Posted in Worship

Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

We are living in a strange time. And it would be easy to assume that no scripture passage could meet us here, in this bizarre and challenging modern time.  Well, here is one piece of good news: there are a lot of strange stories in our scriptures, truly bizarre stories; and many of them come from very challenging times in the lives of our ancestors in faith.  So it is with our reading today.

Things are bad for the people Israel. The great King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia and his armies have deposed Israel’s king and laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelites have been cast out of their land. Others are still living in Israel under foreign rule. There is no sign that things will ever get better.

Then God takes the Prophet Ezekiel out into a valley full of bones.  If this doesn’t sound creepy enough to you already, the scripture assures us that there are very many bones in that valley, and they are very dry.  And then God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”  Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you know.”

God proceeds to instruct Ezekiel about how to prophecy to the bones: how to speak so that the bones come together, bone to its bone, with sinew and flesh and skin. And then the breath of God comes into these reformed bodies. They live, and stand on their feet, a vast multitude. Finally God tells Ezekiel that these bones are the whole house of Israel.  Israel says, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”  But Ezekiel’s job is to let them know that God is going to bring them up out of the grave, and fill them with spirit, with life.

We are perhaps still at the beginning of the trial that this pandemic we are living through may become. But there are already stories of great devastation. And it has already impacted all of us: our social connections, our childcare, our work habits, our income, our mourning rituals.  We may also find ourselves battling with inner devastation: a dryness, a hopelessness, a sense of being cut off from that which keeps us strong.  We may find ourselves saying with the people Israel, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” How might this story of God meet us in those times of desolation?

One striking thing about this story is that God does not restore this valley of dry bones alone.  Instead, God offers restoration in partnership with a prophet. God’s imagination and guidance, leads to Ezekiel’s proclamation, which in turn leads to physical changes. It may be that we have a role to play, that the human community has a role to play, in helping to communicate and enact what God knows can take place amidst the challenges of this time. Keep watch, pay attention to where this may be happening around you.

I am struck also that this scripture story is not simply a before-and-after story. God does not come and restore political victory to the people.  Their exile is not ended at the end of the story.  Rather, the reanimating words of hope come in the midst of devastation. The desert of dry bones, and the renewed multitude of living bodies, are existing in the same bleak reality. It’s not the exterior circumstances that change, but the sense of vibrancy, life, hope, in the midst of the circumstance.  How might we live like a watered desert, like a re-membered people filled with God’s breath, even in the midst of isolation, in the midst of desolation?

Some questions for reflection:

  • When have you felt dried up, without hope, cut off, like the people Israel in this story?
  • What are the losses you grieve in this pandemic time, for yourself or for others? I think grief is a real and important thing to acknowledge for all of us, what we are losing, what we have lost.
  • How, even in times like this, does God partner with us to open graves, give breath, fill us with Spirit?

God is our Rock and Shelter

  • March 26, 2020

Check out the great pics from last week’s interactive worship activities! Folks were asked to find rocks and build outdoor shelters to remind us of God’s everlasting love, strength and protection – especially in tough times. As always, thank you for sending your photos!

Psalm 46

  • March 24, 2020

Reflection from Joyce DeGreeff, March 22nd

For centuries, and for many people, the Psalms have provided comfort in hard times. I also really appreciate them because they do not shy away from what’s real. They often name the pain honestly and offer quite explicit lament. In times such as we are experiencing today, I think it’s really important to practice both/and thinking. As we see in Psalm 46, there are expressions of hardship, anxiety, and uncertainty followed by the assurance that we are not alone, that there is something greater than ourselves that we can rely on in times of doubt and despair.

“Though the earth should change; though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; thought its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its’ tumult.”

This nature imagery for me lifts up a connection to what is very real for us right now… much is changing in the world around us, the “roaring waters” might represent our frustration, our lack of control, even our anger. And the “shaking mountains” we might feel in restless sleep, in our bodies as we hold our breath, clench our muscles, or experience any other bodily sensations of anxiety.

AND Yet…”God (Spirit, Love ….however you best understand the Sacred) is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” And this God invites us to “Be Still” and find Peace (ASL: Become Quiet), trusting that the Spirit is indeed moving in and among us.

I’m wondering: How do you experience God’s refuge and strength?

Hannah has offered us these questions to consider:

*What does it mean for God to be our refuge, our rock?
*How can you take your shelter in, or find your grounding on, God? 


