Choose life

Title: Choose life
Texts: Deut 30:15-20, Ps 119:1-9, Matt 5:21-37
Date: Feb 13, 2011
Author: Isaac Villegas

“Choose life so that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you” (Deut 30:19-20).

The God of Israel cares about life—not only our lives, but also the life of the world. God is a God of life. This passage we read from Deuteronomy remembers the covenant God makes with the people; and it’s a covenant of life, that God and God’s people may live together, and flourish.

In our passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus offers further instruction about how God’s covenant leads to life. That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is all about. It’s about how can we live together as God’s people, people who flow with God’s eternal life, pouring out blessing on all people. In his sermon, Jesus tells us what it means to be people who choose God’s life for the world.

“Don’t murder,” Jesus says at the beginning of our passage (Matt 5:21). That’s no way to live with one another. Such an act does not belong among a people who are walking with the God of life. And the anger, Jesus says, the hatred inside of us that overflows into acts of violence—if we harbor such attitudes toward one another, we won’t be able to live into the fullness of God’s life among us. If we are busy holding grudges, we cut off opportunities for us to welcome God’s life. Yet, through forgiveness, God shows us a new way, the way of life.

Jesus goes on, in his sermon, helping us to see what it means to identify our life with God’s life, to call ourselves the church, to be people who choose life even while we live in a world of death.

I have three images of what it means to choose life. I offer them as the fruit of many hours of watching movies and videos this past week; that’s basically about all I could do since I was sick.

The first image of choosing life comes from James Bond. Katie and I watched a bunch of the 007 movies from the 1960s, starting with Dr. No.

James Bond seems to embody the typical dream of American masculinity, of what it means to be a man, a real man. He’s always the hero, saving the world at the very last minute. And he always has the best gadgets and fancy toys—whether they are cars or guns. And he always gets the girl—or, I should say, he always gets a few girls; he sleeps with two or three different women per film.

And all of it is a lie, because we never get to see the loneliness of waking up next to another stranger, in another bed. We never get to see the pain of Bond trying to fall asleep at night, but being haunted with the face of his recent kill, burned into his memory.

There’s a dishonesty to the films. The life of James Bond isn’t real, but you already knew that. Nonetheless, there is still something attractive about a life of adventure and getting what you want, and looking good while you do it.

The world of agent 007 couldn’t be more foreign to the world of Psalm 119: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.”

Now, if you are like me, I bet you associate a word like “blameless” with boredom. I want to yawn. Bond is definitely not blameless, and his life seems quite interesting. Why would we choose the life Jesus tells us about, the life written in God’s law, when it seems so boring?

Like I said earlier, the Bond films are dishonest, especially the ones in the 1960s. They distort the truth; they mask the truth about what was going on in the world at the time: the truth about the Cold War, about the arms race between Russia and the United States, about the real possibility of mutually assured destruction through atomic warfare. There was no need for the American public to worry too much about the Cuban Missile Crisis or Vietnam if they knew that James Bond was on the job. The 007 films in the 60s depicted a false reality on the big screen in order to keep the public entertained long enough to forget about the truth, the truth about their society and the world.

This brings me to second set of movies. Katie and I also watched some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. I especially enjoy the ones about people who try to keep an inconvenient truth a secret, people who try to repress truth in order to continue to live a lie. These movies are basically the opposite of what the Bond films are about.

Take, for example, that classic Hitchcock movie, Psycho. It’s all about a young man, Norman Bates, who can’t accept the truth about the death of his mother. He refuses to acknowledge her death, and ends up living in a false reality, one where his mother still is not dead. Bates dresses up like her and pretends to be her. He lives in denial of the truth of her death, which ends up affecting the rest of his life. By masking the truth, Norman Bates loses his grasp on reality and ends up killing others in order to continue to live in his lie. He can never let go of his lie, so he never chooses life, real life, life without illusions. It’s not a happy ending.

In another film, Under Capricorn, Hitchcock shows the freedom that comes over someone when she finally tells the truth. After years of living in a darkened stupor, Ingrid Bergman’s character is finally set free when she confronts her lie, the secret she’s been keeping for years, the lie that has been holding her hostage. She confesses to killing her brother. Life doesn’t necessarily become easier after her confession. But she does finally get her life back. She comes back from the deadness of unreality, and can be herself again. Through her confession, she chooses life.

God’s people are people who confess the truth, who tell the truth about the world and about ourselves. We are people who refuse to live in illusions, who refuse to live according to the lies of the evil one. This kind of truthfulness is at the heart of what Jesus says at the end of our passage from Matthew:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Jesus tells us what it means to be people of truth. If you are someone who is known to be truthful, if everyone knows you live and speak without deceit, then you don’t need to swear. You don’t need to appeal to a power outside of yourself to get someone to believe you. You are your word. But, if you live in such a way that people don’t know if you are in touch with reality, then people will think twice about trusting your word. If I have a history of deceiving myself and lying to others, then you will not trust me.

Jesus says that his followers, people who let God’s law shape their lives, will be so truthful, in word and in deed, that people will trust us when we say yes and when we say no. Our words will echo with the truthfulness of our lives, with the way we try to disentangle our lives from the illusions of this world.

“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” I know I said earlier that a blameless life sounds like a boring life. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Truth can be a force of life-giving power.

What if, when we think of a blameless life, a way of life that testifies to the truth no matter what—what if, when we hear about this kind of life, we reach for those images from Egypt, of people from all walks of life, speaking the truth about what their government has kept secret—stories of secret police torturing citizens, of leaders taking from the poor and giving to the rich, of repression and unfairness and injustice.

These are the third set of images from my week: videos of the people of Egypt, refusing the lies of their former government, and speaking of the possibility of a new society.

What if those protestors, speaking the truth about their society no matter what personal cost may come—what if they offer us a vision of how we too can live in truth, to tell the truth about our lives and our society. Our society is also broken. But we go on with the illusion that everything will be okay, that the government usually corrects itself, that there are checks and balances, protecting us from the worst case scenarios. But what if we are also being kept from the truth about our societies, about where we are going?

The truth is that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world—much more than the rate of imprisonment of the countries we usually like to point to when we think of repressive regimes: like Russia, China, and Iran. We put more people in prisons than they do. For every 100,000 people in the United States, our government sends about 750 people through the prison system.

And if we want to tell the truth about race in this country, Yes, we should talk about how far we have come now that we have Barack Obama in the White House. But the truth about racism should also include the truth about our prison population: that “the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 6).

What would it mean to choose life, given this reality? Jen Graber, a former member of our church, just came out with a book that tells part of the history of prisons in America. Here’s the first sentence of her book: “Americans incarcerate.” It’s a great first line. What does it mean to be known as a people who incarcerate? who have become good at finding ways to put people behind bars?

We hear our Scriptures tell us today to “choose life,” to choose the God of life, the One who gave his life for our life, who lived a blameless life in order to reveal to us the way of truth in a world full of lies. When we talk with this God, we give ourselves untangling our lives from the illusions all around us so that we can see the truth about ourselves. So we start with confession: an act which invites us into a new way of being in the world. Please join me in the confession included at the back of our hymnals, # 697.

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