Friday, April 9, 2010

The Choice is Always Ours

Sermon preached Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2010

I would like to begin with a poem. Remember, it is still Lent, a time for difficult disciplines! Of course, I am teasing about this. I know that some of you really appreciate poetry, though not all, but anyway, here goes. This is a poem I have read before, and use occasionally at funerals - Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”
The Summer Day Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This poem may seem like an odd choice for tonight, but I don’t think it is. “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That question looms large for Jesus tonight. It is a question he has had to answer again and again. He had to answer it during his days of temptation. He has had to answer it as he engaged in healing and picking grain on the Sabbath. He has had to answer it as he has been challenged by some of the religious authorities of his day. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Tonight we see a very human Jesus. Let’s set aside some of our theological affirmations about Jesus as human and divine, bracket them for the evening. Tonight we see the human Jesus deciding. The deepening shadows of betrayal and arrest are cast over the night. Death is a real possibility. The Roman Empire does not treat agitators very kindly. How will Jesus spend his remaining time with his disciples? Is there some other way to be faithful to his sense of calling, to his sense of what it means to be a Spirit person, to his sense of God? The circumstances couldn’t be more difficult, yet decisions have to be made.
We know what Jesus decides. He decides for deep faithfulness. He decides for love. “Having loved his own… he loved them to the end.” His love is expressed very tangibly – sharing bread, sharing wine, washing feet. His decision for deep faithfulness and love will take him down a difficult road. Deep faithfulness and love – this is what Jesus is doing with his one wild and precious life.
Years ago, when I was in college, I bought a book entitled The Choice is Always Ours. It was subtitled “an anthology on the religious way.” It is a wonderful collection of writings on spirituality and the spiritual journey. The epigraph, from which the book takes its title, was written by novelist Aldous Huxley. The choice is always ours. Then, let me choose the longest art, the hard Promethean way cherishingly to tend and feed and fan that inward fire, whose small precarious flame, kindled or quenched, creates the noble or ignoble people we are, the worlds we live in and the very fates, our bright or muddy star.
The choice is always ours as to what we will do with our one wild and precious life. Will we offer bread to the world even when it is difficult? Here I am reminded of the words of Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.” But bread for the world goes beyond trying to meet needs for physical well-being. There is the bread of friendship, the bread of kindness, the bread of compassion that needs to be offered too.
Will we share the wine of joy? How is it that the Church, born in the rush of a mighty wind, born with laughter and a bit of chaos, so much noise and chaos that people did not think the group could be sober, how is it that the Church has often been such a sober place, dismally serious? Frederick Buechner asks, “Could anyone guess by looking at us that joy is at the heart of what goes on in church Sunday after Sunday?” (Secrets in the Dark, 241). Joy should be our heartbeat, even as we consider some of the great challenges and difficulties of life and faith. But this joy is meant to be shared, the wine of joy – shared even when our own broken hearts may be healing. Even if joy is our heartbeat, we are not immune from broken hearts, after all.
Will we offer water to refresh, cool water for parched tongues, fresh water for healthy drinking, water to cleanse the body, waters of the spirit to revive the soul - - - will we offer water even when we know no one will notice, or if they notice they may think we are too lavish in our offering the waters of spirit and grace to others.
Will we take bread and wine and water ourselves so that we do not grow weary in well-doing, so that our own hearts and minds and souls don’t wither and dry up as we seek to follow Jesus?
Will we live the way of deep faithfulness and love, even when the way is arduous and fraught with difficulty?
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? The choice is always ours.
Scott Peck, of The Road Less Traveled fame writes in another book (In Search of Stones, 87-91) about his wife Lilly. Lilly began to suffer from pathological episodes of depression as soon as she entered her teens. Although seldom lasting long these episodes were frightening in their intensity. She initially handled them by hiding them…. By the fifth year of our marriage, the pretense no longer worked…. The episodes were more frequent and severe. They couldn’t be hidden any longer.
Peck wrote that as a psychiatrist he had seen many people more seriously depressed than his wife, and more nonfunctional, but that he had “never seen anyone with such black moods. They were frightening, even terrifying.
Peck continues: In the sixth year of our marriage, Lily was averaging two depressions a week, each approximately two days in duration…. The lines of depression had started to be etched into her face even when she was feeling well. Lily decided to enter intensive psychotherapy with an experienced psychoanalyst. Peck writes: Entering psychotherapy with genuine intent is always an act of considerable courage. By virtue of various factors in her background, Lily’s doing so was not merely brave, it was heroic.
Peck shares some of his wife’s journey in therapy. After about two years and three hundred hours of therapy, Lily still averaged two depressions a week, but now they lasted eight hours, instead of forty-eight. Further work brought the duration to two hours. “Today she still has two depressions a week. Each lasts about five minutes.”
Peck reflects on all that has happened with his wife. Substantial psychotherapy is successful… only when it becomes a way of life…. As psychotherapy becomes a way of life, one becomes a contemplative: a person who focuses at least as much upon her inner world as upon the outer one. Daydreams, night dreams, thoughts and feelings, insights, intuitions, and understandings all assume ever-increasing importance…. The reason Lily was able to decrease the duration of her depressions from roughly three thousand minutes to five minutes is simply that she grew more aware. She became aware of the strength of her will, her need to control, and her false expectations. She became aware of how best to look at herself when a depression was triggered, and how to quickly discern the steps she needed to take forward to come out the other end, and finally how to rapidly take those steps. Learning this depth of awareness has taken her thirty years. Over these years she has become very wise.
I share this story not as an antidote to depression, but as an illustration of how the way of deep faithfulness and love can be challenging, can take courage, can be arduous. We might all have stories to share about how this is so – stories of inner journeys, stories of outer journeys. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? There may be easier ways to live than the way of deep faithfulness to God and the way of love, but the testimony of Christian faith is that these other ways, though at times easier, are not the way of life.
The choice is always ours as to what we will do with our one wild and precious life. May we choose the longest art. May we choose to tend and feed and fan that inward fire and its precarious flame so that our star burns bright. May we choose the way of deep faithfulness and love, giving bread and wine and water - - - never forgetting to receive them as well. Amen.

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