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 hold-
ing fast to him ; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you
may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors….
It was the moment of decision for the people of Israel. There they were, encamped on the broad plains of Moab, east of the Jordan. From the lofty heights of Mt. Nebo, rising behind them, they had glimpsed the promised land that they had trekked through the wilderness for so long to reach. The great prophet Moses had led them out of Egypt and seen them through countless hardships, defending them from alien armies, keeping them faithful to the covenant God had made with them on Mt. Sinai. Again and again their faith had flagged: When hunger and thirst had set in, they had longed for the fleshpots of Egypt; when Moses had gone up the mountain to meet the Lord, they had made a golden calf and worshiped it; when enemy forces had risen up against them, they had whined, “Would that we had died in this wilderness!”
Nevertheless, by the grace of God, the Israelites had made it. Now they were poised to cross the Jordan River and enter their “land of milk and honey.” But Moses was keenly aware that he would no longer be with them; his death was imminent. He had one last chance to rally his people. He knew full well the perils and temptations they would face—the allurements of the flesh; the false gods; the armies arrayed against them. How easy it would be to sell their souls and compromise their faith. Moses knew he must challenge them in the strongest possible terms. Will they choose life, or will they choose death? Will they choose to love, and trust, and obey the God who has brought them out of bondage? Or will they surrender to their baser impulses, and serve false gods, and find themselves in spiritual bondage? Moses called out to them: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
There haven’t been many leaders like Moses. Indeed, the last chapter of Deuteronomy concludes, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Maybe not another Moses, but other great leaders did arise and confront their people with clear choices. You see this again and again through Israel’s history. Moses’ successor Joshua, at the end of his own long ministry, would gather the people in the valley of Shechem and shout: “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) (I have a plaque on the wall of my study with exactly those words on it.) Centuries later, Isaiah of Jerusalem would challenge the great city in God’s name: “…cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)
Great leaders in our own time—presidents, governors, mayors, ministers–challenge their people with clear choices—and the best of them couch those choices in moral and ethical terms, holding up before them good and evil, the way of blessings and the way of curses. One of New York City’s greatest mayors was a fiery little Republican named Fiorello LaGuardia, after whom of course LaGuardia Airport is named. (His son Eric happened to be in my class in elementary school, way back in the 1930’s.) LaGuardia’s tenure spanned the worst days of the Great Depression and all of World War II. He was one of those leaders who challenged his people to choose life when times were hard. One cold January evening in 1935 the mayor decided to visit a night court that served one of the poorest sections of the city. He dismissed the judge and took the bench himself. Before him was brought a tattered old widow who had been charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She said her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper from whom the bread had been stolen refused to drop the charges.
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–$10 or ten days in jail.” But even as he was pronouncing judgment he was reaching into his pocket. “Here’s the $10 fine, which I now remit” said the mayor; “and further-more, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom 50 cents for living in a town where a poor widow has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” The following day the New York newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old widow who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her grandchildren. 50 cents of that total was extracted from the red-faced grocery store owner, while some 70 petty criminals in the courtroom, together with all the police officers—all of whom had forked over 50 cents each—gave Mayor LaGuardia a standing ovation.
Great leaders hold up before us, as Moses did the Israelites, the moral and ethical choices of life and death, blessings and curses, the way of hope and wellbeing for all, versus the way of small-minded subservience to the gods of money and power. God knows, we live in a time today when on every level we are being challenged with those same alternatives. As I thought about this morning’s readings, I was reminded of James Russell Lowell’s famous hymn which we’ve just sung and which begins, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side….” The hymn goes on to portray, as Jesus does in today’s gospel, the cost for each of us in choosing the way of life. It reminds us of those who have already made the sacrifices of discipleship: “By the light of burning martyrs Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.” And it holds up for all of us the ever-changing world wherein we must make our own choices: “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth; they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”
Choices are not easy, friends. All of us who take life seriously, yet feel swept along by the tides of change, struggle just to keep our emotional and spiritual footing, much less to make choices for good or ill such as confronted Moses and the Israelites. But as a wise politician once put it, we need to “think globally but act locally.” And “locally” for most of us doesn’t mean the White House, or the State Capitol, or City Hall. It means your home and mine, your job and mine, your relationships and mine. Moments of decision confront us at every juncture of our lives; and every significant decision, on every level, reflects whether or not we’re being true to our faith. Shall we forgive this person who has hurt us so deeply or shall we remain in bondage to our anger? Shall we ask forgiveness for the damage we have done to another, or shall we remain alienated from them? What will it be—life or death?
Thank God we are not alone with our choices! The God who calls us is the God who loves us enough to die for us. Lowell’s hymn remembers: “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong; though her portion be the scaffold (the cross of Christ), and upon the throne be wrong, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow keeping watch above his own.” Our loving God stands with us as we stand for life and hope.