Summary of Responses:

Nature, Music, Stillness, Family Time, Pets, WCUC Community, Sunshine, Baking, Creatvity, Finding New Ways to Connect, Learning a New Skill, Resurrecting Old Ones!

*”We don’t have to socially distance ourselves from God!”

In fact, we don’t need to “socially” distance ourselves at all, we need to “physically distance” ourselves for sure, but now we need social connection and social solidarity more than ever.

Closing:
Living in the “AND” … is where we find HOPE. Not wishful thinking, but a “ “hope” that is grounded in faith-based optimism and the knowledge that while we are more vulnerable right now, we are not powerless. We can draw on support from one another and from God to find our center, to experience grace, and find a sense of calm, even if just for a moment.

And I believe, that it is in quietness of hearts where we can best hear the still small voice of God calling us to act – to support our own family and friends, and to extend ourselves to others who are feeling particularly lonely, hungry, or scared right now.

from a recent Washing Post Article:

“Every hand that we don’t shake can become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid can become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another can become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”

May each of us seek refuge in our loving God, so that we might be strengthened to share more love and kindness in the days ahead. Amen.

“Well” Done!

  • March 19, 2020

Last Sunday I asked folks to interact with some special resources during and after worship, and I got some great pictures showing all different innovative ideas! In connection with our Scripture story about Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman, I asked you to color and fill up a Living Water jug and then work to build some creative wells in your house. Enjoy the pictures highlighting the amazing creations!

Why Move to Online Worship?

  • March 11, 2020

This Sunday our congregation will be gathering online via Zoom rather than in person. This is not a decision that our leadership takes lightly. Rather, it is a sacrifice that we make, an act of love for the most vulnerable within and around our church community. It is not an act of panic, but a proactive decision based on awareness, compassion, and the hope of prevention.

Experience from past pandemics and this one suggest that social distancing BEFORE the virus is widespread is extremely helpful. This “flattens the curve” of disease transmission, easing the strain on our health system for those who need acute care due to COVID-19, flu, or other unrelated issues. Those of us whose health is not likely to be impacted by COVID-19 have an opportunity to care for those who are above 60 or whose immunity is compromised.

What if this turns out to not be a big deal in our area? This is the best possible outcome, and is most likely if a large number of organizations cancel events quickly! Unfortunately, in the past few days infections in Eastern Massachusetts have been dramatically increasing, so we do not anticipate that this will be the case.

How can we stay connected? As we practice social distancing in person, we will need to work harder to stay connected in other ways. Please read our eWord and let us know if you have a need or if you can be part of our Call Team, Delivery Team, or Tech Team. Attend our Zoom worship if possible and stay tuned for additional online opportunities. Pick up your phone and call someone you have met at church to check in!

When will we meet in person again? This is impossible to predict right now. It’s hard to consider going weeks without in-person worship, but it may be the kindest thing we can do for our neighbors. If this stretches out, as a UCC clergy colleague said, whenever we’re able to gather in person again, then it will be Easter! Let’s pray for everyone’s sake that this is resolved quickly.

Please be in touch with your questions, concerns, and ideas about how we can best care for each other and worship God in this time.

Reborn

John 3:1-17

Nicodemus knows that someone named Jesus is making waves.  How does he know? Maybe he has heard about how Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit swooping down like a dove right above him. Maybe he has heard about how Jesus changed jars of water into a very fine vintage of wine at a wedding. Almost certainly, he has heard about how Jesus spent his first day in the holy city of Jerusalem driving money changers out of the temple.  Nicodemus learns that someone named Jesus is making waves, and he wants to learn more.  So this esteemed religious leader shows up, at night, at Jesus’ door. 

Sometimes folks imagine that Nicodemus is ready to become Jesus’ disciple as he visits this night, if only secretly. I imagine Nicodemus is ready to examine this upstart uneducated Galilean Rabbi.  What does this Jesus really believe? What has he been teaching the people?  Will this youngster need to be reigned in before he causes trouble with the Romans?  But Nicodemus doesn’t get a chance to ask his questions or offer his guidance.  Jesus sees this experienced elder, and begins teaching him, instead.  “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

Now, as it happens, Nicodemus does not live in America in the 1990s.  So, he has no idea that the phrase “born again” might have a spiritual meaning.  Jesus’ teaching, therefore, seems simply ridiculous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Nicodemus asks, bemused. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?”

Jesus replies, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus does not know what to do with Jesus’ answer. “How can these things be?” he asks. We might want to ask the same thing.  It’s hard to be sure exactly what Jesus is saying, but he seems to be saying that to get close to God, we need to be reborn. Reborn, through water. Reborn, through the Spirit.  Reborn, or born again, or depending on how you translate the original, born from above.

