Delivered at Ames UCC on February 10, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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You didn’t need to get out of bed of a Sunday morning to hear that. You know it. I know it. We all know it. But perhaps you come here, in part, to figure out how to live until death, to maybe even get some insight into what death will be like.
I do not know what death will be like, the part after we are dead, that is. I know that biologically we will return to our basic physical and chemical elements. Our flesh will fall away, our bones become grist for soil. We will take our place alongside all other humans and all mammals and all invertebrates and all plants in releasing our component parts back to the biome which birthed and sustained us. That I know for sure.
I feel equally certain that no part of us, and no part of anyone else, will go to a hell.
Beyond that, I cannot speak with as much certainty.
Our religious tradition has offered many images of a heavenly life after death. Peter at pearly gates, streets paved with gold, reunion with all the people we have loved. My preference is a metaphor offered by one of my seminary professors: We experience one stream of the life eternal now, another later. My genetic material, and yours, is as old as humanity itself. My biological material, and yours, will be part of the planet, as long as she exists.
Eternal life is not later but already.
And that is about as definitive as I can get and maintain my theological integrity, except to add that because we are here together, we do not have to make that transition to the next stream alone. I will be with you, if at all possible. The souls of this place will sing to you as you step into those waters.
Which leaves me with the first motivation I mentioned for coming here: Whatever happens after life, how do we live until death?
In today’s passage, Jesus answers with a long list of To Dos.
This is the final portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we will study this year. It is, all told, 107 verses long, a tome in Biblical standards. Over those eight dozen verses, though we know Jesus has a small audience of the first few disciples, he does not interact with anyone. There is no dialogue, and Jesus does not tell any stories, any parables. It doesn’t even read as a sermon so much as a collection of sayings and instructions, one after the other, as with today: Do not judge, don’t throw pearls before swine, search and you will find, do to others as you would have them do to you, enter through the narrow gate.
Bam, bam, bam: Do, don’t, do, do, don’t do. No sugar coating and no coaxing, Jesus reiterates to the disciples, and to us, God’s Torah instructions and his feelings about those who do not follow them:
…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish person who built their house on sand.
The Sermon on the Mount is a little intimidating to read in that regard. After all, by Jesus’s account, we are walking around with logs in our eyes trying to judge the specks in others’. If we do not even notice something as cumbersome and stabby as a log tangled up in our lashes, how can we ever hope to do to others as we would have them do to us?
We are doomed to fall short of all of these instructions at one time or another, if not most of the time. So we are probably doomed altogether then, too, right? We don’t have to worry about what heaven might be because we won’t ever get into it, right?
Instead, Jesus is trying to stop us from being like the foolish person who built a home on sand, and to help us become like a wise person who builds on rock. Here is how to be like a wise person, Jesus is saying. Here is some wisdom to serve as the foundation for your days.
Wisdom is a form of knowledge. It is also a form of Biblical literature, though wisdom writing is not exclusive to the Bible or Christianity or Judaism. Wisdom literature, as a type, provides instruction on the meaning of life and how to find well-being in life. It offers generational learning, and reflects on living with the tension between the promises of faith and all the ways our lives contradict those promises.
Unlike our Biblical prophets—unrelenting characters whom you would not want over for dinner, no matter how much they inspire—Biblical wisdom writing is pragmatic and moderate. It grounds its knowledge in the natural world and the experience of living within it. So wisdom literature discusses relationships, family, overindulgence (with food, drink, sex), inequality, false speech, and why bad things happen to good people.
The reward for acquiring wisdom is not heaven, but wisdom itself. Because with wisdom, there is no finish line. The search for wisdom is ongoing. It lasts each of our lifetimes and we pass it on to the lives after us. Wisdom is the bridge between the streams of this eternal life.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares wisdom that transcends religion: Do unto others is not unique to Judaism or Christianity. And Jesus grounds that wisdom in the lifespan, not an afterlife. Just before the section we heard today, he says,
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Worries can easily bookend our every day. Yesterday you may have had a fight with your mom and tomorrow you may have to deal with a difficult boss. But today you have come to this church.
Today in this church Jesus is offering wisdom ancient and universal on how to live well now, individually and together. Not for a prize at an end unknowable, but for the sweet and simple reward of living well now, individually and together.
So do not become overwhelmed by all that he offers. Do not become fearful about falling short. There is no perfect wisdom or perfectly wise life. A life lived wisely is simply less painful and more generous. And that is gospel.
As well as you can, when you can, work on getting that log out of your eye. (Then give me any tips you have for doing the same.)
Do not give away the best parts of yourself to people who will not value them.
Trust that God is here for the seeking, and do seek, for a life without awareness of divine companionship is a hard road, indeed.
When your time comes, when death comes to us all, we can be glad that we have not been foolish with our time and left mere sand for the next generation’s foundation, but instead have uncovered more and more of God’s solid rock, rock solid and safe for those who will follow after us through this stream.