The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
12th February 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
I’ve always been fascinated by nature programs and the view they offer into the lives of other living beings with which we share the planet.
From my earliest memories of Walt Disney nature documentaries like The Vanishing Prairie to the David Attenborough BBC Life series, nature films give viewers a rare peek into the habits of other species, and always left me reflecting on what it means to be human and what role humanity plays as part of the vast “Circle of Life.”
We human beings are social animals, meaning that we organize ourselves into communities and societies designed to improve our chances at survival and through which we construct meaning and pass on wisdom.
Other species, notably some of the big cats like tigers and jaguars, bears, and moose fall into a different category called solitary animals, meaning that they spend most of their lives alone— not interacting with other members of their species— except to breed and, at times, raise their offspring.
Though human beings may often choose such a solitary existence, in the vast majority of cases, we have learned that life is better, safer, and more meaningful if we share it with others.
Sometimes I wonder if other creatures do this society thing better than we do…one look at the highly organized worlds of ants and bees is the surest way to humility as a human, as these insects do amazing tasks together, especially considering that their strength and productivity as individuals pales in comparison to their power as a unified body.
When we humans mimic these littlest neighbors of ours, our potential becomes truly unlimited.
We build cities, govern countries, and have gone so far as designing ways to survive in the extreme habitats of deepest sea and space.
And yet, even in the face of the obvious benefits of doubling down on our social natures, we still struggle with an incessant pull to individualism that allows us a great degree of personal freedom, but reduces our overall potential to create and shape life for the betterment of the entire creation.
I don’t know if Moses had this background in mind when he addressed the Israelites one last time before they entered the promised land, after escaping the bondage of slavery in Egypt and surviving the wilderness for forty years.
Moses may not have had Disney and BBC nature films, but he knew a thing or two about what makes a community strong and resilient, and about what leads to life.
His challenge to the people of God today to “Choose life” serves as a clear reminder to them to never forget the God who created them, freed them from slavery, and would be their organizing spirit going forward into this new reality.
All the detailed laws that are explained in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, instill a strong social identity and mark the Israelites as distinct even within the human family, for their ritual practices and cultural affiliation.
Not surprisingly, idolatry is the chief evil threatening them…a temptation well documented in the story of the golden calf, and a concern for Moses as the people he has guided enter the “competing-deity-filled” Land of Canaan without him.
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving 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.”
When I imagine myself as part of the great company about to tread the verge of Jordan, I can almost feel the fervor stirring within me, and the growing resolve to choose life according to the tenets prescribed in the law.
But, as with all laws, there are limitations, and as we humans have continued to inhabit the earth and pursue more life, we have learned that putting God first and staying faithful does not mean we should destroy other members of our species, even when they do not organize themselves according to the code we have chosen.
Social laws, norms and mores have the great benefit of defining our identity, which was hugely important for the Israelites, and continues to be an important facet of social organization today.
Members of a society need guidelines as to what is permitted and what is not…distinguishing difference is one of the best ways to increase loyalty among members of the same tribe.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the fans of various sports teams who derive great zeal for their team out of shared dress, chants, and rivalries.
But I would submit to you that while such distinction has a role to play in the organizing of our human societies, it is a role that is only helpful when it is subservient to the greater goal of choosing life.
And if I am to lay my cards on the table, my bias is that the life I have chosen is as a member of the distinct group of humans known as Christians, and Episcopalian ones at that.
If that life is to be “life and life in abundance” as Jesus wished, then our social organization has to go beyond laws that govern our distinctive nature, and toward an orientation that allows collaboration beyond the confines of our smaller social groups.
That is why Jesus pushes the law of Moses to an extreme that requires us to move from the letter of the law, and from satisfying the external requirements of it, to a review of our interior world and motivations.
If we are to really “choose life” as Moses asked of the Israelites, then we must be honest that the temptation toward idolatry runs much deeper than the surface.
We humans can make physical idols of wood, stone, and gold, but much more so, we make idols out of ideas, philosophies, and even our social distinctions.
These sorts of idols tempt us to move from our potential as social animals toward a form of increasing solitary existence that may seem like life, but in reality is a choice toward death.
Choosing life is so much bigger than choosing tribe, or choosing family, or choosing country.
Choosing life means a total revision of our priorities that get revealed through our actions toward one another.
Even though the law says that offering a gift at the altar leads to our justification, choosing life means making sure that the context in which that gift is offered is sound.
Proper relationship with neighbor, not simply the offering itself, is what leads to life…because those relationships are what support the lifeblood of our greatest social organization.
As I have said previously this season of Epiphany, the Body of Christ is the highest form of creation organization of which I am aware, and as members of that Body, we each perform a role that adds to the life of the whole, or subtracts from it.
Choosing life in this context is not easy…in fact, it is inevitably harder than following a set of statutes written on tablets of stone.
But when we make decisions that lead to greater life for the Body—and when we see ourselves as organized and connected at our core with all of creation, regardless of tribe, philosophy, or even species—then we are making a choice to turn from the lesser life of idols and embrace an existence that is more oriented toward the God who created us, saved us, and is constantly calling us forward.
Please hear me; there is nothing inherently wrong with being proud of our affiliations in this life.
Nothing wrong with celebrating our cultural backgrounds, enjoying rooting for our sports teams, being Episcopalian, being Christian, or being part of any lesser unit in the vast social organization in which we are involved.
But if we use those distinctions as a way of creating a wedge between us and more life—if we settle for those smaller realities and forsake the greater one we share as members of God’s multifaceted, wondrous kingdom, then we make idols of our differences and turn away from the greater life that is always beckoning us.
Choosing life may be hard, but it is a choice that leads to the reality for which we pray.
A life where crucifixion is not the end of our stories in this world, but rather resurrection.
A life where those on the margins, those deemed outside of our distinctive groups, are seen as integral to our organization rather than detrimental to it.
A life where the varied idols of our deception give way to the truth, hope and love of a kingdom that has no end.
Choose life this day, dear friends.
And choose it everyday hence in thought, word, and deed while breath and blood still circulate and course through you.
Because if you do, you will know the nature of life on the other side of this physical existence, and you will be ready and able to seek after it and find it always.