Sunday, August 4, 2013

Living Worth Dying For

There was a rich person who had a great deal of money. He said, ‘I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.’ These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died.
Gospel of Thomas 63: 1-3

One of my daughters recently voiced her concern that I’m going to “drop-dead” any day. Citing my occasional noontime consumption of processed bread with peanut butter, she stated: “Your diet is horrible.” In fact, my diet is largely vegetarian. Furthermore, this summer, she has cooked most of the meals herself, using fresh, local, unprocessed ingredients.

As to my imbibing alcoholic beverages, she stated: “Beer is bad for you.” I replied: “Actually, in moderation, I don’t think so. I further pointed out that I workout at the gym several times a week, a fact that failed to impress her.

In fairness, her anxiety may stem from having been out of the country when I had a cardiac “non-event” (my word) last winter. Granted, I have an underlying cardiac congenital condition but it’s being closely monitored.

Sure, my grandfather and great-grandfather died of heart disease. And, yes, on Sukie’s side, there’s a similar issue with high cholesterol and cardiac disease.

But I sense that my daughter’s anxiety comes from a deeper place, an inevitable place if you will, for those who pay attention and listen carefully to our lives. I have a hunch that she’s beginning to sense how vulnerable she is—how vulnerable we all are—in the face of life’s fragility.

No longer just an idea, the feeling of impermanence may be taking up residence in her soul. Not surprising that this is occurring even as she is seeking her own way of living wholeheartedly and authentically in the world. What some might call finding a spiritual path.

And I believe, in the end, that’s what the reading from Luke’s gospel is all about.

The parable tells the story of a rich farmer who, on the very day he is savoring his prospects for a long and comfortable life, comes to life’s end. Some scholars have pointed out that this story is indistinguishable from the typical moral instruction of the wisdom tradition of Jesus’ day; therefore, they concluded, it’s not unique to Jesus but reflects more the manner and tone of the gospel’s author.[i]

But there’s another version of the parable.

It’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus’ sayings discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, dating from the first century. Many scholars feel it may more accurately reflect Jesus’ voice and style. It’s simpler and avoids the moralizing tone of Luke’s story.[ii] The rich man is here not a farmer but an investor, seeking such a high return that he will lack nothing:

There was a rich person who had a great deal of money. He said, ‘I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.’ These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died.

In Luke’s version, the farmer’s folly is emphasized. Here the stark incongruity between the rich man’s thoughts and his abrupt end is highlighted.

Jesus’ was not here condemning setting aside enough to secure a comfortable retirement. That was outside his immediate frame of reference. That we should be responsible stewards of our resources, for ourselves, and future generations, there can be no doubt.

But in this parable, Jesus was talking about greed, not good stewardship; greed being an inordinate desire to possess more than we need. Which is to say, in the end, he was talking about the quality of our attention, what we attend to, what’s of ultimate meaning and importance to us. Or to put it another way: what’s worth dying for?

Forrest Church, for over thirty years the Senior Minister of All Soul’s Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City until his death in 2009, delivered some one thousand sermons in the course of his ministry. One way or another, he said, they always circled back to a single theme.

Time and again, he would return to the abiding theme of love and death. Variations on that theme, he wrote, sound from my heartstrings. It was central to his definition of religion: Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die...

Knowing that we must die, we question what life means. The answers we arrive at may not be religious answers, but the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious questions: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What is life’s purpose? What does it all signify?

Death is not life’s goal, he wrote, but it’s terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. This is where loves comes into the picture. The one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.[iii]

Knowing that we must one day die, we attend to that which is most important, which is love.

In June, I shared with you that I had learned that a dear childhood friend, Margie, had early onset Alzheimer’s; that she was in the late stages of the disease; and that I hoped to visit with her soon. Last week, after church, I drove down to Massachusetts to visit with her and her husband, Matt.

Matt greeted me at the door and said that a caregiver was feeding Margie her lunch, could he and I sit out on the porch and talk? And so he talked about the journey he had traveled with Margie since her diagnosis some years ago. About how he was committed to caring for her at home. About how challenging it had been.

And then he laughed and said: It’s been an absolute nightmare and, you know, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Stuff I used to worry about, I don’t worry about anymore. I know now what’s most important.

He didn’t say, but he could have, that he had already achieved his goal, that he had lived in such a way that his life—and Margie’s—was worth dying for.

My daughter, Bekah—the one who thinks that I’m going to drop-dead at any moment—is heading to England in just a few weeks, where she will be studying for her master’s degree at the University of London. She’s asked that Sukie and Anna and I join her for Christmas. The wardens have graciously given me leave (Roy Partridge will be with you on Christmas Eve), so we’re going.

On Christmas Eve, we hope to attend A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the fifteenth century King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. This year, we’ll all be together in that hallowed space, and it will be our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels as the sun sets and evening comes to Cambridge.

That simple message: the holy presence at the heart of all—all that’s most fragile, most vulnerable; that holy presence, like love itself, worth living and dying for. AMEN


[i] Funk, Robert W; Hoover, Roy W.; The Five Gospels Macmillan Publishing Company; pg. 339
[ii] Ibid.; pg. 339
[iii] Church, Forrest; Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow; pg. x


Brion Emde said...

I don't see the quote from Luke, only two copies of the version from Thomas.

David Heald said...

Yes. See Luke 12:13-21: 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’