Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
We remember today a Deacon named Laurence in the Church at Rome in the mid third century. He was savagely martyred. Apparently this Laurence was notable, not only because of his ministry in liturgy, and in service to the poor and needy, but also in his management and oversight of the property belonging to the church. This of course precedes Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity almost a century later, and so, here in the last decades of the Roman Empire, when followers of Jesus were targets for discrimination and persecution, Laurence was singled out because of an ingenious plan for “double spoil.” The agent of the Roman Emperor devised that he would demand of Deacon Laurence the treasures of the church – the real estate, any precious vessels, artifacts, money – or otherwise face a beating. When this Laurence acquiesced, as he surely would, not only would his attacker receive the spoils of plunder, but would also completely discredit this pious Laurence and the others who purportedly followed the teachings of a Jewish radical named Jesus. So the legend goes, his persecutor demanded of Laurence the treasures of the Church. Laurence, instead of handing over real estate deeds or gold or vessels made of precious metals, rather pointed to a crowd of poor people, those whom he served as Deacon. These were the treasures of the Church, he said: these poor people. And for such insolence Laurence was savagely beaten, then torn, then roasted, and without recanting his faith in Jesus Christ. There is a turn of phrase that informed and empowered the early and persecuted church, a phrase passed down through the centuries: that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. This was certainly true following Laurence’s death.
I want to say something more about this “metaphoric principle” in life of death necessarily preceding life, as we heard in this evening’s gospel lesson. Jesus’ said that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit.’ This most likely applies to all of us here this evening, I would say. Whether or not we are facing explicit persecution because of our faith (as so many are in the world today) or a soon death, there is a “metaphoric principle” in life that death precedes life precedes death precedes life. Some of you may know the writings of Florida Scott Maxwell. She says, “I often want to say to people, ‘You have such nice neat plans about what life ought to give you, but you won’t get it. Life does not accommodate you, life shatters you and it’s supposed to, and it couldn’t do it better. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it shall not bear fruit.’” [i]
I would not know how you are thinking about or experiencing death just now. I suspect for some of us, death is near at hand because someone we love is dying or has died, and we have been reminded of how short life and, perhaps, how unfair life seems. For some of us, issues of our own mortality may be looming large just now because of our own dwining health, because of a diagnosis or disease or advancing years and a sense that our life is diminishing. Some of us here may rather intentionally work at escaping the reality of death. Our own culture gives us every encouragement to “botox” life and to anestecize ourselves from all pain, and to escape from suffering. Some of us here may be avoiding the imminence of our own deaths, at least for now. And I say “imminence” of our own deaths, not necessarily because we won’t live through the day. (Of course, there’s no guarantee of it.) Rather, because I think we die, and need to die many times before we die the final time in this life.
It seems to me that unless we are vigilant, we will inevitably cling to certain artifacts of life which we require or demand for our own lives. It may have to do with the furniture in our homes, or the books on our shelves. We may find ourselves requiring certain attention or respect or concern from those whom we know. We may require or expect to be revered in certain ways. We may demand of life a certain amount of money in the bank or clothes on our backs or other assurances for the future. I’m not saying that any of this is necessarily bad, in and of itself. But what I am saying is that our possessions do not last. And if our posture toward life is to possess things, to presume that we could or should possess things, or relationships, or other fleeting provisions in this life, we have set our eyes on a mark that is too small. None of it will last. I’m not suggesting that we should have a kind of nihilistic attitude towards life, i.e., that none of it matters, that it’s all a waste, that it’s all irrelevant. No, not that at all. Quite to the contrary, I’m suggesting that the problem is with the notion of “possession.” That we cannot possess anything in this life, that nothing truly belongs to us. I would say that it all belongs to God, and we belong to God. I would say that we are not possessors of anything, but rather stewards of everything. And because we are stewards we cherish things all the more. Not long ago I had occasion with another one of my brothers to stay in a family’s cabin up in the mountains. A marvelous experience to be allowed to use this cabin, and as a gift. We were particularly attentive to how we found things, how we used things, how we moved things, how we left things, because this cabin did not belong to us. It was simply entrusted to us for a short period of time, and it was a marvelous gift. I think that life is like that. None of it actually belongs to us; all of it precedes and follows us; and we have this period of a lifetime – what the Psalmist calls ‘fleeting days that will pass” – to steward that to which we’ve been temporarily entrusted.
There are several very practical things that come to mind on how to live more intentionally into of possessing nothing and being a steward of everything.
For some of us it may be very helpful to take a very thorough inventory of our life, what we may otherwise feign to see as our possessions. Perhaps a number of categories. One category may simply be “stuff” or “things,” ranging from trinkets to automobiles to real estate to other assets. Another category: our relationships with other people – friendships, associations, kinships. Another category: our relationship with our own self – how we regard our own self, how we see our own self, what we expect or demand or value about our own self. Another category may be expectations in life: hopes, plans, anticipations for the present or the future. And there may be other categories, too, and all of them important (at least, important to us). Make this inventory, and turn the inventory into an offering. That is, to acknowledge before God that it is all gift: what has enabled it, or what enabled-its-being-enabled is all gift. It is temporary. It is purposeful. It is intentional. And we are meanwhile stewards of it all (not possessors but stewards). It’s to hold it all up before God with open palms, not clenched fists. Some of you may know an ancient refrain that is traditionally said at the altar as we receive the gifts of money and then the gifts of bread and wine – the elements of our life and labor. Some of you will know this: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.” That is a wonderful refrain to carry through life. To intentionally give all of life back to God, to give it up like we do the gifts here at the altar. Not to give it away, but to give it up, that it all be consecrated and that, in so doing, we be liberated. It can be a very good way to begin the day: with this posture of “oblation,” that is, making all of our life an offering, acknowledging that we are stewards, and that we are thankful… for as long as it lasts. And a very good way to end the day. Life is intended to be “iconic,” that is, to be like an icon, to see through it all to its Source. Life is to be iconic; otherwise, life is opaque, an end, or an end in itself, and that is not a big enough end.
That may be a useful practice for some of you: to take an inventory of those things in life you may feign to see as possessions and turn return offerings of to God. We are merely stewards of this life. The great poet, Mary Oliver, who lives down on the Cape, writes:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. [ii]
A second practical help in embracing the dying that precedes life that precedes death is to make your funeral plans. We brothers do this and periodically update these plans. Some of this is purely practical, to relieve the burden of our loved ones’ trying to second-guess what we would have wanted: passages from the Bible and hymns that are particularly meaningful to us. What about flowers? What about designated gifts in lieu of flowers? What about cremation? Very helpful for those who survive us. But this can be such a helpful exercise for our own souls. But leaning into the inevitability of our own deaths, we may find some increased clarity about the preciousness of these moments we’ve yet been given to live And therefore what we value, where we want to focus our energies, how it is we want to use our own life as a seed for the future. Making our own funeral plans – pondering, praying, discussing our funeral plans – can be an enormous grace in helping us cherish the moments we’ve yet been given life.
And lastly, about being thankful. If at this very moment you are not in touch with deep gratitude, you are missing something, something major in life. If gratitude does not inform your consciousness, then I’d say you’re missing something. Gratitude consecrates life, with as much transforming power as our prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine at the altar. Gratitude consecrates life, and the embracing and expressing of gratitude is, I think, the most powerful thing we can do in life. I’m not suggesting that any of us here “make up” things we are thankful for, and then pretend thankfulness where we clearly are not. But to remember and embrace that for which we clearly are thankful, but may be prone to forget. If you’re out of practice, start small, start now. If you are breathing at this moment unassisted by a ventilator or an oxygen tank, be thankful. If you are continent, be thankful. If you can move your own hand to scratch an itch, if you can blow your own nose, clear your own throat, rise to you feet unassisted, see what is ahead of you, hear when someone speaks or sings, get in touch with the gift of it all. If you have running water at home, hot water, even, and if it is purified for drinking and bathing, be thankful. If you have a bed, a shelter, a book, if you can read the book… be thankful. Gratitude is life-transforming. It is some of how we have been created in the image of God, that is, we have been created as a gift from God and a gift to God. It is all gift, none of it to be taken for granted and all of it to be acknowledged.
And it is a large gift, indeed, to die from the delusion that we are the author of life, the sustainer of life, the possessor of life, but rather a steward of life, co-operating with God, the giver of all life. There is a beautiful old prayer that speaks the language of our cherishing life, of being thankful, of seeing it all not as a possession but as an icon, a window through which we see and serve God. The prayer reads: “O God, I know that if I do not love thee with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul and with all my strength, I shall love something else with all my heart and mind and soul and strength. Grant that putting thee first in all my lovings I may be liberated from all lesser loves and loyalties, and have thee as my first love, my chiefest good and my final joy.” [iii]
[i] Florida Scott Maxwell, a playwright and Jungian analyst, in The Measure of My Days. Writing while in her eighties, she explores “the unique predicament of one’s later years: when one feels both cut off from the past and out of step with the present; when the body rebels at activity but the mind becomes more passionate than ever. She speaks of the struggle to achieve goodness; how to maintain individuality in a mass society; and how to emerge – out of suffering, loss, and limitation – with something approaching wisdom.”
[ii] “In Blackwater Woods,” by Mary Oliver in American Primitive.
[iii] Source unknown.
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