Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
October 11, 1998
Deuteronomy 20:1-9; Luke 9:23-25, 57-62
"People mostly stay busy avoiding life's basic tasks." So read the headline on Miss Manners' column in the Bloomington HERALD-TIMES last Sunday. She began by listing "life's basic To-Do List," which isn't all that long:
Earn a living; attend to personal and household needs; look after relatives; spend time with friends; spend time alone; enjoy the arts; keep up with what's going on in the world; and improve the world.
The list isn't all that long yet, as Judith Martin says, "All Miss Manners ever hears is how busy people are." Having thought about that list of eight basic tasks, I have come to the conclusion that there is little else I do, and still time is a problem. Often there is not enough time simply to cover the basics. And I venture the same is true for many of you. Especially this time of year.
Miss Manners is concerned about the ways in which people fill up their time with meaningless and frivolous activity. The faked friendship and unnecessary socializing of the workplace, the obsession with food and exercise to the neglect of family, the time spent with computers instead of with friends. "[S]omething has to change when everybody has time for files of old jokes circulated by e-mail and nobody has time for dinner at home," she says. In this and some of her specific suggestions she has a point--though some of those "old jokes" seem fresh to me and may end up in my sermons. The valid point is, we do and overdo some things for the wrong reasons; and we pursue many activities beyond their usefulness and real contribution to anyone's existence. We could make better use of our time.
Whether we really are as busy as we feel we are, whether we really need to be as busy as we are, is rather hard to say. Last year two university researchers published a book, TIME FOR LIFE, that argues the average American actually has gained more leisure time over the past 30 years [reported in H-T, June 5, 1997]. But other studies conclude otherwise. What does seem clear is that people feel more stress, a faster pace of life, and that they are inclined to spend more of whatever leisure time they have watching television than doing anything else. According to John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, authors of TIME FOR LIFE, the average American spends 15 hours per week watching television. Religion gets just under an hour of attention.
The question Miss Manners' column raises for me is, What are life's basic tasks? And another question that comes along with that: If we were all to spend our time on just these basics, would it amount to a good life? It has been a dozen years or more since Robert Fulghum published his wonderful little piece, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." In its own way it was also a list of life's basics. Is it possible to capture the meaning, or the substance, of the good life in a list of basic tasks?
Consider again with me this morning's Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy. This passage was also one of my sermon texts a few weeks ago. Then I used it primarily as a foil for interpreting Jesus' parable of the great dinner. Now I would like for us to consider it on its own terms. It is a passage about the conduct of warfare, when the people of Israel are accompanied by God, who goes with them to fight for them against their enemies. In short, this is a passage about "holy war." The passage and what follows are highly problematic. Many scholars believe we are presented here with a kind of idealization of war rather than a reflection of any actual practice or ideology. The good news of this presentation is that it attributes to God the victory over the enemies of God's people. This is a declaration of divine sovereignty, not a call to arms. But the bad news is that this passage may also serve to legitimate the enslavement or destruction of the people's enemies. Those who surrender are to be enslaved. Those who resist are to be destroyed. In any event, what we have here is a passage about engaging in what is presented to be a supremely holy cause.
What interests me in this text this morning, however, is not its problematic perspective on warfare. What interests me are its reasons why one might be excused from engagement in such a holy cause. There are three basic reasons given. Before the battle begins, the priest is to stand before the troops and inquire, "Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another dedicate it. Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit. Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her."
Three reasons for not engaging in a supremely holy cause! An unlived-in house; an unharvested produce; an unconsummated marriage. One commentary observes that these are forms of compassion leave. The forms themselves, we note, are attached to things that are basic to life: shelter, sustenance, marriage. It is almost intuitively obvious that no one should be prematurely deprived of these things. A later verse in Deuteronomy [24:5] stipulates that a newly married man shall be discharged from any military duties for a period of one year in order to be at home with his wife. There are some things that seem so basic to a good life that no higher claims can be imposed.
Note, however, that our text does not excuse from battle those who are already living in their houses, or those who are already enjoying the fruits of their vineyards, or those who have already consummated their marriages. And our text is silent about any who may have yet to build a house, or to plant a vineyard, or to become engaged. So perhaps we are not to think that everyone is deserving of these things, or that anyone has an absolute claim to such things. It remains a question whether the good life requires such things. But for those who have built a house, or have planted a vineyard, or have become engaged, it would be tragic or unjust for them to be killed in battle--cut off--before the promise of these endeavors had been fulfilled. It would not be good never to have enjoyed the fruits of these labors.
Moreover, this is very much in keeping with our contemporary sensibilities. From time to time we read or hear about the couple who have invested their life savings in a house that is destroyed by fire or flood even while they are in the process of moving in; or the newlyweds, one or both of whom are killed in an accident on the way to their honeymoon; or the person who has worked hard for a lifetime and then, just on the cusp of retirement, is struck down by some dread disease. We intuitively grasp the tragedy or wrongness of such things. The good life cannot be one whose requirements we have met but whose benefits we have been denied. If the good life involves us in certain basic tasks, surely it must also provide us with the rewards of those tasks.
It also seems obvious that some things should be given priority over others.
A high school science teacher, wanting to demonstrate this concept to his students, took a large-mouth jar and placed several large rocks in it. He then asked the class if the jar was full. "Yes," was the unanimous reply.
The teacher then took a bucket of gravel and poured it into the jar. The small rocks settled into the spaces between the big rocks. He again asked the class, "Is it full?" This time some students held back, while others said "yes."
The teacher then produced a large can of sand and proceeded to pour it into the jar, filling up the spaces between the gravel. For the third time he asked, "Is it full?" By now most of the students were wary of answering, but a number still said "yes."
Then the teacher brought out a pitcher of water and poured it into the jar, saturating the sand. At this point he asked the class, "What is the point of this demonstration?"
One bright young student raised his hand and responded, "No matter how full your schedule is in life, you can always squeeze in more!"
"No," the teacher replied. "The point is that unless you first place the big rocks into the jar, you are never going to get them in. The big rocks are the important things in your life . . . If you fill your life with small things, you will never have room for the important things."
What does the good life require? Recall the first three items on Miss Manners' list of basic tasks: earn a living; attend to personal and household needs; look after relatives. Pretty basic stuff. And not much different from Deuteronomy's list of matters that may claim our attention: shelter, sustenance, marriage. It seems like common sense, and common wisdom, that these are the things that should have priority in our lives. If we tend to such things as these, surely everything else will fall into place.
But there is something missing from this understanding of the good life. If the good life is a matter of putting the big things first, and if it is pretty obvious what those big things are, why are so many people able to make a living telling other people how to live? Why are so many people able to prosper divulging the secrets of successful living, the path to happiness, the guide to spiritual fulfillment, or the way to manage your time and your life? Why are there so many self-help and how-to books and articles and programs all the time, as if we really do not know how to live the good life after all?
Maybe part of the problem is that we just find it very hard to stick to the basics. As Miss Manners perceives, we end up spending lots of energy and time that really is beside the point. When I consider how busy people are, it continues to amaze and sometimes frustrate me how much they continue to want to do the unnecessary. Even in church. We often make things much more complicated, much more elaborate, much more involved than they have to be. Taking care of the basics is evidently not enough.
And wouldn't it be ironic, at least to those of us who are Christians, if tending to the basics were to prove enough? After all, we have taken our bearings from Jesus whom we call the Christ. And, so far as we can tell, during the time of his adult ministry this Jesus had neither house nor home. So far as we can tell, he was not gainfully employed. So far as we can tell, he never married nor had children nor had much to do with his family, either. So far as we can tell, here was a fellow who seems to have neglected the basics altogether! Some would say he did, and that is why he was a failure. But we would say that he didn't, for he understood that there is something else even more important to life.
