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Under the Deadline


Old Testament Reading: Ecclesiastes 2:12-17

New Testament Reading: Matthew 25:14-30


A couple of weeks ago I preached on the dangers of forgetting one's own mortality. Buddhism tells us that it is better to be a human than a god, since though both are mortal (even gods must die), the gods are more liable to forget the fact since they live in such glory and for so many eons.

Human beings, on the other hand, are too often reminded of the dangers of mortality and are thus more mindful of the need to get down to business while there is still time. Thus they may win the hare-tortoise race with the gods, the race of salvation, since they are less likely to delay and to temporize. Unlike the gods, they are not under the illusion that they have all the time in the world, and so they will not procrastinate.

So it would seem, but in fact, as you well know, even human beings easily fall under the same spell and imagine that there will always be time for the serious business of life--or even for discovering what the serious business of life ­is­--later, manana.

So a couple of weeks ago I urged you to break the spell and to reckon with the coming eventuality of your own death. Bultmann saw that this was what baptism meant in the early church: embracing your own death when you die with Christ, henceforth to live on borrowed time, heeding Christ's commands.

But after that sermon, some of you paid me the high compliment of taking what I had said seriously enough to reply with questions, objections, requests for further elaboration. I would like to deal with some of those points this morning.

First, isn't there an equal and opposite danger of taking death too seriously, so that it begins to vitiate life? If life is insipid when it drifts along in a false belief in its own endlessness, can't it become hollow when lived always in the shadow of death? Yes, it can. Let me deal with this danger. And of course my point will be that the forgetfulness of death is Scylla, while the obsession with death is Charybdis, and that one must, like Odysseus, steer a strategic path between them.

I did not deal with the prospect of life after death in my previous sermon. I will in a few moments. But for now let me ask you to imagine there is no life after death. Then death's shadow seems to loom all the darker. And some would say that the brevity of life, followed by nothing, makes life meaningless. The mindfulness of death would seem to make all effort pointless. That's the conclusion of the Preacher, the writer of Ecclesiastes. Why bother? To this I have two responses.

First, a philosophical one. If you can't see any meaning in this earthly life, as it is, on this side of the great curtain, then I ask you how having an eternal amount of additional life is going to make it any more meaningful? Eternal life does not equal meaningful life.

If mortal life is meaningless life, adding eternity to it can't change its meaninglessness. If life loses meaning when it loses infinity, then what sort of meaning did it have to begin with? Meaning in life is quality, not quantity, wouldn't you say?

Second, your own experience tells you that the meaningfulness of a thing is in no way reduced by its short duration. How long does a smile from my daughter Veronica last? An instant, though luckily there are a lot of them. But each individual moment of her smiling is filled with meaning to me.

Indeed, I should think that it is the very fragility and mortality of life that makes it so precious. In Bergman's The Seventh Seal, when Death has breached the walls of the castle, and the companions of Antonius Block stand before the Grim Reaper, the knight himself prays in desperation, while his profane squire Jons, says to him, a smirk on his face, his eyes never leaving Death's grim visage,

    "I could have given you an herb to purge you of your worries

    about eternity. Now it seems to be too late. But in any case,

    feel the immense triumph of this last minute when you can

    still roll your eyes and move your toes... I shall be silent,

    but under protest."

A triumph? A triumph over what? Over life's ever-present opposite, over the always-threatening possibility of death. As Tillich said, Being is the affirmation of itself over against Nonbeing. Life is only life against the yawning possibility of death.

Just about four years ago, my van veered across a wet road and down into a deep ditch. It spun around 360 degrees, landing upright again on its wheels. As the car spun round, time slowed down for me. During each fragment of the few seconds it lasted, I remembered thinking to myself, "So far, so good. No impact yet. No crashing glass, no death yet."  In each moment, life had triumphed over death. There was no predicting the next moment, but so far so good. For this moment I had survived.

That was a bad time. But I think of good ones, too, such as my visits to Providence, Newport, and Cambridge, in the last week. In every moment of glory, of joy, of satisfaction, in every halcyon time, there is in the back of the mind a whispering voice that says, "This must end."

And that whisper is a fine rust or tarnish that dulls the brilliance, a fly in the ointment. But I say the bitterness is bittersweet. If there were no haunting reminder that "This, too, shall pass," we should never savor what we love. Not only would we take it for granted, but there would not even be a reason not to take it for granted.

The brilliant color and clarity of the days of Autumn, the intense joy and sentimental warmth of the Christmastide: what would these things be worth if they lingered all the year? How precious would gold be if there were an endless abundance of the stuff? And if the certainty of death casts a pall over life, it is a shadow cast by the very brilliance of joy and that makes joy meaningful.

What does the Gospel say? "Whoever would save his life shall lose it, but whoever will lose his life shall save it." Your life is like money. It is money, the only thing of value you have. If you know you have a finite amount of money at your disposal, you may be judicious about how you spend it. That was my point in the previous sermon.

But please go ahead and spend it! There is no point in being a miser. To jealously hoard the days of your life is to lose your life, not to save it. Because nothing will stop the days from passing. Your coffers will be empty either way, only instead of spending your days and getting some satisfaction from them, you will find your treasure eaten away by rust and moth and canker worm.

