July 21, 2019
The sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 30: 19-20
Practice Random Acts of Blessing
“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 . . .” Well, that sounds rather ominous. This passage from Deuteronomy reveals stark contrast between blessing and curse – one choice leads to life and the other to death. There is no middle ground here. One choice is Godly and the other is SINFUL. In setting these choices before “heaven and earth,” we hear judgment. It makes us uncomfortable – and so it should.
But before we begin beating ourselves up or trying to boost our egos, let’s decide to be uncomfortable for a few minutes and explore what this passage – as well as the one from Romans – might reveal to us about who we are and who we are called to be. Deep breath – here we go.
The Israelites hear this message from God through Moses just as they are about to finally enter the Promised Land. Their experience has been slavery and a long, difficult wandering time in the desert with only basic necessities provided. God sets this choice before them and tells them that if they choose life, they will be blessed. In the verses just prior to the ones we heard this morning, Moses defines blessing for them, “the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all of your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (Deuteronomy 30: 9). It must have sounded pretty good after all they had been through. But there’s a catch – God will do this only if “you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 30: 10). As they build their community in the land God has given them, they do, indeed, prosper-at first anyway. But eventually, their focus on keeping the rules of God’s laws, leads them to forget about the purpose of God’s law. The law has been given to them as a foundation to build a nation where God’s abundant love for them is always shared. Widows and orphans cared for, strangers welcomed, the poor glean wheat from the edges of the fields to eat, and none oppressed. God did not intend the blessing of the law to be the means of achieving power over others. That’s where things go wrong; the more they focus on the proper sacrifices made at the proper time by the proper people, the more they enforce purity laws, the more they empower priests and kings at the expense of the people, the worse things get. Their society begins to look like that of other nations; injustice and corruption pull apart the bonds of their community. They have chosen death instead of life. Sound familiar?
It would seem that keeping the law means strict adherence to the rules so that blessing follows. If individuals break the rules – they have sinned and God curses them. The remedy is to stick to the rules and focus on individual piety. We hear echoes of this same message in our own society – and we certainly hear it preached by the evangelical right in our country. Prosperity is proof of blessing. If you don’t prosper, then it is because you as an individual have done something wrong – you deserve whatever bad things with which you are cursed. This is a one dimensional understanding of sin that is unjust because it stresses individual salvation and lets everything - and everyone else-go to hell. It destroys community and it causes death.
In her book Choosing Life, the German theologian, Dorothee Soelle points out how unchristian this understanding is: “According to a Christian understanding of the world, sins are not particular things we do as individuals – the infringement of sexual norms, for example. They are structures of power which rule over us, something to which we are subjected and from which we have to be liberated. It is not primarily a question of the violation of individual commandments. It is life under a different god, whom the New Testament calls Mammon. Sin is serving this god and participating in this destructive perversion . . . injustice is not so much manifested in individual acts as in what we leave undone and what we allow others to do.” “What we allow others to do” . . . that phrase haunts me as I look at babies in cages and listen to the violent and abusive practices coming from the White House.
This does not mean that wrestling with our own short-comings and sins is something we shouldn’t bother with. Part of our practice of discipleship is to know that we individually don’t always live up to who we are called to be. We should spend some of our time praying about and working on these things. But when blessing is understood something earned, the human tendency is to focus on “playing by the rules” so that those blessings come to us. And that exclusive focus leaves others ignored and suffering.
Sollee suggests that “Sin is a term that describes the disturbed relationship between God and man, which leads to the disturbance of our relationships to ourselves, to our neighbors, to creation and to the human family.” We need to wrestle with both our own sins and sins of the human systems which surround us. I don’t need to tell you we live in a time when the “haves” have a lot and the “have-nots” are demonized, preyed upon, blamed and shamed. Just think about the four congresswomen of color targeted this week. Those of us who do our best to be a people of God’s loving abundance are overwhelmed by the cruelty, inequality, racism and misery of our national politics. If our country hasn’t already chosen death, it sure feels like death is growing closer. How did it all go so wrong?
