Choose Life

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, Matthew 5:21-37, I Corinthians 3:1-9

 When I was in the early years of high school two English musicians who went by the collective name of Wham! were the popular band.  George Michael and (does anyone remember?) Andrew Ridgley danced about singing “wake me up before you go-go” while wearing oversized tee-shirts bearing the slogan “Choose Life”.  Of course we would all choose life: given the choice, life sure beats the alternative.  In a similar way the Scottish film Trainspotting directed its viewers to choose life.  Get a job, get a life, and stay out of the drug scene.  Choose life and actively engage with the way that leads to life.  Don’t follow the path that leads to despair and death.  Trainspotting then goes on to show what the way of death looks like; it makes for rather grim viewing.

Two of today’s readings are taken directly from the great sermons of the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy and the Sermon on the Mount.  It makes it hard as preacher to know what to leave out; can I really improve on the spoken words of Moses and Jesus?  Well no, I can’t.  All I can do is summarise what was said so that this message is done and dusted in fifteen minutes, and that is has particular cultural and social relevance to the people of Kingscote in February 2014.

The particular passage we have from Deuteronomy is the last words of Moses’ long sermon.  After reciting the entire book of Deuteronomy up to this point Moses steps down and the Bible text shifts to narrative and the account of how Joshua is appointed to be the successor of Moses.  So today’s passage is the conclusion of the Conclusion, or as Rev Rob says “as I begin to conclude”.  These six verses are the last things Moses says and he says them in summary of all that has gone before and to make clear the declaration of his key point.  Moses has reminded Israel of the story of the goings on in Egypt, the Exodus out of Egypt forty years ago, and the covenant made at Sinai soon after.  So where is this all leading, what is the key point?  Choose Life.   The whole book of Deuteronomy, “the Second Law” which is what Deuteronomy means, can be summed up in those two words.  Choose Life.

At this point in their history the Hebrew people are the brink of a new way of life.  They are moving from a generation of refugees totally dependent upon God for navigation, food and water, and preservation in a hostile environment in to a new country where there will be opportunity to settle permanently and take up farming, industry and trade.  At this special moment in their history Moses takes time to remind the People of God that the God of the people cannot be forgotten.  There will no longer be a cloud of smoke and fire, there will be n more manna from Heaven, or water from rocks, but there will still be the covenant of worship and guardianship.  God’s people once delivered safely in to God’s land cannot live without God: that is not how it works at all.

God offers the nation a clear choice.  Life and prosperity, or death and adversity. God says to them “the choice is yours”, and Moses makes clear that the choice is obvious.

The question confronts us as it confronted the Hebrews, how do we choose life?  Moses says “easy, just love God: walk with God and obey what you’ve been commanded and advised,” and the Psalmist adds to this saying “hold fast to what you believe”.  We know who God is, and what we have been commanded and advised because Moses has just spent twenty-nine and a half chapters telling us.  In fact just prior to our reading this morning, in verses 11-14, Moses says “this is not hard, this is not rocket surgery people, God has made it simple and clear what is expected of you.”  God has promised to maintain you, your family, and your land if you follow the idiot-proof path.  The blessings of God rest on those who give themselves to wise living, so be people of integrity and you will be blessed.  If you move beyond God’s instructions you’ll be on your own in a dangerous world and you won’t last long, and the blessings will go to your enemies.  You’ve just walked through a desert, you know what it’s like on the wrong side of the Jordan, so don’t go there because to reject God’s love and wisdom is to actively choose death and adversity.  Knowing all that you do you can make a wise, informed decision.  Choose the way of God described to you and things will go well.  Refuse to listen, turn to other sources of meaning and hope, and it will not end well for you.  God says quite clearly, the choice is yours, but please choose life.  God cannot choose for you but God’s advice is clear, God wants you to choose life.

That is the choice all are free to make, and God will not interfere if that is the way you choose.  God will not curse you if you disobey; it’s just that God will not rescue you when you fall over.  The smoke and fire and manna and water are gone, if you return to your own ways you will starve, thirst, and die of exposure.  That’s nobody’s fault but your own.

But does “choose life” always mean “choose adventure”?   Were Wham! on the right track with their bouncing disco style life?  Does “choose life” ever mean “choose adventure” at all?  We Christians like the idea of a life of stepping out of the boat, but perhaps that isn’t God’s idea at all.  Perhaps Jesus wants us to stay where we are and serve in the place that he has put us.  Moses’ injunction was to choose to do the basics well, love God, love your neighbours, manage your household and raise your children. Learn the lesson of Trainspotting, don’t presume God has called us to be Walter Mitty types, jumping into helicopters and out of them again, or escaping a volcano on a skateboard; as exciting as that sounds.  Of course we are aware that God has and does call some people to that sort of faith, but the words of Moses, Jesus, and the Psalmist are the words of quiet faithfulness.  Rather than “wake me up before you go-go” the better life is to “stay here and love me faithfully.”

Psalm 119 calls those who choose the faithful, God-directed life fortunate.  We might just as easily call them “happy and to be envied”, because who in seeing a fortunate person doesn’t want to be like them?  I do, I’d like to be fortunate and to be thought of as being fortunate.  These people are blessed and other people will look towards them and ask why things go so well for them.  This is the purpose of our lives as Christians, so that those who look at us from outside a working relationship with God will wonder why things work so well for us.  We may not be prosperous in materialistic ways, but we are seen to do life well.  The world’s rich might just as easily be grumpy and sad as living it up on their yachts: think of miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge.  Yet with a sense of purpose lit by God anyone can be prosperous in life if they find enjoyment in peace, love, and company.  Again, think of Scrooge but after the ghosts have come.  Many laughed to see this alteration in him, writes Dickens.  His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him.  Isn’t that lovely?  I think it is.  And I am sure that his ability to keep Christmas well had nothing to do with the size of the turkey he sent around to the Cratchitt house every year, but with the rediscovery of laughter and joy in the company of family and friends and the wisdom to spend a day at dinner and games instead of at the office.  This is what Christian life is supposed to look like.  Quiet.  Confident.  Fulfilling.  Free.

This is the context for what Paul and Jesus each say on interpersonal relationships.  The world will not see Christians living a life of blessing and worthy of envy if we are fighting amongst each other.  Manage your anger says Jesus.  He doesn’t say, “don’t get angry”, just be kind in your disagreements and apologise if you mess up.  Control your natural human desire for intimacy and love, focus them only on the one you have promised to cherish.  When you look at a man or woman with lust be certain he or she is always and only the one who wears your ring.  And when you give your word, keep your word, be that in marriage or in court.  Don’t make false promises, don’t be contradictory or deceptive, don’t take sides needlessly, and don’t get into petty competition amongst yourselves.  Jesus asks, “do you really think being argumentative and unfaithful is a constructive way to live?”  We all know how to be kind; is it really so hard to play nicely?

In shaping scripture differently Jesus might direct us not to be “of the world but not in it”, acting like the most spoiled and spiteful people of the world outside our walls while building spats around points of doctrine and theology which mean nothing to those people.   Belong only to Jesus, not some other charismatic person.  Belong only to Jesus especially when that same charismatic person calls you on it.  If Paul belongs to Christ how can any of us belong to Paul?  When it’s Paul saying such things then we are foolish if we don’t take notice, even those of us who claim to belong to Apollos.  Belong only to your wife or husband, don’t go looking for meaning beyond the one God has given you, and unless he or she has gone past you stay in that relationship.  Life goes better if lived in friendship with your neighbours, your partner, your children, and your colleagues.  Once again, this is not rocket surgery, and once again we see Paul and Moses speaking fifteen centuries apart saying the same thing, the thing Jesus says too.

Choose life.  Live well.  Be content with what you have while always looking to follow God more closely and love God more dearly.  Don’t go chasing stars or dollars, and in the words of Bill and Ted “be excellent to each other”.  Choose life, the world is looking to us for direction and will follow us toward God if we are humble enough to point the way simply by doing as we have been told, loving as we have been loved.

