“See, I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses.”
Over the past few weeks I’ve had the joy of seeing all six of my grandchildren for a visit. When I’m around them, my first thought is “Why did I think parenting was so hard at the time? This is easy as pie! I see exactly what needs to be done here!” In the interest, however, of maintaining the sometimes all too slender bond between my children and me, I generally manage to keep that to myself. Such restraint was not achieved overnight. I started practicing before any of the grandchildren were born; I started when the children married. There seemed to me to be two kinds of mothers in law: The kind that all the jokes are based on and the kind that Ansley Forrester has in Louise, where you just thank God for her every day. I do not say that I have achieved “Louise Forrester” status, but it is my aim. So, with my children-in-law and, by extension, my grandchildren, I operate with the following three principles.
The first is what I call “No Pay; No Say”. As long as they aren’t asking me to borrow money, I will not comment on how they spend theirs. If you want to buy a motorcycle after I absolutely forbad it while you lived at home, that is entirely your decision, etc. Conversely, if you are asking me for money – regardless of how the noble the need that prompts the request — said money entitles me to a say in how you spend all your money. This is my own version of “blessings and curses.” The children find this second part – the curses part — annoying. I have found it to be effective. The exception to this is if I simply elect to throw money at them, without them asking for it. In which case, I truly hope they will squander it on joyful excesses and use their own money to buy new tires.
The second principle is that I will offer no unsolicited advice about how they raise their children, with two exceptions. If I have to bail one of them out of jail, I get to weigh in on how they’re being raised. The other – and its never too early for this – is if I see one of my children doing something bone-head stupid that I recognize as coming from my own parenting playbook. Then, I will mention it privately only by way of a humble and contrite confession and a request for forgiveness, along with a brief summation of how unhelpful that ended up being when I used it as a parent. Perhaps because each of the children has a good therapist, most of these bad practices have already been culled from their own playbooks.
The third is that, because I see now what I did not see then, I am more than happy to tell them exactly how to do this the “right way.” Strangely, this offer is even less popular than the “curses” part of my “No Pay; No Say” initiative.
Why don’t people just do the right thing when it is so obvious? Why don’t we go to the doctor when we’re sick? Or why don’t we apologize when we’re wrong? Why don’t we ask for help when we reach a point in a project that we are stumped? Why let pride in doing things your own way stand in the way of succeeding? Hmm. Surely, the whole world cannot be motivated by an attitude of “I’ll show you!” The truth is that, at some point, sooner or later, each of us becomes the decisions we have made. And, in that process, we recognize, sometimes too late, the duty we have to the welfare of others who suffer unjustly as a consequence of our poor decisions.
Even our constitutional Bill of Rights, the one that legally allows us free speech does not allow us to avoid the consequences of our free speech; the same applies to exercising our liberty to pursue happiness. Exercising this liberty will not prevent the consequences of achieving said happiness from pursuing us and exacting their due. One of the most frequently asked questions to clergy is: “Why does God allow bad stuff to happen to innocent people?” The answer is that God cannot allow autonomy and then limit its scope. Just as, conversely, God cannot break a covenant promise that extended down through generations even though the original partners to the covenant have died.
And so we come to today’s lesson from Deuteronomy. Fun fact: This passage is the prequel to the text from Jeremiah that Stuart preached on last week, and it is not surprising that it tracks that passage so closely since the two books were composed around the same time. In Stuart’s text, the issue was that Babylon was about to overrun the Temple and the capitol city – in short, the Hebrew people were on the eve of suffering the curses that God is threatening them with in this week’s passage from Deuteronomy. In our text from Deuteronomy, the forty-year Wilderness Journey that should have lasted only forty days is now at an end and Moses speaks for the last time to the people before they cross the Jordan and the border into the land promised to their forefathers. Today’s text gives us the review of the law, the Torah.
“If you will love the Lord by walking in his ways and observing his commandments, then you will live long and become numerous. But if you turn away from the Lord your God and bow down to other gods, things will not go well for you, not for you, not for your children, and not for your children’s children” as, in fact, the Jeremiah text from last week confirms.
In other words, be aware that you will not only become your decisions, but those decisions will have collateral impact, rippling down through your family, your tribe, your nation, so that children yet unborn will say “What did we ever do to deserve this?” And in your hearts, you will know it was you that set off this chain of events that may or may not be able to be recalled.
Which leads to another frequently asked question of clergy “If God is so powerful, why doesn’t God prevent bad things from happening?” Why doesn’t God override us when it would clearly prevent so much heartache?
Indeed, what a strange and complicated gift God has given us in giving us choice, especially if we concede that God is all-knowing and can clearly anticipate all that is at risk in showing us the respect of giving us personal autonomy. Emanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and countless other philosophers through the ages have agreed with God, recognizing the high cost of disrespecting another person by attempting to intervene against that person’s right to make a choice, even though that choice will very likely set off a contagion of collateral damage.
The reality is that, before the common good stands a chance of pulling together in a positive direction, the autonomy of each individual must be recognized. And the extent to which recognition conveys authentic regard depends upon each acknowledging that in one person’s autonomy lies the power to affect the other’s life, for good or for ill. Just consider, if you will, the impact on the family members of a single individual addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Proclaiming a text like this in a public space such as a Christian community begs the question, I believe, of the degree to which each of us embodies a sober understanding of our sacred duty to make sound decisions. We cannot think of a text like this one from Deuteronomy as a sort of magic spell where loving God ensures that life will be good, because we’ve just sorted out that one person might love God plenty and yet suffer for the poor decisions of someone else. Rather, we must hear this as the warning that it is as well as the gift that it is.
Because, always with God there is the chance to turn back and begin again. Moses’ farewell speech here is delivered to a people who are landless, demoralized, and confused – a condition we might characterize today as having “hit rock bottom.” God understands that for Israel, and for us, restoration can only come through a new wilderness journey and a new act of taking possession of what God has offered to give to them and to us. The consequences of our poor choices will still need to be faced, but there is no need to imagine that life cannot be restored and relationships recover. Just as one bad decision can chart an entire course, so one good decision can change a course. God’s offer to guide us in our journeys – to tell us how to live right — is worth taking. Because, with God’s guidance, we have generations of stories, countless examples, and the theme that runs through them all is that, from the beginning of time, God has sought us out to bring us around, often before we even know we have gotten lost.
Moses will not live to enter the land promised by God, but will die outside the border in the Wilderness. Once more, at first glance, the reasons seem really unfair. Still, it will be Joshua not Moses who leads the people into the land after he makes it clear that he and his house have decided to follow God, leaving to each of the other tribes the choice to decide whether they will or will not. I think that it is significant that, before walking across that border from the Wilderness into the Promised Land, the story underscores the importance of autonomy.
And so, for each of us, as we leave here today and begin another work week, another series of choices and decisions, we have a chance to take the same to heart. Will we decide based on what gives life? Or will we choose based on something that only looks “life-life”, but in truth is quite empty?
“God has set before us this day what God expects of us.” And, because we will become our decisions, we pray that God will grant to us the courage to choose wisely, including the choice to begin again when we fail.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
September 4, 2016 Year C