Saturday, March 4, 2017

Psalm of Choice

Psalm 119:1-8; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
February 12, 2017 Upper Rogue United Methodist Church

Today we read the first 8 verses of Psalm 119, the longest Psalm in scripture. Psalms are the hymnal of the Old Testament, and in Jesus' time were used much as we use hymns today. While in translation, they may not appear to be poetry, they are. Like much Hebrew poetry, they are not written in rhyme, but in parallelism. That is, two or more lines repeat the same idea in different words, such as:
 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
     who walk according to the law of the Lord.
This particular Psalm is divided into 22 parts, each one beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, thus forming an alphabetical acrostic containing praise, confession, laments,meditations, petitions, and assurances that God is always with us. Since each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a name, the poetic structure includes the meanings of those names.

Today's section is named Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet. Aleph means first, or master, reminding us that God is the master of creation and first in our hearts and minds. It is appropriate, then, that the Psalm opens with a reminder of the blessings of obedience and the curses of not obeying the law: a reminder that we need to constantly choose to walk in God's ways.
(Psa 119:1)Happy are they who are without sin in their ways, walking in the law of the Lord.
(Psa 119:5) If only my ways were ordered so that I might keep your rules!
(Psa 119:6) Then I would not be put to shame, as long as I have respect for all your teaching.

These reminders of the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience are repeated over and over in the Old Testament. It is the same message Moses put to the Hebrew people in his last speech, just before his death and their crossing into the promised land.
(Deu 30:15) See, I have put before you today, life and good, and death and evil;

(Deu 30:16) In giving you orders today to have love for the Lord your God, to go in his ways and keep his laws and his orders and his decisions, so
that you may have life and be increased, and that the blessing of the Lord your God may be with you in the land where you are going, the land of your heritage.

(Deu 30:17) But if your heart is turned away and your ear is shut, and you go after those who would make you servants and worshipers of other gods:

(Deu 30:18) I give witness against you this day that destruction will certainly be your fate, and your days will be cut short in the land where you are going, the land of your heritage on the other side of Jordan.

Moses tells the people that it is their choice, and their consequences. They can follow God, or follow the ways of the world. A choice that continues today. Like the Hebrews in the desert, like the singers of the Psalms, we are given the choice. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[b] Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 NIV)

If you've ever hiked one of the many points jutting out into the Pacific along the Oregon coast, you have probably seen signs warning; Stay on the Path; do not cross fence.” One cold and windy spring day, when we were serving at the beach, I was tapped out as and emergency chaplain. It seems someone disobeyed the sign, stepped over the fence, leaned out to get a picture and fell 125 onto the surf-crashed rocks. One person dead and a multitude of rescuers endangered because of disobedience.

Centuries before Paul, the Psalmist recognizes that all have sinned and fall short of the law; and so this first segment of the Psalm ends with a prayer for help in keeping the law.
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
    in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame
    when I consider all your commands.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart
    as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees;
    do not utterly forsake me.

And that's where grace comes in. The law recognizes that humans cannot, on our own, conform to the law. Atonement could be made by a sacrifice.
(Lev 9:3) Tell the people of Israel that they must offer sacrifices as well. They must offer a goat as a sacrifice for sin, and a bull and a ram as a sacrifice to please the LORD. The bull and the ram must be a year old and have nothing wrong with them.

In the crucifixion and death of Jesus, we have ultimate and final atonement; and in his resurrection the promise of life, life eternal is assured.

It is our choice. To choose life is to choose to live in new relationships; a new relationship with God; a new relationship with others; and a new relationship with creation.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers 'the Little Flower' because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. 
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor." the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson." LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail." 
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Like the children of Israel in the desert, like the Jews of the Psalmist's time; like the Romans of Paul's day, we face the choice. Life in God or life in the world? Which will it be? It's up to you.

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