Under the Deadline
Testament Reading: Ecclesiastes 2:12-17
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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