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Feb 16, 2020

Life or Death?

Life or Death?

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: February 2020

Category: Faith

Audio of scripture readings and sermon only.

Matthew 5:21-30

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

 “Life or Death”

          I have set before you life and prosperity or death and adversity.  Which one do you want?  Our first reading, from the Older Testament (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) presents us with the easiest of choices.  Where was this test-writer when I was still in school?  Here’s a short sermon for you:  Choose life and prosperity.  Amen.

          We know it isn’t so easy.  For starters, prosperity isn’t available to all.  There are churches who will tell it is if you just believe…and send them a check.  The only party that is guaranteed to get richer is the church, and if you don’t it will tell you it’s because your belief was too weak.  The term for that is blasphemy.  Even some who have achieved prosperity will discover being wealthy is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Similarly, like prosperity, life isn’t something everyone gets choose equally.  Does a child in a war-torn part of the world get to choose life?  What about a wealthy woman who gets cancer?  Someone who can’t afford care or healthy living or simply to live where it is safe?  To complicate things even further, Jesus, who would have counted this text as his Scripture, chose neither prosperity nor life in the end, at least not as we commonly define them.

          It’s not the wrong question, life or death.  It’s that we’ve largely learned to answer that question only shallowly.  As I’ve said before, faith is about the orientation of our hearts, not primarily what we believe but what we love.  I’m not sure we love life or even prosperity, which I will define here not in terms of the excesses of our culture, but of having enough, of wellness and thriving.  Matthew Fox, theologian and mystic, says above all else, our culture loves death, the literal definition of necrophilia.  You don’t have to look very far to see our obsession with death—our entertainment, the level of violence in our society, the way our way of life leads to death in some form for others and certainly other species.  I don’t mean we should ignore death.  Quite the contrary, our obsession with death is an avoidance tactic.  A healthy culture neither sweeps death under the rug nor fetishizes it.  It acknowledges it.  It honors it.  It ritualizes it, giving us ways to move through it without being swallowed up by it.  It’s amazing how many people cannot even name death at funerals.  They insist on a “celebration of life.”  I like to celebrate too, but our mourning, our grief, our missing what death takes from us, these are signs of our love for life. 

          The ways the culture tries to love life are often unhealthy as well.  We spend all kinds of money on products and services to give the illusion we aren’t aging, or we extend life by some definition at all costs, devoting less to promoting true quality life.  I’ll never forget a woman from my last congregation.  Her death came while I was trying to decide whether to come to this church.  Graciously, you all gave me the time to attend to her.  Her name was “Happy.”  Happy’s death came a surprise.  She was basically of good health.  An x-ray for something treatable revealed a spot on her lung.  Though it too was likely benign, all wanted to remove it to be sure.  In the midst of that procedure, she through a blood clot that caused significant brain damage.  Yes, it’s a nightmare story, one that breaks through our illusion of stability and control. 

          Happy had long made her wishes clear and in writing.  She acknowledged how people with no hope of a meaningful quality of life are kept alive in this country at exorbitant expense, while others suffer around the world without adequate access to healthcare.  She specified in no uncertain terms that should she reach such a state, and she was spelled out what that was for her, she did not want her life prolonged.  In fact, I seem to remember her mentioning that money that would be used for her care be sent to where it wasn’t as good or as available.  So, we held vigil as sustenance was withheld, no medicine, no feeding tube, no water.  She was gone within the week.  It was the biggest funeral I’ve ever done.  That was her way of choosing, and it doesn’t have to be yours, but I might say in her very dying she recognized what loving life looked like.

          Sadly, in our culture the question of life has been reduced into a fight over the singular issue of abortion.  I won’t solve that one for us today.  I understand that perhaps some are too casual about what happens in the termination of a pregnancy, yet others are too casual about supporting life after it emerges from the womb.  Our sole focus on that debate misses the myriad of ways we do not love life in our living.  We are called to love life, to choose it, and the operative word is “we.”  Deuteronomy, like much of the biblical witness, is concerned with the community.  When we stick with a highly individualistic lens, we overlook how we fail to promote life for the greater whole. 

          Fox says if we are going to make it, and he means that literally, we have to move from necrophilia to biophilia.  It’s not just about human life.  He reminds us that we belong to a larger biosphere, a greater cosmos even, and all of this was created by the Creator.  Raised on Newtonian physics, we can forget that all of this is alive.  Even the planet itself behaves far more like a living being than a dead piece of granite, though the mystics would say the rocks too are telling of God, are carrying ancient wisdom.  Many indigenous spiritualities have known this all along.  Love this, all of this.  Now, am I saying go out and start hugging trees?  No, not without acquiring consent.  Then, yes, hug away.

