Questions for the New Year

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 6, 2013

Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 GNT

“The Gardener,” Mary Oliver

 A really good movie for the New Year, if you have not already seen it, is The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.  It is the story of two very different men—one an owner of hospitals and the other an auto mechanic—who end up in the same hospital room.  At first they don’t get along that well, since they are so different, but eventually they come to be very close friends.  Both of them learn that their prognosis is not good, less than a year to live.  One of them, Carter Chambers (played by Morgan Freeman), has started writing a list of things that he would like to do before he dies, but mainly just as something to dream about.  But the other one, Edward Cole (played by Jack Nicholson), gets his hands on the list and starts adding his own ideas to it.  Edward keeps pushing until they decide to actually try to check off the items on their list before they die.  Carter has termed this list a “bucket list,” the things he wants to do before kicking the proverbial bucket.  Edward Cole is the owner of a hospital chain, so he is wealthy enough to make their dream become a reality.  And so, together this unlikely pair travels the world checking off the items on their bucket list, and the experience profoundly changes both of their lives for the better.  As I said, The Bucket List is an excellent movie for the New Year.

What made me think about The Bucket List is a poem I recently read by Mary Oliver titled “The Gardener.”  Oliver doesn’t talk about a bucket list, but she does ask some questions, questions that are pertinent for the beginning of the New Year when we are thinking about New Year’s resolutions and such.   And so, I found a scripture passage to match, the verses from Ecclesiastes.  So today’s sermon is based on all three of these pieces—scripture, poem, and movie.

The first question Oliver asks in this poem is, “Have I lived enough?”  I don’t think she is asking if she has lived long enough, enough years, but if she has sufficiently lived and experienced life in the years that she has lived.    I also recall the words of Henry David Thoreau who went to the woods to live deliberately, in order to learn how to really live so that when it came time to die he would not discover that he had not lived.  One of Mary Oliver’s most quoted lines comes from another poem, “The Summer Day,” where she asks,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?”

Such is a good question for the beginning of this New Year: What is it that we plan to do with the rest of our one wild and precious life?  Have we lived enough?  Are we living enough?  We are born to live, not to prepare for life, someone has said.  Or as the preacher of Ecclesiastes puts it, “it is good to enjoy the pleasant light of day. . . Do what you want to do, and follow your heart’s desire.”

The second question Oliver asks in “The Gardener” is, “Have I loved enough?”  That’s really what it all boils down to, isn’t it?  Not have I worked enough, or earned enough, or accumulated enough.   But have I loved enough?  It may very well be that when we come to the end of this life, the standard by which our lives should be judged is the degree of love we have shared with others.

In The Bucket List, after Edward Cole has died, it is said of him, “I can’t claim to understand the measure of a life, but I can tell you this: I know that when he died, his eyes were closed and his heart was open.”  What a gift of grace: to not only die, but to also live with an open heart, a heart of love.

Oliver’s third question is, “Have I considered right action enough?”  Answering this question could take us in so many different directions.  Everybody has a different opinion on what “right action” is.  But the point, if I interpret Oliver correctly, is the importance of struggling with the issues and not just taking for granted that something is right because that is the way we have always believed it to be, or because the culture we grew up in told us it was right.  Because the second part of Oliver’s question is “have I come to any conclusion?”  When it comes to issues of justice and the way I relate to and act in ways that impacts others, have I considered what is just and good and equitable?  Carter Chambers, in The Bucket List, contends “You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”  Such can be a sobering thought, can’t it?

The fourth question of “The Gardener” is, “Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?”  Or as the preacher advised, “Be grateful for every year you live.”  “Find the joy in your life,” Carter says to Edward more than once in the film.  But my favorite line in The Bucket List occurs while Carter and Edward are sitting on some ancient pyramids in Egypt.  And Carter turns to Edward and shares with him how the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death.  “When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the gods asked them two questions.  Their answers determined whether they were admitted or not.”  And the two questions were these: “Have you found joy in your life?  Has your life brought joy to others?”  That is sort of a different way of looking at life, isn’t it?  Have I experienced joy in my life?  And has my life brought joy to others?  Not a bad thought to ponder at the beginning of this new year.

And the fifth question in Oliver’s poem, and perhaps the most difficult of all is, “Have I endured loneliness with grace?”  This is my least favorite question of the five.  That is not so easy, is it?  To endure loneliness with grace.  All of us endure our lonely days, don’t we?  But at this point I would contend that we shouldn’t have to endure loneliness alone.  That is what families are for.  And that is what the church community is for—to support, and encourage, and stand with us during times of life’s loneliness.

And so, as we bundle up the five questions that Mary Oliver poses in her poem, “The Gardener” the general, encompassing concern has to do with mindfulness, being present, living in the moment.  Not just to go through the allotted days of our lives unaware or numb to what is going on around us.  But to really live, really love, really consider right action, to know and to give joy, and to live a life within the embracing folds of grace.  Such, I believe, is also the point of The Bucket List.

Some questions for the New Year.  The constant challenge for us is to experience life in all its complexity and all its simplicity.  Sometimes we forget that.  The New Year serves as an excellent reminder to do so.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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