Sixteenth Week after Pentecost (C/RCL): “Choose Life! Stay on the Boardwalk!”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33
September 3-4, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
“What are the two things you must remember when you visit a national park?” So asked the cashier in the bakery where Kristiane and I were buying treats in Livingston, Montana. I hadn’t expected to be quizzed while purchasing brownies, but felt I was prepared with a decent answer: “I must remember to take only pictures and leave only footprints!” “Pretty good, but not what I was looking for,” said the young baker. “You must remember 1) not to transport any baby animals and 2) do not step off the boardwalk.”
Kristiane and I must have looked a little confused, so she explained. In May, visitors to Yellowstone saw a baby bison all by its lonesome. It seemed to be shivering. They felt compelled to do something, so they seat-belted it into their car and drove it to a ranger station. Well-intentioned but wrong move. The rangers attempted to return it to the herd, which rejected it, because now it smelled like humans (like a baby bird that falls out of its nest, is handled, and shunned). It couldn’t be transported to a zoo, either – something about it being too young and possibly carrying a disease that can transfer to cattle – so it had to be euthanized.
When the baker told us not to step off the boardwalk, though, we actually did know what she was talking about, because we’d already heard from multiple sources about the 23 year old who died after falling into one of Yellowstone’s thermal features just a month before our visit. His sister and he had ignored the gazillion signs telling visitors to stay on the boardwalk in the Norris Geyser Basin. They walked more than 225 yards into forbidden territory before the thin crust underneath his feet gave way and he disappeared into a superheated mudpot. His sister immediately went for help, but when you fall into a highly acidic thermal feature registering over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, there is really no help to be had. His body was essentially vaporized; the recovery effort yielded only his flipflops. Not surprisingly, the park superintendent announced, “This tragic event must remind all of us to follow the regulations and stay on boardwalks when visiting Yosemite’s geyser basins.”1 The consistent message sent by every interviewed ranger was: “Stay on designated trails. Don’t shortcut trails. Don’t go off the trail.”
In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses transmits the Lord’s message of caution:
16If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments… then you shall live…. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish…19…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…. (Deuteronomy 30)
Stay on the holy boardwalk. Follow the path the Lord has laid out for you. Obey the signs, even when no one is looking. Now that’s not so hard, is it??
Well, it was too hard for Colin Nathaniel Scott, whose young life was cut short when he hopped off the boardwalk in Yellowstone, and it was too hard for the people of Israel, too. The story line in Deuteronomy is that God sends this message we just heard before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. “Follow these rules and you’ll be fine.” But it’s interesting to know that the Book of Deuteronomy was written 6 to 7 hundred years after the entry to the Promised Land, after both the Assyrians and the Babylonians had invaded and hauled its inhabitants into captivity. By the time Deuteronomy was written in the 6th century B.C. the people of Israel had a well-established track record of not following God’s rules, not staying on the holy boardwalk, and then suffering the awful natural consequences of their disobedience and unfaithfulness. The repeated invitation to “Choose life!” after centuries of abject failure to do so is an ongoing sign and holy fruit of God’s loving kindness, ultimately shown in the sending of the Messiah, our Savior Jesus Christ.
Here’s what’s tricky: the Celebrate intro to the Deuteronomy passage talks about “the stark choice before [the Israelites]: choose life by loving and obeying the Lord; or choose death by following other gods.” But the choice isn’t always as clearcut as:
· “Do I step in front of this train or not?”
· “Do I pull the trigger or not?”
· “Do I attempt to drive home safely despite what I’ve had to drink or do I call a cab?”
Choosing life is always important but isn’t always simple because life is much more than physical breath, especially for a believer. Choosing life can mean turning off a ventilator, recognizing that extraordinary medical means aren’t necessary when meaningful existence has already ended, not fending off physical death at any cost as the worst possible outcome, but accepting that this earthly life is prelude to another and everlasting life. Choosing life for members of some professions, like firefighters, means risking one’s own personal safety to ensure someone else’s. For the armed forces, choosing life may mean taking an enemy combatant’s life in order to protect the lives of the innocent. I believe those are choices that God honors!
We hop off the holy boardwalk, though, we put our eternal lives at risk, when we convince ourselves that choosing life means opting for whatever gives us the most pleasure. If choosing life for myself means turning a blind eye to God’s commands, turning my heart away from God’s love, and in any way harming my neighbor, then I’m not choosing life: I’m choosing self-indulgence. That doesn’t result in “death” as quickly as falling into a superheated mudpot, but over time we become like the frog in the beaker of water being heated over such a low flame, so gradually, that the frog doesn’t even realize it’s being boiled alive.
Yes, we choose life by “just saying no” to drugs, to alcohol abuse, to domestic violence, to suicidal (or homicidal) thoughts, to driving under the influence, to gossip and all forms of character assassination. We also choose life by caring for God’s beautiful creation, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, tending the sick, visiting the lonely, welcoming the stranger and advocating for the most vulnerable and the least powerful among us.
Jesus says something puzzling in today’s Gospel, something that seems at odd with choosing life. He says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) That startling message boils down to, “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (the Benedictine rule). Here’s The Message paraphrase:
Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it goodbye, you can’t be my disciple.
Choosing life is true discipleship; it’s doing whatever our Lord commands. When a situation is murky and how to choose life isn’t obvious to us, seeking wisdom in the Word, in worship, in conversation with trusted Christian friends will help us stay on the boardwalk of safety. We cannot step off it and hope to avoid harming ourselves and others. We cannot stray off the holy boardwalk of God’s commands without risking great danger. The ground beyond may look solid, but it’s fragile as crème brulee crust. To paraphrase a Park spokeswoman: “The big take away here is that [God’s] regulations are in place for a reason.”2 Amen!
1Craig Welch, “Yellowstone Geyser Death Shows Peril of Straying from Boardwalk,” National Geographic on-line, June 8, 2016
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham