Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-18
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Sep. 4, 2016
“Today, I offer you the choice of life and good or death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord, then you will live and increase. If you do not listen, then you will perish.”
At the beginning of my last year at Wesley one of my academic advisees stopped by my office to see me. There was excitement in his eyes and joy radiated on his face as he told me the story of the journey that brought him to seminary. His story was not a happy one, though it has a good chance for a happy ending. Bob was then fifty-six years old. He had lost his job two years before and his wife had left him. Both events were the direct result of his becoming an alcoholic. Even with these traumatic events he remained in denial refusing to acknowledge the source of his problems. It took another year for him to hit bottom. At that point he had a gracious encounter with the Lord, in a United Methodist Church near Philadelphia. He came to Wesley to learn more about God, and to seek His guidance as to what he should do with the rest of his life.
In the three years I have been here in Naples, I have from time to time thought about Bob and wondered what has happened to him since I left. A few weeks ago I got a long email from him. He has graduated from Wesley this past May, met and married a new companion and together they are now pastoring a church outside of Philadelphia. At the end of his email he said: God has given me a chance for a fresh start.
In today's Old Testament lesson, the nation of Israel was offered this same opportunity for a new beginning. God had graciously delivered them from the cruel yoke of the Egyptian Pharaoh. He had parted the waters as they crossed the Red Sea. He had provided manna in the wilderness and gave them water from a rock.
Now they stood on the banks of the river Jordan. The land that God had repeatedly promised to their Father Abraham was about to become theirs. They were about to possess their possessions! Ahead of them, side by side, lay two mountains, Mt. Gerizim, standing 2,849 feet high, and Mt. Ebal, whose peak rose to 3,077 feet above the Mediterranean Sea.
Before he died, Moses had commanded that when they crossed the Jordan representatives of six tribes were to ascend Mt. Gerizim, and representatives from the other six tribes were to go to the top of Mt. Ebal. At the top of each mountain they were to build an altar. After they had made a sacrifice unto the Lord, they were to look across Canaan, the land that they were soon to conquer. As they looked across the land they were to call out a series of blessings and cursings.
On Mt. Gerizim six tribes were to declare in unison: "If you will obey the Lord your God a blessing will be on you in the city and in the country." While their words were still echoing across the valley, those standing on Mt. Ebal would cry out: "But if you do not obey the Lord your God a curse will be upon you in the city and in the country." The solemn recital continued until twelve blessings and twelve curses were proclaimed.
This drama enacted by the nation of Israel as they entered the land of promise is summarized in today's Old Testament lesson. "Today, I offer you the choice of life and good, and of death and evil. If you obey the commands of the Lord your God which I give you this day, then you will live and increase and the Lord your God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not listen, I tell you this day, you will perish, you will not live long in the land which you will occupy after crossing the Jordan.”
In the Christian experience the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the possession of the land of Canaan, has become a two-fold type of the Christian life. Deliverance from sin's power over our lives was made possible by our Lord's death and resurrection and is made available to us through the waters of baptism and our profession of faith. Entrance into the life of the Spirit was opened to us at Pentecost and is made available to us through the laying on of hands at confirmation. Most, if not all of us, here today have made this journey.
But just as Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal stood to the east, ever reminding the nation of Israel of the blessing and the curse, so to, the Christian must ever choose between obedience and life and unfaithfulness and death. Again and again Israel forgot the God of her mothers and fathers. Again and again she was captured, defeated, and taken into bondage. It took centuries before she learned to choose life, not death.
Again and again, through the proclamation of the Word and through the celebration of the Sacraments, God calls us to continue life in Christ. For the Christian, as with the Jew of the Old Covenant, failure to respond to this call to faith can only result in being placed in the position of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. All that the Father had was his, but instead of joy, peace fulfillment, such possession brought only discontentment and unhappiness.
For our parish, there is no greater time for a new beginning than the first Sunday in September. When I was growing up September 1st was always the time when my church launched its new Christian Education program. I often found myself in a new class with a new teacher. Vacations were over. I also started school the following Tuesday and looked forward to getting to know my new teacher. Of course the grade view had already informed me if I was getting the most popular teacher that year or the one everyone dreaded. Everybody, even my teachers, seemed ready for a fresh start. Here in Naples it is a bit different. School starts in early August. What I’m discovering here is that September leaves me feeling a lot like I felt when spring arrived in Michigan when I was growing up. In that state, by March 1st signs of new life awaking were everywhere. September in Naples is the month when our parishioners from the North start to return. Traffic on our main roads increase significantly. You have to go early if you want to get seated immediately at a restaurant without a reservation. A sense of new life starts to flow through our veins.
In addition, this is particularly a special year for Saint Paul’s. On Sunday, December 4th, we will begin celebrating our 50th anniversary year. After a summer hiatus, The Anniversary Committee met this past Thursday to begin to plan in earnest for the coming year’s activity.
Part of the year’s activity will be scheduled times for reflection, reevaluation, and for opening ourselves to new directions that the Lord may have in store. The call comes to move on, to “possess the land,” as it were. For St. Pauls, I believe that time is now. This day, this week, this coming year, our Lord offers us a chance for a new beginning, a new phase in the ongoing history of this parish. Will there be times when we stumble and fall? Almost certainly. Will there be occasions of lapse? But it will also be a time of joy, excitement and growing anticipation. God is not finished with St. Pauls. Indeed, I dare to believe that when the time comes to write the centennial history of this church St. Paul’s, they will discover 2017 to be a year of great renewal.
It is also my prayer that will not only be a year of renewal for us collectively as a church, but a time of blessing for each of us as individuals as well.