Listen to our service and sermon below:
The year was 1945. The place was a Dachau concentration camp. The man was a prisoner who had been a well-known composer before the war. One night, he had a dream that he confided in another prisoner. In the dream, a voice told him he could wish for something, all he needed to do was say to the voice what he wanted to know, and all his questions would be answered. The man told the voice he would like to know when he and his concentration camp would be liberated and their sufferings come to an end. The voice in his dream answered: March 30th.
The prisoner who had the dream was convinced it was right. March 30th was only a few weeks away, and so the man woke up every day full of hope and resolve. But as the promised day drew nearer, the war news that reached the concentration camp made it clear that liberation that soon would be unlikely. On March 29th, the man who had the dream suddenly became ill and developed a fever. On March 30th, the day his dream had told him that the camp would be liberated and his suffering would be over, the man became delirious and lost consciousness. On March 31st, the man died. On April 27th, the camp was liberated.
The man to whom that prisoner confided his dream was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who, in telling the story of his friend, suggested that, though the official cause of death was typhus, the ultimate cause was the disappointment of hope. It was the man’s loss of hope that paralyzed his will to live and allowed his body to become vulnerable to the illness that killed him.
Viktor Frankl faced circumstances most of us have never and will never encounter. Living in Vienna when Hitler invaded Austria, Frankl, his wife, and his parents, were arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where his father died six months later of exhaustion. The rest of the family was separated from each other. Frankl survived three years of brutality in Nazi concentration camps, only to discover after his liberation that his wife, his mother, and his brother had all been killed in the Holocaust.
If anyone ever had reason for despair, it was Viktor Frankl. Instead, he used his own suffering as an opportunity to explore what became his primary purpose in life – the search for meaning, a search which seemed to sustain those prisoners who survived. Frankl discovered in the Nazi concentration camps that the single most important factor in cultivating the kind of resilience that helped prisoners survive was teaching them to hold in their minds the hope of some kind of future. Frankl held in his own mind the picture of himself standing in a lecture hall, giving a lecture about finding meaning in life. He would lie in bed at night, with notepaper he had found and squirreled away, and write notes for the book he hoped to get out and write. Within a year of his release from the camp, over the course of nine days, he wrote that book, a work initially entitled, “…Nevertheless saying ‘Yes’ to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.” The title was later changed to Man’s Search for Meaning, and the book became an international best-seller.
At the center of Frankl’s understanding of human purpose was the concept of choice. He wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Those of us in this room have not had to endure the kind of atrocities Frankl and his fellow prisoners suffered, but most of us still know a thing or two about despair. Many of us in this room have grappled with or are even now grappling with difficult personal circumstances. We’re acquainted with grief, with anxiety, with anger, with disappointment. We struggle.
Beyond our individual struggles, all of us are living through a time that feels unprecedented – nationally, internationally, globally. It feels like everything is fracturing. The sense of alienation and animosity pervading our society is profound. Levels of outrage we once might have thought were unsustainable now seem to typify our daily lives in America. And worst of all, the very foundational elements of life – the earth beneath our feet, and the air we breathe, and the water we drink – are suffering. The teenagers I work with routinely make reference to their uncertainty about whether or not the earth is even going to still exist by the time they’re adults. When they talk about climate catastrophe, it is with a matter-of-factness that could take your breath away. It’s horrifying. I worry for the earth, and I worry for the kids growing up with the assumption that it’s too late to turn any of this around.
These are hard days to keep having hope.
And yet our world has never needed hope more than it needs it now. We have never needed it more.
But hope doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t come from the circumstances around us – that’s not hope, that’s confidence. That’s optimism based on current facts. And our current facts give us no reason for optimism or confidence. Hope is something more.
In his book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, author Thomas Cahill argues that one of the greatest contributions the Jews made to the world was the concept of time as linear. Prior to that, humans understand reality as a circle – closed and predictable, time endlessly looping back around in a never-ending cycle. The story of Abraham’s relationship with God marked the beginning of a linear understanding of time. And you can hear it in the very first words of the Hebrew Scriptures: In the beginning. Since then, we’ve understood time as forward-moving, going in one direction, something that we humans could actively shape. In other words, there is a future. And where there is a future, there is a hope.
