Sometimes I feel like sermons have gotten a bad name. At best, a lot of people expect sermons to be kind of boring, and at worst they’re morality lectures or unrealistic guilt trips. Dictionary.com also offers the helpful synonyms “harangue” and “tirade.”
Both of our scripture texts this morning are taken from biblical sermons (by Moses and by Jesus), and today that definition feels totally appropriate. On the surface, these are nothing more than lists of rules about anger, sex, and cursing, coupled with vague threats (or not-so-vague threats) of judgment and death and fire. It’s enough to turn anyone off, and much more pleasant just to stop listening and skip over to the more interesting stories.
I know I hate being told what to do, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. Lately it seems as though our society is built on the idea of choices. We make so many little decisions over the course of a day, starting from our first cup of coffee. No longer is the choice just “decaf or regular”; now we’ve got latte or Americano, cappuccino or mocha, drip or French press, fair trade, estate-grown, organic, or conventional… the list goes on and on.
But when it comes down to it, the choice we make there doesn’t have any real impact, beyond saving a few bucks or a vague feeling of moral superiority. If we don’t have that choice, though, you can bet someone will complain about it on Twitter, maybe with the self-conscious hashtag #firstworldproblems.
It is hard to see the impact of our choices and our ways of life. Some of our choices have immediate repercussions, but often even those are sometimes hard to connect the dots. It takes a particular kind of self-reflection to notice, for instance, that when we gossip about one another, we usually stir up conflict; or when we insist on our own ways without considering others, we create tension and resentment; or when we hold grudges against our friends, we not only poison that relationship but carry around a heavy knot of anger and unease in our own chests.
We have been told to forgive, but forgiveness is hard! Why would we want to follow that law? What’s in it for us?? The ancient Israelites had a very cause-and-effect morality, as did the cultures around them, in which they understood that every bad thing that happened must be the result of some sin they had committed, some way that had displeased God by breaking God’s law.
That kind of worldview would certainly give people a motivation for good behavior. Of course, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that good people still suffer and bad people seem to get away with things, based more on social politics or bias or just luck than on anything either one has done to “deserve” their fate.
This weekend, for instance, another white man in Florida seems to have gotten away with the murder of another unarmed Black teenager. 17-year-old Jordan Davis was shot and killed at a gas station because Michael Dunn thought he and his friends were playing their music too loud. Dunn will serve jail time for the attempted murders of Davis’s friends, but nothing for the shooting death of Jordan Davis himself.
It is hard to feel motivated toward righteous behavior when everything around us seems to be sending the message that innocence won’t protect you, and even a murder committed with hatred and fear isn’t enough to be punished by our human systems. Why should we follow God’s laws? Does it even matter if we’re right or wrong?
Moses says God’s ways bring life, but that life becomes harder and harder to see. The life God promises is so often overshadowed by the death and hopelessness we see around us. It is harder and harder to see the consequences of our actions, and the decision to follow in God’s ways or not becomes less and less clear.
* * *
When I first read the Deuteronomy passage for today, in which Moses urges people to make the choice of life over death, I was reminded of a wonderful bit by the comedian Eddie Izzard. In the midst of a long routine about the history of the Western world, he is talking about the formation of the Church of England and their difficulty with the rigid morality of the Catholic church of that period.
He says, “You know, the Spanish Inquisition wouldn’t have worked with the Church of England. It would all be: ‘You there! Tea and cake, or death?’
‘Ah, cake please.’
‘Very well, give him cake. And you – cake or death?’
‘Uh, cake for me too.’
‘Very well, give him cake too! You – cake or death?’
‘Death! No, no, cake! Cake.’”
Somehow, “cake or death?” is the easiest question in the world, even if you don’t much like cake. But Moses asks, “will you choose the way of life, or the way of death?” and we still haven’t managed to answer that question all these millennia later.
But it doesn’t feel quite so simple, does it. We start to stretch the cause-and-effect over a longer period of time, and suddenly the ways in which God leads us start to feel like an awful lot of work for not a lot of payoff. And then Jesus goes and takes the laws of Moses and makes them even more demanding, with all this graphic language about cutting off hands and ripping out our own eyes, and it’s enough to make anyone wonder why we started out on this path in the first place.
I imagine Jesus’ version: “You have heard it said, ‘Cake or death?’ But I say to you, unless you bake a cake and share it with your enemy, you will die.”
Uh, do I have to bake it from scratch, or is a mix okay? But Jesus, I’m out of eggs, and I’m not going to the store until they get the roads a little clearer. I’m a terrible baker, anyway.
* * *
The details of faithful lives have shifted a bit over the years since Moses laid out the laws of morality for a nomadic, agricultural people, and since Jesus re-told them for a community under Roman occupation, in a patriarchal culture where a divorced woman, for instance, was left alone and almost entirely without protection. But as we translate the details – what does it mean today, “cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker”? – we find threads of truth: God’s way is honesty and respect for one another. God’s way is love, even for those people we don’t like very much. God’s way is truthfulness, and God’s way is protecting those people who are most vulnerable.
And that is, unfortunately, not the way of the world we live in. Even when we try to build structures and make laws that support these principles, we are human, and we get things wrong. The ways of God take some effort, and we’ve got other things to worry about.
The words I read from Matthew’s gospel today are a part of what’s known as the Sermon on the Mount, continuing the story from last week (“You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world”) and the week before (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”). For the first time in Matthew’s story, Jesus sets out in detail what the Kingdom of God looks like. And the laws of this kingdom are not like the ways of the world we know.
Jesus calls blessed those people the world ignores. Jesus takes the laws people know, and twists them until they feel almost impossible to fulfill, and says these are the laws of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom values a concern for other people that will get you killed in the world’s kingdoms.
And it seems that Jesus knew this well. After all, look where it got him, living by these rules. And yet, that’s where he calls us, if we really want to follow him. You are the light of the world, he says, you are the salt of the earth. You make the world taste better.
It’s as if he knows how very deeply the ways of righteousness conflict with the ways of the world. Following in that path is not easy, and the reward probably won’t be quick or obvious. But that’s God’s way.
The world is used to anger, and grudge-holding, and insults and contempt. We’re not in the habit of setting aside what we’re doing to resolve our conflicts, we’re used to holding them tight in our chests and letting them fester until they explode in violent rage at someone who happens to be standing nearby. Living by God’s law means, sometimes, doing the counter-intuitive thing because that is what brings peace and healed relationships.
And we can dream of a world where God’s laws of justice and of respect for one another are just the way things work. But while we dream, we are called also to live in those ways now, in the midst of a world which often feels hostile to the kind of revolutionary love Jesus shows us. You are the light of the world, he says – you show the people a better way. You are the salt of the earth – you make the world taste good. You are cake in a bitter land.
Sometimes it seems like everything around us is hatred and fear, cold slushy dampness and needs unfulfilled. God speaks of a better way, a way of love and of justice, of caring for one another and for our world. And for now at least, somehow it is up to us to make that way real. But can we choose cake in a world that keeps choosing death?
2/20/14 update: I just came across this video, which is somehow a perfect illustration of “choosing cake”: