Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
0:15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 30:16 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. 30:17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 30:18 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. 30:19 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, 30:20 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.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9 3:1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 3:2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3:3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 3:4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 3:7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 3:8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 3:9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Thursday morning it was foggy at my place. Dense thick fog—the kind you feel like you can almost feel between your fingertips—and it didn’t look like it was going away anytime soon. Inside, I was having one of those mornings. You know the kind. Where it just seems like nothing is going right. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say that by 8:15 when I went to throw toast in the toaster and found that my bread was moldy, it felt like it might be just about the last straw. I got in my car, dropped off some soup for my sick sister, and then headed through the fog, up the hill to Mary and Joseph Retreat center for my monthly Spiritual Direction appointment.
What comes next probably won’t surprise you, as I drove out the coast it was still super foggy, enough that I had to turn my headlights on, and it continued to be foggy a fair way up the hill. And then, within the course o an eighth of a mile or so, it went from socked-in-white, to brilliant clear sunshine, vibrant green trees, sparkling in the dew. Where the visibility before had been barely enough to see the stoplight a bit ahead, now I was looking out over the clouds and seeing the snow capped mountains across LA. Amazing.
What ran through my head was, “Wow, that would be a good sermon illustration about how God is always there, shining and offering us peace, even when we feel in the fog,” and I tried to take it in. But honestly, I still felt foggy and tired and flustered.
When I got up to the retreat center, I went and walked the labyrinth. Because that practice is supported to calm us, right? And bring peace and acceptance and clarity. As I walked my brain was still churning. I started singing, “Be still and know that I am God” over and over and over, willing for some silence, waiting for that wonderful spiritual experience to happen. I got to the middle, and my brain was still bouncing all over the place. From 501(c)(3) paperwork questions, to that conversation I had yesterday, to a wedding detail, to a theological pondering, to wondering whether I could squeeze in a haircut, to…
I took a deep breath, knelt down and put my head on the rock in the middle of the labyrinth. And listened.
And what did I hear? Chatter! Chaos! Chirping and squeaking and clattering, the, birds, the birds, all around me! They seemed to be making as much noise as my head was. But they, they seemed okay with it. They didn’t seem to be fighting it or being annoyed at it. In fact, they seemed quite joyful and full of life. They were all into the chatter, making the most of it, living it up, finding life in the middle of everything.
Our text from the Hebrew scriptures today is these well worn words of Deuteronomy, “I, (the Lord), have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity….choose life.”
As I was digging deeper into this text, I began to wonder about this word “life.” I went back to the Hebrew and found that the word—ha-hay-yim—that is translated here “life” is the same word that is found as the tree of life in Genesis. This is the word we hear in Numbers when the comparison is being given between the death of the plague and the living. This is the Deuteronomic call to choose the life of heaven and earth. This is the word that we find in Psalm 56 when we are assured that God is the light of the living, and in Psalm 116 that “the Lord is in the land of the living.” This “life” that we’re called to choose seems inextricably intertwined with the God who both gives the life and calls us to choose it.
When I think about choices, I pretty quickly go the direction of duality. There is one option or another, and likely one choice is right and the other wrong, We must write a pros and cons list to decide. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of pro and con lists, and in lists in general, but this text has got me wondering a little.
It gives us a choice, yes, but it doesn’t get very detailed, does it? It doesn’t define what “choosing life” is, or set out the one and only right way to choose it. In fact, what it asks is for us to do the things that keep us in alignment with God. To obey the commandments, to love God, to walk in God’s ways. These come down to tangible specific things, for sure, but they do not tell you which grocery store to go to, or what organization to give your charitable gift to, or what your next career step is, or whether you should take the time to get a haircut.
Nope, it just says this: “Choose life.”
And choosing life doesn’t mean it’s all clear, or simple and calm. In fact, it often means it’s messy and complicated, like the bird noises and the noises in my head. And the choice comes not in a way that erases that or eliminates the chatter immediately, but in the desire to keep showing up and trying to see the life in the world around us, pray for the life to make the compassionate choice, use a little humor instead of throwing the moldy bread at the wall.
Because it’s so easy to choose the death way. Not because we’re all about death, but because we’re tired, and sometimes lazy, and it’s just so ridiculously easy to get sucked into anxiety and worry.
But we’re offered this choice, over and over again. Like the waters of baptism remind us, that every day, every moment is a new beginning, an opportunity to turn and turn towards the God of life. And that God is always there with Her arms open wide, offering us that bigger perspective, reminding us that this is just one moment on the journey, drawing us towards love and life.
And this life, is this not what we need on each of our journeys and in our world together? It is so easy to get sucked into the death and despair, (and they are real, and need to be addressed). But not by being overcome by them, but by infusing ourselves and the world around us with life.
Because it’s this life that holds us; it’s this life that sustains us. The kind of life that doesn’t fight over which evangelist’s church you are part of, but reminds us as we read in the letter to the Corinthians, that we’re all in this together and the choice is to serve and love God and it is God who does the growing.
It’s not about a super clear-cut path, and it seems to be less important exactly how we identify or which rules we follow, or precisely how we parse doctrine. It’s about what we’re choosing, moment by moment and over the course of our lives, and how it is that we respond and face what we encounter on our way. And are we choosing the way of Love, the way of Life?
A little bit later, I sat on a bench at the retreat center, after realizing that I didn’t even have the right day for spiritual direction on my calendar and feeling overwhelmed by the complications and layers and so many things to keep track of in life. I prayed again for simplicity or peace or calm or something.
And then I looked up in the tree above me. And I noticed all the twisted layers and lines, the branches that overlapped and ran together and crisscrossed over each other. And I heard: it’s complicated too. But it’s choosing life. It’s complicated. And messy. And still you can choose life.
So maybe, maybe that’s the thing we can do. We may not be able to still our minds or keep track of everything going on or solve the world’s problems, but we can, each day, throughout the day, pause and remember God is nurturing us, God is caring and reminding us that the kingdom of heaven is needed here on earth and that the kingdom of heaven is within us, and among us. And if this is the case, we, need to choose life.
I’d like to end with a prayer from Thomas Merton, his words on choice and life:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”