I think some of the answers might be found in the passage of Paul’s letter to the Romans we also heard this morning. “Bless those who persecute you; bless them and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another . . . if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Paul’s understands blessing differently. Blessing is NOT a reward for good behavior – blessing is something we DO out of God’s abundant love for all of us. We have not earned our many blessings. They are gifts freely given to us out of God’s goodness and as recipients of this blessing we are to bless others out of that same abundance. Christians are called to be a blessing people.
Paul also knows that to be a blessing people amidst the power of unjust systems is to risk being hurt and persecuted. Just look at what happened to Jesus. Jesus pours out his life challenging those systems, building relationship and community among the people who are the victims of the unjust “powers and principalities” as Paul calls them. Those “powers and principalities” crucify him, but the literal decision of the authorities to choose death - instead brings a choice for life in his resurrection. Sollee argues, “Resurrection give us the beginning of the Kingdom. The only possible proof of Christ’s resurrection and our own would be a changed world, a world a little closer to the kingdom of God.” Clearly, it’s a work in progress.
In the face of the evil and sinful how do we bring “the world a little closer to the kingdom of God?” And does it matter in the long run? Can we change anything? Can anyone of us make a difference either by ourselves or in this community called the Church?
I struggle with these questions everyday – and I imagine you do too. It is hard not be discouraged, angry and hopeless any time we look at the headlines or as the latest “breaking news” chyron flashes across our multiple screens. There are days when all I want to do is pull the covers over my head and refuse to come out. And then I remember the last sentence Paul preaches in this passage from Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” So I force myself out from under the covers, square my shoulders, take a deep breath and then I find someone or something to bless.
Theologian Sallie McFague defines living a life of blessing others as “an invitation to imitate the way God loves the world.” I love this definition, and it reminds me of a bumper sticker popular some years back which said, “Practice random acts of kindness.” I prefer, “Practice random acts of blessing.” And that is what I do. I practice. On my commute to work, I look for an opportunity to let someone go in front of me. I get honked at a lot. I often find myself behind a mother or father with a toddler in the shopping cart in the checkout line. Toddlers are squirmy and moms or dads are busy with the other end of the shopping cart while trying to keep the toddler calm. So I have conversations with the toddler- for some reasons unbeknownst to me, most of those conversations are about footwear.
These are very small acts of random blessing. I don’t know if they are paid forward although I hope they are. They do not change the world. But - they do change me. Practicing small random acts of blessing has taught me to be more aware of what is going on around me. It has allowed me to see more clearly the injustices of the society in which we live and given me the courage to practice what I preach in the face of the “powers and principalities.” Small acts, yes, but they bless none the less. They are choices for life.
I know that you practice random acts of blessings too –I have received them from you. And I am grateful to have been called to a church community which practices not only random -but quite consciously undertaken – acts of blessing. Every time we practice blessing as individuals and as a community of faith, we choose life. When we choose life by blessing others, we proclaim that the kingdom of God is already abundantly here – right now -even in the horror of what our country is going through.
On his podcast this week, Chris Hayes interviewed the Rev. Dr. William Barber III. Dr. Barber’s words speak to the witness of blessing – and the powerful choice of life that is the Christian hope: “I only have to make one decision: Do I stand here and die or do I believe that some things are so fundamental, some things are so precious, some things are so loving, some things so just and true that even if it means fighting with my last breath, I’m gonna fight for them. One of two things will happen- I’m gonna win or I’m gonna sow the seeds of the victory to come.”
The seeds of victory lie in acts of blessing. So here is our homework for this coming week, practice random acts of extravagant blessing everywhere you go and whatever you do.
Challenge the “powers and principalities” by choosing life in ways big and small. Write your congressperson, volunteer with an organization doing good, stop and buy a cup of lemonade from a child selling it from a stand on the sidewalk, light a candle, say a prayer. Choose life. In so doing, we bless others and we do ”overcome evil with good.” Amen.