The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Please pray with me.
Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight. O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The lesson that you heard from the Book of Deuteronomy is the conclusion and the capstone of Moses’ Farewell Address to the Israelites as they are preparing at long last to enter the Promised Land. Moses knows that he won’t be going with them and so he’s taking that opportunity to remind them of who they are, whose they are, where they’ve been and where they’re going. And he famously says, “I’ve set before you today, life and prosperity, death and adversity.…Choose life.”
You see, it was a choice they had to make. It wasn’t a trick question. But, of course, who wouldn’t, given the opportunity, choose life and prosperity versus death and adversity? Wouldn’t we always choose life? But we know from the biblical narrative, from history and from contemporary times, that we don’t always choose well and wisely. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Book of Deuteronomy in the shaping and the substance of the Israelites’ faith; and derivatively, of ours as Christians.
So I’d like to explore a little more deeply with you this morning the message from the Book of Deuteronomy: what it had to say to the Israelites in their time and what it continues to speak to you and me today. Now, Moses’ Farewell Address went on for 26 chapters. It’s a long sermon and you’ll be happy to know I’m not going to cover every point—but read it. It’s important. It continues to teach us foundational truths of what it means to be in covenant, in right relationship with God and with one another.
Now you remember that Moses first encountered God in a way that he couldn’t mistake it with the burning bush in Midian. Remembering that Moses had fled Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian that he saw beating a fellow Israelite slave—Moses wasn’t perfect. The good news on that is God doesn’t look for perfection in leaders. God looks for faithfulness and Moses was certainly that. Moses recounts for the Israelites their journey out of bondage and slavery and oppression in Egypt, and how he led them across the Red Sea eventually to the land promised to our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now, we know that there wasn’t a GPS involved that gave them the most direct route because it took 40 years of wandering in the wilderness!
That time was needed to help transform a people who only knew what it meant to be oppressed, to be in bondage: to shape them, to teach them, to support them, to prepare them to enter a new chapter, a new land that they would be charged with leading. Today I set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity…choose life. What he taught them was what it means to be in right relationship with God and with one another, loving our neighbor as ourselves. In the first five books of the Bible, it references over 36 times that we are called to welcome the stranger and that our neighbors are essentially everyone.
We know from history that we have not always chosen wisely and well. I was reminded of that this week with the death of Robert Mugabe, long-time leader of Zimbabwe. I saw an interview of former US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Johnnie Carson, and he made a stark contrast between two contemporary leaders, Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, who had a choice after years in prison and being oppressed, lifted up to be leaders of a new day, a bright new day and promise in lands and nations that were essentially free.
Nelson Mandela, during his trial, said that I have [cherished] the ideal of a society that is free and democratic, where all people live in harmony and have equal opportunity. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for, but [my Lord] if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” After 27 years of imprisonment, when Nelson Mandela stepped forward to lead a new South Africa, in his inaugural address, he said that “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” Born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Nelson Mandela led from that rooting, that covenant with God for a brighter day for South Africa.
As Ambassador Johnnie Carson pointed out, Robert Mugabe had a good start, but unfortunately took another path. He had a brutal and authoritarian reign as leader of that country, oppressing and persecuting his opposition. Life and prosperity, death and adversity. It is a lesson for all of us in our day and for all time that oppressing and persecuting one’s opposition is not a recipe for success. In short, Mandela chose reconciliation and Mugabe chose revenge.
This cathedral proudly hosted our nation’s memorial service for the great Nelson Mandela six years ago. What a great man who continues to teach us by choosing life. Of course, we know in other points in history, people who have dared, a community who dared to show what it means to choose life and prosperity even at their own personal risk. During World War II, there was a small village in southern France high up on a plateau that was remote—Le Chambon—that took the courage in obedience to what it means to be the Kingdom of God in their day, to shelter and hide and protect Jews who otherwise would have been exterminated.
They say that between the years of 1942 and 1944, Le Chambon saved more Jews than almost anywhere else in Europe. I just finished reading this past week, a newly released book titled The Plateau by anthropologist Maggie Paxson, who not only tells that story, but brings it forward. Some almost 80 years later, the people of that small village are still welcoming the stranger. They are sheltering, supporting, and protecting refugees seeking asylum from the Congo, Rwanda, Chechnya. What’s their secret? What causes an entire community to take those risks to make a difference? Well, I think part of the key is contained within our Collect for today, that we trust the Lord with all our heart. Knowing that no matter how difficult something may seem, it’s not impossible—for God is with us—to choose life. Etched in the front of a small church in that small village, I think is the town motto: love one another.
My brothers and sisters, every generation has a choice to make between life and prosperity and death and adversity. Our covenant relationship with God calls us forward to love even when it risks our very being. There’s no lack for need in our world today: those who need our love, who need our support, who need our protection. Whether you are the people of the Bahamas or the people up and down the east coast who have been so devastated by hurricane Dorian, the people of the Bahamas are every bit as much our neighbors as the people in the Carolinas.
Whether you are citizens of Odessa, El Paso, Dayton, and so many cities, you are our neighbors and we are called to continue to press forward in our efforts for gun violence prevention.
Whether you are refugees seeking asylum on our borders, you are our neighbors and we are called to welcome you, to protect you and support you as you seek asylum and a safe and meaningful life.
This cathedral, and for those of you who are watching online, your communities are actively engaged in choosing life and trying to make a difference in this world. And so today, my brothers and sisters, I stand before you; you have a choice: life and prosperity or death and adversity. May you and I choose life. Our world needs us to do nothing less. Amen.