It is very near the end of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, very near the end of the forty years that the twelve tribes have spent wandering and searching, now lost and now found, always somehow guided by God. And the aged Moses, 120 years old and near death but, the story tells us, his vigour unabated, gathers the tribes together. Within sight of the promised land, the land that they have longed for all of these years, Moses speaks to them on behalf of God.
I have set before you today life and death. Blessings and curses.
And then, maybe because the Israelites hesitate, pausing in uncertainty like a contestant on a game show invited to choose between two doors, Moses goes on:
This scene is beautiful and awe inspiring. But is it also just a little absurd? Is there an element of ridiculousness to it? Because surely the old man’s question, Would you prefer life or would you prefer death? is not one that the Israelites or anyone else should need to think about for very long.
Would you prefer an envelope full of cash or would you prefer to be pushed off the roof of a building?
Would you prefer a new pair of shoes, comfortable and fashionable in equal measure, or would you prefer botulism?
Would you prefer curried rice with asparagus, squash, and a garden salad on the side or would you prefer mayonnaise-flavoured ice cream?
Would you prefer life or death?
Of course you are going to choose life.
But maybe the absurdity, the stark obviousness of the choice that Moses offers God’s people is precisely what makes this story powerful. Maybe it is precisely how it tells us the truth.
Because life is the obvious choice.
And we don’t always choose it.
We all know people – maybe some of us here this morning have been people – who chose booze or pot or gambling or sex or whatever over their marriages, over their jobs, over their children, over God, over everything else. There is a dark joke that goes something like this:
There is no such thing as addiction. There are only things that we like doing more than being alive.
In a similar vein, we all know people – and here I will remove the maybe and say that we all, 100% of us, have been people – who have chosen selfishness over life.
When I take an inventory my life so far, one of the things that I have done or left undone that I might be most ashamed of, that I kind of don’t want to tell you about, came sometime late in my adolescence or early in my adulthood. It was Hallowe’en. And my folks were away. I don’t remember where or why but I do know that I was, like an aged Macaulay Culkin, home alone. But because my Mom was and is a meticulous planner, she had laid in bags and bags of miniature candy bars.
As the joke goes, I had one job. It was my job to open the door and praise the children in their costumes and drop candy bars into their bags.
But did I do my job?
I did not.
What I did was to turn off all of the lights in the house, go down to the basement, and watch Star Wars on VHS.
While eating all of the candy myself.
When I think of the word pathetic, I remember that moment in the basement.
Now, maybe what I’ve just shared with you is a moral triviality. Nobody got hurt, the few children who came and knocked on the door of our dark house and shouted Trick or Treat may have felt some fleeting disappointment. But I imagine that they then went on with their night and filled up their bags and everything was fine. It is likely that I am the only one who remembers that, on Hallowe’en circa 1990, the lights were turned off at 3824 West 1st Avenue.
But I remember. And maybe I feel as ashamed as I do by that memory because what I did that night feels like a parable, a parable for choosing something other than community, other than life.
When you and I live in a city in which, notwithstanding our manifest wealth, we tolerate human beings having nowhere but the pavement on which to sleep, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When you and I tolerate a scenario in which refugees on our southern border fleeing the worst kind of violence are met in the Land of the Free with cruelty, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When I and you tolerate more and more extreme weather and console ourselves that the stock market is booming, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off.
In these moments, we are choosing that which is not life. The choice between life and death may be obvious, comically so. But that doesn’t mean that we choose life. Because curses and death are familiar and predictable, addiction and selfishness are familiar and predictable. We know how they work, we know the rewards that they hold. We don’t know anything about the new land that waits across the Jordan. We know nothing. Except that God has told us that it is full of life.
And we’re not sure that we trust God’s word.
We are closing in on Lent. Ash Wednesday is in one and a half weeks. And it is that time of year when talk about giving stuff up and when we talk about sin.
Both of these things – giving stuff up and sin – are pretty significant and pretty regular sources of shame.
Giving stuff up is a source of shame because it swerves so easily out of spiritual practice and into that suspicious category that we call self-help. It is common, for instance, to give up some kind of treat during Lent. And maybe that practice would be okay, maybe it would be edifying. Except that a whole lot of us have baggage around food. And so this Lenten practice turns pretty easily into a diet, with all of the sad baggage that diets entail. As a friend of mine said in one of those jokes that tells the truth:
I’m so glad that Lent comes before swimsuit season. Maybe I can lose a few pounds.
Sin is often a source of shame because we regularly understand sin – or, and I want to insist on this, we regularly misunderstand sin – as being about self-loathing, often locating that self-loathing around our bodies and our sexuality. For the record, if anyone here this morning needs to hear it, masturbation and other healthy and loving expressions of sexuality are not and never were sins. Being gay is not and never was a sin. Being trans is not and never was a sin. Having a body that will not get you onto the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or Men’s Health – having a body that, in other words, is normal – is not and never was a sin. We could keep on going.
But what if we don’t need to define either of those practices – either giving stuff up or sin – in such a screwed-up way? What if they both could have good and life-giving meanings?
What if giving stuff up – or in the language of the Bible, fasting – is just what we heard God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said it was just last week:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What if that is what a fast looks like? What if that is what giving stuff up looks like?
And what if sin is just an ancient word that means selfishness?
What if therefore, when we speak of repenting from sin and when we speak of giving stuff up what we mean is that we are repenting of and we are giving up alienation, giving up indifference, giving up apathy, giving up selfishness, giving up sitting by ourselves in a dark basement eating candy? In doing so we are choosing community, we are choosing service, we are choosing love, we are choosing God. We are choosing life.
Now here’s the gospel, the amazing news: coming out of the basement isn’t just good for the people knocking on our door. It’s good for us. On that night thirty years ago, coming out of the basement not only would have given some costumed children a little more delight, but it would have given me so much more delight. I would have had a way, way better night if I had encountered those children’s happiness and wonder. And if I wouldn’t have had the sad tummy that came of eating all of that candy by myself. Repenting of sin, giving stuff up: what if the secret is that these things aren’t shame-filled sacrifices but, rather, they are joys?
Here we are. Here we are, gathered with Moses, looking across the Jordan and into new land, a land of uncertainty and possibility. I set before you life and death, the old man who is speaking on God’s behalf says. And then, because this never was a test, because this never was a trick question, because God never wanted us to fail, Moses opens up the teacher’s edition. He shows us the page with the answers written on it.
Moses and God whisper together,