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Sermon for September 9, 2007

“Therefore You Shall Choose Life”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 11:1-6

In a tiny house lived a mother and her two children — a girl and a boy. The mother loved her children and worked hard to support them. Their house was very small — barely big enough for the three of them — but it had a little yard. In that little yard, the family had a modest garden that provided some food. They had a couple of chickens that gave them eggs. And in that small yard they had a duck. The duck was precious. The duck would one day be dinner for the little family.

On one spring day, the boy was in the tiny backyard throwing rocks, as little boys like to do. His young hands were barely as big as the rocks he threw, and his aim was not as sure as his desire. For a while, he threw them at a mark on the fence, missing it nearly every time. Then a voice from somewhere inside him told him to throw a rock at the duck. He threw the rock, and for once his aim was true. He killed that duck.

The boy was horrified. In panic, he began thinking about how to cover up his mistake when his sister came out from behind the chicken coop. “I saw you throw that rock,” she said, “and I saw you kill that duck.” The boy looked at his sister with fear as she said to him, “I won’t tell Mama what you did, but you have to do something for me. You have to pull me around the neighborhood in our wagon this summer.” And the boy, conquered by fear and shame, agreed. All summer, he pulled his little sister around in the wagon. Around the yard. Around the house. Around the neighborhood. He would be playing with his friends when his little sister would appear and say three words, “Pull the wagon.” And he would. Or he would be reading on the back steps when he’d hear those words, “Pull the wagon.” And he would. All summer he bore the weight of his guilt and his shame in that wagon.

One particularly hot August day, the boy had been pulling his sister around in the wagon all
day. In a spare moment, he went into the house for a glass of water. He saw his mother standing at the sink, washing the dishes. She greeted him warmly, and returned to her work. He sidled up to her quietly as she stood at the sink, and leaned his little body against hers, his head barely reaching her waist.

“Mama,” the boy began, tears beginning to stream down his face. “I killed your duck. I killed him, Mama. I didn’t mean to. I was throwing rocks and I hit him. I know it was wrong. I am so sorry, Mama. I am so sorry.” The little boy could barely stand, so deep was his grief and his shame, so strong was his sorrow. The mother looked down at the boy. She wiped her hands on her apron, and knelt down and drew her son into her arms. “Son,” she said. “I know you killed that duck. I was standing here at this window when it happened. And I’ve watched you pull that wagon all over creation this summer. I have been waiting for you to tell me. I love you. I forgive you. All is well between us.”

Well, the boy felt so freed up that his feet rose off the ground and the top of his head nearly touched the sky. Just then, his little sister came in, looking for him. When she saw him, she barked the words that had kept the boy imprisoned all summer: “Pull the wagon.” The boy turned to her, looked her squarely in the eye and said, “Little sister, I have gone to Mama and I have gotten my duck business fixed. I am not pulling that wagon anymore.”

Are you pulling a wagon load of something around this morning? Does shame weigh your feet down and prevent you from full life? Has your heart been deprived of dancing?

We all need some healing. Every one of us needs forgiveness in order to take on new life. However, just because we need it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard to come to God -- not humiliated but with humility -- and to admit our failings. Our deep difficulty with repentance makes it almost impossible for us to feel forgiven. Repentance is probably one of the bitterest words in the lexicon of manipulation. Churches and church leaders have used this word to shame, divide, hurt, and cast out. This word has been used to plant the corrosive idea that our very beings are not good -- that God created us bad and we’ll never be good enough. That’s not what we’re talking about today.

Let me be clear about this: carrying around guilt and shame is not about God. It is about us. Like Mama in the story I told, God waits at the window, watching, hoping. As long as we pull the wagon, as long as we decide to haul our heavy burdens around, we cannot accept that love. We are the ones holding onto the troubles. We are afraid that if we admit we did something wrong, we will give up our last shred of pride and we won’t have anything left. So we get stuck. You have to give up your old comfortable life of pain to get the new uncomfortable life of joy.

There is a Jewish holiday coming up this Thursday at sundown. It’s called Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. The holiday begins with the blast of the shofar, or ram’s horn. The blast calls worshipers to a period of eight days of self-examination known as “The Days of Awe.” This time of reflection and repentance prepares worshipers for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is a season to examine the hearts to see if one is truly living for God as we should.

We could use a little Rosh Hashanah in our lives – some time to think about our dead ducks and the wagons we pull out of fear, or shame or embarrassment -- to think about how we have devalued our selves, and our fellow human beings -- to prepare ourselves for the task of asking forgiveness and making things right. It’s about choosing life.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear something about the call to new life by giving up tired ways of living. Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe or teacher who wrote to a group of Jewish worshipers who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. The people who first heard Matthew’s Gospel would have known all about Rosh Hashanah. They would have been listening for the blast of the shofar. In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist is the human shofar who calls people to new beginnings. Imagine this scene: a group of early Jews who have become Christians. Its about 100 AD. Their lives are knit into the Jewish calendar. When they go to their churches, they want to hear stories about Jesus during their Sabbath services. So Matthew may have written his gospel to be read during the Jewish liturgical year. The reading for Rosh Hashanah in Matthew’s church would have been this episode from chapter 11. In today’s reading, John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he is really the One – the expected Messiah. Jesus answers by quoting Isaiah. “The blind see, the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!” This is the Rosh Hashanah message. When you look to Jesus, you will see the signs and know that the kingdom of God is at hand.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, God says these words: “Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you Life and Good, Death and Evil. Choose life so that you and your children will live.” What else can we do?

What else can we do when we run out of gas? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when life seems barren and drained of color and taste, when the landscape that used to thrill us with its beauty, now lies before us flat and dull? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when we finally admit to ourselves that we really don’t care about the things we used to care about anymore? Yet here we are in the life or the job or the marriage that we got into when we did care; here we are, daily required to promote feelings and principles that we once fervently believed, but which we now no longer believe. What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when we are daily afflicted with a sense of having sold out-- of going through the motions, of doing something we don’t really believe in? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when our life becomes characterized by a sense of meaninglessness, by a loss of passion, by fatigue and depression? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do, that is, besides drink ourselves into oblivion, drug ourselves insensate, drown ourselves in shopping or television or sports, or try to simulate passion for objects instead of relationships? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when our religious life begins to feel this way; when we avoid God out of fear or shame. What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when worship no longer brings us into a sense of communion with God? What else can we do when the words of our prayers no longer mean anything to us, but rather, grate on us? What else can we do? Choose life.

And what if we tell God what we’ve really done and how we’re really feeling and God gets angry? Or shames us? Or exposes us as nasty fakers? If you’ve ever been shamed by parents, or spouses, or teachers, or coaches, you may not deeply, honestly believe that God is like no one else. If you’ve been the tool to someone else’s pride, you may not believe that God can love you and expect nothing else in return.

Listen to the good news. God is fully invested in you. Jesus has come to give sight to those who cannot see their way to wholeness. Jesus speaks a word of love to those whose ears have become deafened by the abuse of others. Those who feel crippled by life can get up and walk. Those who feel dead can now choose life so that they may live.

God forgives you already. It is up to you to make room and receive that love. If you want healing, you have to admit you are broken. If you want God’s grace and love, you have to admit you need it. And your God, who loved you since before you were born, your God who is standing at the window watching you pull your wagon, your God is waiting for you to be loved, forgiven, and healed. Trust God to love you and forgive you like no one else can, for God in Christ loves even you, and nothing will ever change that.

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