Jesus points us to a kind of paradox in life: "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" Jesus thus points us to the difficulty--indeed, impossibility--of securing the good life for ourselves. It is not available to us as something to be grasped, secured, retained. You want so much to save your life, you end up losing it. Even if you succeed in gaining the whole world, you forfeit your life.
Luke reports this as a kind of warning: If you want to follow Jesus, you have to follow Jesus. You have to take up the way of the cross, with whatever difficulties that may present. Following Jesus is not a way to save your own skin. It is not a way to secure your life, to preserve it, or to retain it. It is a way of responding to a higher calling, of enlisting in what one theologian [Norman Gottwald] has called the "project" of God. It is a supremely holy cause. And this is a supremely holy cause that seems to admit no prior or higher claims.
Some who show interest in this calling are not ready for its priorities and demands. "I will follow you wherever you go," says one. Jesus answers, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." In other words, don't count on having house or home. To another Jesus says, "Follow me." The man rejoins, "first let me go and bury my father," a traditional filial obligation. But Jesus tells him, "Let the dead bury their own dead." In other words, do not be bound by family ties and obligations. Another says, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." If I must leave, then can't I at least say goodbye? But Jesus insists, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
How are we to take these words of Jesus? As literal, absolute demand? Or as rhetoric of exaggeration and contrast? Or as device for discouraging all but the most earnest and devoted? Is this the Gospel version of "serious inquiries only"? Answers to such questions would require at least another sermon. The one thing that always seems true to me of Jesus' teaching is that it invites us to re-think our conventional, ordinary, everyday assumptions. Jesus provokes us to look at matters in a different light, from another perspective, as if virtually everything that we think we know requires cross-examination. If we think the basics of the good life are house and home, livelihood and family, we have got another thing coming. Those things are not enough, or they are too much, or they are not in themselves what ultimately matters.
The best thing I can take away from Jesus' teaching about life is that it needs to be lived for God, and not for ourselves. But that still requires a good bit of explanation, doesn't it? When I think about my own life, and ask myself, when is it at it's best? there are several answers that come to mind. For one thing, my life is at it's best when I am not particularly concerned about it. For another, my life is at it's best when I am not counting on tomorrow or the next day to make good on today. And for another, my life is at it's best when I am doing what I think I'm supposed to be doing--whatever that happens to be.
It seems to me that the good life may take many different forms. Would that we all could live in a nice house, work at a secure job, have plenty of food on the table, belong to an intact family, and be surrounded by a neighborhood of friendly people. But that is not a possibility for many people and, more importantly, that is not alone what makes life good. You can have lots of money and not enjoy what it brings you. You can have a beautiful home, yet it can be filled with bitterness and acrimony. You can have a well-paying job, and be watching the clock or chafing under the stress all the time. You can have plenty to eat, yet find no comfort at your table. You can be surrounded by friendly people, and feel utterly alone. You can even have lots of time on your hands, yet have no one to share it with and nothing engaging to do and nowhere appealing to go.
What makes life good has less to do with its form than with its animation. According to Jesus, if we are animated by self-preservation, we will lose our lives. But if we are animated by the desire to follow him in pursuit of the project of God, we will save our lives. To me that translates into a readiness to be conscripted for service to higher ends. It has less to do with what comes our way, whether fortune or misfortune, than with the integrity of our response. This hardly means, however, that life is only what we make of it. Life is a gift, and therefore not something to be gained in the first place. It is something to be received. The gift of life is not the gift of time alone, but the capacity to find meaning and purpose and enjoyment amidst the challenges and demands and burdens of each day. Life has its intrinsic rewards, and without these the extrinsic ones mean very little at all.
Christianity does not depreciate the material circumstances of our lives, as if these had no bearing on human possibilities. It does not regard our relationships with others, including family and friends, as if they were of no account. We simply note that these are not finally determinative of the good life. It is the spiritual quality of our lives that finally matters. It is a question of how we are related to God. All that we have and all that we are have come to us as gift. If and when our lives are ordered in proper relation to God, then all else finds its proper ordering as well. AMEN.