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St. Francis Day, 2012

The following sermon was preached by Klaus-Peter Adam, Associate Professor of Old Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 4, 2012.


Job 39

Dear Sisters and brothers,
"Have you seen the gates of death been revealed to you?
Have you seen the gates of deep darkness?"
Let me, as we partake in Job's struggle with God and as we hear Gods word from the whirlwind and,
and also on this day,
as we welcome our Brother Francis among us, and with him all his living friends, our co-creatures:
Let me on this occasion, set one thing straight:
God from the whirlwind asks Job and us:
"Who are you, Job?
Who, Job, do you think you are as a human being?"
This is an essential question of anthropology:
Job has confronted his friends and God with this question throughout over more than 30 chapters. Now, God answers Job back from the whirlwind.

Formally, God answers mostly with rhetorical questions, yet, even though put in interrogative form, God's answer leaves no question open, about who human beings are.
And let me boil down this anthropological question further:
No matter what you decide to bless as a Lutheran pastor,
the canary birds of your parishioners,
the caterpillars on the fields,
corpses (be assured: Luther would not have approved of this, because he didn't believe it would help any and he dismissed it as sorcery)
or you may even decide to bless a composter:
You better know the difference between a human being and an animal.
Let me briefly tell you, what a human being is in comparison to an animal:
A dog who knows that it is going to die like a dog -- is a human being.

This is the anthropological point I want to make on this St. Francis Day.
Don't get me wrong: I don't think you should preach this anthropological basic fact in your congregation. I do think however, as women and men of the academy, as educated leaders of our sisters and brothers in Christ,
you ought to know:
A dog who knows that it is going to die like a dog -- is a human being.
The human being is the animal who is bound to live with the knowledge about their own mortality. No other animal is so acutely aware of their own mortality throughout their entire life.

Yes you are right: Many animals do get a sense that they die and,
yes, not only primates have mourning rites for deceased co-creatures. Elephants do perform mourning rituals.

Yet, these mourning rites notwithstanding:
The consistent awareness of us as humans that each of us is going to die one day is specific to humans and in this consistency it is not known from any other creature.
Our co-creatures, the animals are not consistently aware of their mortality, unlike us, they are not concerned about it as we, who consistently worry and who are concerned about our own future.
And, yes you are right: There are many more differences between the human species and animals.
Again, nevertheless, our consistent knowledge about our mortality is an anthropological distinctiveness.

Marsilio Ficino, a 15th century theologian from Florence, sets humans apart from the celestial creatures on the one side, and from animals on the other side:
"Oh blissfully happy celestial beings who know and see all in the light!
-- And oh securely living animals who live in darkness who have no knowledge of the in-between!
Oh unhappy and anxious humans who dwell in the mist!"
A dog who knows that it is going to die like a dog -- is a human being.

The consistent knowledge about our own mortality has produced what we call our culture: As humans we all face death, says cultural theory -- and this very fact has led to all forms of ‘human culture' in general.
We create culture as a world in order to cope with our mortality -- unlike any other being: In order to live as this species of animals who know that we will die one day, like any other animal.
Not only in the modern era, also long before that, humans have created their cultural world in which they located themselves and they have depicted themselves, they have also allocated death in their spatial worlds. God's speech from the whirlwind is a good example for how humans cope with death by creating their cultural worlds. In 17 lessons, 3 of which we have heard, God delineates what happens in the world. It is an impressive witness of what we call "Ancient Near Eastern culture".
The first 10 lessons cover geo-tectonics, oceanography, the circadian rhythms, the geology of the underworld and underfoot conditions,
light and darkness, the meteorology of snow, storm, rain, astronomy,
and, nephology.
Seven more lessons cover the wild animals, lion, mountain goat, wild donkey, wild ox, ostrich, horse and hawk.

Only in the last 20 years have bible scholars been able to uncover how sophisticated God's lessons are arranged and how precisely they comment on details of their time when they allude to Near Eastern Culture.

To mention one example:
When God asks Job about the wild animals, he alludes to the fact that Job is not able to tame any of these animals and to subdue them.
But this is what we see of royal figures in Ancient Near Eastern iconography. The so-called "Lord of the animals" is a most prominent icon. It proclaims the King's power. And God's speech alludes to this icon and makes the point:
You, Job, who are you?
You certainly do not compare to the royal Lord of the animals!
You can see this icon on a cylinder seal. This icon, the lord of the animal was wide spread. This means that the seal has probably been used by many generations of individuals who may have understood themselves in the light of this lord of the animals.
These images testify to exactly the culture that humans develop in order to cope with the consistent, disturbing knowledge of their own mortality.
In this case: Humans celebrate themselves in these images, that explain:
Humans can, in spite of their mortality, still tame gazelles, wild asses, wild oxes, ostrichs and cope with what have you…!
God's speech in the whirlwind builds on these proud images of humans taming wild animals. God comments critically: He explicitly rejects Job's claim to identify with this icon of humans who subdue wild animals.
In a similar way as the icon of the "Lord of the animals" reverberates humankind's limitations, the third of God's lessons that we heard today ponders contemporary knowledge about the netherworld:

"Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or have you walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?" 
These questions aim at the old widely spread knowledge about the subterranean springs that fill the oceans with the water from the depths.
This cylinder seal may give you an impression: A god is enthroned and beneath his throne you can see vase like vessels from which the water flows. These vessels feed the streams of a sweet water ocean.
And, more specifically with relation to mortality, Job 39 alludes to the gates of the netherworld and to the place of the dead.
The culture in antiquity that was probably most obsessed with the phenomenon of human death was Egyptian culture. And when God asks Job whether he has entered the gates of death, he most likely alludes to the manifold cultural scenarios that Egyptians have created about death.
What happens behind the gates of the netherworld? A number of things, let me mention some of them: The Egyptians understood death essentially as dismemberment. A defunct body to them was a body whose members were no longer kept together but were falling apart. As they thought about how to overcome such dismemberment, they developed the act of collecting and of putting the body parts of the deceased person back together. They thought about stitching them one onto the other, as you can see it, Anubis the dog-faced master of the netherworld, collects the body parts of this person and he assembles them carefully until they come together in the perfect body of the mummy that survives in eternity.

Another process that happened behind the doors of the netherworld, was the weighing of the heart of a deceased person. Led by Anubis into the hall of justice, the deceased person's heart was weighed on the scales against a feather, the symbol for the goddess Ma'at, for righteousness.
The ibis-headed god Toth takes down the result.

Also, the ‘BA', the soul of the deceased person would come and would hover above the mummified body that Anubis has prepared. As you can see it here in the form of a bird. The ‘BA', the soul, would then, once the mummification process was completed, be reunited with the mummified body. You see the BA in another depiction in the figure of a bird who is flying towards a dark shadow, a man in a grave.
When Job is asked, whether he has ever stepped down to the ´gates of the nether world´, this alludes to the gates of the casket chamber that is found in the depths. On an image from chapter 182 of the Book of the Dead, you see protective deities around a casket chamber in which the mummy lies. In his speech from the whirlwind God asks Job whether he has ever been there, whether he ever entered the gates of the netherworld.

What I have shown you, the reversal of the dismemberment, the judgment scene of the deceased and the watchmen who safeguard the casket chambers are only some of the many scenes that would await you behind the doors of the netherworld.
These pictures give you a snippy impression of the enormous cultural effort of Egypt in creating a world, by generations in over more than 3000 years, a cultural world, that enables them to cope with their life long conscience about their own mortality.
The idea of the healing reversal of a defunct body's dismemberment by stitching its pieces together in a mummy alludes to a whole series of narratives around the god Osiris: The stitching together of the mummy's parts happens in analogy of Osiris' body parts which, after a dreadful defeat with his antagonist, Seth, were spread over the entire land. Isis recollects Osiris body parts so that they can then be reassembled. In analogy to the reassembly of Osiris' body, the Egyptians believed, the mummification of each individual would reverse the dead body's dismemberment.

A dog who knows that it is going to die like a dog, - is a human being.
My examples from the spatial worlds that open behind the gates of death illustrate: As humans we all face death, and this very knowledge, our consistent anxiety about our own mortality, has indeed inspired all forms of ‘human culture'.
"Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Have you seen all this, that happens behind the doors of the death,Job?" Implicitly, God asks Job: "Aren't you nothing else but a dog who knows that he will die like a dog?"

And we? What are we going to preach as future pastors, as teachers and leaders of our congregations? What are we to do with this knowledge that all human culture is ultimately a product of our consistent threat that is caused by our own mortality, that is ceaselessly haunting our minds?

First of all, I hope you don't let yourself fool by the distractions that this culture offers you to mislead you to believe you were indeed immortal. I hope that, instead, you will gird your loins like woman and men of God and face the fact that your precious days and years between birth and death are numbered.

It is the beating heart of the gospel to remind us of our mortality. Jesus teaches the parable about the rich farmer in Luke 12:20: "You are a fool, if you limit your whole being to working by day and night in the hope to secure your life in this world: This very night your life is being demanded of you!"

With these words, Jesus interrupts our consistent worries about our death and our frenetic work that seeks to deny our own mortality: "Can anybody of you add a single hour to your span of life?" And Jesus juxtaposes another image. He refers us to our mortal co-creatures, the lilies on the field and the birds in the sky who ‘neither toil nor spin'.

In their entire, unconditional dependence on God, who clothes the grass of the field so wonderfully, even though it will be gone a day later, these mortal co-creatures are a prototype that models our faith.

Amen.

 

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