When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This passage envisions that God’s people are poised to enter the promised land. Because Moses will not go with them, he reminds them of all that they need to know in the next chapter of their life.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, 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, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 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, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
“The Choice Before Us”
Each day an organization called The Poetry Foundation dispenses a single poem into the email accounts of subscribers. When my schedule is overloaded, those emails pile up unopened, like neglected friends.
Other days, I give up quickly if the poem seems too long or demanding to untangle in a few moments’ time. But on Friday, one of Jane Kenyon’s lovely poems carved a space into my day.
Kenyon was married to Donald Hall, our nation’s former Poet Laureate, who died in June. They met at the University of Michigan, where he was a teacher and she was a student. Because Hall was significantly older than his wife and because he was a cancer survivor, they always assumed that he would die first. In a 1993 interview, Kenyon discussed that possibility. She said:
“It really is the worst thing that could happen to me. We’re extremely close, both as human beings and as writers. We share so many of the same joys and difficulties. We’re extremely close. We live and work in the same building 24 hours a day. And we’re very much in each other’s pockets. So it really would be devastating for me to lose my pal.”[i]
Two years later, at the age of 47, Kenyon defied the actuarial tables when she died of leukemia. Hall outlived her by more than two decades.
Reflecting on their life together, he later said:
“We assumed that I would die, and she would outlive me a long time. We made lots of plans that way. And then extraordinarily and horrifyingly, it happened the other way. But I did take care of her as she took care of me. Maybe she was my model in that, as in so many things. ….
Her death has been the worst thing that could happen to me. But I’m saying this because I want to say something else that may sound a little odd. Taking care of her for 15 months was one of the best things in my life. I loved taking care of her, and she loved being taken care of. There are strange compensations. There’s no compensation for Jane’s death at the age of 47. But taking care of her was wonderful, and wonderful for both of us. As a depressive, I’m not sure she could ever really believe I loved her as much as I told her I did. And I think she knew. I think she knew. She said she knew after all that taking care….
She was my teacher as much as I was hers in the long run.
We started out that way; sure. I was the old guy. I was 19 years older than she was.
But she led me… she led me more than I led her. But…maybe it was a tie….
She taught me a great deal—I’m sure of that—about poetry and about—I don’t know—kindness, charity.”[ii]
All marriages are particular: in their ease and their friction, in the places they get stuck, and the ways they move forward—in the gifts offered and the lessons learned. But any marriage that lasts more than a matter of months has to deal with the reality of change.
One of my favorite books about marriage refers to life together as a “pilgrimage of promises.”[iii] Because human beings keep changing and circumstances keep changing, partners in committed relationships have to keep promising again and again and again: when children come and children go, when job opportunities beckon or disappear, when illness strikes, when parents need care, when trauma surfaces, when dreams don’t materialize, when children don’t come, when loved ones die. The authors write: “We imagine particular futures for our life together and pledge ourselves to the hard work of bringing them about, but we do not know in the moment of promising what the promise will require of us.”[iv]
And, of course, marriages are not the only relationships that have to reckon with the reality of change and the challenge of faithfulness.
My 25-year-old daughter, Hanna, mentioned in a phone conversation some months ago that she finds it baffling that there are so many books and articles and podcasts about marriage, and so few about friendship. She says that we hear a lot about how much work a marriage requires, but not so much about the commitment and effort required to sustain real friendship. Yet even in their twenties, the circles of my children’s friends have faced instances of suicide, addiction, death by accident, serious mental illness, struggles related to immigration status, the challenges of coming out to families and transitioning to new identities, geographic moves, and the forming and breaking of relationships. What does it mean to remain faithful to friends through such changes?
Communities like UPC also have to reckon with the reality of change. Students graduate and head off for the next chapter, we welcome new members, we face illness, we face death, beloved leaders leave. What does it mean for us to promise again in the midst of a future we can’t quite see?
Our passage from Deuteronomy is concerned with the need to keep promising, to keep choosing, at each step of our life together..