But what does it mean to be reborn, born again, or born from above?  Isn’t everyone born just once? We only get one shot in life, right? There’s no starting over, physically or otherwise.  Our past can’t be changed. We can only go forward.

Plus, even if we could start again – would all of us really want to?  Especially folks like Nicodemus, who seems to have it all together?  He’s educated, he’s respected. He’s probably financially secure. Nicodemus is even spiritually revered.  Why would someone like that risk it all to be reborn? Why would he need to?

Jesus tells us that the way to get close to God is to be reborn.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

With God’s help, we can start over, Jesus tells us. But he’s not talking about starting over to build more successful lives, lives with more money or fame.  Instead, this starting over has to do with loosening our attachment to the external parts of our lives, so that we can respond more freely to the wild, unexpected movements of God in our hearts.

This teaching of Jesus makes me think of the spiritual leader Richard Rohr, who’s spent time unpacking psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s ideas about the two halves of life.  The first half of life, he claims, is dedicated to building an identity for ourselves through outwardly noticeable achievements.  The second half of life begins when these outward achievements are no longer sufficiently meaningful.  Instead, we begin seeking spiritual or religious experiences that can fill the outward structure of our identity with a new kind of inward satisfaction.  This is the work of finding God deep within.(Read more here or in Rohr’s book Falling Upwards)

Consider the caterpillars we are learning from this season.  Starting as a small egg, caterpillars eat and eat and grow and grow – just like in the book, the very hungry caterpillar.  In fact, caterpillars are so good at eating and growing that they outgrow their own skins more than once!  The goal of all this, we might imagine, is to become the biggest and best caterpillar out there.  But just when they’re getting really successful at being caterpillars, caterpillars stop being caterpillars at all.  Instead, they hang upside down, create a chrysalis, and give up their caterpillar lives to become something else entirely.

So I wonder: what have you been trying to achieve in your life so far? What have been your goals?  Maybe you’ve achieved those goals spectacularly well. Maybe it hasn’t gone exactly the way you hoped or planned. Either way – are these the same goals that you want to claim for the rest of your life?  Or is it time to start doing something else altogether – even if it means undoing parts of the life you’ve built, letting go of some privilege or prestige you’ve enjoyed? 

Each of us is only born once.  Nicodemus is right!  We can’t enter a second time into our mother’s wombs.  We can’t even undo our mistakes, or erase our scars.  But Jesus wants us to know that everyone can still be reborn.

We can be reborn, if we’re broken and troubled and desperate.  We can be reborn, even if we seem to have it all together.  Humble or proud, rich or poor, successful or struggling, all of us can be renewed. All it takes is acknowledging the emptiness we feel inside the outside shell of our outer lives, and inviting God to fill us.  

Simple, but not easy.  Letting God fill our lives means moving into mystery, and letting go of everything we thought we knew.  It means putting our trust in absolute eternal love, and not much else.  This kind of life isn’t something we choose only once.  Instead, being reborn is a choice every day: as we slowly deconstruct the self we thought we needed to be, to become the one we are called to be, instead.

Please pray with me. Holy God: You are the womb from which we all come, and through you, we can begin lives that are entirely new: empty of everything except the wind of your Spirit, blowing free.  Help us each to claim this bewildering opportunity, this mysterious offer, today and every day, for the sake of our own lives, and for the sake of your world. Amen.

Metamorphosis: Lent 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

At the beginning of the season of Lent each year, we return to this story about what happens to Jesus after his baptism, when the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness. Who does Jesus meet in the wilderness? (the devil!)

Now our cultures have all kinds of ideas about what the devil might be like, but there isn’t much about the devil in our scriptures. We don’t know if Jesus really saw the devil with his eyes, or if the devil was more like a dream, or what the devil might have looked like, or if the devil could have looked at all like Susan, who read the part of the devil in our scripture lesson.  We don’t know if Jesus really heard the devil with his ears, or if the devil was more like a voice inside his head, or what the devil might have sounded like, or if the devil could have sounded anything like Susan.

What we know is that the devil tempts Jesus three times.  He asks Jesus to prove himself by turning stones into bread, to fill his own belly; to jump off a high place, to test God; and to worship the devil, to gain power over the whole world. What does Jesus say to these temptations?  Does he agree to do them, or not? Jesus says no, and he says no by quoting the Hebrew scriptures. When Jesus has hard choices, he remembers what he knows about God and God’s ways.

