One wild and precious life

Mark 8:27-38 provides the context for this post

All the school supplies have been purchased and the first ball games of the new season have been lost and won. You have moved your beach bum and pool clothes to a different corner of the closet, perhaps to a different closet altogether. The garden, after weeks of lush fecundity, is dreaming of cold sabbath days of rest. And on the Osage Orange tree the leaves are already turning and falling. Summer is on its way out and fall is in the air.

I invite you to linger a little, to hold on to one of those summer moments when you could hear the crickets chirping, and the whole world smelled like grass and, by some wondrous magic, time stood still.

I want to read for you The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver. I connect with this poem because I too have sat in the grass, lost in wonder, watching some little detail of creation. I too have strolled through the fields, idle and blessed all day long, simply allowing views, smells, sounds, and questions to rise.

In Mary Oliver’s poem, the questions change from childlike curiosity and wonder, “Who made the world?“ to very grown-up responsibility,

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?

Questions about life float easily into each other. Tell me, what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your one wild and precious life? Jesus teaches that the way to find life and save it is to give it away, to lose it for something. And nothing is more terrifying than the suspicion that you have given away your life, perhaps only one day of it, for too little or for the wrong currency.

I heard an interview with a New York stock broker on the radio last week. When the big brokerage houses went down fast last fall, he thought his job with a smaller firm was safe. He had a position on the trading floor, he had a function and he fulfilled it. And he fulfilled it with pride, because Frank – let’s call him Frank – was a certified member of the New York Stock Exchange like his father and grandfather before him, and they both had worked well beyond their 80th birthdays. Frank was looking forward to a few more good years before retirement.

In November he got the phone call, and the news hit him like a truck out of nowhere; somebody said something about streamlining and necessary adjustments to the overall cost structure. Frank hung up the phone and got on the subway back to New Jersey.

Frank is 52 years old, and his chances of ever working in the financial sector again are slim. He still gets up early in the morning, but instead of catching the subway to Wall Street at 6:30 AM, he now makes breakfast for his wife and youngest son. He’s noticed that the number of dads dropping off their kids at school in the morning has been going up, and at the end of the summer he went to his first parent-teacher-night in years. Frank lost a dream when he lost his job, but now he knows that in the pursuit of his dream he had given away his life for too little, and he is grateful that he noticed that before it was too late. Mercy comes in surprising ways.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the question, “What will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?” is raised rather late. The first question of the dialogue is an easy one, the answer a simple matter of completing an informal poll and reporting the results.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks.

The disciples answer, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets. They look to you as a teacher and healer and a spiritual master.” It’s easy to talk about Jesus.

The second question is anything but easy.

“Who do you say that I am?”

They had been with him since the first days on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. They had followed him from town to town, village to village, farm to farm, and wherever he went, they had seen signs of God’s reign: he healed the sick, he drove out demons, and he gave bread to thousands. They had seen hope springing up among the poor; they had heard powerful words of forgiveness, and teachings that left the religious experts speechless.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” You are the Christ, you are God’s Anointed One, you are the One sent to save God’s people Israel. That’s a powerful response, but it is not as simple as it may seem.

The journey will go to Jerusalem, the City of David. They look down the path, and images of greatness rise in their minds: God’s Messiah waging war against the forces of evil and cleansing the land from all impurity; God’s Messiah driving out the foreign oppressors and establishing peace in Zion; God’s Messiah entering the city in glory and claiming his crown and throne and kingdom.

They look down the path and see it all very clearly: the words of the prophets – finally fulfilled; the glory of Zion – finally restored; the reign of God – finally established.

But Jesus doesn’t call for his horse and armor. He is not the answer to our questions. Jesus looks down the path and what he sees is very different from our expectations:

The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

His suffering, his rejection and death are not unfortunate accidents, the regrettable but preventable results of particular political circumstances. Jesus must undergo great suffering and be killed because in faithfulness to God’s way he rejects our self-seeking, self-serving, power-building, and control-maintaining ways.

To say to Jesus, “You are the Messiah”is to let him break the mold of our expectations and follow him on the way. To say to Jesus, “You are the Christ”is to believe that the way to enter the reign of God is laid out not in our imagination, but in his way to the cross.

Peter took him aside and rebuked him. The glamour of following Jesus to the City of David was suddenly gone for him; he had a different map in mind, a different path and outcome. This wasn’t what he had planned to do with his one wild and precious life, so he quit following and became a voice of temptation until Jesus called him again.

At the center of Mark’s Gospel, the question is, Do we follow whom we need Jesus to be for us or Will we follow Jesus on his way?

Midway between Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus calls us again to follow him, only this time we know what lies ahead:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

He calls us to let ourselves be marked as Christ’s own and to follow him on the way where life is not measured in what we gain and pile up and secure, but in how we give ourselves away. We cannot possess this one wild and precious life, we can only live it in love with God and with each other. All our attempts to secure life by gaining control over the world and over others will only exhaust our souls in the effort; we will lose what we meant to save. He calls us to follow him on the way where we no longer try and save ourselves with all our formidable means of power, but let him be our Savior. He frees us from the incessant tyranny of doing more and walks us to a life of losing our petty obsessions and mistaken priorities for the love of God and neighbor.

Summer is almost over and our schedules are filling up fast. New routines quickly become old ones, and you already know that soon you will forget that summer day when you remembered,

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?

This question is a good one when it asks for more ways to live fully in relationship with God, and with loved ones, friends, neighbors, and strangers, and with this beautiful earth. This same question is a sad one when it is asked too late and with regret, because so many summer days, fall, winter, and spring days have come and gone with too little wonder, too little attention, and too little love.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

For us the answer has everything to do with how we respond to Jesus’ question, Who do you say that I am?

Audio of this post