This morning, we heard words from Moses as he stood on the threshold of the future with his people, the Israelites. They had been wandering together for forty years in the wilderness. Moses had told them he was leading them to the Promised Land, but at times it surely felt like they were going in circles. The desert stretched out in front of them, behind them, in all directions, as far as they could see. Forty years. Two generations. How many babies were born during that time? How many people grew old and died? How many times did couples have the same argument over and over again? The circle of life just kept repeating itself as they trudged along, looking for signs of the promise.
And now, at last, here they stand, on the border of the promise, about to take the risk of stepping into their unseen future. Moses will not be going with them, so he has to help them understand what to do once they get there. The entire book of Deuteronomy is his instruction to them. He reminds them of the Ten Commandments as the touchstone of faithful living, and he tells them in very specific ways how to worship God, how to practice justice and fairness, and tell the truth, and honor their parents, and care for the widow and the orphan. And in this morning’s text, he delivers his final sermon.
“See!” he tells them, as they peer ahead at the Promised Land. “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…. Choose life!”
Yes! Yes! Life! That’s what we want, too. That’s what we all want. If the choice is between life and death, between prosperity and adversity, blessings and curses, we know exactly what we want – Moses doesn’t have to tell us twice. LIFE. Prosperity. Blessing. But life is more than a lofty concept. But the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ specificity throughout, reminds us that “life” is not just a general idea, not just a lofty concept. Moses gives the details of what it means to step into the future and choose life in all its specificity, in all its demands and difficulties– it means loving God, aligning ourselves with God’s purposes. It means orienting daily choices around God’s ways. And the book of Deuteronomy shows u that this looks like hospitality instead of hostility, like self-giving instead of self-protection, like trust instead of fear. It looks like not just trying to get a blessing but trying to be a blessing.
And it’s a way of being in the world regardless of circumstances. Because there’s another word here that’s just as important as the word “life” – that word is choose.
That word – choose – is used more times in the book of Deuteronomy than in any other book in the entire Bible. Many more times. 31 times. And 30 of those times, that word – choose – refers to God’s actions. Over and over again, Moses tells the people about God’s choosing – how God chose them, to be a holy people, a people of God’s own, and about how God would remain active in their life together in the future, choosing kings and priests and place for worship. Thirty-one times, Moses uses the word “choose,” and thirty times, it is God’s word.
And one time, this last time, on the edge of a new future, the people get this word. Choose. You choose. Choose life.
Think of it. We have the power to choose – to choose how we will step into the future, what our attitude will be, how we will embrace or resist whatever comes. The power to choose again and again. Which means it’s never too late to make a new choice. We have the power and the freedom, always to begin again, always to make a new choice, to choose life even in death-dealing circumstances. And what’s more, this freedom and power are grounded in the choice that God has already made – the choice to create us, to love us, to sustain us, to redeem us to collaborate with us, and always, always to accompany us. For every choice we make, God has already chosen us 30 times. 30 times 30 times. Infinite times. And will keep choosing. God always chooses us. We were created by love, for love, to head towards love – that is God’s choice for us.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann said it this way:
the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.
Listen. I know how hard it is to have hope when circumstances don’t seem to justify it. And I know that hope is not about circumstances. Hope is not about what is, it’s about what could be. Hope is not about certainty, it’s about imagination and dream and creativity and collaboration and trust in God who exemplifies all those things. Hope can imagine the Promised Land and then make choices that align with flourishing in that land, even when the promise is still a dream. Hope can imagine the toppling of white supremacy and then make active, anti-racists choices, even when the end of racism is still a dream. Hope can imagine an end to poverty, and then make choices for justice and fairness, even and especially when those choices require sacrifice. Hope can imagine a healthy planet, and then make small daily choices for life for the planet, even when those choices seem too small to do much good. Hope can imagine a healed body, a healed addiction, a healed relationship, a healed community, a healed country, a healed world, and then make courageous choices that defy circumstances. Hope can imagine a future from any starting point, and from any restarting point.
Hope is a choice. Keep choosing it. Keep choosing it. Keep choosing it again.