I don’t know whether anyone here has ever felt like the devil was whispering in their ear, tempting them to do something. But I do know that we all have to make choices, and that those choices can be hard to make.  How can we learn more about God, how can we get closer to God, so that we’ll make better choices?

In this season of Lent, we’re invited to choose a practice that will help strengthen our ability to make good choices.  We’re invited to set an intention, to make a change that will help us know God and God’s ways more deeply.  Perhaps we could try something that might help us become less anxious, less selfish, less judgmental, less isolated. Perhaps we could try something that might help us become more peaceful, more generous, more gracious, more connected.  We’re invited to try something new: just for 40 days.  Maybe it’ll become a habit we love and keep doing. Maybe we’ll never do it again. But almost certainly, we will have learned something about ourselves and about God by trying it.

Each of us is invited to choose a practice, to make a change in our individual lives. And all together, as a community, we’re trying a change as well, in our space.  Did it feel a little strange coming in today? Was anything surprising?  I wonder if you notice anything that is different in our space today. What is different?

  • There is purple fabric hanging in the air!
  • Our platform and our table are in the middle of the space.
  • Face new directions in our seats; see each other more, and the organ and windows more
  • We may not always see the face of the person who’s speaking or leading.

There are also a lot of things that are the same. What is the same?

  • Walls are the same
  • Same Furniture
  • Liturgy, the way we worship is more or less the same
  • The people!
  • God, the reason we gather is the same

This way of setting up echoes the design of the ceiling. It’s an extension of the most ancient pattern of Christian gathering, which was around a table.  It may help us feel closer to each other, or even closer to God, as if we’re wrapped around with  care.  Like anything we try for Lent, this may be something we love — and it may be something that we never do again. Regardless, I hope we learn something from it, about ourselves, and about God.

The imagery that we’re using this year for Lent is from the life cycle of butterflies.  Butterflies can inspire us as we consider what it might mean to change. And the most dramatic change in a butterfly’s life happens when it’s inside the safe walls of its chrysalis.

So, this season, I am imagining that God’s forgiveness and grace and love is our chrysalis.  God is our safe container, within which we can risk change.  We have some chrysalises, made on Ash Wednesday, on our table. The curve of our chairs, the sweep of the fabric above our heads, may also help us think of the wrapping around love of God.

Change is hard.  It’s hard to choose to change, and it’s hard to face changes we don’t have a choice in.  But we’re not alone.  Not even Jesus was alone.  When he begins his public ministry, in each moment of his transition, God is there: in a spirit like a dove, in words of blessing; in the wisdom of the scriptures; in visiting angels.  God is there, wrapping around Jesus to give him support as he dares to do something new.

Please pray with me: God, help us to feel your strength surrounding us, holding us, hugging us, grounding us, as the world changes, and as we choose to change, to become closer to you. Amen.

Ash Wednesday Transformations

  • March 3, 2020

Enjoy the pictures from our Ash Wednesday soup supper and interactive prayer service!

We began the evening together dining on delicious soups, bread, cheese, and fruit, then talking about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

After supper, we moved upstairs to the sanctuary to explore our interactive prayer stations. Our theme this year was Metamorphosis: Practices of Transformation. Can you notice transformations to the sanctuary space? What else did we transform?

Praying in color together…

…and transforming our prayers into art.

Transforming sand while we considered how God has made and remade us.

We transformed clothespins into caterpillars to “munch” our Lenten intentions this season.

And we transformed lanterns into amazing chrysalises to be displayed on our communion table this Lent!

What transformations will you consider practicing this Lent?

Singing Our Faith: Hymns of Many Cultures & Languages

Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21

On the feast of Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus, who was born beneath a star and becomes a light for the world. During the weeks following Epiphany we witness Jesus’ holiness shining forth at the time of his baptism, and in his work of preaching and healing.  On this last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, Jesus’ brightness is revealed again in a spectacular way. 

Just a few days after Jesus has broken the news to his disciples that he will be killed in Jerusalem, and raised on the third day, Jesus goes up a high mountain with Peter, James, and John.  There, at the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured.  His face begins to shine like the sun.  His clothes become dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah, the two greatest heroes of his faith, begin talking to him like an equal.  Then, as if all this wasn’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows everyone, and a voice proclaims, “This is my child, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

It must have been amazing to see Jesus’ face; to hear the conversation between him and Moses and Elijah; to feel the presence of God.  But none of us were there on that day. How can we feel the awe? How can we grasp the mystery?  How can the glory of God become real to us?

