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As many of you know, this summer I was part of an Epiphany pilgrimage that walked 120 miles from Wall England to Holy Island Lindisfarne that sits in the North Sea. We followed St. Oswald’s way. He was the king that opened the region of North Umbria to Christianity in 640 AD. We crossed moors and climbed hills. We forged streams and followed paths through thick woods. We walked for miles and miles on North Sea beaches. And we walked by and stopped at a number of parish churches.
Some were very old, like 500 or 600 years old. Most had cemeteries around them. As Jon Roberts and I were walking through one such cemetery, we paused in front a large ancient tombstone. The name engraved had worn away over the years. It was larger than the other tombstone and Jon wondered out loud if this guy might have been a big deal in his day; hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Maybe even his sons, and grandsons, and great-grandsons had been big deals, but now their names had been scraped off the stone by time, as their corpses lay in the ground, nameless sentinels, in the garden of a living church.
As I look around us today, I wonder if in 500 years a pilgrim might come to Epiphany and find a living church because of the choice you made today; the choice to choose life.
I take those words, “choose life,” from Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy we hear read this morning. They are the words, “choose life,” that I want you to apply to only one life, your life, right here, right now.
I’ll tell you why, here is the context – we find Moses standing with a new generation of Israelites on the banks of the river Jordan, gazing across at the promised land. It had been 40 years since they left Egypt, and all of the original Israelite refugees had died, except Moses.
Now, standing with him is a new generation, the next generation of Israelites; and he says to them words to be heard by every next generation: “I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity…if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God by loving your God, and walking in his ways, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord will bless you.” He says it again: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses.” And then he punctuates it with – “Choose Life!”
Every generation has to choose. The new generation of Israelites had to choose, and they chose life. The English people who lived around that church 500 years ago had to choose, and they chose life. Every generation is asked the question, “Will you choose life?”
Now at the core of this question lives an assumption that life comes from God and God alone. And that the very fact of our life indicates we are placed in the world at this time and this location for a particular purpose, as designed by God. There are no accidental people. And that purpose for your life is utterly unique to you, but I’ll say more about that in a moment; because first I want to remind us that we are universally connected to God; whether we know it, or own it, or believe it, we are connected to the living God. And as such our role is continuity of relationship with God…embracing this reality as given to us, and passing it faithfully forward to future people.
To choose life is to understand that our life is not for our sake, or our namesake, but for the sake of the world. Moses reminds us that we are not entitled to the Promised Land; we are gifted the Promised Land.
Here is a thought exercise I engage sometimes to recalibrate my sense of entitlement over and against the reality that all of this life is a gift from God. So here it is: If there is something that I really feel is “mine” like something I have made or built; or a piece of property I purchased; or a new pair of shoes; or my dog; or my physical fitness; or even my family I remember that worn English tombstone and it reminds me that all of my relationships, whether personal or material, will end at the grave, if not sooner. And that is not a bad thing, it is just a real thing. It is only bad if there is no other god but me.
The only life that transcends the grave is the with-God life…This the life Moses is asking the next generation of Israelites to choose. This is the life that every generation is asked to choose; to take ownership of the with-God life. And when we choose this, Moses tells us, we will bless the next generation.
Which brings me to your unique blessing, your unique gift…it comes up in the Gospel reading today. Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Take up your cross and follow me.” These sentences are a little jarring to the ears, so, let me restate it by unpacking the word hate, which, in Greek is miseo, and actually means “to love less.”
Jesus is saying love everything, but love it less than you love God. Here is the Christian paradox of this: that the more we love God, the better we love everything else. Love grows, and as it does, it becomes less needy, and more generous. And it is this generous love that allows us to take up our crosses.
And what that means is– take up that unique gift God has given you and use it to serve the world, right here, right now. Yet know this: that may cause some suffering and sacrifice…it did for Jesus…but that is OK because the world is not about our convenience, it is about continuity of relationship with God.
Now you can get silly with me and say if we put God first do we have to attend to secondary things like: studying at school or cutting grass; or paying our bills? Of course you do! We do these things not to maintain ownership over what we have, but in gratitude for gifts we’ve been given.
A wise man suggested to me at the beginning of our building project here at Epiphany a while back that we should have no “naming rights” on things built and renovated here, but rather, acknowledge that every gift is equal when given from our unique capacity. What he was saying is what I experienced outside that ancient English church. It was a living spiritual center of gravity, because each generation chose life; so that their descendants may have the choice to choose life. It is not about our name or our namesake; it is about continuity of relationship with God…and remembering this is what makes a church a living church.
Imagine a world with no churches. No spiritual centers of gravity. No places to contemplate the divine and the eternal. Imagine if we just threw away our dead. Imagine a community that didn’t believe that we are divine souls living in a world that is a crucible for soul-making.
What would a world look like if everyone, really, was out for themselves? What if they thought life was only about the construction of their legacy and managing the lives of their children and grandchildren? If we live as if we are entitled to creation, rather than stewards of creation that is what we will model for the next generation. By ignoring the spiritual giants of the past, Jesus first and foremost, our legacy will be death and curses, not life and blessing.
And I am a little worried when I look around at the world today. What is our legacy? What are we passing on? Is our priority the with-God life?
To choose life means living how God designed us to live: where relationship is primary; where belonging is more valued than belief; where everyone is on a spiritual journey; where we say “yes, everyone is made in the image and likeness of Jesus!”
Living churches mark and map continuity with God through Jesus. Here we teach the framework of God; here we deliver the message; here we pass on the wisdom of our ancestors; and here week by week we remember God…and our continuity of relationship with God.
This church, Epiphany, is a living church because you are here today. And, I might add, your presence here matters to the world more than ever before because I believe the neighborhood church is the hope of the world. I believe that when we love God first, love grows, and things that had been stunted by scarcity and fear, blossom again through the power of love.
Many of the crises we are facing in the world today from the environment, to the economy, to political chaos come from not recognizing that, by our very birth, by the fact that we are here, we have been invited to maintain relationship with God across the generations like the Israelites, like the sentinels of that ancient English church.
The choice had been passed down from one generation to the next until it resides with you today…“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Choose Life!”