When I first began to study the lessons appointed for today, I couldn’t help but to think back to one of my favorite commercials from the 1990’s. The setting is just outside a desert fortress where a criminal is tied to a pole and is facing a firing squad. The chief executioner questions the condemned man: “Would you like a blindfold, Messieur? The man answers quickly, “No!” The executioner then asks, “Would you like a cigarette?” Again, the man answers, “No!” Finally, he is asked, “What do you want on your tombstone?” The man pauses briefly to think before answering resolutely, “Pepperoni and cheese!” The commercial was for Tombstone Pizza which not only offered you convenience: a full sized frozen pizza served piping hot in just minutes with all natural ingredients, but also a panoply of choices suited for all tastes.[i] As Americans, we LOVE choices! We do not like to be boxed in with no options. We want to make the decision with the most concise information and with as little serious discernment as possible. We are highly individualistic and want to feel like every option is personal, tailored specifically for our convenience.
So, at the outset, we may be excited about our lection from Deuteronomy this morning. The reading is actually an ending summary of a three part sermon (spanning thirty chapters) that tradition says Moses gives the Israelites. In short, the Israelites are about to cross over into the Promised Land. However, Moses knows he is about to die and will be unable to continue the journey with them. So, like a great teacher and the shepherd of his flock, he not only restates the law given to them by God through him, but takes the time to expound on the sections as to insure their understanding. You may know that the Shema, which is prevalent in the liturgies of Judaism, comes from Moses’ deuteronomic teaching on the first commandment: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.*5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem* on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[ii]
Moses considered it of extreme importance to insure that the Israelites had all the information they needed in order to claim the heritage they had been called to. The summary of what he imparts to Israel is neatly packaged for us this morning into an option A or B choice: life or death!I would like to think that the choice is an easy one. How many of us given the choice of life or death would in reality go with option B? I suspect no one. But those of us who read the Bible regularly with the help of a lectionary know that the Israelites do in fact drop the ball on more than one occasion and each time the results are disastrous. Why is this the case?
The answer lies in the word ‘covenant.’ The word covenant (from the Latin con venire) means a coming together; a joining that presupposes a contract, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities.[iii] I would say that the word covenant has a vocational aspect that goes beyond just a mere agreement. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman defines vocation as ‘a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.’The very identity and purpose of the Israelites is bound up in a vocational call, sealed by a covenant with God. Through Moses, the Israelites realize the heritage for which they had been called as children of God and it is in living the precepts of the law that Israel will ‘choose life.’
And what are some of the highlights of this covenant? In his commentary on this passage, theologian Brett Younger writes, “it means to love God with heart, mind, and soul. (Moses says that) the good life includes canceling the debts of the poor, pushing government to guard against excessive wealth, limiting punishment to protect human dignity, restricting those who can be drafted, offering hospitality to runaway slaves, paying employees fairly, and leaving part of the harvest for those who need it.”[iv] As Moses was preparing his teaching for the Israelites, he was able to look back and discern how it was that God had been working in their lives and noted that life was good when Israel was living into their vocations through the structure of covenant. The covenant was not put in place as a set of sadistic demands of a jealous God, but rather, this covenant is what made life possible for the Israelites, and it was their choice whether to accept that life or reject it.
In our gospel lesson today we hear a portion of another famous sermon, this one given by Jesus in what is known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’ It is from this sermon that we get the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who morn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc.[v] Like Moses, this sermon is given in a rabbinic tradition that takes aspects of the law and expounds upon them in order to help people realize that to which they have been called. And Jesus covers a lot of ground in a very short amount of time: anger, adultery, divorce, and the taking of oaths. But what I find most compelling is Jesus admonition, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” We do not have to swear an oath to live into covenant. Jesus highlights that living life with integrity simply requires affirming our commitment and then taking action. I recall that author Frederick Buechner makes the point, “If you want to know what [someone] believes, watch their feet.” Which is to say, what we hold in our heart needs to be congruent with how we live our lives.[vi]
So what does all this mean for us today? Let me suggest three things. First, to live in community is to be people of covenant. Our identity, our purpose, our life together is not possible without it. This is true of all aspects of our lives. In our civic lives as citizens of the United States we live under laws that provide the structure that upholds our Constitution, which is in effect our identity. When we live in disregard of the rule of law, we not only lose our ability to live a life of freedom, but we also lose our very identity as Americans. With the state of current events in our civic life, perhaps this all cuts close to the bone these days. As Christians we are inheritors of covenant given to us by God through Moses and it is through Jesus that we understand how we fit into this wider community. As catholic Christians we understand this through what we call the Baptismal Covenant, the way in which we are known to be followers of Jesus Christ. Life in community presupposes a covenant of relationship.
Second, living a life of covenant is to be constantly engaged in active discernment. On a recent trip home I was looking though some old family photographs and I ran across a scrap of paper that contained a short letter I had written my dad. From the looks of the handwriting I would say it is circa 2nd grade. It read: Dear Daddy, I am not taking a bath. Love, Jimmy. I am unsure if the affectionate ending was a way in which I was trying to manipulate my dad or if I had been learning how to write a ‘friendly letter’ in my elementary writing class. While I don’t specifically remember the result of the letter, I suspect I was too young to let ‘my yes be yes and my no be no.’ If I wanted to remain in covenant with my parents, then taking a bath was the only option available to me. As children we learn how to discern through the method of trial and error. The result of bath taking is good. The result of disobeying your parents, not so much. As we grow older we mature in how we discern through a life of prayer, spiritual direction, or by taking council from someone we know to have some experience or expertise in a certain mode of life. In our community, we brothers live by a ‘Rule of Life’ that helps us recognize what is important in our lives and the ways in which we can maintain our life in community. Many times, the way we can engage discernment with integrity is to look back over our lives and see where it is that life was good and on what occasions we may have missed the bus.
And third, making mistakes is a part of the process. I said earlier that as we study the Bible and follow the story of God’s people throughout history, we can see how it is they have been faithful in their vocations as children of God, and where they have broken covenant in order to follow their own choices, the consequences of which are not necessarily failures but the ways in which they learned dependence on the grace, love, and life that God desires for us. We have all broken covenant with God more times than we can count, but it is the very essence of God to be faithful to us and it is His mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we are able to find our way back into the abundant life we’re given through our baptismal covenant. When we have lost our way, all we have to do is ask for help, and God will show us the way home.
I close with the words of Moses: “19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”We are being called to action and to make a choice of life ordeath. Choose Life!!!
[ii] Deuteronomy 6:4-9
[iii]“Covenant Definition and Meaning – Bible Dictionary.” Bible Study Tools. Salem Web Network, 2017. Web. 12 Feb. 2017. <http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/covenant/>.
[iv]Younger, Brett. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Ed. David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor. First ed. Vol. A1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Pr., 2010. Print. Advent through Transfiguration.
[v] Matthew 5:3-11