‘I call heaven and earth to witness … that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’ Deuteronomy 30:19
Life is perhaps the greatest miracle of all. Sometimes it can seem like a burden, even on our worst days a curse, but mostly, for most of us, for most of the time we know that it is a blessing to be alive. And we know what a wondrous miracle it is in those moments in our lives when we feel most fully alive.. ‘The glory of God’ said someone once, ‘is a human being fully alive.’ When we’ve just given birth, or met someone amazing, or handed in a PhD thesis or swum in the sea or walked up a mountain and really looked at the view. When we’ve take a moment to look at the stars, when the doctor has given us the all clear at last, when we’ve done a good day’s work in a job we love, when we’ve made a big decision, we know what it is really to be alive.
Lots of things around us in the world are not alive. But we are not like them – we are not stones – we are flesh and we are alive. And we know what it means to be alive in those rare moments when we become aware of the miracle and the gift, as well as the challenge of being alive.
But what would it mean to choose life? What has this got to do with choice? Mostly life doesn’t feel as though we’ve chosen it, it just is. And there are lots of things in all our lives that we don’t choose and we wouldn’t choose, but they are part of being alive; grief, stress, suffering, aging, being tired and worn out and hurt. An awful lot seems to happen to us in life that we wouldn’t choose and that we can’t choose to avoid. Sometimes it can feel as though we have very little choice at all about the things that befall us or those we love. So, what does it mean to choose life?
In the long story of the Old Testament, Moses spoke these words to the people of Israel as they were about to enter the promised land. They had been slaves in Egypt – the worst kind of human life, a life that leaves people with no choices at all, no power, no agency. Then they had wandered for years in the desert, within a bleak and boring landscape, with little food, with dangers all around them, and a life so tough that sometimes even slavery seemed a better option. So now they stood on the very edge of something that might be almost normal, land to make a home in and grow crops in, neighbours to dwell with and hopes for the future. But Moses makes them pause before they rush ahead and he tells them that now they have choices, now they can choose – and they can choose life or death. They have a choice.
And I imagine that if Moses were here today he would tell us that we have a choice too. We may not be able to choose lots of things that might happen, but he tells us that we can choose between life and death; we can choose between all that is good and holy and generous and abundant and loving, or we can choose to shut down those things and lead lives that are mean and shallow and narrow and cruel and limited. We can choose.
I wonder whether you feel right now that you have many choices – whether you feel as though when you wake up each day that you are being offered a choice? I know that when we are in the first decades of life it can seem as though we have endless choices; and life is about choosing a path, making decisions that will shape our lives and our future. But as we grow older it can seem as though the choices we have made have already carved out fixed spaces for us so that there’s no going back or forward much to anywhere else. And it can seem as though we have fewer choices than we once did as our bodies begin to weaken and our faculties begin to fade. It can really begin to feel as though we have little choice about what happens to us. Nobody chooses a weak heart or arthritic knees and nobody chooses to let go of memory or stamina. There are things that happen to us and we can do little about those. But, those things are not the only things about our lives. We cannot choose what happens to us, what befalls us, but we can choose what meaning we give to our lives and how we respond to what happens to us. We can still choose life. Jesus said that he came so that we could have abundant life, and it is always possible to choose life and to celebrate its fullness. Even if we get to the point of death, even in the hospice bed or the prison cell we can still put ourselves on the side of life. And even death can sometimes be recruited to life’s cause.
Moses wasn’t inviting the people of Israel just to go on breathing. He was talking about a deeper meaning of life than that. He was talking about the kind of life that can shine from a human being, who might be physically disabled or mentally weakened, but still definitely fully alive. He was talking about the kind of life that can be evident in someone deeply grieving, but still determined that love was worth it. He was talking about the kind of life that makes love and generosity and joy possible even in the worst of times. Moses was offering a worn out bunch of former slaves the kind of real choices that we all have, whoever we are. We can choose life…
I’m sure that Moses never saw the film Trainspotting, but if he had he would definitely have recognised the famous kind of a poem in that film that is simply called Choose Life. You can find it on Youtube…A character in the film, Renton, a heroin addict, is wise enough to recognise that the kind of life offered by the mainstream culture of the mid 1990s is not really life at all. So, he mocks the world he’s turning his back on as he says…
Choose a job.
Choose a career.
Choose a family,
Choose a **** big television
Choose washing machines, cars,
Compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.
Choose good health, low cholesterol
And dental insurance.
Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments.
Choose a starter home.
