Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 12 February, 2023.

Readings for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany (A): Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37 



“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving he Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19)



Some of you may remember the scene in the film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where the hero, Indy, a globe-trotting archaeologist of the 1930s, finds the cave where the Holy Grail has been guarded by a faithful knight for seven hundred years.   Of course, there is also Nazi, who wants the Grail and its reward of eternal life, for himself.   There is one problem.  The true grail is amiss a collection of glittering chalices, and so, being a Nazi, he takes the most glittering chalice and, naturally, dies a horrible death.  “He chose … poorly” says the ancient knight.   



Indy of course chooses the humblest wooden cup because, as he says, “That’s the cup of a carpenter”, and uses it to save the life of his father.


“You chose … wisely” says the knight.


While it’s just an action movie, The Last Crusade is drawing on a long biblical tradition of making good versus bad choices.    Hebrew wisdom literature, like the Book of Proverbs, urges us to fear the Lord and be wise, and not be foolish.    Paul speaks today of choosing the “spiritual” way of life rather than the way of “the flesh”.  


Jesus in Matthew’s gospel frequently speaks of a choice of life that has profound consequences:  ’Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt 7.13).   Likewise in his last public sermon before his arrest, Jesus says that he will return to divide the sheep, those who have served the poor, from the goats, who have served themselves (Mt 25: 31-45).


In these passages from Matthew’s gospel, and particularly in today’s reading, Jesus is saying that our choices have consequences, and today I want to think about those consequences in terms of the kind of life that Jesus invites us to.


First, I need to clear the air and try to dispel a certain Christian framing of what sort of choice God lays in front of us.      There is a certain way of preventing Christianity that lays out a stark choice.   One can either accept Jesus as one’s personal saviour, give one’s life to him, and go to heaven, OR, reject God’s love, reject Jesus, and go to hell.     This view of Christianity is so wrong in so many ways.    First, it sees God’s invitation as coercive and manipulative:  either love me, or I will punish you.    As Stanley Hauerwas has spent his career saying, the crucifixion is proof that God refuses to redeem coercively” because, in the cross, Jesus chooses self-giving love for us and refuses power over us (Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir page?, ).


Secondly, a coercive view of the gospel is just a terrible form of evangelism.    There are many reasons why people in our part of the world are abandoning Christianity in droves, but one of them is surely because they see “fire and brimstone” as being morally and spiritually bankrupt.  We won’t fill the pews by holding a metaphysical gun to peoples’ heads and saying “turn or burn”.    That approach might work for a handful of churches catering to a self-satisfied elect, but it’s not the Anglican way.


What is the Anglican way?  The Anglican way is to see Jesus as the redeemer who saves us from ourselves and the bad choices that we are likely to make.   Note that this is not the way of a coercive, manipulative parent who threatens us if we don’t love them.  Rather, it’s the way of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, who leaves his child free to make choices, and who welcomes them home when they realize that they’ve made a terrible mistake.    


“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”.   We need saving from ourselves because so many today make bad choices that lead to death.     In 2019, Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times about a culture of despair, a term that points to a rising number of deaths in North America whose root cause seems to be a general lack of hope.   Specifically he was talking about rising death rates through drug and opiod use, through suicide and alcoholism particularly among middle aged working class males, and likewise rising death rates among young people due to suicide and depression.


To this list we could add the isolation of Covid in the last few years, the rise of online conspiracy theories, the collapse of trust in institutions, identity politics that pit groups against one another,  a growing chasm between the wealthy and the poor, gun violence, fear of the stranger, fear of environmental collapse, and pervasive loneliness.    Just to underline this last category, I read this morning that almost 30% of Canadians live alone.


If you had to sum up the crisis of despair that we find ourselves in, I agree with those who are that we have forgotten how to choose the good.   We’re told that the only real thing is the self, the only moral compass is whatever we personally believe, and that the only good things worth seeking are physical things and personal pleasures.  As a result, says Tim Shriver, the long time chair of the Special Olympics, “we’re dying of loneliness and fear and anxiety and it’s the outcomes of those things which are self-harm and hostility and anger towards others”.


“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”.  In our bible study last Wednesday, we debated whether Jesus’ words in today’s gospel were angry finger pointing, or whether they offered a way to choose life.  I would say the latter, but I would admit that Jesus is angry at practices that demean and exploit others.


In Judaica, Jesus’ culture, the law was life, and all morality of Jesus’ teaching comes from Torah.  All of his teachings today are elaborations of the commandments that God gives to Moses as described in Deuteronomy: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t swear false witness.  However, Jesus goes beyond the minimum requirements of the law and challenges his followers to put the law into their hearts and actions.   If you don’t want to kill, then don’t harbour and enjoy angry thoughts towards your neighbours.   If you don’t want to commit adultery, then stop seeing women simply as sexual objects.  If you don’t want to bear false witness, then don’t make elaborate oaths that you can’t keep, and just be sincere.


It’s helpful to think that Jesus is defining the ways in which a community would live if that community wanted to show something of the kingdom of heaven to the world.  In such a community, there would be no hateful thoughts, and angry grudges would not be harboured.  In such a community, men would treat women wth respect, and wouldn’t cast them off when a marriage ceased to be rewarding.    In such a community, people would be honest and sincere with one another.  In such a church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, we would never talk about a fellow churchgoer in their absence , so that we don’t risk descending into gossip and mockery.


Now imagine a world where Jesus’ teachings go unheeded.  Imagine a world of sexual violence, where many men are warped by pervasive sexism and pornography, where sex is seen as power and dominance, where women’s shelters have long waiting lists.   Imagine a world of anger, where politics are based on grudges and grievances and scores to be settled, where demagogues stoke fear and hatred to keep us at one another’s throats.  Imagine a world of lies and insincerity, where no one can be trusted.   Well, my friends, you don’t have to work hard at imagining that world  because that world is already here.


“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”. I said earlier that the gospel is never coercive and that God never threatens us if we don’t obey.  I think that statement is just as true of out gospel reading.  The hellfire that Jesus speaks of is I think a hell of our own making.   It’s the culture of despair that more and more people are choosing because they’ve abandoned any idea that God has a good life to offer.


Where is the good news in all of this for the church?  The good news is that a meaningless world of moral relativism and individualism, people are starving for the good and they are starving for community.   I mentioned Tim Shriver earlier.  He said recently that the Special Olympics movement works because “millions and millions of people come out to help people with Down syndrome run a 100-meter race. They’re not doing that because they’re going to get paid for it. … They’re doing it because they’re starving for experiences in which the walls break down, where they feel free to be themselves, their best selves.”


On Wednesday night at our Community Dinner I met new volunteers who had come to help us because they wanted to give back.   I think they felt that same desire that Tim Shriver talks about.   They wanted to be their best selves, they wanted to be part of a community, they wanted something more than a purely individual and selfish view of the world.   Personally I find this enormously helpful because it tells me the gospel is true.   It tells me that Jesus’ vision of a self whose wellbeing is bound up in the wellbeing of others is better than any other identity that the world can offer us.


I think that so many around us are like Indiana Jones in that cave, looking a variety of glittering, enticing choices that seem to offer life and meaning, but which in fact offer death.   We know differently.  We know that we’re not perfect, God knows we’re not perfect, but at our best, we’ve chosen God’s way of life in which our wellbeing is bound up in the wellbeing of others.  That choice gives us life, hope, and meaning.   Our mission as church is to offer that choice to others.    May God give us grace to help others choose wisely, and choose life.