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The Saints Aren’t Coming

The song The Saints are Coming, written in 1978 by Scottish musicians Stuart Jobson and Scott Adamson, and released in 1979 by their art-punk group Skids[1] takes the form of a Biblical Lament while at the same time critiquing the nature of Lament and the faith of those who employ such forms of address.

The Biblical understanding of lament, songs cried out to God by innocents in response to crisis, anguish and grief, is that these are not songs of hopelessness but are a form of prayer where the covenantal God is addressed directly by the suffering in a bold cry for help, explanation and restoration.  There is a “who” in lament and the prayer has a focus on God’s power to save and God’s covenantal responsibilities to do so.  In penning the lyrics “I cried to my daddy on the telephone how long now”, Jobson and Adamson describe this very activity since it is not “the skies” but “my daddy” who is addressed, one who has an evident duty of care and a responsibility to respond to the cry for help.  In a similar way the content of the cry itself, “how long”, is reminiscent of the words used in many Biblical laments[2].

In 2006 and 2008 two cover versions of the song were released, the first by Irish musicians U2 in collaboration with America’s Green Day, and the second by German electronic-martial, neofolk artists Von Thronstahl.  In both of these texts the theme of lament is continued.  The collaborative version was released as a single to raise money for flood relief and reconstruction in New Orleans, Louisiana following the devastation of that city by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005: alterations to the lyrics and images on the official music video[3] address the specific circumstances of that event such that the somewhat generic lament written in Dunfermline becomes an unambiguous cry for help for a specific people in a specific place.  In the 2008 version the music video appears to address the story of a woman mourning her beloved lost in battle[4].

Biblical teaching on faith is confronted by the lyrics of Jobson and Adamson; the prayers of the faithful are not answered in the time of greatest need.  Since “it seems no matter how [we] try…there’s no reply (at all[5])” from Heaven they conclude that the line is dead and God cannot hear us.  A second option offered, in direct contravention of scripture and contradiction of the lament form, that God either cannot or will not act to address the concern of the lament, be that the specific natural disaster of a flooded city or the loss of a much loved soldier on home soil.  In this instance the gap between God’s promises and the lived experience of God’s people has not been bridged by God’s activity, therefore if the covenant is not understood to have been broken it must be understood to be worthless.  In the absence of a prophetic, accusative voice directed at the people it is God who must have failed and therefore, in the absence of divine assistance, it is up to the saints to “come”.

In similar contrast with the Biblical themes of God’s everlasting interest in humankind and capacity to love and to save, Jobson and Adamson suggest, in lyrics removed by U2 and Green Day, that “[t]he stone says this paternal guide once had his day.”   In response to the observation that “[a] drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief” it is said that “a weather change condemns belief.”  God does not come through for Skids nor for Von Thronstahl who retains the original question “how long now”: the changing situation is seen as evidence that if God has acted at all God has only done so by stepping back further.  The deliverance once promised by the covenant relationship and endorsed by the salvation history of the People of God is not coming and the situation will only get more hopeless.  The paternal God has had his day and the theme that belief in such a God is worthy of condemnation as false and worthless is reiterated.  Thankfully the “saints” are coming because God is not; God cannot and will not.

The version released by U2 and Green Day removes the reference to the paternal guide and essentially shifts the blame for the disaster to human weakness, complicity, and corruption.  It is when “the night watchman lets in the thief” we ask “what’s wrong now?”  This is much more in tune with the Biblical idea that it is humankind which gets itself into binds that God must fix.  Whether God allows natural disasters to occur, and in what form this “allowing” takes place is placed into secondary importance by the activities of the trusted men on the wall who enable the enemies to enter the sleeping, vulnerable city.  The coming saints then are not humankind suddenly without God and having to fend for themselves but are the soldiers of the city flooding the walls and gates to resist enemy incursion.  The cry is “hold on, the reserves are sprinting towards you in the power of good” rather than the cry of “we are abandoned and we are all who remain”.  It is the belief that we can trust the night watchmen that is condemned, and the trust that we had entrusted to others which is questioned.  In that ruinous house in New Orleans a place remains for crying out beyond humankind for justice, vindication, and rescue from without.