Choose your friends.
Choose leisure wear and matching luggage.
Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase
In a range of **** fabrics.
Choose DIY and wondering who you
Are on a Sunday morning.
Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing
Spirit-crushing game shows
Stuffing **** junk food into your mouth.
Choose rotting away at the end of it all,
Pissing your last in a miserable home
Nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish brats
You have spawned to replace yourself.
Choose your future. Choose life.’
He doesn’t want that kind of life. And he chooses drugs instead… even addiction and death he thinks is preferable to the kind of life the world around him seems to offer.. But there is another choice too. There is the choice of real, soaring, gorgeous, risky, generous, abundant life. There is the possibility of accepting the unpredictability and uncontrollable nature of life, and deciding to live it fully nonetheless. We can’t escape the changes and risks of what happens to us and around us, but we can choose to live well whatever befalls us. We can choose a better kind of life…
And if you think that the film Trainspotting that was made in 1996 feels a long time ago then there’s a been a more recent film called Trainspotting 2 and they’ve updated the ‘choose life’ speech.. It’s even more ironic and depressed about the life our culture offers! And I’ve edited it a bit because it’s Sunday morning after all…. Here goes…
‘…choose… designer lingerie, in the vain hope of kicking some life back into a dead relationship. Choose handbags, choose high-heeled shoes, cashmere and silk, to make yourself feel what passes for happy. Choose an iPhone made in China by a woman who jumped out of a window and stick it in the pocket of your jacket fresh from a South-Asian Firetrap. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and a thousand others ways to spew your bile across people you’ve never met. Choose updating your profile, tell the world what you had for breakfast and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, desperate to believe that you don’t look as bad as they do. Choose ten things you never knew about celebrities who’ve had surgery. Choose a zero-hour contract and a two-hour journey to work. And then sit back and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s **** kitchen. Choose unfulfilled promise and wishing you’d done it all differently. Choose never learning from your own mistakes. Choose watching history repeat itself. Choose the slow reconciliation towards what you can get, rather than what you always hoped for. Settle for less and keep a brave face on it. Choose disappointment and choose losing the ones you love. Choose your future…
But I think we could compose an alternative to the trainspotting version. We could write a non-ironic, hope-filled version of the riff on choosing life. I think I want to say something like;
Choose the risk of love,
choose walking in the grass with barefeet,
choose having a dog who is no use at all but who will welcome you home,
choose giving a few hours to volunteer somewhere,
choose keeping on making mistakes because that’s what it means to be alive,
choose living in the present moment because it’s a gift,
choose following Jesus because he is amazing,
choose letting go of security and let yourself sometimes be dependent on others,
choose going to see the snowdrops,
choose talking to people on buses,
choose defiance of the inevitability of death,
choose kindness and smiling more and treasuring the day,
choose believing that winter will pass into spring,
choose knowing that we all endure pain, but we can hold hands with someone,
choose believing and hoping that our children will enjoy a good future,
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus gives us wisdom about choosing life too. I think he says something like ‘We all know it’s wrong to murder, but choosing life means choosing something different even from the murderous anger that leads to murder. Walk away from that choice too. Be the kind of person who doesn’t insult others or call them names. Choose a different kind of life from that one. And don’t just fulfil rituals and religious obligations. Don’t just bring your money to your god – thinking that will put everything right, but go and make peace first, be reconciled to anyone you’ve argued with or are not talking to… Choose life… make peace, find joy, be kind… live abundantly. Of course, we can’t choose everything that happens to us – we can’t choose the people who don’t like us or the things we feel or even all the daft things we find ourselves saying or doing – but we can choose some things. We are given that gift. We can choose reconciliation, we can choose life.
The wonderful writer Henri Nouwen – of whom many of you will know – says this;
‘ “Choose life.” That’s God’s call for us, and there is not a moment in which we do not have to make that choice. Life and death are always before us. In our imaginations, our thoughts, our words, our gestures, our actions … even in our nonactions. This choice for life starts in a deep interior place. Underneath very life-affirming behaviour I can still harbour death-thoughts and death-feelings. The most important question is not “Do I kill?” but “Do I carry a blessing in my heart or a curse?” ‘
We come here today because we believe and know that God is on the side of life. God is constantly offering us the gift of life and is showing us such love and kindness and tenderness. Our call is to choose that life and to live it, fully and hopefully whatever happens to us. So, in the words of Moses, and in the power of Jesus Christ,
‘I call heaven and earth to witness … that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life …’. Amen.