A Homiletical Perspective
Many in our congregations, both young and old, are dealing with questions of mortality.
The obituaries we read often sound much the same. They tell how old people were when they died, where they will be buried, where they worked, what groups they joined, and to whom they were related. It is not the most meaningful information. It would be more interesting if obituaries told the truth.
“Bob Hickman grew up middle class and was so proud that he had worked his way up to upper middle class.” “Marsha Lawson was known as a big talker but no one could remember her saying anything that mattered.” “Harold Riley ignored his family but liked to brag that he had seen every episode of Seinfeld twice.”
Neither do obituaries say when life has been duly celebrated.
“Louise Chaplin loved her children and everybody else’s as her own.” “Annie Quinlin noticed things—the beauty of the rain, a touching song, a well-placed hug.” “Tony Martin enjoyed his job, and every now and then, he spoke a word of grace to a coworker who would not otherwise have heard it.”
It has been said that if poets wrote obituaries, then we would be reminded that we can either choose or refuse life.
Moses has been dealing with questions of mortality. He knows he is about to die. The Israelites are at the Jordan River about to enter the promised land. Moses is reminiscing on the peaks and valleys. He wants to tell his people once more how to live a good life. Moses wants them to hear what he is saying and take it to heart.
Moses’s farewell address seems to have lasted twenty-six chapters—significantly longer than most Sunday sermons. Moses reminds them of what they have been through: slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, receiving the commandments, and wandering in the wilderness. Then, on the edge of the promised land, Moses lays out the two ways between which Israel must decide: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (30:15).
What does it mean to choose life and prosperity? According to Moses, it means to love God with heart, mind, and soul (6:4-9). In the first few hours of his sermon (along with some ideas we may not like), Moses says that the good life includes canceling the debts of the poor (15:1-11), pushing government to guard against excessive wealth (16:18-20), limiting punishment to protect human dignity (19:1-7), restricting those who can be drafted (20:1-8), offering hospitality to runaway slaves (23:15-16), paying employees fairly (24:14-15), and leaving part of the harvest for those who need it (24:19-22).
When Moses looked back, he saw that life was best for the Israelites when they were trying to please God.
Moses finally comes to the conclusion of a powerful sermon: “Listen to what I have said today. I have laid it out for you, life and death, good and evil. Love God. Walk in God’s ways. Keep the commandments so that you will live, truly live, passionately, joyfully, blessed by God. I warn you. If you have a change of heart, refuse to listen, and serve little gods, you will die. It is your choice, life or death, blessings or curses” (30:15-19, my paraphrase).
The choices are not usually labeled “life” and “death.” Most of our decisions do not seem important, but life and death are before us every day. We choose death when we ignore God and choose anything inferior. Death is a slow process of giving ourselves to what does not matter. Modern life is impoverished with a lack of purpose. We rush to meet deadlines that are insignificant and bow before ideas that are not worthy. We live on our phones and seek to liked by others more than ourselves.
Moses’s sermon reminds us that our task is to enumerate the ways we choose life. Love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul. Give to the poor. Fight for justice. Care for the hurting. Treat others fairly. Share food with the hungry.
This text offers all of us a myriad of sacred possibilities. Learn things you have told yourself you would never learn. Enjoy simple things. Play with children. Laugh often, long, and loud. Cry when it is time to cry. Be patient with your own imperfections as well as the imperfections of others. Celebrate intimacy with the one to whom you have given your life. Surround yourself with what you love—whether it is family, friends, pets, music, nature, or silence.
Walk around the block. Turn off the television. Get together with your friends. Invite a stranger to lunch or dinner. Clean out a drawer. Read a book of poetry. Quit doing what is not worth your time. Do something so someone else will not have to. Give money to a cause you care about. Stop arguing. Apologize to someone, even if it was mostly his fault. Forgive someone, even if she does not deserve it. Have patience. Stop having patience when it is time to tell the truth. Figure out what you hope for and live with that hope.
Then worship with all your heart. Pray genuinely. Love your church. Believe that God loves you. Remember the stories of Jesus. See Christ in the people around you. Share God’s love with someone who has forgotten it. Delight in God’s good gifts. See that all of life is holy. Open your heart to the Spirit. Search for something deeper and better than your own comfort. Live in the joy beneath it all. Let God make your life wonderful.