Matthew 6:19-21, Luke 7:18-23
The Rev. Tom Herbek
January 21, 2018
Jesus was quite clear that being a child of God is who we all are, deep inside, and we are called to realize that extraordinary fact of our existence and live it out. When Jesus had just started out, the disciples of John the Baptizer came to him to ask him if he was the one they were all waiting for. Jesus did not enter into a long theological discourse, but Jesus responded, as Walter Brueggemann summarizes it: “Wherever I go, stuff happens.” And then later, Jesus said: “Store up your treasures in heaven.”
More often than not, the call is for us to become more of who we are – not less. Our call can only be fulfilled when we become more at home in our own skin, more ourself. We are called to live more fully the life we have been given, not someone else’s idea of our life, not someone else’s life. As Oscar Wilde once wonderfully said: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” But that does not mean that it will be easy. Life is not about what things we accumulate, but who we become in the process.
Our path is almost never a straight line, and the possibilities and choices sometimes seem overwhelming. Understanding our unique gifts and abilities, and following our own passions, and matching them up with the needs of others, can be a life-long journey. If we are lucky, we have mentors and friends, and experiences of life, that help to uncover our call. And there are times when we choose paths that no one close to us can understand. Yet, it is a path we must follow, and a call that perhaps we, alone, can hear.
In her interview with Krista Tippett, Dr. Rachel Remen describes the old Jewish story that says that the light of the world is in all the events and all the people – including each of us. Remen then comments: “I’m not a person who is political in the usual sense of that word, but I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to make a difference, that we need to be more somehow, wealthier or more educated or otherwise different than the people we are. And according to this story, we are exactly what’s needed. And to just wonder about that a little: what if we were exactly what’s needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?” (From Becoming Wise).
The extraordinary author and insightful observer of people who was here in October, Kent Nerburn, poignantly describes a time when another person changed his life, and lives on inside him:
Our actions in this world, and our ability to rise above the limits of our own self-interest, live on far beyond us and play their humble part in shaping a world of spirituality and peace.
Never did this come home to me more clearly than several years ago when I was running a seminar on fatherhood for a group of teachers. On the last evening a Nigerian man was scheduled to come in and drum with us. I had not met him; he had been scheduled independent of my participation. His portion of the programming was insignificant to me, and I looked upon it as little more than a final evening’s event that could as easily have been any of a hundred other activities. But the man was scheduled, so I acceded graciously and left the agenda open for him.
On the night of his presentation, he arrived about an hour early with an extensive collection of drums of all colors and shapes and sizes. He conscientiously tuned them and set them out for our use. One by one we shuffled in for his session and took our seats in the circle he had arranged. He had a smile of incredible warmth and a dignity of manner that made us all feel clumsy and rawboned. But his gracious heart quickly took away all our self-consciousness, and soon we were all drumming together and working our way toward a common rhythm and expression.
It was a wonderful experience – far more meaningful than any of us had expected. The man and his drums brought us a joy and camaraderie that had not existed up to the time of his arrival. The music became a metaphor for community, and to a person we were touched by what we had created.
As it neared nine o’clock – the time scheduled for the ending of the event – a number of people asked the man to stay a bit longer.
He smiled graciously but demurred. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I have to leave.”
Because we had come to feel close to him in our short time together, we pressed him.
“Just a bit longer,” we asked.
“I can’t,” he explained. “I have to catch a plane. I’m going back to Lagos for my mother’s funeral.”
We were shocked. He had been totally giving to us, totally present, treating us like our activity was the most important event in the world to him. And through it all his heart had been carrying the burden of his mother’s death.
“Your mother’s funeral?” we asked incredulously.
“Yes,” he said. “It was scheduled for last week, and we don’t dare put it off again.”
“Why was it put off?” someone asked.
“I had said I would come here and be with you,” he replied matter-of-factly. “So I had it changed.”
“You put off a funeral to be with us?”
The man smiled that deep, warm, loving smile that he had graced us with all evening.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Our funerals aren’t like yours. There are many people that have to come,”
“How many?” somebody asked.
“About five thousand,” he said. “All of her village.”
And we, the thirty of us, looked at him. “So you put that off for us?” And he smiled again. “Yes. I had told you I would be here. I am honored that you shared the evening with me, and I thank you.”
With that, he left.
We all sat in stunned silence, overwhelmed by the sense of dignity and grace that this man had brought to us. One by one we rose and made our way back to our rooms, lost in our own thoughts and feelings.
There were other activities the following morning – all the presentations, wrap-ups, hugs, and good-byes. But each of our hearts was filled with the indelible image of a gentle man who had changed the time of his mother’s funeral a half a world away in order to spend a few hours of time with a group of thirty people he did not know, because he had given us his word.
I do not know that man’s name. I cannot even remember what he looked like. In all physical senses, he is as dead to me as if he had passed from this life. And, for all I know, he has. But he has eternal life in my heart as the man who taught me about honor and quiet dignity and graciousness of spirit. And I will try to teach my children what he taught me, and teach my children to teach their children.
In our hearts, this man will never die.
Such events occur in our lives on a daily basis, lodging in our hearts to become part of the legacy of our lives. They form our spirits and touch the spirits of those we touch.
Who is to say what we leave with another when we pass from their life? Though we may no longer be present to them physically, by our word and actions we have shaped some small part of their being. And in passing their life along, they will take what we have shaped in them and use it to help shape another.
All our actions on this earth have eternal life. It is up to us to determine whether our actions have a life that increases the light in the world or adds to the darkness.
- Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace
None of us know how our actions will affect those around us. Sometimes we find out a little, but most we never know. Things that we do without thinking, actions which seem small and not really all that important, may bring light to people who will always remember them. As Nerburn says:
The world is a strange and mysterious membrane. In the physics of human affairs our actions set off other actions that reverberate far beyond our vision, beyond even our capacity to predict or imagine. We have no more cause to judge the significance of our own actions than we have to judge the worthiness of those who receive them.
We are too quick to measure our lives by the dramatic moments, too ready to minimize the light that we shine into the small darknesses of everyday life.
We are not saints, we are not heroes. Our lives are lived in the quiet corners of the ordinary. We build tiny hearth fires, sometimes barely strong enough to give off warmth. But to the person lost in the darkness, our tiny flame may be the road to safety, the path to salvation.
It is not given us to know who is lost in the darkness that surrounds us or even if our light is seen. We can only know that against even the smallest of lights, darkness cannot stand.
We are not called to create the light, but to let that spark of light within us come out in our own unique and special way. There are people who will remember our light, and whose lives will be changed by it in ways that we may never know.
We are called to compassionate action, to pass along the light within us. We transform the world by every loving, compassionate, forgiving act of our life, whether we can see it or not.
We are simply called upon to act, to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. By doing so, even when we aren’t aware of it, our light and our life live on in the people around us, and that is a treasure in heaven!