “Why hasn’t any pastor ever before in all my years of going here taught us to pray like this?” (p. 51). Their store is now an oasis of hospitality for their neighborhood! (p. 53). AND the hearts of the people in the congregation are on fire.
            Dwight Judy tells many more REAL stories in his book, A Quiet Pentecost: Inviting the Spirit into Congregational Life. Through a season of intentional and regular prayer many churches are finding God’s mission for their congregation at the grassroots level.  I hope ALL OF YOU will join us this coming Wednesday night, February 19th, at 7:00 p.m. when we will meet for our first service of intentional prayer and healing. Come to receive healing for yourself and/or bring someone who needs to be soaked in the presence of God’s unconditional love and grace.  Let’s make space for the holy moments we all desire in our heart of hearts. Let us pray.

Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. I, p. 341

Dwight H. Judy, A Quiet Pentecost: Inviting the Spirit into Congregational Life. (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2013), 49-51.