Only a few folks witnessed the events in the life of Jesus.  Thankfully, they shared their experiences generously.  As so we can still receive the blessings of these events today, not only in scripture, but also in song. There are Christians in just about every part of the world, speaking many languages, representing many cultures, and singing about the glory of God.

The sharing of Christian songs across culture, geography, and language has dramatically increased in recent decades.  As a result, our New Century Hymnal includes songs that did not originate in the European-American cultures that are the largest roots of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Our opening hymn today is one example: Siyaham’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkos.  This song expresses the longing of the black South African majority for rights and freedoms denied by an oppressive colonial white minority.  It is written in the language of the Zulu people, the most widely spoken indigenous language in South Africa.  Like so many protest songs, this one empowered those who sang it on their journey towards social change.  Some of us know it because it was recorded and published in 1980 by the Church of Sweden Mission, and became popular in North America during the 1990s.  In churches and concert venues, this song highlighted the fight against apartheid while introducing rhythms and energy that were unfamiliar in many predominantly European-American cultural institutions.

Our closing hymn, Sois la Semilla, was written by a Spanish theologian, Cesareo Gabarain, in the 1970s.  Father Gabarain wrote many hymns while serving as a parish priest and the Spanish chaplain to Pope Paul the 6th.  This one was translated into English by the United Methodist Church and arranged by Mexican organist and choral director Skinner Chavez-Melo.  Tragically, the nineteenth century missionary movement encouraged Latin American and U.S. Latinx people to forget their language and culture. Including the Spanish language and Latinx song styles in our worship today is a way of honoring the identity of many, both here and far away, who were threatened with cultural erasure by the church.

One more international selection for today is the Taiwanese hymn “God Created Heaven and Earth.”  English missionaries Boris and Clare Anderson translated the text into English in 1981. The melody is from the Pi-po tribe, originally from the island of Taiwan.  I-to Loh, a professor of church music and hymnologist, harmonized this tune in 1963. Before the groundbreaking work of Professor Loh, the sharing of indigenous Asian hymnody was so focused on western accessibility, that it compromised indigenous musical styles or character.  Professor Loh has played a key role in researching, educating, and promoting the sharing of authentically indigenous hymnody.  Let’s sing…

Many issues arise as we use hymns that originate beyond North America and Europe.  Some of us are uncomfortable singing in an unfamiliar language or musical style. It may be challenging to sing, or feel less “holy” to us than the songs and styles we know by heart. Others among us are excited to have new cultural experiences.  Regardless of our personal preferences, questions of justice remain.  How can we be confident that we are honoring language, music, and stories that do not belong to us?  When might the use of songs from other cultures become appropriative?  How can we acknowledge the colonial and missionary history that has shaped this music, especially within congregations and denominations that are predominantly white?

These considerations also apply as we turn our attention to music that arises out of minority cultures in the United States. Wakantanka Taku Nitawa is a song from the Dakota people.  It was written in 1842, using an existing Dakota tune. The author is Joseph Renville, son of a French-Canadian trader and a Dakota mother.  Renville served as an interpreter between white missionaries and Native Americans, helping to establish the Lac qui Parle mission in Minnesota. This hymn was paraphrased in English by R. Philip Frazier, a Native American and Congregational minister, in 1929.  I don’t feel comfortable singing in Dakota without someone to teach us, so let’s sing in English…

Among many hymns of African American origin in our New Century Hymnal is Lift Every Voice and Sing.  James Weldon Johnson, the text writer, was a teacher, poet, lawyer, newspaper founder, diplomat, and a leader in the NAACP.  He worked together with his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, a musical composer, performer, and director. This hymn was first performed in 1921 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and is often referred to as the black national anthem.  As with all spirituals and songs from African American traditions, I wonder what it means to sing this as someone who benefits from white supremacy.  As we sing together, notice the words “our” and “we” and consider their meanings. Let’s sing…

Writing to the faithful many years after the Transfiguration, the author of the second letter of Peter assures their audience that “no prophecy ever came by human will, but people moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”  With humility and gratitude, let us receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit revealing herself through the holy songs of many peoples.  For God’s glory cannot be limited to any one language or culture, rhythm or hymnody; it bursts forth in a magnificent diversity of expression.  As witnesses and students of this music, as participants in this music, may we receive a clearer understanding, a brighter glimpse, of the God at the heart of it all. May it be so.  

