Finishing Our Work


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

March 17, 2019

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:6-20; Luke 13:31-35

       There is an old story about the Greek king Alexander the Great. Athena came to his mother Olympias in a dream while she was still pregnant and asked her if she would prefer that her son have a long life and die without much notice or a short and eventful one that all history would remember. She opted for the short but immortalized one. So, it was, that at the age of 33, back from conquering the entire known world, for he had stood at the edge of what is now known as the Khyber Pass, looked down into the Indus Valley, and decided that it was beyond the known world, he came back to die of a fever in Babylon in 323 BCE. The Khyber Pass is the main valley pass from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Alexander, much wiser than our American generals, decided after his armies could not take the pass, or the land beyond it and that it was not worth the sacrifice.

       Alexander's kingdom did not last long after his death, breaking up into a series of petty vassal states of various Mideast powers such as Persia, Egypt, and Assyria. Such was the fate of the man taught by Aristotle. His young wife Roxanna, a prize of his conquests, was put to death with her young son on order of Cassander, one of Alexander's generals who sought to rule Macedonia, himself killed in battle a scant ten years later, but not before he had also murdered Olympias, Alexander's mother. None of them had finished their work of empire building.

        On February 14 the Nation commemorated the attack on students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School resulting in the deaths of 17 students and teachers. The idea of lives cut short by such violence is something most of us do not want to think about. We prefer to think of death as coming when we have completed our tasks, when we have finished our work. We would prefer to think of death as in one of Rembrandt Peale's well-known painting, “The Death of [George] Washington,” at the end of a fruitful life, lying on one's own bed at home, surrounded by family and friends. However, because of our national absorption with not dying, death usually occurs in a more isolated place, such as a nursing home.

         And, for some, death is actually part of their work, such as humanitarian workers trying to ameliorate suffering. Just two weeks ago, an Ebola treatment center managed by MSF, Doctors without Borders, was attacked by an amorphous group. The attack has made MSF consider whether it will con-tinue to treat patients in this war torn part of the DRC.

         And they are not the only ones who die young: journalists in Chechnya, Liberia, Sudan, and, my number one normalization favorite, China, are killed for their work to un-earth the real news as part of their struggle against injustice and tyranny. So, too, was dying a part of the task for Jesus. Of course, we prefer to think of Jesus’ death as part of a pre-ordained divine plan so that we do not need to accept the fact that the very nature of his attack on the corrupt religious establishment of his day would lead to such a response. We look around at our world and think that dying is not part of our task.

         What kind of faith does it take to look at death squarely in the face and be willing to die? The ancient martyrs had such a faith as did many of our Puritan ancestors. To be willing to die for something means being willing to live for something and to accept whatever consequences come. It’s always easier to talk about someone in the past, from another place, another time.

          Another view of finishing our work comes from the text we heard from the reading in Deuteronomy this morning. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, made famous by his work study-ing the consequences of surviving a disaster when others have died, wrote about children, our posterity and descendants, as the human way of symbolic immortality whether they are ours or belong to others.

         Children are our extensions, and, on a primal level, his theory explains why so many persons are willing to spend so much money on the medical technology of artificial insem-ination or in vitro fertilization without thinking of the ethical consequences of the technology. In 2001 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on what to do with the frozen embryos of a divorced couple. In that case, the ex-wife wanted them de-stroyed rather than being implanted in a new wife. The court ruled that because the ex-husband could donate more sperm that the ex-wife had a greater interest and permitted her to destroy them. Seems a bit far from what the writer here attri-buted to Moses as he spoke to the Hebrews getting ready to enter the Promised Land; however, the speech attributed to Moses tells those entering that they must be faithful to the commandments given by God; they must choose life to live in the land.

         Moses, of course, according to Scripture never entered the Promised Land. His work remained unfinished. The exhort-ation to the tribes runs a full three chapters of Deuteronomy. He would have to leave it to Joshua to finish the work of enter-ing the Promised Land.

