The Measure of our Days Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
At the beginning of his novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne makes a profound observation about human nature. He alludes to the countless human efforts to build the perfect community, some utopian society free from all the messiness that is a part of human life. But invariably, he writes, no matter how utopian the founding vision, it is not long before every human community ends up having to build in some form a jail and a cemetery.
Sin and death are givens in human life. We may not want to think about them, and we often try to avoid them, but as Hawthorne reminds us, they are unavoidable, and if we are going to be honest with ourselves, and faithful to God, we do have to acknowledge them.
Today is Ash Wednesday, and the ashes that will be a part of our service are a symbol of the realities of sin and death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we say in our funeral liturgies, as a way to remind ourselves that we come for the earth, and to the earth we will return. All of us. Without exception.
Someone has written that on Ash Wednesday we attend our own funeral, in that we acknowledge our common human lot, our shared mortality, the fact that we are all going to die. And among all the creatures, this sets us apart. We know, and we must live with knowing, that we are going to die. The writer Wendell Berry calls this living with “the forethought of death.”
And the scriptures witness to how hard this is for us. There are times when death is the enemy, when it comes too soon, or unexpectedly, or senselessly, or tragically, wounding our hearts and raising questions that have no good answers. As the psalmist writes, the valley of the shadow of death is a very real darkness in life, though the psalmist does assure of God’s presence with us even in these dark and difficult times./
But the scriptures witness too to the ways in which death is not our enemy but our friend, or maybe better our teacher and mentor. The psalmist also writes, “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days.” This is not an appeal to know the day and the hour of his death. None of us can know that. But it is an appeal to know that there is a limit to his days, so that he might make the most of them, and this is one of the most important lessons that death teaches us.
There is an old rabbinic story I heard once. A man lost his wife of many years, and he was overcome with grief. Some time passed, and one day he went for a long walk in a nearby woods. It was fall, and as he walked, he became aware that all around him was unfolding the great drama of life and death. The leaves were falling from the trees. The animals were doing what they do with the coming of winter, migrating, gathering, hibernating, dying. Off in the distance the fields were being harvested again, as they had been from time immemorial.
The words of Ecclesiates came to mind, “For everything there is a time and a season, a time to be born and a time to die.” And the man wondered to himself, “Why?”
When he returned from his walk, the man went to see his rabbi. When he knocked at the rabbi’s door, he heard a voice say, “Come in.” And as he entered, he saw the rabbi sitting at a table in the midst of a small room. A candle was lite, and a bible was opened in front him.
“What is it?” the rabbi asked.
“I have a question, rabbi,” the man said.
“Why would a good God create a world in which we have to die?”
And the rabbi thought for a long time, and then he said, “I know that your heart is breaking, and that you may not be able to hear this now. And even though I have devoted my life to understanding the ways of God, I do not understand them all either. At least not fully. But I do know that life is precious because our days here are limited.”
“Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days.” In other words, let me know, and remind me, again and again and again, to make the most of my days here, God. And the mark of the ashen cross that we will receive this night is just such a reminder, reminding us that death follows life in this world, sure as night follows day, and each season in its turn. But as people of faith, we also believe that life follows death. Jesus has taught us that, and shown it to us in his own life and death and resurrection./
In our passage from the Gospel of John Jesus talks about death and new life, saying that he is the vine and we are the branches, and that there are times when God needs to do some pruning. As branches we can die, spiritually speaking. Our lives just no longer bear much fruit, and there are a lot of different reasons for this. We can grow indifferent to the call of Christ, when we just stop listening. Or we can get distracted by other things, so it is not so much that we stop listening but that we are no longer able to hear his call because there are so many other voices demanding our attention.
Or it may be that our branches are still bearing fruit, but they are just not bearing good fruit, and that makes for dead branches too, spiritually speaking. There are things in life, attitudes, priorities, habits, compulsions, behaviors, that can take root in us and grow to such an extent that they bear a kind of fruit that is simply incompatible with faithful and loving discipleship.
We cannot be honest and deceitful at the same time. We cannot be mindful of what we say and gossip about others at the same time. We cannot be kind and cruel, generous and greedy, compassionate and uncaring. And Jesus says that these branches, the ones that are bearing bad fruit, they have to go. They must be removed. They need to die to make possible new growth.
And then Jesus says that even living branches need to get pruned back once in a while. We can have some branches in our lives that are basically good, but they have a lot of old growth on them, stuff that has accumulated through the years that is stifling new growth. There is life there. It is just sort of dormant, and we need God to help us to remove some of that stuff, so that those branches can be reclaimed and they can bear fruit again./
And all this pruning is one of the purposes of the Season of Lent. It is an intentional time set aside for us to do some soul work. It is a time to give something up, if that is what is needed in our lives. Or, it is a time to take something on, to begin a new practice. We need to do both, letting go of old habits and cultivating new ones, as both are a part of this spiritual process of death and new life.
Now what might that be for us this Lenten season? I read an article this past week that said that the top three things people give up in Lent are social networking, chocolate, and twitter. I can understand why, I suppose, but these are not really soul work, so I would encourage us to think a little more broadly and deeply about this. The article went on to suggest that maybe we could give up our need to be right all the time, or our reluctance to ask for help when we need it, or our efforts to make everyone else happy all the time, or the comparisons that we are constantly making between ourselves and others, or the many ways in which we numb the pain that we are feeling inside . . . Or maybe we could take something on in lent, beginning a kindness or a gratitude practice, or participating in our congregational lenten/easter study on Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times, or using a new devotional resource or experimenting with a new devotional practice.
Whatever it is we give up or take on this Lent, think broadly about it, and deeply. Let it involve some real soul work. And remember that this process of pruning and reclamation and new growth usually involves a return to basic precepts, and highest priorities, and God given identities. As we begin our Lenten journey, it can be good for us to ask ourselves: why am I here? What really matters in life? Where are my deepest loyalties? Who am I really in the eyes of God? And who is Christ calling me to be at this time in my life? And of course we need to do all of this with the awareness that we are living not only in the shadow of sin and death, but also in the greater light of the resurrection, and in the grace of the one who says to us, “I am the vine; you are the branches . . . My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Amen.