The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
At the end of her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asked a provocative question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It’s a great question, isn’t it? One life. What’s inferred in that question is, we have choices. It seems a particularly apt question for us as we’re just about to move from summer into fall: taking time to reflect a bit before we head head-long into muscle memory and business as usual. Many of my colleagues and friends have told me that this summer is really the first time, since the pandemic, when they actually took time to take a vacation or to rest, to refresh. What did you do this summer? What was life-giving for you? I suspect some of you would say that you visited family and friends. Perhaps you went to an old familiar place that you hadn’t been to since before the pandemic.
What gives you life so that you might give it to others? As you filled in that blank, I suspect no one said what gave them life was more time in front of a screen. We spend so much time in the things that can be life-depleting, whether it’s listening one more hour to a newscast that affirms all the things that we believe—so we get just more riled up; or maybe we’re spending a little too much time on that social media feed that has this whole back and forth on ugly tit for ugly tat. Life is more than that. It begs the question, what are you doing with your one wild and precious life?
In many ways, it resonates with the question that Moses poses to the people of Israel. They, too, are at a turning point, a very important inflection point. The whole book of Deuteronomy is really Moses’ farewell address in large measure. It’s about 26 chapters, and you’ll be happy to know, I’m not going to cover all of them this morning. But go home and read it. It’s the art of rhetoric at its highest. He reminds the people what they’ve been through: their time in Egypt, the wandering time in the wilderness, the Ten Commandments, the Law—what covenant relationship with God and with one another is all about. So, they’re essentially on the mountaintop and Moses tells the people, “I have set before you today life and prosperity and death and adversity.” At the end of that passage, he implores them, and you and me, choose life! It’s a choice. Be in covenant relationship with the God who loved you enough to take on flesh and dwell among you. That’s our choice, too.
I don’t need to tell you that we are in a difficult time in our country. We’re divided, we’re broken and it’s only going to get worse as we get closer to November. But we have a choice on how we use our own lives to be life-giving and not life-depleting. There have been times in our public conversation when leaders have led us, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, to our better angels: to encourage us, to empower us, to inspire us, to journey with us. Whether it was President Roosevelt with the Greatest Generation during World War II, saying “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” Or a young President Kennedy inspiring a whole new generation: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” And the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose powerful words continue to speak to us today, told us about his dream. His last sermon was from this very pulpit and, not long after he preached that sermon he went on to Memphis.
In his last speech entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he echoed the passage from Moses. Dr. King said this, “We’ve got to give ourselves to the struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” I love that: dangerous unselfishness. What does that mean, for me and for you, to be life-giving in a dangerously unselfish way?
I think so often when we look at the issues of our day—they seem so overwhelming—that we get stuck. We don’t even know how to start to make a difference. But every person’s gifts and how you use them matter and can make a difference. Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with love.” I was reminded of the difference that one person can make—and then two and three (and that’s how a movement gets going)—in an article in the current issue of National Geographic. The article is entitled “Keepers of Community” by Rebecca Lee Sanchez. She tells short vignettes about people across this country, starting with just one person who does something transformative in community, building community, reinforcing community, where perhaps it didn’t exist before.
One was about a young man who during the former economic downturn, around 2008, lost his job in Michigan at a hazardous toxic waste facility. He decided to go back to his hometown of Detroit. He was walking the streets of his childhood neighborhood. It was a poor neighborhood then, and it was still poor. He looked across boarded up and vacant lots. They were just filled with garbage. No one cared. It was a bad time. He decided that rather than just cleaning up the garbage, which would probably find its way back in no time, he’d do something different. He planted a garden. Before long, some elderly people in the neighborhood who were really struggling to make ends meet—and it was the food desert in that city—came to him and they asked, would you share, could you spare? Of course, he said yes. Then he knew he needed to expand the garden. The garden kept growing and growing and community grew and grew. Today, there are 15 lots, a fabulous community garden center that’s got pigs and chickens, bees, and people who’ve been transformed. They’re being fed in a way to nurture their bodies, but even more importantly, a way to nurture their souls.
It doesn’t have to be great and grand. We start to heal. We start to unite. We start to repair the breach—one person at a time—using the wild and precious lives we’ve been given. So, on this Labor Day weekend, I invite you to reflect just a little bit more on what that means for you. What does dangerous unselfishness look like in your life? At the end of Dr. King’s speech in Memphis, not knowing he would be assassinated the next day, he said this, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and I’ve looked over and seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” It was his dream. It’s incumbent upon us to make it a reality.
On this day, what do you choose? Life and prosperity or death and adversity; being proactive and purposeful or reactive and regressive? The answer seems clear to me. Moses told us. Jesus showed us. Choose life! Our life’s a choice. My brothers and sisters, let us choose well. Amen.