          Some years back I was in a gathering of Presbyterian clergy for a conversation about what the climate crisis had to do with our religion.  The anxiety in the room rose as we talked about sea level rise and the impact for the poorest and most vulnerable.  Oh, I misspoke; there was a rabbi present too, just one.  It was the rabbi who called us home to our love of life, because we’d settled into only fearing death.  She reminded us that in the midst of all of this, it’s important occasionally, or regularly, to go and sit under a tree, to enjoy its beauty, to delight in its shade, in a manner of speaking to fall back in love.  The rabbis are always so much better at this.  Perhaps it’s because their festivals were tied to the seasons, to the cycle of planting and harvest, to the land, the earth.

          Biophilia, loving life.  It’s no mystery social media is dominated by two things:  hateful and degrading speech and….cat videos, cute animal clips.  It sounds silly on the surface, but are these not superficial expressions of necrophilia and biophilia?  We have to learn to practice our biophilia lest we default to necrophilia.  The good news is there are endless ways to practice your biophilia.  I think of a man I just learned about, a physical therapist and Feldenkrais practitioner, a kind of body movement specialist.  He works with cerebral palsy patients and is able to give them the ability for the first time in their lives to dress and take care of themselves.  Think of the dignity that grants them.  That’s loving life.  I remember the conservationists who seem to have given their lives in Mexico to protect fragile monarch habitats.  Loving life.  I was listening to a story the other day of farmers and everyday folks—you don’t have to have an activist’s spirit—who make their land pesticide free and full of native plants giving the pollinators who make this whole thing work a fighting chance.  Matthew Fox recommends we spend time simply staring at what he calls “Father Sky,” you could call it Heavenly Father (it’s the same in the original language).  Don’t take my word for it.  Try for 10 minutes a day, with no other distractions, and watch how your life changes.

          Jesus is described in many ways in our tradition:  savior, Lord (a political term), messiah (the anointed one), King of Kings, Son of God, the Christ.  One way to think of Jesus is as the connected one.  He’s totally connected to eternal life.  When he meets someone, he is instantly connected to them.  When faced with their suffering, Scripture likes to say Jesus was “moved with compassion,” because he loves life and he sees it being threatened.

His love of life is not restricted to the human realm.  Notice the images he uses when teaching.  He speaks of lilies, a mustard seed, sheep, goats, bread and wine.  He talks about a vine and the branches.  He heals with spit from his own body mixed with soil, the saliva of the earth, the earth from which we come.  Remember, Adam, the first human in our creation myth, was formed from the soil, the same soil from which the trees and their fruit come.  Jesus teaches with trees.  His worldview was…the living world.  He was a “biophiliac.”

          In today’s reading, he may not seem that way to us.  He seems to be harsh, promising death:  “You have heard it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire’ ” (Mt. 5:21-22).  So much for our misguided stereotype of the “angry Old Testament God” and the “loving New Testament Jesus.”  In the Old Testament, we’re just told to choose life and prosperity over death and adversity.  It’s Jesus who seems to raise the stakes to impossible heights.

          Why, because Jesus loves life.  His point is not to set up an impossible standard.  It’s to reflect back to us the destructive potential of our choices.  Remember, faith is about the state of our heart, and if we’ve given our hearts over to hatred or destructive habits then we will inherit a hell of our own making.  Jesus isn’t threatening his followers; he’s offering them a cautionary tale.  Jesus isn’t obsessed with hell, we are.  I finished a book not long ago by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, entitled That All Shall Be Saved.  Drawing from both the biblical and philosophical tradition, he argues passionately against the notion of an eternal place of punishment.  Do you know from where he has received the most pushback?  Christianity.  Why?  Necrophilia has infected the faith as well.  We must have a place for our enemies to go, or more shadowy still, we believe we deserve it.  Some simply can’t imagine a God that just gives life. 

Love life and you will find it, and you will find prosperity, though your definition of prosperity might well change. 

This is our purpose, friends, our work.

As Mary Oliver writes,

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird - 
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.[1]
           There’s our assignment.  Choose life or death.  There is a test.  You’re living it.  Amen.