A child is asked that favorite question of grown-ups: what do you want to be when you grow up? The child answers an artist! or an astronaut! or a space artist! What is often the adult’s well-intentioned reply?
It goes something like this: well, sure, being a space artist would be fun! You know, though, you can’t actually breathe on Mars. And I think the gravitational differences between the planets would do funny things to your paint’s viscosity. And on the gas planets like Jupiter, there isn’t even anywhere to stand your easel! So, realistically, what would you like to do?
You can be a teacher, or a police officer, or a librarian, or a nurse. Space artist, though, is unrealistic.
Children aren’t the only people who are chided for insufficient commitment to realism. Realistically, you can’t expect any improvement in the situation in Palestine. Realistically, you can’t expect to eradicate poverty. Realistically, you should double-lock your door because your neighborhood will never be safe, and that isn’t going to change.
Realistically, look, I don’t mean to be a downer, but your Easter dinner is going to go better if you don’t try too hard and don’t expect too much. You should trade in those silly ideas about conflict resolution, and settle for conflict maintenance. Just try to keep the pot from boiling over.
When in doubt, choose the path of lower risk. It’s like the Eagles song, Peaceful Easy Feeling: she can’t let you down if you’re already standing on the ground. So when in doubt, keep your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds. Keep your expectations low, if you’d like to avoid disappointment. Choose safety.
That’s one way of framing the problem. Moses chooses a rather different way, though, when he stands with the Hebrew people on the edge of the Jordan River. They’re about to enter the Promised Land, and this is Moses’ last sermon. This is Moses’ last chance to encourage the Hebrew people to live lives dedicated to the holy.
The choice Moses gives to the Hebrew people is pretty stark: See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.
Now choose life!
We received, this week, a sad reminder that all of us are going to die. We don’t get to choose that, in the end.
The choice we have is this: are we going to die now, while we’re still alive?
The realist wants us to choose safety. Here’s the thing, though: life is never safe. Life is never safe, because life is never static. Even on a physical level, we don’t stop. We maintain homeostasis, we internally regulate variables like heat and acidity, but we don’t stop. Quitting is, itself, a kind of death.
What does it mean, in Deuteronomy, to choose life? It’s not about the length of one’s life, although ‘long lives’ are used as a metaphor for full lives. It’s about justice, as in cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. It’s about generosity, as in if there is among you anyone in need…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand.
It’s about rest, as in observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you.
It seems a tad unrealistic to define life as defending the powerless, giving to the needy without asking questions, and taking every seventh day off from work. Moses makes it black and white, though. See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Now choose life…
You know in Genesis 3, we have the story that’s sometimes referred to as “the fall.” It’s the one with the tree, and the snake, and Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes. There’s an interesting commentary in it, on life and death.
The serpent comes up to the woman, asking about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The woman says: oh, the tree in the middle of the garden? We can’t eat that fruit, or we will surely die. The serpent denies this: “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The same thing happens at the end of the story: there’s an assertion that death is coming, and a rejection of that notion. See, the serpent was wrong, and Adam and Eve are being banished from Eden. God tells the people that they will return to the ground, since they were made from dirt in the first place, and then the phrase we hear so often at funerals: for dust you are, and to dust you will return.
Adam’s response, interestingly isn’t to argue with God. He doesn’t attempt to lawyer his way back into Eden. Rather, in the face of for dust you are, and to dust you will return, we have this: Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.
So twice, once at the beginning and once at the end, we have this pattern; death is declared, and in death’s face, life is proclaimed. In both cases, it’s unrealistic. First, it’s coming from a crafty serpent who, in most interpretations, is up to no good. Second, it’s coming from a man who has just messed up so badly that Paradise itself is giving him the boot.
Who treats these sources as credible? Who wants to hear their life philosophies?
Death is declared; life is proclaimed. The funny thing is, the dialog is parallel, but the serpent was wrong and Adam was right. The serpent claimed that death wouldn’t come, that death could be avoided. That’s a lie.
Adam, though, Adam went broader than that. Adam defiantly claims, not that death can be avoided, but that death can be beaten, that life can be chosen.
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.
