“Choosing Life and Love” Colchester Federated Church, September 8, 2019, (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Some of you may recall that a movie I love so much is The Martian.  It tells the story of a NASA mission to Mars and a team of astronauts studying the red planet.  A fierce storm kicks up and the conditions make the planet unsafe.  So the astronauts must abort their mission and immediately return to earth.  During the evacuation, Mark Watney (one of the crew members) gets hit by a projectile and swept away in the storm.  The crew ends up leaving Mars, thinking that their fellow astronaut died due to the accident and a rupture in his space suit signifying to both them and NASA that he’s no longer alive.

Except that he is alive.  Meanwhile, astronaut Mark Watney wakes up and gets back into the base on Mars realizing that he’s been left behind and presumed dead.  He cares for the wounds that he suffered during the storm and contemplates his next move.  No one knows that he’s alive and for various reasons he can’t communicate with his crew heading back to earth or NASA in the beginning.  Thus, Mark Watney must find a way to survive on meager supplies until the next scheduled mission to Mars, which is several years later.

One of the only silver linings in this nightmare scenario is that Mark Watney is a botanist.  If anyone in that crew could figure out how to grow food on Martian soil to survive for years until a rescue mission occurs, it’s him.  Mark must use his botanist skills and eventually grows potatoes in a makeshift greenhouse to stay alive until people come back for him.  Now without giving all of the twists and turns of the plot away, what’s remarkable is how much adversity Mark has to overcome.  There’s accidents and setbacks and all of these moments where he could have just given up and died alone on Mars.  Yet, time and time again he wills himself to live, he chooses life.

Now this morning’s scripture reading from Deuteronomy Chapter 30 may seem like an odd story to hear on Rally Day.  The day in our church year where our atmosphere feels like a welcome home party for all of us to be gathered together in this sacred space as the Body of Christ.  Sunday School has begun.  The Choir is back.  And we’re with Moses talking about life and death.  But the other Lectionary passages were even harder thematically to coincide with Rally Day, so we’re going with Moses’ words here (as he’s speaking on behalf of God) to choose life—to love God and walk in God’s ways.

To help us understand the words of Moses, we can recall that the writers of Deuteronomy likely wrote this text right after the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E.  They penned this text immediately following a devastating war.  The Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem.  They tore down the walls, burned the Temple to the ground, dismantled prominent buildings, and instituted a forced deportation of the leaders to Babylon.[1] These tactics were intended to break the spirits of the conquered people by destroying their homeland and then tearing the people from the burning ruins.  Those who weren’t forced into exile mostly fled to Egypt—so it also divided and separated the nation.  Destruction.  Death.  Deportation.  Division.

These are the words of lament we hear in Psalm 137, words that can help us to understand just how heartbroken the people were: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”[2]  This war, this occupation, this forced exile, this devastation broke the spirit of the people in a way that’s hard to fathom.

Though it’s not impossible to fathom because we can think about any country that is devastated by war in our own times.  When we see news reports and cities decimated by violence, we can understand how people who survive that trauma are never quite the same.  We can even think about the Bahamas and the effects of a natural disaster like Hurricane Dorian.  People who go through something like that and survive (even if their homes or schools or places of business or houses of worship don’t) still bear the marks of trauma in their souls.  Yes, the Bible is rooted in historical times and places.  In real wars and natural disasters.  But what makes the lessons of our Christian faith stand the test of time is how we may encounter similar circumstances in the world and in our own lives.

Further, we can remember that the deeply-held belief of the people of Israel at that time in history was that the glory of God literally dwelled in the Temple.  The inner sanctum of the Temple—the Holy of Holies—was the meeting place between earth and heaven.  The Ark of the Covenant containing God’s commandments even rested there at one time.  The Temple is where God dwelled among them.  And when the Temple was razed to the ground, the people were left with broken hearts and spirits, wondering where is God now?[3]  Not only how could God let this happen?  But where is God?

We must bear all of this in mind when we hear Moses’ words.  Because the exiled nation is finally returning to their long-lost home, preparing to claim the Promised Land.  Moses is telling them that a new life is possible, a new beginning is possible, a new dawn has come over the land.  The despair we have experienced for so long is over.  The past is finished and gone.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”[4]

Now Moses will not make it to the Promised Land.  He dies before seeing the next part of his people’s story, thus his words are bittersweet.  So our story today is about the past for the Jewish people during the Exodus and Moses’ time.  But was written right after the Babylonian Exile in their present (so that reality informed the writers) and it speaks to anyone facing turmoil here and now.

So how does Deuteronomy 30 inform our faith today?  Well, faith and hope and loyalty to God act as antidotes to despair.  When we are hopeless, we become despondent, and we become somehow dehumanized in this despondency.  We get bogged down and consumed with pity and condemnation.[5]  We feel helpless, alone, afraid, like nothing we can do could possibly help.  But these words of Moses’ are an appeal to choose life.  Part of the point here is that we have agency.  We have some power.  We can make choices.  When we face adversity, we can give up or we can keep going.  It’s like Mark Watney in The Martian (which may be why I love that movie so much)—he doesn’t give up and he doesn’t give in.  He rolls up the sleeves of his astronaut suit in a way in order to survive alone on a hostile planet.  And sure, that’s just a fictional story.  But seeing someone realize that life is a gift and therefore life is worth fighting for—well, it’s moving to see that.

Moses proclaims, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”[6]  It’s the call to courage in spite of uncertain times.  Choose life.  Love God.  Hold fast to God.  And what better story to remember as we begin the program year here at church on Rally Day?

Maybe you’ve had the best summer ever.  Maybe these last few months have been full of adversity.  Maybe you are pumped for another school year to begin.  Maybe the year is already off to a rocky start and you’re wondering how things are going to go.  Maybe this will be a year full of possibilities.  Maybe this will be a year full of changes.  The reality is that life doesn’t always go as we plan.  And sometimes life is just plain unfair—like how Moses died before getting to the Promised Land after all those years of dragging his people through the wilderness in order to get to that glorious day.

What helps us to face whatever we are facing is choosing life.  Holding fast to God.  Walking with God and being part of a community that helps us along the way.  When the world around us seems uncertain and when our own lives are full of adversity, there is power in coming together in community to rally around each other.  There is strength that we can feel when we walk beside each other as each of us is walking our own journey of faith.  Some people say that the Church as an institution is dead or dying.  Some people say that religion is a waste of time.  And on and on.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve heard it all.  Some people say that the church is just a crutch, and that only those who are weak and can’t stand on their own would even need something like a faith community to help them limp along in the first place.

Well, to quote one of my theological buddies William Sloane Coffin, “It is often said that the Church is a crutch.  Of course it’s a crutch.  What makes you think you don’t limp?”[7]  The truth is that life isn’t always full of happiness.  And life isn’t always fair.  And we may face more adversity than we can sometimes bear.  God’s people have been there before and God’s people will be there again—with those broken hearts and spirits.  But life, our lives, are a gift from God.  And in Moses’ words we need to choose life so that we can love God and walk with God all our days.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] J. Maxwell Miller, “Introduction to the History of Ancient Israel,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 266-267.
[2] Psalm 137:1-4, NRSV.
[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 6.
[4] Deuteronomy 30: 15-16.
[5] “Commentary on Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2, 510-514.
[6] Deuteronomy 30:19-20.
[7] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, 137.