           Finishing our work, however, can be found in the approach of Jesus when warned by the Pharisees about Herod. “Listen, tell that old fox for me . . . I am casting out demons.” And so the tasks set by Jesus go on. Whenever I read a pass-age like this, I wonder what my response would be when warned to stop. The stakes for us aren't usually so high. In fact, for most of us, it seems that what happens to us is less a direct consequence of our activities than some kind of accident or the result of circumstances. We really don't know how we'll respond until faced with a situation. Courage, as an old World War II veteran once said to me, is what happens when ordinary people are faced with extraordinary situations.

       Quite frankly, very few of our actions require responding to extraordinary situations; we are hardly in the situation of needing to be a Confessing Church as were churches in Nazi Germany or an underground church in China. Actions, even in pretty placid New Jersey, may, however, involve risks. In a forum last week Gloria Steinem commented that the means we choose determine the ends we get. She was talking about how people in general, not just women, use political power to ob-tain changes in policy. Although she was talking about national policy, some of her comments are apropos for New Jersey.

      Here in New Jersey a group of churches and clergy have created an organization called Faith in New Jersey. It is a multi-faith and multi-racial network dedicated to advancing an economic and social justice agenda and addresses issues of racial justice, especially regarding police misconduct, juvenile justice, attempting to end solitary confinement for minors, immigration detention, and economic justice.

        Faith in New Jersey wants to move us as Christians and our churches to take stands that may be unpopular in New Jersey such as raising taxes and developing an actual policy to address homelessness. This group plans a major meeting Saturday, March 23, just after we have our “Music with a Message” program.

         This past week WNYC radio had its monthly broadcast of “Ask governor Murphy.” A smooth politician, questioned about taxes and education, he managed to claim that this year’s budget would produce a surplus because wealthy companies would pay their fair share,” a phrase he used about the super-rich in the state as well. He needs to get past some members of his own party in the Assembly. We’ll see how churches plan to address these issues.

        We here at Old First need to examine how we are to respond to changes in the communities in which we live. In his comment to the Pharisees, Jesus offers us a model for thinking about the future. We do not need to yield to developers who butter up the egos of politicians; we can work to build a new kind of community around us, one that provides housing and reflects a sustainable society. Our local efforts beat back JCP&L on the monster towers. We can beat back unsustainable development.

       When Jesus cast out one demon, he didn't just wipe his hands and say, “Well, I'm done.” He went on to other demons, other cures, other missions as part of his earthly task. The Gospel writer has Jesus say, “on the third day I finish my task.” Knowing what he would face, he went on to Jerusalem.

       Our reading from Deuteronomy contains but a small part of a three-chapter long charge to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Yes, the land was to

be a land of milk and honey but the rewards were not to be achieved without, first, a struggle to maintain faithfulness to the Covenant between the people and the Lord, and only second, actually living in the land.

      In the section read this morning, the writers of Deuter-onomy have Moses warning the people the allure of “other gods.” We, too, face the allure of other gods. They may not be stone or clay idols but they are gods nonetheless. In our day and time they are the gods of consumerism and what I will call “me firstism.”  

      Those gods promise us a pleasant life, even wealth and success. Most, if not all, of us want those things in our lives, but faithfulness to the Gospel requires something else, more than considering our own individual comfort first.

       Faithfulness to the Gospel requires not just our commit-ment to living out the mission of Jesus but actually striving to live it out in our everyday lives through our individual and societal choices. We do not face the same dilemmas as did many in earlier times. The choices we have to make may seem easier but they do force us to consider what’s really important in our lives.

         Certainly as we read about what happens to human rights defenders such as Nasrin Sotoudeh in Iran and Loujain al-Hathloul  in Saudi Arabia we wonder about the kind of cour-age it takes to be a lawyer or activist in some parts of the world. In spite of the rhetoric and the bursts of twisted white nationalism, we have it so easy here.

         The whole point of Jesus' mission is that what seems to be the end is not necessarily the end. Life takes on new forms as we continue to strive to be a true community of faith. As Paul wrote, resurrection takes many forms. Our community will continue and be a  witness to the truth that may seem to die but rather than dying, metamorphoses into new forms, new ways of approaching the questions we face, and a new life.

          Let us pray: Eternal and holy God, who showed yourself through the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth, be with us here at Old First as we seek to be your servants in the world, sharing your vision of love and compassion for all people. Amen.