The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Deut 30:15-20; Psalm 1, Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14: 25-33
Don’t touch that stove! It’s hot.
Honey, honey, no, no— that candy fell on the ground. You can’t eat it. It’s gross. It’s got germs.
Sweetie, I’m not going to say it again. You have to brush your teeth.
There are certain things a parent has to say too often, sometimes in gentle tones, sometimes in more frantic ones. But gentle or frantic, the parents who say such things are not trying to bully their children; they are trying to protect them. Either they know of a danger the children do not yet see, or they know of something which will help their children thrive, and they are trying to guide their children in that direction.
Today’s magnificent passage from Deuteronomy — one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture — offers that kind of teaching: teaching which warns us away from what will bring us death, and invites us into the paths of life. The setting is dramatic: Moses, who has led the people of Israel forty years in the wilderness, has been told he will die before they enter the Promised Land, and so he gathers them all one last time to teach them in the name of God. That teaching takes up the whole book of Deuteronomy, and this is its climax. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments …, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear,… I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land.” (Deut 30:15-18) It is tempting, perhaps, to read these words as punitive — to imagine that God is a harsh and unyielding authoritarian, demanding perfect obedience and crushing those who disobey. But in fact they are the admonitions of a loving parent; they invite us to see God as the source of wisdom.
We don’t talk much about wisdom today; our economy and education focus on knowledge. But wisdom is something different, a knowing through experience. It’s the difference between reading about paleontology and having spent ten summers working in the earth of an archaeological dig; between knowing that you enjoy a good miche de campagne and being able to bake one, consistently. Knowledge can be learned, efficiently, from books; wisdom comes with practice, or, most often, with apprenticeship. When a young Innu walks through the forest learning about animals from his grandfather, or a new potter spends years working in the studio of a master, they are gaining both knowledge and the sense of what do with it. In the Bible, as in our lives, those two are separated only at our peril.
Today is the start of the Season of Creation, a time which the church consecrates for examining our relationship to the earth, and it is all too easy to see what knowledge, separated from wisdom, has brought us. In the span of a few short years, our headlines have changed from questioning the reality of climate change to being inundated in disaster. Each day brings a new toll of sorrow: drought which threatens to leave millions hungry; floods which have submerged one third of Pakistan; fires which are destroying homes and forests — the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding roughshod over our lives. And even for those who believed, this is all coming more quickly than we had imagined or even feared. Already, we are seeing changes which had been predicted for 2050, and scientists are revising the outlook downward at a frightening rate.
This is not what I’d like to be talking about today. It’s not what I’d like us to be living. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been a nature mystic; it’s always been easier for me to see God through the lens of a magnificent tree than to see him on the crowded streets of the city. I’d love to talk about the glory of the tangled grasses I walked past while hiking this summer; about how, in the darkest days of the pandemic, the birds in flight still taught my heart to rise; about the time I saw a peregrine kill a squirrel at my feet, and how that image haunts my dreams. I’d speak about watching meteor showers with my father, lying on the ground in the velvet dark, about the opening of awe in the heart of a child. Awe, I guess, is the thread that runs through it — awe as the beginning of reverence: reverence for this earth; reverence for its creatures; reverence that comes from knowing we are such a small part of a glorious and complicated, ever-evolving whole. Reverence as the foundation we need to survive and to thrive.
In the beginning, Scripture says, God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. For two centuries, now, Christians have fought over those words, whether they were true, whether they were fact, whether they ruled out evolution, or ruled it in. But perhaps, just perhaps, we’ve been approaching it all wrong. We’ve debated those words as history when they were meant as prophecy. It’s not too hard, after all, to imagine our own children and grandchildren telling a story much like that one: In the beginning, people lived in a world in which everything suited our well-being. Sun and rain, snow and ice fell in the proper measure; harvests were plentiful; harsh days were few. But our parents were not content with their lives; they reached for ever more — more stuff, more money, more power — and even though prophets and scientists cried out, they laughed at the warnings, saying, “We will not die.” So, today, we live in the wreckage of Eden: the ground has grown harsh; food is hard to come by; and those who bear children do so in sorrow.
The antidote to that future is Wisdom, knowing how to use our knowledge, and for what. St. Paul models that kind of knowing in Philemon, his shortest letter. St. Paul is writing to a friend to ask him to free his slave, Onesimus, whom Philemon seems to have sent to help Paul during one of Paul’s imprisonments. Paul could command Philemon to let the slave go; instead, he appeals to his friend on the basis of love. In doing so, he sets forth an ethic in which freedom and generosity are intertwined, saying, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but… a beloved brother.” (Philemon 1:15-16) As long as Philemon holds Onesimus as a slave, Onesimus is to him no more than a thing to be used and discarded, but if he frees the slave, he gains a relationship — a brother in Christ. That transformation, from slave to brother, from a thing to a partner, is what we must now bring about in our relationship with the earth. Knowledge made it a thing to exploit and damage. Wisdom reveals it to be a living whole.
Wisdom understands things as they are, not as we might wish them to be. Because this earth was formed with laws of physics and chemistry and geology woven right into the fabric of its being, there are rules we cannot break and thresholds we cannot cross. Christ urges us to asses the cost of our actions before we undertake them, but at this point in time, we must, first and foremost, acknowledge the cost of inaction. The cost of inaction is our future. It really is that simple.
Over the last few weeks, for the first time in my life, there has been a steady trickle of actual good news about the climate: an historic investment from the U.S. government; a commitment from California to phase out new gas-powered vehicles; the invention by some Canadians of an ecological alternative to airplanes; Europe’s newfound determination to green its economy as a way to escape the tyranny of Putin’s gas-lines. Each of these holds out, not just promise of a future, but promise of a future which could actually be good — a future in which disaster headlines like today’s are a thing of the past, in which people have learned to work together to ensure the welfare of all.
The great preacher John Claypool said that the difference between a dream and hope is that we work for the hope to become real. That is our task, in whatever way we can do it. The next few decades will be dark ones; we will need to hold onto hope to get through them. But we who follow Jesus have always been called to take up the cross — to make the sacrifices which are necessary for others to have life. To distinguish between what we need and what we merely want, between what we should let go and what is necessary for our soul to grow.
And the good news, the great good news, is that there is still a way which leads to life: the one which always did. The path laid out by Christ, the holiness he modeled for us, gives us the tools we need not only to survive but to thrive. I read this week that climate-driven migration is likely to triple the population of Canada, which will call for all our generosity. If we welcome the stranger, we may well find, like Philemon, that our generosity comes with a new-found freedom: freedom to erase the damage of history, freedom to live as brothers and sisters and siblings of those from whom we have long been divided. The choice, as ever, is ours. And the God who spoke through Moses at his people’s time of wandering is still speaking to us today: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30:19)