The Sermon on the Mount starts off now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He was teaching them about living, not about the desperate clinging to life, but about living like Eve, life that begets more life.
Jesus gave terribly unrealistic advice on living. Do not judge, or you too will be judged. It would make more sense, you know, to judge first; make your judgment the first and the loudest, before anyone has time to judge you in return.
Or how about this: do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Great. I’ll just mosey down the Kroger, fill up my cart, and when they ask me to pay I’ll just say “Jesus told me not to worry about that.”
Or do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. Well, that’s why I keep my money in the bank! It’s safe from thieves, and probably from moths as well.
And when [Jesus] was done, the crowds were amazed at his teaching,because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Jesus taught as one who understood what life was about. There’s the shallow realism that says “you can’t be a space artist, that’s not real,” but there’s the deeper Real beneath that says, “space artist, why not?” Your heart might be beating, but if you haven’t found that deeper level of Real, then you aren’t really alive.
Of course it isn’t that simple. We don’t always get it one way or the other. But choosing life means choosing life deep down, where open-handed generosity and open-hearted love simply make sense.
And, out of that understanding of life, Jesus took the teachings of the Law farther than Moses had. It’s this larger view of choosing life that forms the emotive core of the Sermon on the Mount.
You have heard that it was said… but I say to you… The author of Matthew gives us five examples of Jesus using this formula, but we’re just going to focus on this one as an example of choosing life. You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder,” but Jesus speaks about anger. Not all anger is bad, of course; let’s clear that up first. Jesus once knocked over a bunch of tables, made a whip, and chased people out of the temple. He’s not saying that anger itself is bad. This is about habitual anger, the kind of grudge that you have to nurture along.
This is moving beyond the surface level. Murder is the ultimate way of denying someone’s humanity. It’s an attempt to make another person into a non-person, to say that ultimately, that person will no longer matter.
On an interior level, anger does the same thing. Not all anger, again; but that particular sort that lingers, winding through the heart like ivy, fermenting into rage and bitterness. There is an anger that anchors itself in us, regarding certain people- and those people will be different for you than for me. It’s a path of death.
Because this is dehumanizing anger, right? It’s an anger that insists that so-and-so is created in somewhat less than the image of God, that they’re incapable of having good (or at least neutral) motives. At the level of the heart, this kind of anger does the same thing as murder- it cuts a person off. It’s an ultimate rejection.
What does it mean, in this particular instance, to choose life? Jesus provides the opposite, for comparison: rather than rejecting, be reconciled.
Thich Nhat Hanh defines reconciliation as to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side. In other words, reconciliation requires the full affirmation of your enemy’s humanity. Reconciliation requires cultivating empathy until you can see what the problem looks like from the other side.
Jesus says this is so important that if you come to church, if you walk through these doors and then remember that someone has something against you, you should walk back out the door and go fix the problem first. Then, come back and worship with a clear conscience.
This is one example of what it means to choose life: put the restoration of that broken relationship above everything else. It doesn’t seem realistic, perhaps. And I’m not saying “don’t come back to church until you have all your relationships sorted out.” That’s a good goal, but most of us would never be back!
I am saying, though, that God’s view of salvation seems to be much broader than we often imagine possible. God wills much more for us than these realistic days.
So if you were to call one person this week, or send one email to mend one relationship, who would that person be? Don’t worry; I don’t expect you to actually tell me the answer. I don’t need to know- but more than likely, you need to do it.
Recently, a correspondent from The Daily Show went to Russia and interviewed a Russian woman who was protesting her government’s human rights abuses against gay and lesbian people. The correspondent asked if she had hope, and she replied that she has to have hope, because “otherwise it’s too depressing.” She said that she was protesting so that she wouldn’t feel ashamed, so that she could look her grandchildren in the eyes and say that she did all she could.
And then, in a moment of pop culture absurdity, she quoted the show Angel, a spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She said, “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”
Realistically, there are over seven billion people in the world, and you choosing life today will be but a drop in the bucket. You can respond to that by flinging your hands dramatically in the air and giving up on the prospect of a better world. That wouldn’t be irrational.
But it would be to choose death. Dust you are, but in this dusty expanse, you can choose life instead.