Chapel Talk

February 17, 2014
Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Good morning. And a special welcome to everyone visiting St. Olaf today for Junior Preview Day. We’re delighted that you’ve come to be introduced to our College, impressed that you braved the weather today, and especially pleased that you’ve come to chapel today.

Oles, Welcome to the spring semester! Even though you couldn’t tell it by the weather, we’re back for the spring term. To the nearly seven hundred of you who were studying off-campus during the Interim, welcome home. And to all of you who endured/enjoyed a real Minnesota winter on campus this Interim, “Well done!”

I like to point out to folks that even though we are both in the business of planting and growing and nurturing and reaping, our calendar is just the opposite of a farmer’s. Farmers plant in the spring, grow in the summer, and reap in the fall. But colleges like St. Olaf plant in the fall, when our new students arrive, and our continuing students return to campus. Autumn and winter are our growing times, when you are absorbed in classes, living in community, broadening your range of experience, and encountering new ideas. By contrast with farmers, spring is our harvest time, and Commencement is our harvest ritual. It’s nice now to be on the downward slope towards May 25, Commencement Day, just over three months away. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the President of Estonia, will join you seniors in becoming an Ole at Commencement. He will receive an honorary degree and deliver the Charge to the Class. It’s not too shabby to share the Commencement platform with a head of state. I hope you’re looking forward to the day.

But to continue my metaphors about growth and fruition, don’t lets count our chickens before they hatch. A lot needs to happen between now and the end of the semester for you to finish in the blaze of glory that you and I both want for you, so this is a good time to commit to the work that will ensure that result.

Because the beginning of a new semester seems like the right time to make commitments, or recommitments, the Old Testament reading for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany — yesterday — is particularly apt, and I thought I would spend a few minutes this morning reflecting upon it with you.

When I read the Bible I find some texts particularly challenging. Whether it’s the intricate reasoning of the Apostle Paul, or the chasm of difference in time and culture that separate us from the world of the Old Testament, or very likely just inadequacy on my part, not every texts speaks immediately to me. Thank goodness for daily chapel, by the way, for this is one of the resources we can turn to for help in encountering God’s Word in the Scriptures.

On the other hand, there are other texts that—and I hope this isn’t too presumptuous to say — are kind of No Brainers. The text from Deuteronomy that Pastor Matt just read is one of those. It poses two alternatives for people of faith to choose between, and it’s not a complicated choice. As binary choices go, in fact, I’d say that it’s about as simple as you can get. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” H-m-m-m-m. That’s a tough one. Which would I prefer, life, or death?  Prosperity or adversity?  Stroke my beard, ponder, ponder, think, think: I guess I’m going with life. No, I don’t think I’m going to need to consult my life line, I’m pretty sure that’s what I want.

And that of course is what the text exhorts us to do: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” But the problem is that many choices that seem simple aren’t, and this is one of them, as the text reminds us. Choosing life isn’t as simple as selecting the choice you want, dusting off your hands, and walking away pleased with yourself. That choice requires action, and the text tells us exactly what those actions are: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live ….” Conversely, “if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish ….”

And this brings us hard up against the challenge that I daresay confronts every one of us every second of every day. The Apostle Paul laid it out pretty clearly in Romans, Chapter 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

I imagine everyone here today can translate those verses into passages in their own lives. For the most part it’s not that hard to know what to do, but it can tax, and often exceed, our strength to actually do it.  Over and over again we fall short of our own expectations for ourselves and God’s expectations for us. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I was supposed to reach out to a person in need, I was just too busy. Or the person in need in front of me was so much in need that I didn’t have the courage to reach out. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I was supposed to respond out of love, not anger, to another person, but anger was stronger than love that time. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I was supposed to be generous in spirit, but suspicion, or vanity, or cynicism, or all three won out. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do the right thing. I couldn’t.

Perhaps you could come up with a list similar to the one I just laid out, but that doesn’t make either of us bad people. It makes us sinners, but we already knew that. We confess as much every Sunday when during the confessions of sins we say out loud that we “have sinned in thought, word and deed.” So, what to do?

This is actually the point at which we choose life. That earlier moment in this chapel talk when I imagined myself in some kind of fake game show where you got to pick either life or death and then you got the prize, everybody clapped, and you were done never actually happens. What really happens in the lives of real people is that every time we acknowledge God’s commandments, acknowledge our own weakness, but commit ourselves to persist in the work to which all people of faith are called and study God’s Word, seek to do God’s will, call upon God in prayer to support us, and draw upon our giftedness to care for God’s creation, that’s when we choose life. Sure, it’s hard work. It’s the hardest work. But it is the work to which we are called.

So, if the beginning of a new semester is a time to commit, or to recommit, to our academic work and to our life together in community, I challenge everyone here in chapel today to make a corresponding commitment, or recommitment, to the task of the faithful: to align our minds, our wills, and our actions with God’s vision for us and for God’s creation, knowing that we will stumble, and knowing that we will fail, but upheld in the knowledge that God’s love supports us and God’s Grace embraces us in that work.

Choose life!