Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, February 12 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Dt 30:15-20; Ps 119:1-8; 1 Cor 3:1-9; Mt 5:21-37
“I have set before you life and death. Choose life.”
At the border of the new land, at a moment of profound transition for the children of Israel, the God whose name cannot be spoken lays down an extraordinary choice. Extraordinary, in part, because this God, who has divided the sea and led the people out of the empire into the desert, this liberating God, invites, but does not compel. God urges the people to choose life, but allows the possibility of choosing death. The God of the little ones hopes for our loyalty, our commitment. God hopes for our greater life, our greater lives, the fulfillment of our intended being. God will set these possibilities before us. But we must still reach out for them. We must still make that choice, we must make it over and over, we must still summon all our strength and courage to walk forward. It is a profound and amazing responsibility we are given, a call to life in its fullness and wonder.
It may seem, at least at first glance, that our gospel reading for today is not entirely consistent with that invitation, with its apparently inhumanly high standards of internal discipline and its metaphors of self-mutilation. And there is no doubt that is one of those passages of scripture which has been put to some very bad uses, in fact been used to limit and damage lives, to tell people that they can only be acceptable to God by destroying their full selves; so we have to handle it carefully.
And yet, if we can strip away the misuse, there are real, difficult, important truths here. For it is not easy to choose life. It did not come easily to Israel in the wilderness , and even less so to Israel in the land, where they would soon become the holders, and often abusers, of power. And it does not come easily to us. We have all been formed in a world of death, a world of competition and consumerism and violence, a world of possession and dispossession, and if we are to move towards life, we must be changed. And some of that change means loss, means sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of our selves, our true selves in the image of God. The call to life is never a call to deny or destroy our truth. But the sacrifice, sometimes, of many things we have believed to be essential and our own.
At the climactic moment of the Lords of the Rings—a moment, by the way, somewhat ruined in the movie version—Frodo, who has carried the deadly ring of power so loyally and so long, finally succumbs to its temptation, and puts it on. He is saved, and the world is saved, only because the apparently useless and wretched Gollum leaps on him, at the edge of the fire, and bites off his finger. Neither one of them, at that point, intends good. They are both too caught up in the seductive visions of the culture of death. But, much earlier, Frodo and his companions had opportunities to kill Gollum, and chose then to spare him. And out of that distant mercy, and out of all the twisted desires and mistakes and illusions at Mount Doom, grace somehow brings about the victory of life.
So when we hear Jesus talk about plucking out our eyes and cutting off our hands, it is something more like that. It is something more like gnawing our way out of a trap, whatever it costs. Through our own volition, or through the hard mercy of circumstance, or—mostly—a mixture of both, we are challenged to cut away those things in ourselves which are deforming us, deceiving us, the things which make us lie or which lie to us about ourselves. Leaving aside the hyperbole and the rhetorical flourishes, what is new and important in this passage is that we are being called not only to scrutinize what we do, but to look inward as well.
What we will find when we do that is often not very nice—we will, as Jesus tells us, find that kind of anger which tries to wipe out the other’s value, we will find that kind of desire which tries to use another person purely as an instrument for our own gratification. We will find dishonesty and distortion, we fill find too many longings for the shiny prizes our society hands out to the winners, and we will find toxic self-hatred too, layer after layer of confusion and pain. But we can only start to cut away these things if we know them first. That is part of what practices like prayer and meditation are about, the often rather horrifying meeting with our own spiritual illnesses, which comes before—and continues through—the slow process of allowing that illness to be made better, by God’s persistent work in our souls, and by our choice to participate in that work. To reconcile, to rebuild, to try to live in something like consistency and truth. To turn towards love and joy and creation and beauty. To choose life over death.
The choice of life is also a choice which involves us, as it involved the children of Jacob, in complexity and ambiguity—the difficulties of spiritual maturity, as Paul reminds the Corinthians. To live in the land rather than as wanderers meant that the Israelites would live differently than they had done before; it also meant that there were many more mistakes that could be made, and over their history they would make nearly every single mistake available to them, as the Christian community would also later do. They would go to war with their neighbours, they would ignore the poor, they would choose sociopathic leaders and then obey them, they would oppress the strangers and the different; and we here would do, and still do, all these things as well. We have been given free will, we have been given choice, and this means we have been given the option to make bad choices, to wander in the direction of death. But that strange God will always keep calling us back.
For the choice of life is never a single act, but a thousand tiny choices, constantly repeated. It is the choice to move, to risk, to change. It is the choice to commit to particular values and relationships, which may set us against the world as it is. It is the choice, which some of you make, to sit up all night in a cold church to offer safety and kindness, or to get up early in the morning and make toast and eggs for a hundred or so hungry wanderers. It is the choice to create beauty—music, art, scholarship—in a world which measures value only in cash. It is the choice to care for people who are too old or too sick or too badly damaged to return that care; or the choice simply to persist in loving others when love is complicated and hard. To go, in the words of William Blake, and love without the help of anything on earth.
It may mean choosing to leave situations—jobs, habits, entire ways of life—for unpredictable new paths. It may mean the sacrifices of safety, of accustomed relationships, of the social rewards that come from doing what you are “supposed” to do, it means overriding a lifetime of training in obedience and conformity and getting by. It may mean real loss, an amputated finger that will not grow back. We accept this, as we can. We heal around the loss, as we can. We find, somehow, new ways to be.
It is the choice to continue the struggle for love and justice, in the face of darkness and pain and apparent defeat, to keep on challenging conditions which will never change, when it would be so much easier to lie down, to stop choosing, to let the sad world be. And it is sometimes just the choice, made every day and every minute, to keep on walking when every step hurts. The choice simply to get up in the morning and live, to insist on your own life, as the child of God you are. Sometimes this is the hardest, bravest, most necessary choice which can be made.
Life and death are set before, so choose, and keep choosing. Gnaw yourself free if you need to. Cross the Jordan, and limp towards the kingdom.