Speaking to God’s people who are in exile in Babylon, after having lost their land and so many of their leaders, this section of Deuteronomy reminds the exiles of another time in their history, generations earlier. The 30th chapter of Deuteronomy remembers the time when the Hebrew people were just about to leave the season of wandering in the wilderness in order to cross into the promised land. But because Moses would not be able to go with them, the people needed to be reminded of certain things. The Book of Deuteronomy is sometimes likened to the polity[v]—the Book of Order—that Moses leaves with the people for the next season. He says this is how you are to live together.
He boils it down to a choice:
You can choose little gods, and give in to despair when things get hard—
or you can trust the author of all creation, and choose life.
Walter Brueggemann says “that the hard work of this chapter is to persuade the next generation that a future is indeed possible.”[vi] Friends, in a day in which so many are despairing, it still is the church’s holy task to lend our lives to this promise.
To that end, Moses talks a lot about obedience, which is a word that we resist—but friends, the original meaning of obedience is to hear and to respond—which is what we always seek to do with those we love—to hear them, to respond to them. The word presumes a living relationship between God and God’s people in which we both listen to and are heard by our maker. Moses is not talking about some dry, fearful, legalistic way of being in the world—quite the opposite. Moses understands that God’s law is intended as a gift for the flourishing of the people, for their thriving—and for ours. It boils down to continuing to trust the love of God and choose the love of neighbor.
Moses exhorts the people by saying: Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven….Neither is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. Deuteronomy insists that if we will live in response to God’s love, faithfulness will make a home with us. And so we will discover the courage to respond when we need to stand up and be counted.
I expect that some of you are familiar with the story of the village of Le Chambon in France. Although numerous French individuals attempted to shelter Jews during WWII, what made Le Chambon remarkable was that virtually every member of the 5000-person village participated in the effort, including the children. Historians tell us that “Between 1940 and 1944, Le Chambon and other nearby villages provided refuge for more than 5,000 people fleeing Nazi persecution, about 3,500 of whom were Jews.”[vii]
Magda Trocmé, the wife of the local minister, explained how it began.
“Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done—nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!”[viii]
The people of Le Chambon lived by a word that had been planted in their hearts. Their pastor was known to conclude his sermons by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Go practice it.”[ix]
If “a promise is a pledge thrown ahead of us”[x]then it paints a picture of our hope. We have the courage to promise over and over again because we believe that the future toward which all of creation is moving—is a future that belongs to God.
I began today by talking about the poet Jane Kenyon. Let me close by sharing her poem, “Otherwise”
I got out of bed on two strong legs.
It might have been otherwise.
I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach.
It might have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill to the birch wood.
All morning I did the work I love.
At noon I lay down with my mate.
It might have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks.
It might have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls,
and planned another day just like this day.
But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.[xi]
One day it will be otherwise for each of us, friends.
That day came for Lazarus. But on the way to his grave, when his sister, Martha, named her sorrow and dared to share her anguish with Jesus,
he asked her to trust in the love they shared in that very moment.
He did not point Martha to some creed about the future.
He said, I am the resurrection—right now, standing in front of you.
Do you believe this?
The word is very near, friends;
it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
In just a few moments we will elect a Pastor Nominating Committee.
This is an exciting, joyful day, but there is a pilgrimage of promises ahead.
At each juncture, may the love you have known fill your heart with courage, and enable you to keep choosing life, to keep serving the One who intends the redeeming of the whole broken and beloved world.
Thanks be to God for this life that we share.
[i] 1993 NPR interview with Terry Gross, excerpted in “Remembering Former Poet Laureate Donald Hall”
June 29, 2018, Fresh Air.
[ii] 1996 NPR interview with Terry Gross, excerpted in “Remembering Former Poet Laureate Donald Hall,” June 29, 2018, Fresh Air.
[iii] Marie McCarthy, David Hogue, Herbert Anderson, Promising Again, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, p. 3
[iv] Ibid, p. 23.
[v] S. Dean McBride’s introduction to Deuteronomy in the 2006 version of The Harper Collins Study Bible, NY: Harper Collins, p. 255.
[vi] Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, p.
[x] Marie McCarthy, David Hogue, Herbert Anderson, Promising Again, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, p. 18.
[xi] Jane Kenyon, https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/otherwise