The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 13, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Deuteronomy 30:15-20Psalm 119:1-81 Corinthians 3:1-9Matthew 5:21-37

By Bruce G. Epperly

What does it mean to choose life? In one way or another, today’s lectionary passages present visions of life-supporting and life-destroying behaviors and attitudes. Once again, the Epiphany readings join spirituality and ethics on an institutional as well as personal basis.

It is easy to forget that the commandments given to the Israelite people were communal as well as personal. As Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures assert from cover to cover, nations as well as people can choose life or death; nations as well as individuals, as Revelation affirms, have spiritual values that are reflected in their actions. The pathways of life and death, and prosperity and adversity, are intended for the Israelites as a people as well as to individual persons. In fact, individual and community can’t be separated in biblical ethics. If the nation walks in God’s ways, it will prosper; if it turns away to follow other gods and self-serving behaviors, it will decline. While this passage can be read in terms of a linear rewards-punishments, acts-consequences calculus, in which God is the sole source of reward and punishment, it can also be read in terms of a multi-factorial, naturalistic ethics in which our behaviors and values shape our future for good or for ill in the context of a variety of interpersonal and social factors. A nation that follows the pathways of justice will be healthier than one that lives by individualism, consumerism, and greed.

Clearly persons and nations can choose life or death, and this does not need to be a matter of divine punishment. Unbridled greed and consumerism have been factors in the current North American and global economic crisis. Failure to look at the common good and emphasis on lifestyle and profit-making leads to unemployment, foreclosures, and global climate change; it may even lead to war-making.

Following the ways of life involves a commitment to personal integrity and interpersonal sensitivity and fairness, it also involves corporate – whether business or governmental – practices that place justice and the well-being of the community and its inhabitants above personal gain. In many ways, these pathways are not externally imposed, but grounded in our nature as God-created beings, intended to live in healthy, just, and creative communities.

On an individual basis, choosing life also wells up from the nature of our life as relational as creatures as well as individuals. On the one hand, healthy relationships involve certain positive behaviors – sensitivity, sacrifice, concern, forgiveness. On the other hand, individual health involves both “do’s” and “don’ts” which may seem imposed from beyond but ultimately emerge from our makeup as humans – adequate exercise, healthy diet, moderate use of alcohol, avoidance of tobacco products, sufficient relatedness and physical contact, etc.

Choosing life involves turning toward the godward movements in our lives and social context. It involves institutional as well as personal decision-making. The results of turning from God’s pathway to the values of the gods of our time – rugged individualism, consumerism, private property, nationalism – ultimately involve destructive personal and global relationships.
Choosing the pathways of death may very well limit what God can do and the scope of divine possibilities in a particular community or individual. Opening to God awakens new and lively possibilities, while turning from God eventually cuts us off from a wellspring of energy and inspiration, even if things look healthy on the outside. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once stated that God’s aim or vision is the “best for that impasse” – in certain contexts and given certain patterns of decision-making, the best may be “bad,” that is, it may involve less than optimal possibilities.

The Psalm reiterates the words of Deuteronomy. Persons and nations that follow the divine movements in their lives and behaviors, who have internalized the “law,” find happiness and are blessed. They maintain their integrity even in challenging situations. God is able to do more creative and life-supporting things in their lives.

The feuds in Corinth also emerge from a failure to recognize the many and diverse godward movements of life, embodied in individual and communal vocations and gifts. The religious schisms and controversies arise from putting denomination and teacher first in place of our loyalty to God. They also emerge from an inability to affirm the cooperative nature of life: different teachers with their differing approaches serve God’s vision of salvation. Some plant, others water; all are doing God’s work. Corinthians asks us to look at the larger perspective and the fact that diversity in personality type, spiritual practices, methodology, and worship and theology can bring greater health and growth to the community.

In the spirit of Paul’s vision of the body of Christ, Apollos and Paul, for example, have different vocations for the welfare of the whole and the expansion of the gospel. Both are needed, but neither is all-important; the goal is mutual support and enrichment among the body’s organs, whether that body is a physical body, congregation, or denomination.

Matthew speaks of a pathway of personal integrity, which joins the inner and outer life. What we think about and our emotional lives shape how we act. Small things – like anger – are in a continuum with dangerous actions such as murder. Jesus is not denying our emotional life or personal attractions, or asking us to repress our feelings, but reminding us that we need to educate our emotions and thoughts – that what we feel and think has an impact on our overall well-being. Integrity involves the integration of the inner and outer life in ways that are life-giving for us and others. We can experience a healing of memories, emotions, and thoughts that enable us to move from alienation to reconciliation and learn to live by love and not fear.

Given the social nature of life, Matthew asks us to consider what would it be like for institutions to join protecting their citizens with forgiveness of other nations? What would it be like for nations to let go of anger and seek reconciliation with current and previous “enemies”? What would a foreign policy look like that joined national security with care for the earth and recognizing global interdependence. This surely is choosing life for us, our companions, and the world.

Today, the preacher might choose to focus on the healing power of choosing life through a time of healing prayer or laying on of hands or anointing with oil. Healing takes many forms and responds to the many conditions of life, both individual and corporate. We surely need healing of body, mind, spirit, and relationships, but we also need economic, political, and ecological healing.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.