Sermon Archives

Sunday, September 4, 2016
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, RCL Year C)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
Choose Life

You have set before us life and death, blessings and curses. Help us choose life. Amen.

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the [heck] is water?”[1]

This is how David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 speech begins. He delivered this speech at a Kenyon College graduation. David Foster Wallace was an author of postmodern literature; he was a novelist, short story writer, essayist and college professor.

In this commencement speech, he observes that our lives are undergirded by beliefs that we hold as obvious, ubiquitous and important. But because they are so obvious, they remain unnamed and unquestioned – like water for the fish.

He suggests that one such belief, hard-wired in us, is that we are the center of our universe. Our experience tells us that we are the realest, most vivid and most important person in existence. And he challenges these Kenyon College graduands to choose to do the work of changing this default-setting.

One antidote is to consciously make decisions about what has meaning and what doesn’t. Put in other words, we have to choose what we worship.

But in making this choice, he cautions that worshipping anything other than what he calls “some sort of God or spiritual-type thing” will eat us alive.

Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect – you will end up feeling like a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will feel ugly and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before you are buried.

This is stark stuff.

Not unlike the choice that Moses puts before the Israelites.

God has told Moses that he will never enter the Promised Land. Moses knows he is about to die and imparts his final words to the Israelites, as his gift and testament.

Moses reminds the people of what they have endured – they were freed from slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, received the commandments and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. They were a people in bondage, now they are a people freed by God.

They are on the last leg of their journey. They are so close. They can see their destination just across the banks of the River Jordan. They stand at the border between wilderness and Promised Land, between landlessness and landedness.

They stand at the threshold of two possible futures: life or death.     

Moses tells the community: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

In this passage from Deuteronomy, the exhortation to choose life is unusual. This is the only use of the Hebrew verb “behar,” which means to choose, with human beings as its subject. In all other instances, God chooses.[2]

God’s gift to God’s people does not just happen automatically. The land given must be a land taken; the life offered must be a life lived out.

It is very clearly laid out there is only one way to find life and good and well-being of the person and the community – and that is to choose the way of the Lord.[3] The details of this way are spelled out in God’s instruction to the people and the gift of the law.

But above all, Moses says that life is to be found in choosing to love God with all their heart, all their mind and all their soul (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

We choose life when we decide to follow the way that God has set before us; the way of justice, peace, reconciliation and healing.

On Friday, Brock Turner was released from the Santa Clara County jail, after serving 3 months of his 6-month sentence for assault. At the time of the crime, he was a freshman at Stanford University. Brock Turner and the woman he assaulted have been at the center of a case that has drawn national attention to the justice system’s treatment of perpetrators and survivors.

The sentence Turner received sparked national outrage because of its leniency. Another part of what has drawn so much attention to this case, was the 12-page victim impact statement, which went viral.[4]

One CNN reporter described it as being quite possibly the most powerful piece of writing ever about sexual assault.[5] In it the woman details the events of that night as she remembered them, but the majority of the letter describes her trauma and journey towards healing.

She tells how she learned the details of her assault through the news as she was unconscious when it occurred, the process of breaking the news to her family, the crushing guilt that her sister felt about not protecting her. She expresses indignation that Turner’s statement and testimony changed over time, particularly as he learned she didn’t remember anything from that night. She expresses dismay and anger that Turner didn’t take full responsibility for his actions.

Her statement concludes with words of gratitude.

Her aggressor was interrupted by two Swedish PhD students, cycling back home late at night. She says: “I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another.” She expresses gratitude to her family, the intern that made her oatmeal when she woke up in the hospital the morning after her attack, the nurses, the detective, her lawyer, her boss, her boyfriend, her sister and the girls across the country that wrote her cards.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of her statement are the words she addresses directly to Turner, as they both struggle to deal with the aftermath of the assault and the trial.

She says: “Here we are. The damage is done, no one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.”

She reassures him that the world is much bigger than Palo Alto and Stanford, that he has decades ahead to rewrite his story. She challenges him to make a new name for himself, to do something so good for the world, it blows everyone away. She tells him that he has a brain and a voice and a heart, and urges him to use them wisely. She tells him to cherish the immense love from his family and to draw strength from that, something that has been a source of strength on her own journey.

The empathy and compassion that this woman demonstrates in her letter, reflects her decision to choose life, even in circumstances that were by definition non-consensual; circumstances that seemed to remove her agency.

She chose life in speaking her truth, publicly revealing moments of extreme vulnerability and pain. She chose life when she expressed overwhelming gratitude for the love of her dear ones and strangers. She chose life when she provided Turner with hope and the reassurance that this is not the end of his life, but that he has a choice about being a source of goodness in the world. She chose life in finding meaning in her hurt and using her journey towards healing as a beacon of light to girls everywhere.

One of the most often repeated words in our Deuteronomy passage is: “today”. Unlike in the accounts of Moses’ farewell speech that we receive in Exodus (19:3-9) and Joshua (24:15-24), in this version from Deuteronomy, we are not told how the people respond.[6] Which leaves the choice hanging in the air, for the readers and the listeners who have engaged this text throughout the ages down to this very day.

Jesus would have read this scripture, and heard God’s call to make a choice. Jesus made stark demands upon his followers, as we hear in the Gospel text today. Jesus himself was faced with choosing God or choosing the world’s way, a choice that resulted in his physical death. God redeemed his death in the resurrection, and in that transformation he offers us that same gift of new life. But with the gift, there is choice. God invites us to choose to receive this gift.

We are invited to choose life.


[1] http://www.metastatic.org/text/This%20is%20Water.pdf  - you can also watch a youtube video where it’s been put to footage at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tIk4IOOeco

[2] Working preacher, Terrence Freitheim.

[3] Patrick Miller, Interpretation: Deuteronomy.

[4] You can read the statement at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/02/us/brock-turner-release-jail/ (you have to scroll down the article to find it).

[5] http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/10/health/stanford-rape-case-letter-parents-t...

[6] Patrick Miller, Interpretation: Deuteronomy.