Choose Life

  • February 18, 2020

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses is tired. He has been leading the people Israel through the wilderness for decades. With God’s help, he has faced their complaints, met their needs, and given them guidance.  Now the people are on the plains of Moab, almost within reach of the promised land. But Moses is 120 now, and according to his own account, he no longer gets around very well.  Who can blame him?  Moses is nearing the end of his life, and he’s not going to make it to the promised land. So before he dies, he shares some more wisdom with the people on God’s behalf.

After all that he’s done and said, what is it that Moses wants to make sure that the people know? You have a choice, says Moses. You have a choice. You can choose between prosperity and adversity.  You can choose between blessings and curses. You can choose between life and death. You can choose between honoring the God who brought us up out of Egypt, and worshiping someone or something else. You have a choice, and your choice matters.

This season we listen to both Moses and Jesus share ideas with us about how to live faithfully.  Many of us have heard it all before.  Don’t lie or steal or kill.  Don’t spend your energy on worry or hate.  Don’t worship wealth or seek power for its own sake.  Instead, honor creation and be generous with what you have.  Strive to forgive other people and help those who need help the most. Love God with all that you are, and your neighbors, and even your enemies, as yourself.

These instructions may be familiar to us. They may even seem simple.  But one thing’s for sure: they aren’t easy.  So what does Moses mean when he tells us to choose? Can we really just choose a way of God, a way of life, once and for all, and everything will fall into place?  If so, why hasn’t it happened already?

The ways Moses asks us to choose aren’t simple to live out.  His insistence that we have a choice may even make us angry as we remember just how many things we can’t choose.  None of us get to choose the circumstances of our birth or upbringing.  We don’t get to choose what we’re naturally good at, or what is really hard for us, or what jobs we get or lose. We don’t get to choose who falls in love with us. We don’t get to choose if we or our loved ones get sick. We cannot choose how the people who are closest to us will act, siblings or spouses or children or parents or friends, even if we really, really wish that we could.

There are so many things we don’t have a choice about — not only in our personal lives, but in our common life, as well. It’s President’s Day weekend, and this is an election year. We don’t get to choose who runs for office, or who other people vote for, or how politicians act once they are elected.  We cannot force our leaders to tell the truth, or care about the truth, or uphold any kind of moral code. We cannot single-handedly stop hateful speech and action, or redistribute wealth, or eliminate oppressive laws and practices, or halt climate change, or transform our immigration policies. 

Choose a way of life, Moses?  What choice do we really have? If we pay attention to the world around us, and particularly if we stay up late reading or watching or listening to the news, it’s easy to end up feeling entirely powerless. I wonder how those folks Moses was talking to felt, coming up out of slavery in Egypt only to endure 40 years of wandering and want. How many choices did they feel that they really had?

But Moses never claims that we can choose the circumstances of our lives, or that we can choose anyone else’s actions. He only reminds us that we have a choice about how we will live in the midst of everyone and everything else.  God creates us for choice in the very beginning. God designs us to be free and even creative. God does then offer us guidelines for meaningful and just living, suggestions for how to use our freedom, lots of them; but God has no interest in forcing us into obedience.  Instead, throughout our holy text, God cajoles, pursues, provokes, questions, and entices.  God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say no to whatever is life-taking, life-denying. God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say yes to whatever will nurture, heal, inspire, connect, strengthen, honor.

God gives us freedom. God makes us free. It is our work, then, to claim that freedom. To choose despite the pain of our past, and our fear of the future. To choose despite the pressures of our families and cultures and political systems. To choose with as much creativity and faithfulness as we can, and then, when we make a mistake – as we will inevitably do – to accept God’s forgiveness, and choose again.

What might you choose, if you truly felt free?  How might you live, if you claimed all your choices?

Keep in mind that Moses wasn’t speaking to one person here, but to the whole people of Israel.  A free human community. As we struggle to make choices in the directions of goodness, and kindness, and justice, we will discover others who are striving to choose these things too. And while each of us has very limited power, together we have astonishing power.  Power to influence, and power to change.

Just before he asks us to choose life, Moses says this:

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’  No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

Please pray with me.

God, you are close enough for us to cling to, and the wisdom you give us is not far away, but planted here, in our hearts. Whatever challenges we face, personal and political, grant us the strength and courage to still claim some part of that magnificent freedom you have given to us. Guide us as we struggle to choose faithfulness, wisdom, and life: by ourselves, and together; for your sake and for our own  sake and for the sake of one another. Amen.