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Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15–30, 1 Corinthians 3:1–9 & Matthew 5:21–37

Life is full of choices. Usually the first choice I face each day is do I get up and walk the dog and exercise when the alarm goes off, or do I ignore it and go back to sleep? The second might be what am I going to wear to exercise in? That’s assuming of course that I chose not to ignore the alarm! Then it might be which route will I take to walk the dog? Which set of exercises will I do this morning? And so on. I’m sure you get the picture.

Have you ever wondered how many decisions you make in a day? You might be surprised to know that one scientific journal estimates that the average person makes 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day? If we assume that most people sleep an average of 7 hours per day, then that equates to over 2,000 decisions an hour. Now I know why I feel so tired all the time!

Obviously a lot of the choices we make in a day don’t require a significant amount of brainpower: choices such as will I have toast or cereal for breakfast? Tea or coffee? Jam or Vegemite on my toast et cetera. But then there will be those times when we are faced with potentially life changing choices. 

My son and his partner recently had to choose between buying a newly built house in a new estate, or building a house on a subdivided block of land that his partner’s parents were going to give them. That was a choice they thought long and hard about, and spoke to a number of different people about, before they made their decision.

In our first reading this morning, from the Book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are faced with a choice, and it too is a life changing one. They are at the Jordan River, poised to cross over into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, which God promised their ancestor Abraham, that He would give to his descendants. Moses, who has led the people for forty years from slavery in Egypt, to this point where they are about to enter the Promised Land, will himself not live to see the moment. He is dying, and shortly before his death he lays out for the Israelites the two choices they are now faced with, when he says to them, “See, I have set before you today, life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

If the people make the correct choice, then Israel will have a long future. If not, then Israel’s days are numbered. For Israel, life and prosperity meant that all human activity would be under the protection of God. They would live securely on the land; their land would be fertile and prosperous; and they as a people would be fertile, blessed with many offspring and descendants. 

On the contrary, death would mean that all human activity would be devoid of God’s presence. The people would be forced to exist outside of the land, without security and peace. They stand at a crossroads. What does it mean to choose life and prosperity? 

According to Moses, it means to love God with one’s heart, soul, mind and strength (6:4–9). Moses says that the good life includes canceling the debts of the poor (15:1–11), pushing government to guard against excessive wealth (16:18–20), limiting punishment to protect human dignity (19:1–7), restricting those who can be drafted (20:1–8), offering hospitality to runaway slaves (23:15–16), paying employees fairly (24:14–15), and leaving part of the harvest for those who need it (24:19–22). When Moses looked back, he saw that life was best for the Israelites when they were trying to please God.

The choice confronting the Israelites is a life blessed or a life cursed. History bears out, that many times the Israelites chose their own way and suffered the consequences of their own decisions. God, however, remained faithful to the people in a myriad of ways, despite their wrong choices. Choosing life, then, is a lifelong process, sometimes learned only in the midst of struggle.

A little later this morning, we will gather for a special parish meeting at 11am, to choose the way we receive Holy Communion here at St Aidan’s. It’s not a life changing choice like that faced by the Israelites, but it is important nonetheless for many in the parish. It is a choice that some people in the parish have strong views about. Personally, I don’t have a strong view one way or the other. For me, the important aspect of Holy Communion is not how we receive it, but rather what it does for us.

When we receive Holy Communion we come before God and offer ourselves to Him as a form of self-sacrifice. Listen to these words from ‘Thanksgiving Prayer 2’ in A Prayer Book for Australia: “Accept, we pray, our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and send your Holy Spirit upon us and our celebration that all who eat and drink at this table may be strengthened by Christ’s body and blood to serve you the world”. Through the sacrament of Holy Communion we are refreshed and renewed to go back out into the world each week and bear witness to God.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus makes it clear that if we are in conflict with one of our brothers or sisters, we are to go and seek restoration or reconciliation with that person before we bring our offering to the altar. 

This would imply that old scores need to be settled and wounds healed before we gather around the holy table to receive the sacrament. Such action, of course, would serve as the ideal, in that each one of us could kneel before God with a clear conscience and lighter heart. However, we also know that there are just those moments when the ideal is not immediately possible.

A. T. Robinson, who was an English New Testament scholar, author and the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, defined the practice of Holy Communion as simply “making holy that which is common.” In other words, we offer to God the totality of our lives—the darkness and the light—and it is blessed, made holy, and returned to us as the presence of the living Jesus. 

We symbolise this in the gifts of bread and wine. Thus, it is Jesus working in us and through us that eventually makes reconciliation possible. What we were unable to accomplish before is now a possibility. We do not have to do this all on our own. This understanding begins at our baptism, when each of us (or parents and grandparents for us) answers the baptismal promises with the phrase, “I will, with God’s help.” To think that we can accomplish everything on our own, without Jesus’s presence, is to carry a burden we cannot successfully bear.

While we strive for Jesus’ ideal, when things fall short of the mark, coming to the altar, offering one’s gift, is not a bad place to start afresh. Jesus invited all sorts and conditions of people to the table and that served as a unifying experience. It also served to encourage those at table to begin life again, committed to living faithfully and in harmony with each other. Let us keep that in mind as we approach the meeting later this morning.

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