The Worthy Life
Sermon by Cynthia A. Jarvis
June 6, 2004 , Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
Ephesians 4:1-7; 11-16
“What ever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world?” asks Wallace Stegner’s narrator in Crossing to Safety. “Our hottest arguments,” he recalls, “were always about how we could contribute. We did not care about the rewards. We were young and earnest. We never kidded ourselves that we had the political gifts to reorder society or insure social justice…. But we all hoped, in whatever way our capacities permitted, to define and illustrate the worthy life.” The worthy life: what would such a life look like if our capacities permitted us a glimpse of its shape and trajectory in the daily round? No doubt the question is being asked and answered as graduates move the tassels on their caps from left to right throughout the country; asked and answered as World War II veterans remember the lives of those fallen by their side sixty years ago today on a bloody beach…while wondering anew whether their use of the unmerited days given them has warranted the sacrifice; asked and answered as the pictures of today’s war dead draw political fire at home in the same moment that their fresh faces-gone-too-soon, scrolling endlessly across our screens, draw our tears as well; asked and answered as the nation recalls the life of its 40th president on the occasion of his death; asked and answered as we rejoice at the birth of two little lives given into this congregation’s keeping, the marking of one this morning by the waters of baptism, even as we mourn and lay to rest two of this church’s saints. Such is the wide context which finds us asking anew after the worthy life.As I scanned scripture for word of the worthy life, Hebrews 11 notwithstanding, I could not get the fourth chapter of Ephesians, out of my head. It is the chapter, notes Markus Barth, where the author makes a turn from proclamation to exhortation, from gospel to law, from dogmatics to ethics, from indicative to imperative. Whereas in the first three chapters of the letter he wrote, "that you may," now he writes "that you must." By the beginning of the fourth chapter, grace and salvation having been proclaimed, the time finally has come to talk about obedience to God's call. Now the shift from indicative to imperative…the journey from may to must…is both a movement absolutely central to our faith and a movement utterly unfathomable in our culture! We are a people who have been raised to treasure our options long before we hold fast to any given commitment. In part, that freedom is cause for gratitude. Yet a life of options treasured too quickly turns into a tyranny that will possess us long before it will set us free. “We kid ourselves,” said William Sloane Coffin, “when we celebrate our freedoms without realizing that it is our obligations that give our lives their meaning.” A friend of mine--on his 50th birthday--said that for him the most frightening thing about approaching middle age was the realization that your options began to close in on you. The choices you had made--be they children or career or marriage-- begin to negate other choices and, as he put it, "You see your life going down one unalterable track." For my friend, there seemed to be only the sound of doors closing in his yet open future. Though I suspect his fear was not so much that he lacked choices. Rather he feared the choices he had made. From a multitude of possibilities, for the most part, he had chosen out of desire rather than having been chosen by any abiding sense of duty. He had emerged from a culture full of "mays," rather than having been embraced by a faith arising from one "must." And now, in the middle of his life, those choices no longer had the power to lend meaning. They had ceased to be reason enough to get out of bed in the morning. As Stegner’s narrator put it, “Leave a mark on the world. Instead, the world has left its mark on us. WE got older. Life chastened us so that now we lie waiting to die, or walk on canes, or sit on porches where once the young juices flowed and feel old and inept and confused.” Over the years, my friend had mistaken what the world required of him in order to make a living for what God required of him in order to lead a life worthy of God's calling. God, of course, knows our frame, knows according to John Calvin, "with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once." This God who know us, calls us--not for purposes of control or power or authority--but in the words of Ephesians, "so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles," or in Calvin's marvelous prose, "lest through stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy (God calls us) so that we may not heedlessly wander throughout life." God calls and yet the precarious nature of our life is this: in those moments when we are most open to God's call and God's imperative, we are also most vulnerable to "every wind of doctrine, to the cunning of men and women, their craftiness and deceitful wiles." How, then, are we to distinguish between the divine imperative, the "must" that arises in response to God's call and turns us toward a life worthy of that call, and all the other voices which would claim our days? First and most paradoxically, the divine imperative, God's call, if it is God's and not another's, can never be imposed. "The call to discipleship," wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew the delicate balance between God's call and human conniving, "gives us no intelligible programme for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. It is not a cause which human calculation might deem worthy of our devotion." No doubt there are voices calling you in this culture, voices that may even sound religious and of God, voices that come bearing a program, that offer five steps to salvation, that invite you to a weekend which will maximize your potential. But the divine imperative, the nature of God's call in Christ, is that it comes "not by an authoritarian decree, [says Karl Barth] but with inner necessity." Not a program to follow or a career to enter, but God calls you to be the person you must be. So it is that the author of Ephesians, when he could have used images of kingdoms, of rulers and ruled, of masters and servant, chooses to use the image of the body. That is to say, God's call is not over us like a despot, or outside us like an emperor, but is that to which we belong…is the body wherein we find our true being, our inner necessity, where we discover the person we were born to be and the work we must do. That is the first word which leads us to the second. For while God's call does not come from an authoritarian voice imposed from beyond, neither does it come from a private voice nurtured within. God's call, if it is God's and not another's, cannot be discerned within the confines of our individual lives. If that were the case, the apostle would have written about individual bodies that are called to do one thing or another. Instead he speaks of one body and one call. God calls us in the context of this one interconnected, interdependent body of human relationships. Thus we are freed from our mad search for self-fulfillment and for a radical obedience to Him who bids us leave self behind and follow. Thus we are sent, as representatives of the one body, into the world rather than into ourselves. "For God's sake, do something brave," cried the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli to his contemporaries. "Not feel or think or consider or meditate: not turn it over in your heart and mind! But do something brave. If it is to this that Jesus calls us in His discipleship," says Barth, "there can be no avoiding self denial." Bringing us finally to that leap of faith that lands us around this table only to discover the only life worth living is life with Him! Or as Eduard Schweizer put it, "To be called is simply to be with him." There is a story told by a cantankerous Southern preacher named Will Campbell, which for me has always held in solution the heart of God's call rightly discerned, has captured the substance of a worthy life, its inner necessity and its inter-dependence and its imperative leap of faith: "Long before the process of my vocational self-examination began," he writes, "I once cornered and talked to a high wire artist in a small traveling circus. I asked him why he chose that particular way of making a living. The first few minutes were filled with circus romance--the thrill of hurling through space, feeling at the last instant that pasty flesh of two always welcome hands pressing around the wrists…the joy of laughter and approval and applause in the eyes of 'children of all ages'…the clanking of train wheels moving you to the next city. But finally he said what I had not expected him to say. 'Now you really want to know why I go up there on that damned thing night after night after night?' I said I did. 'Man, I would have quit it long ago. But my sister is up there. And my wife and my father are up there. My sister has more troubles than Job. My wife is a devil-make-care nut and my old man is getting older. If I wasn't up there, some bad night, man....smash!' He started to walk away but I had one more question to ask, and ran after him. 'But why do they stay up there?' He looked like he didn't want to answer, wasn't going to answer. But then he did. Turning from the door of the boys' locker room, he looked me up and down and then, as he disappeared, blurted out: 'Because I drink too much.'" The worthy life is simply a life with and for each other, just as God in Christ was and is and will be with us and for us. It is to dare a high wire not for reasons of acrobatic skill or inner drive or authoritarian dictate, but because our sister is up there with troubles and our spouse has ceased to care and our father is a little unsteady and we must. It is by the same token to know that they are there because we drink too much and so they must. And it is finally to trust that God's hand is upon us because God must: catching us before we fall, looking before we leap, and calling us into the one body worth our lives, the one body worthy of the calling to which we are called. Thanks be to God! Amen.