Epiphany 6 February 13, 2011

This sermon was preached by Bishop Arthur Walmsley.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-37

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”  — Deut. 30:19

Let me tell you about a young man named Ahmed.  We went with our daughter and a couple of friends in the fall of 2007 for a tour of the North African country of Morocco.  We had arranged the trip ourselves, and for the entire time we were in the country Ahmed was our guide and our driver.  As the trip went on, we got to know his story.  His father, whom we met along the way, was a lifelong tour guide.  Ahmed was ambitious, worked hard, went to university, got an undergraduate degree in economics, and later a master’s in computer science.  

But for him and literally hundreds of thousands of young people in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East there are no jobs commensurate with their education. As events have been unfolding in Egypt in the past three weeks, I have thought a good deal about Ahmed. We found out one day why he declined to have lunch with us; he would go off, roll out his prayer rug, and say noonday prayers because he was a faithful Muslim.  And so it appears as well that the energy in Egypt for the demonstrations in Tahrir Square has not been generated by violent Islamic fundamentalism but by the frustration of young people like Ahmed for whom their governments and their economies have no place for them.  That story is echoed by the countless journalists and others who have talked to the throngs of the young people who have been the energizing force of this non-violent revolution.  In Egypt, in Jordan, in Tunisia, in Yemen, there is a cry for change by the poor and the marginalized. In southern Sudan where our Anglican Church is very strong, upwards of 95% of the people last month voted to secede from an oppressive regime in Khartoum.  As Moses invites, Choose life and you and your descendants may live.

What does the Bible offer us as a way of responding to the global economic and social crises?I believe that today’s scripture readings are a way of looking at history which is deeply practical and not just pie in the sky daydreaming.  But let me make one more point before we turn to the Bible.  Last Sunday we welcomed to our service an attractive group of Cub Scouts and their leaders.  I told the story about how a scouting program answered a lonely time in my childhood when my father was overseas because of World War II; scouting offered several leaders who became real mentors to me.  But there was a point that I didn’t choose to make: at the end of the war, when I went off to college, our country and the world were on the verge of a time of growth, when millions of us could look forward to a time of prosperity, of moving up in the world.  Not so now.  While the circumstances in this country may be different from those of the young in other parts of the world, for millions of Americans, especially the young, there is no guarantee that their future is one of guaranteed prosperity.

For example, right now the Congress is considering a budget plan that would make a 9 percent cut in discretionary spending while giving a 2 percent increase to the military. In view of the fact that military appropriations amount to more than half the program budget, such a direction in policy would be devastating for domestic programs that provide education, health, and opportunity to young people, both those who are poor and those of our increasingly-stricken middle class. I want those young people we greeted and the ones who meet here week by week in our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and our youth group have every opportunity that was open to us in the generation who grew up the half century following World War II.

Turn to page 4 in today’s bulletin.  It is a classic statement of the vision for human life given by Moses to the people of Israel.  The amazing story of the survival of Israel in wars and military occupation in the centuries before the birth of Jesus is how durable this vision was:

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.  — Deut. 30:15-17

We’ll look in a minute how Jesus refined that vision.  But for now, consider how through centuries of conflict and persecution, exile and destruction, Israel kept that vision alive. Israel’s faith was and is that God stands for the promise of generosity over scarcity, of hope over despair, or return from exile and the homecoming to a new day.  In the world today, humankind confronts the same challenge that Moses put before the people of Israel: choose life over death, blessings over curses.  Since 9/11, 2001, much of the world has shuddered in fear that what governs humankind is the course of violence and destruction in the hands of fanatic religionists. All the more reason to be astonished and grateful that the millions who assembled in Tahrir Square did so non-violently, peacefully demanding change, justice and an end to repressive government.  As President Obama commented on Thursday, We have seen young and old, rich and poor, Muslim and Christians join together, and earn the respect of the world through their non-violent calls for change.  We must not forget that all three of the great religions which originated in the Middle East — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — regard the Hebrew scriptures, the Law as taught by Moses, as the bedrock of their faith. The majority of Egyptians are Muslim by belief, and a full ten percent are Coptic Christians.  Let us pray that the transformation of Egypt away from a violent and oppressive state will come about, shaped not by the distortion of one of those traditions, Islamic fundamentalism, but by Moses’ invitation to choose life so that you and your descendants may live.  One of our parishioners, Gisi Harrington, recently signed up to work as a volunteer in a home for handicapped children in Alexandria, Egypt.  When we talked last Sunday, she said that her plan was to fly there today.  Inasmuch as the travel situation did not make that possible, she has instead postponed the opportunity to serve there for one teaching in Bethlehem in Palestine/Israel.  The important point is that believers are impelled by the roots of our faith to respond as we are able to human suffering and human aspirations for justice and peace, and to work with those who share that vision.  The young often surprise us with their ingenuity and commitment.  Choosing to do so in a messy world often turns out to be much harder than Moses promised.  We look forward to hearing from Gisi as she serves on the edge of a world of change.

Let’s return to today’s scripture readings.  The first five books of the Old Testament — Genesis through Deuteronomy — are known as the Torah, the Law of Moses.  What is added by the teaching and life of Jesus?  We are weekly reminded of that by the very name of this place, a church of the Holy Cross.  Behind me is a window with a cross surrounded by a circle, and that symbol appears on the cross which leads the procession into the church, and is etched on the glass doors through which we walk.  We enter here as a place which stands for the choices we have to make in life, between a life in which trying to save our lives leads to the loss of everything, one in which by giving of ourselves we reap untold blessings.  In the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s Gospel reading is drawn, Jesus is not scolding his listeners by reminding them that the law is not a set of rules as much as it is a transformation of the inner spirit: Let your word be (if you will, let your intentions be) ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.  Roberta  and I are constantly impressed with how much this small group of people does to share the good news of God’s love, or to put it another way, how we seek to have our lives shaped by the good news of God’s love.  

These various efforts as a congregation are clearly a sign that we are serious as a people that what shapes our life here is our personal choices to respond to God in our lives.  Beyond our prayers, there is not much we can do in response to the situation in Egypt, or in any of the crisis spots around the globe.  What we can do and be is a people who die to the harmful patterns, mistaken assumptions and idolatrous beliefs that shape much of the society around us.  The process through which we will go in the next several months, of shaping our hopes and our commitments as a congregation in the search for a new Vicar, represents our obedience to God’s way of loving our neighbors, the ones we see face to face, and those with whom we share life in our town, our country and our world.

In the second scripture reading, the apostle Paul reminds one of his congregations, the Church at Corinth, the importance of working together.  Evidently they are split among different visions of their little church.  But those differences are important only as they are seen as contributing to the whole.  For, as he puts it, we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.  What we seek is to choose life.  And if we believe that to be true, we will continue to choose to serve others as we serve God.

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