Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed
Life and Death Decisions
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
“Life and Death Decisions”
February 16, 2020 | First Presbyterian Church | Auburn, AL
Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord 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 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
On any given day, we are overwhelmed with choices. What time to wake up, what to wear, eat for breakfast. Which way to drive to work or school (or, whether to leave the house or not at all!) Choices over what to put in our grocery cart or watch on TV. You get it.
We’re taught that having these choices is a good thing: work hard and do well in school so that as you get older you will have as many choices as possible!
But choices mean decisions, and with all these decisions before us each and every day, often we begin to grow a bit weary — “decision fatigue”, it’s called. Soon we might begin to wonder if these choices we make really matter much at all. And if 90% of the choices we’re making are based on our personal preferences or convenience — what happens when we’re faced with a choice that has implications for others?
The book of Deuteronomy takes us back to a very different time. Choices were few and every. single. one of them mattered.
Just to make sure you know where we are in the story: today’s text is known as Moses’ “farewell address” to the people of Israel. They haven’t entered the promised land yet but they’re about to and knowing that he will not be going with them, Moses stops the entire entourage and says: Remember. Remember that you were once slaves - with no choices. Remember what it was like in the wilderness - with no food. Never forget what it felt like to be hungry and how God always came through for you.
Not unlike a parent sending a child off to college Moses then charges Israel to “choose life” as they go forward by “obeying the commandments” and observing God’s law because Moses knows something they don’t: Soon they will know a different kind of life, a better life (in many ways) a life filled with abundance and choices they never had when they were merely surviving.
And he knows they will forget what it was like when it was not a choice, whether or not to share with their neighbors, because when you have nothing and every day is just a matter of making it to the next - choices are very clear.
But in the promise land, where milk and honey flow and crops flourish and life is good. They will forget. And life will begin to become about preference and convenience. Neighbors will become competitors and some of God’s commands will begin to seem “optional”.
Desperate to make an impression strong enough to stay with them in the next phase of the journey, Moses has no choice but to point to extremes.
“No matter how good life may seem” he says to them. “At the end of the day there is really only one choice you are ever going to make, and it is the choice between life and death.”
So I have to wonder if the Israelites were thinking what I thought when I read this:
Why would anyone choose death?
But if you notice the language Moses’ uses it’s: don’t be, “led astray” to the ways of death. The kind of death Moses speaks of is tricky, sneaky and gently lures us in.
Author Kathleen Norris spent years exploring a Latin term, “acedia” (uh-see-dee-uh) first used in the early monastic tradition to describe a state of apathy. It’s related to depression, but it’s not depression. Its greek root is along the lines of “a lack of care”: lack of care for the self, for others, lack of care for one’s relationship with God. Norris describes it as “the ease of indifference”.
Does it really matter what I eat for breakfast? Or wear to work? Or watch on TV? Probably not. But in a world filled with so much. And so many, many choices - this is how the slow creep of death enters our life.
Because as acedia begins to wear on us, that indifference growing because we’re just worn out over all these choices - that becomes our attitude toward other choices in our life. Preacher Fred Craddock describes this death of compassion as “the ability to look at a starving child… with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’… Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well… that’s not my dad.’ The numbing of our spirit to the point where we look out on the incredible gift of God’s creation and just… don’t care.
Death takes many forms. And the slow creep of acedia is the first step in that direction. Overwhelmed with choices, we become numb to the fact that matters of life and death are before us every day. And when we do not see them for what they are, our relationship with God begins to suffer and the community of faith starts to fall apart.
When death sneaks up on Israel, they forget. They fear and hoard and turn against one another, away from God’s commandments. They forget what we were reminded of by Dr. Brennan Breed last week at our Leith Lecture series, that God’s law was put into place to protect the entire community, but especially the vulnerable people.
- Deut. 15: cancelling the debts of the poor - Deut. 23: offering shelter to runaway slaves
- Deut. 24: paying employees fairly
(this list goes on and on…)
As Israel strays from these laws they forget that the vulnerable ones suffer most when God’s law is neglected. The ones with choices begin to go numb, their relationship with God slipping into the grips of acedia, and soon the community of faith no longer fulfills their call to protect the ones whose lives need protecting most.
“Death”, Norris writes, “is a slow process of giving ourselves over to what does not matter.”
I don’t think any of us would ever “choose death” but I can see how the slow creep of indifference can happen to a church that fails to stay grounded in the Word of God.
When Jesus began his ministry what troubled him most was that death had snuck up on God’s people and they didn’t even realized it. Men and women were showing up at the temple, going through he motions of prayer and making sacrifices. But at the same time, they didn’t seem to notice or care that orphans and widows were hungry, people were sick out of options needed help and compassion.
And so you know what he did? Jesus showed them what that looked like to live out Moses’ charge to “choose life”. Jesus he began by clarifying that some choices are just not worth our energy: Matthew 6:31 he says, “do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ — your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” As if to say, “Don’t spend your energy on these choices.”
Instead, he says: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12). And he began to walk around saying and doing bold, even outrageous sorts of things that snapped those who had become indifferent out of their haze. He opened their eyes to the fact that all around them, people - their neighbors - were slipping into death and that it was up to the ones with choices to choose life by offering the suffering a life line that could reel them back into the community of faith. Back to the promise and blessing of the God of Israel.
Last week at the end of the SS hour Dr. Breed was thanking the class and he offered this church a compliment for the work we are doing with Bravehearts. (If you’re not familiar with Bravehearts, this is a partnership we have with Auburn’s social work program four days a week. Young adults with moderate to severe disabilities who would otherwise not have a place to go during the day come here and fill this place with life doing art and movement and all kinds of learning.)
Of Bravehearts, Dr. Breed said: “You’re helping vulnerable people - you’re doing what Moses asked.”
That comment got me thinking. Bravehearts is one big way this congregation chooses to offer life to those who might not have many choices.
Another big way is through Presbyterian Community Ministry, by choosing to offer interest-free loans and grants to those whose only other choice might be a high-interest, predatory loan. To them, we offer the possibility of hope - and new life.
And then I got to thinking about other ways that we choose life around here — some of them have official names like, “Blessings Bunch” and “Sowers and Knitters” but a lot them are the choices we make every day that might come disguised as insignificant but to someone might be the difference between finding new life or slowly slipping into death. Things like:
Praying for someone who is finding it difficult to pray for themselves. Sitting together at a meal with someone who has had a hard week. Worshipping, singing hymns that stir up a memory or a feeling we can’t quite explain. Remembering the stories of Jesus together and then putting them into practice. Expressing gratitude to God for all the gifts in our lives. Learning to live for something deeper and better than our own preferences or convenience.
This is what it means to choose life: for ourselves, and for others.
Nick and I have been talking a lot lately about what the next five and ten years are going to look like at this church. You hear about Presbyterian churches closing or “dying” on a regular basis these days. Of course I don’t ever worry about this church having to close its doors. But a true threat to us, one that we must always be aware of is that tricky, sneaky noonday demon of acedia, that apathy that can try to lure us into thinking that what we do here doesn’t really matter or make a difference.
It matters. For many of us, and those we serve, what happens at this church truly is the difference between life and death. So we have to keep choosing life — and we have to push ourselves to keep our eyes open and see who the vulnerable people are, who needs the life line thrown to them, who would Jesus seek out if he walked among us today?
In a world trying to overwhelm us with choices over things that do not matter, may we have the wisdom to discern the choices that do matter, and may we hold fast to the call to love and serve God and neighbor and choose that which brings life to all God’s people.