Don't waste your life by never deciding what you want to spend it on and letting it slip through your fingers by mindless activity, like the Prodigal Son did. But on the other hand, do spend your life! Don't sit on it and waste it that way, like the servant did when he buried the talent the master entrusted to him.

Here's another way in which we may be profitlessly preoccupied with death. One parishioner asked me whether our little strategies and tricks of evasion whereby we deny death are not actually a mercy, since otherwise we should cringe in fear and never step outside the house for dreading that Death will come today and meet us around the corner or behind the wheel of an on-coming car. Isn't it better to forget about death if that's the only way you can live your life?

Yes, indeed. One must not become preoccupied with death, obsessed with death. That is a morbid fear of death. And the danger is that if we give into it we will begin to die -­already­! Our lives will be restricted by our fears. We will not fly on an airplane on the possibility that it might crash. Actually your chances are better in the air than driving a car. But I shouldn't have said that because now you won't ride in one of those either!

The fear and anxiety that haunt the soul of the one morbidly mindful of death are already a decaying of the soul, a dissolution of the integrity of life. You are dying slowly, as option after option is amputated.

Fear of death is an anticipation of death, a head-start on death, an attempt to acclimate oneself to death so as not to fear it so greatly, but by the ill-advised expedient of dying a little already. It is one of those cases where the cure is worse than the disease. In this case, the cure is the disease. It is a stratagem like Antonius Block's chess game with death. But it is a losing game. You cannot win it, and why lose piece after piece to him instead of keeping them all till the end?

You must simply make up your mind that while you live, you live! Do not live in death while you are alive! Wait till you die!

If there is nothing after death, then why worry about it? As Epicurus said, "When death comes, we are not." You won't be around to bemoan being dead! And conversely, as long as you are, death is not! So forget it!

Realize, as I said in my previous sermon, that you have only so much time because one day you are going to die. But then live that time as if you are alive, because you are! Sense the triumph of every moment of life! It is not so much a case then of denying death, as of defying death!

In John's Gospel Jesus says, "I am the Light of the World; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life." There will continue to be darkness out there, but it will not affect you, as long as you walk in the light. Even so he also says, "I am the Resurrection and the Life" and "Whoever continues in my words shall never taste death."

I take this saying to mean the same thing as the earlier Johannine saying. It is not as if there is no death. It is still out there. It still awaits. But as long as you are following in the path of life, life banishes death, and you need not worry about it. If you begin to brood morbidly on death, you are straying from the path of life. And you stumble in shadow.

Death will come, and it will be tragedy. But you have every right to live with a light heart now. Feel sorrow when tragedy strikes, not before. If you cannot wait, and you insist on feeling anxiety and sorrow now, then tragedy is already striking! You have summoned it, created it! But I say what Deuteronomy said: Two ways, two alternatives stand before you today, every day: the way of life and the way of death. Therefore choose life.

Now finally, what about the possibility that this life, and this death, are followed by another life, even an eternity of life? Does that in any way mitigate what I've said? Not for a minute!

Think again of the Parable of the Talents. Even if there is eternity for us beyond this time, the present life presents us with a unique, brief, and transitory opportunity. We must make the most of it precisely because it pales in comparison to the completely different life of eternity.

Whatever that life is like, and especially if it is far grander than this one, aglow with the celestial colors of the Empyrian Heaven, ­this­ life in its quiet, rustic, homespun quality will never lose its preciousness. Even gods and bodhisattvas who have no longer any need for food, must envy the humble joy of enjoying a meal when you are hungry. The doll-house glories of this world will be irreplaceable.

And if from the perspective of the farther shore the struggles of this life will seem like a tempest in a teapot, how much more reason to engage the battle now, when it still seems as important as scripture tells us it is!

You cannot skip your homework in the first grade because it will seem trivial compared with graduate work. On the contrary, you will never be able to ­do­ the graduate work if you don't do your first grade work now!

There is work to do in this life that you can never do again even if you have a thousand lifetimes in the Paradise of God. Get busy! The servants did not have all eternity to trade with. There was an urgency to their business because the absence of their master was finite.

The stakes are the same whether this life ends in the grave or in heaven: either way, this life in this world is an unrepeatable opportunity. That is both what makes it so sweet, and that which makes it so urgent a matter.

If you make a mess of your life here and now, the possible survival into eternity means only that you may have eternal regrets. If the saddest words of tongue or pen are the plaintive sigh, "It might have been," then do not put yourself in the position of having to sigh them for all eternity.

The Bible quotes a piece of popular fatalism: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" To this one might oppose the old devotionalist rhyme: "Only one life; 'twill soon be past. Only what's done for Christ will last."  But these sayings, apparently the antipodes of one another, actually share the same assumption. This present life is short, so we ought to make the best of it.

They differ only in their prescriptions of what is the best, what one ought to choose to spend one's time doing. But that's the whole point: you must reckon with death before you can decide what to spend your life on. And then, for God's sake, do it! Let death be damned. For now you are triumphantly and defiantly alive!




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