Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)
“This very night your life is being demanded of you.”
One of my favourite movies of all time, and one that I try to watch at least once or twice each year, is the film The Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams who plays John Keating, an unorthodox and inspiring English teacher who begins teaching at an elite boy’s prep school in New England.
The boys of his class, very much products of the uptight, privileged, and career driven time and world in which they were raised (late 1950s New England) become enraptured by Keating’s charisma and teaching, and resurrect a secret society called The Dead Poets Society of which Keating was a part when he went to the school, wherein the boys share poetry and write and read their own poetic works, seeking to live life to the fullest. There’s so much more to it, though, and I won’t ruin it, but I do suggest you watch it if you haven’t already.
But early in the film, on Keating’s first day, he quotes a poem by 17th century poet Robert Herrick entitled To the Virgins, to Make much of Time, the first verse of which goes like this:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
Which, as Keating says in the film, is another way of saying carpe diem – seize the day!
But the poem also expresses something that we don’t ever really want to remember: that our lives are short and uncertain.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may – do those things you wish to do while you can because Old time is still a-flying, time is passing before our eyes and the flower that smiles today tomorrow will be dying, and we don’t know the hour or the day when we will meet our end.
Our end is not something we like to think about, and in our imaginations we always see ourselves living out that full threescore year and ten, or even the whole fourscore. Or, God Willing that full four score and thirteen that Charlie celebrates today. But the reality is that we simply do not know, we cannot predict, and we should not dwell upon the question of when.
Part of what we’re doing here today is remembering those who have gone before us, those who lived that full fourscore years and those who have not. To hold them up in our prayer, to give thanks to God for their lives and their friendship and their love, and to help us remember that our days are as uncertain as theirs, but what happens after is not.*
We gather here to remember that they are at rest in a place that has been promised to us as well, a place where a room is being made ready for us, where we can one day see them again.
And the shortness and uncertainty of our lives is a little bit of what Jesus is touching on in the Gospel for today, but he is also teaching us about how we prepare for that end.
A man asks Jesus to play the role of Judge Judy between him and his brother, wanting Jesus to step into their dispute and get the brother to split the family inheritance. I think we have all seen in our own family or others the ways that life-long ties of blood and kin can be torn apart by squabbles over money or property, and sometimes embarrassingly small amounts of both.
Jesus refuses to step in at first, almost facetiously asking, “Who set me to be the judge over you?” Or rather, sort it out yourself.
But then he uses it as an opportunity to warn them and to warn us about the dangers of being too fixated on things this side of the grave.
He uses a parable, a simple story, to illustrate his point.
A rich man had a great harvest on his farm one year, so much that he had no place to put it. He was afraid, afraid for his crops to spoil, afraid for his future.
And so he tore down all his old barns and built new ones in which to store this abundance. He was pleased with himself and with his crop and so he said to himself, ‘let me relax, eat, drink, and be merry’.
But God interrupts him and reminds him of that fact none of us like to face, “This very night your life is being demanded of you” God says, that is to say, “If you die tonight, What will be the point of all that saving and storing when the sun rises tomorrow?” As Paul wrote to his friend Timothy, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”
Perhaps another way to frame all of this is to put it this way: if you and I found out later this morning that we were going to die tomorrow, how would we look at our lives today?
Would we look at them and say with confidence that we gathered our rosebuds while we may, will we look at our careers, our possessions, those big barns we built up to store our abundance for the future, and then see them as having been worthwhile? Or is there maybe another way we would have liked to live; are there people we would have liked to have forgiven, relationships we would like to have mended, people we wish we had reached out to? Or were we just ‘too busy’?
The challenge of the Gospel lesson today, and why it is so pertinent that we hear it as we draw near to those who have already died, is the challenge to live a life that truly matters. A life that gives itself up in the service of God and of neighbour.
The problem with the rich man in the parable was not that he had too much grain, but that in the midst of God’s abundance he was starving to death spiritually.
We must do what he could not and reframe our view of our lives and see that if we give up our fears, our strivings, and our anxieties about having things in this short and uncertain life, and instead recognize the extravagant richness of God’s love being given to us each day, we will be rich beyond our wildest imaginings.
To recognize this now, and not tomorrow when it is too late, to recognize this now while there is still time, and to live that new life, is to seize the day. It is to gather ye rosebuds while we may. “This very night your life is being demanded of you” Jesus insists. Do not delay.
*n.b. This sermon was preached at an annual cemetery memorial service at St. John's Church in St. Eleanor's, PEI.