In taking a Biblical form, that of lament, and subverting it to portray faith as meaningless except for faith in the best of humanity Jobson and Adamson connect with the anti-establishment and questioning of authority explicit in popular punk culture of the late 1970s.  Von Thronstahl revisit the theme with connections to the futility of war and a fascist cause.  U2 and Green Day, in releasing a song in support of recovery efforts are themselves the embodiment of the saints who come, perhaps ahead of the recognised work of God, saints who question whether the motives of men and women always are honourable when disaster strikes.

References:

All references to scripture are based on the New Revised Standard Version.

“The Saints are Coming” (n.d.) Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saints_Are_Coming.

U2 and Green Day, “U2 and Green Day – The Saints Are Coming,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/5431310

Von Thronstahl, “The Saints Are Coming: Official Video,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/45844944


[1] “The Saints are Coming” in Wikipedia (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saints_Are_Coming

[2] For example Psalm 13:1. (NRSV)

[3] U2 and Green Day, “U2 and Green Day – The Saints Are Coming,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/5431310

[4] Von Thronstahl, “The Saints Are Coming: Official Video,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/45844944

[5] In Von Thronstahl’s version the words “at all” are added to the last line of the refrain as sung by Runa.

The Saints (Are Coming): Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson (1978)

Original:

Skids (1979).  Punk.  Album: Scared To Dance.

Covers:

Green Day and U2, (2006).  Rock/Pop. Album: U218.  This version incorporates additional lyrics and was released to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seGhTWE98DU

Von Thronstahl (2008). Neofolk/Electronic.  “Thirtieth anniversary tribute” featuring Runa from V.A.M.P.  http://vimeo.com/45844944

The text appears at first to fit the Biblical pattern of a “Psalm of Lament”, a song in which innocents in crisis cry out to God for help and demand an explanation and a restoration.  Questions of theodicy and human culpability attach closest to the U2 and Green Day version whose added verses locate the cry within the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the mismanagement of civic flood defences and levees around New Orleans.

A second reading raises a sense of confusion about the expectation that God will act: the “saints” might be coming, but there’s no reply from “daddy on the telephone”.  Is God so incapable or ambivalent that humankind must act to alleviate its sorrow and grief without divine help?  No specific context is provided by “Skids”, but in Von Thronstahl’s music video the story is one of a (uniformed Nazi) woman who has lost her beloved in the war.  If a closed or resistant Heaven in understood then the song becomes a dirge, a song of hopeless grievance, a song which is neither a Hosanna nor a “broken Hallelujah”.

A worship leader or preacher coming to the original song with thoughts of using it as a contemporary example of lament needs to take into consideration the second reading where God’s answer is not expected by the song writers.  The song might actually function as a critique of the hope found in Biblical lamentation; the understanding from a non-believer’s perspective that it’s up to “the saints”, men and women of compassion, to do the work of alleviating the cause of complaint rather than waiting in the (misguided) hope that the clouds will roll back for some random deity to descend in rescuing power.  In the 2008 version the saints are sung to be “calling” rather than “coming”, and there is “no reply at all” to their call.  Not even the prayers of the faithful are answered.

In the 2006 version the lines “the stone says/this paternal guide once had his day/once had his day” are replaced by “how long now/when the nightwatchman lets in the thief/what’s wrong now”.    In this the theme that God cannot be waited upon but that humankind must take the initiative, (even if that is in the form of local Christian “saints” getting involved), is joined by the Biblical theme of nightwatchmen and specifically those who are derelict or deceitful in duty.  The song points to the various facets of human responsibility seen in the causes, effects, and responses to disaster.

It is with supposedly unanswerable questions and criticism with which The Saints Are Coming engages the Bible’s twin themes of hope in despair and the faithfulness of the God of the covenant, ultimately making the observation that God cannot be trusted to answer.