“To Weigh a Life” March 4, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Good morning, and welcome.
Wherever you are on your journey of the spirit, you are welcome here;
And invited to pause for these few moments
In gratitude for the connections and aspirations that make us human;
To seek our hidden reckonings and measure our days against our values;
To rest on the turning edge of time and recall what matters in the long run;
To celebrate love and community,
and rededicate yourself to the promises of compassion, justice, and peace.
The old prayer book reminds us that even in life we are in death,
And the poets counter that even in death we are in life.
This morning I claim the privilege of my birthday to share with you
Some of my favorite works of literature,
from the poetry of Spoon River Anthology, and the play Our Town.
In both of these, the fictional dead speak their truth, that the living could not know or tell.
Yet it is for our sake, who are still in the midst of life, that they break their silence,
So that we might better appreciate what it means to live,
With authenticity, and without regret.
I want to thank our readers, who have thoughtfully prepared to share these passages;
We will invite you, the congregation,
to join them in speaking a part in the second section.
There are those of us here today rejoicing;
there are those who come bearing deep sadness.
Despite our differing circumstances, we share a common humanity;
And we hold one another in the bonds of covenant community,
Witnessing to the joy and the sorrow that give shape to our lives together.
We kindle this chalice flame once again as a beacon of hope,
A light that summons us to our best selves,
And a warmth that enlarges the circle of universal kinship.
May it remind us that in our struggles we are not alone,
And that in the end, the only measure of our words and our deeds
Will be the love we leave behind when we’re done.
Introduction Part One:
A little over a hundred years ago,
a young Midwestern poet by the name of Edgar Lee Masters
published an anthology of short, free verse poetry
in the form of a collection of epitaphs,
ostensibly from the graves of Spoon River,
a fictional town much like those in which he had grown up.
Now beyond the reach of legal consequences or public opinion,
the dead tell the stories of their lives as they understand them,
often with several characters giving different interpretations of a particular event.
As their turn of the century lives and relationships are revealed,
their small town is seen as a place where virtue and vice,
gentleness and violence, innocence and guilt, neighborliness and greed,
are interwoven in the full complexity of the human condition.
Masters combines a cynic’s realism about what people are,
ith an idealist’s belief in the good they might aspire to,
and the decency they sometimes achieve.
Some of the voices speak of dashed hopes and unattained desires;
others give thanks for simple pleasures, dear loves,
and satisfactions found in ordinary life.
But tragic or comic, despicable or admirable,
they come at last to the same resting place.
Introduction Part Two:
Another author who has used the motif of the graveyard
was the playwright Thornton Wilder in his well-known stage play Our Town.
Many of you will no doubt remember the fictional New England town
of Grovers Corners, where Emily Webb and George Gibbs
grow up next door to each other,
and fall in love in the most remarkably unremarkable way possible.
Their lives could not be more ordinary until the third act, when Emily dies,
and finds herself taking a place among the other occupants of the local cemetery.
The setting feels unfamiliar and awkward,
and she longs to return to the life that is all she has ever known;
indeed, she discovers that that yearning can take her back, if she chooses to go.
I invite the congregation to read the part of Emily’s advisors among the dead,
which will appear on the screen until the scene shifts,
and after that you will have one more line at the very end.
Reflections Part Two:
“Choose the least important day of your life. It will be important enough.” Those chatty folks sleeping on the hill in Spoon River, trying to persuade passers-by to see beyond the conventional wisdom about who they were, think that their lives are identified with one notable incident or quality. Emily Webb Gibbs, from her grave in Grover’s Corners, is concerned not with others’ memories of her experiences, but with her own. It is possible, she discovers, to be a ghostly observer of any portion of her earthly life, and so to relive the existence that she is not yet ready to part with, having recently died in childbirth with her second baby. And yet, as her fellow occupants of the graveyard try to advise her, “it’s not what you think it would be.” The knowledge of how things turn out, for good and ill, is as poignant as the unavailing regrets and indignations of Spoon River.
The Greek historian Herodotus suggests that it is impossible to decide whether an individual’s life has been happy “until the end is known,” that is to say, until that person has died. But Thornton Wilder invites us to consider the opposite view; that we are happy only in those moments when we are unaware of all that lies ahead; that the kind of foreknowledge that Emily brings with her to her twelfth birthday makes the present so fraught with significance that none of us can bear it. Fortunately, he concludes, only the saints and the poets have that kind of awareness, and even they do not dwell in such a consciousness all the time. Yet as a lifelong Humanist with a fascination for spirituality, this has been my enduring ambition – to live as a saint and a poet, with as much of that ability to ‘realize life while they have it’ as I can tolerate. When I come back to visit my twelfth or twentieth or sixty-third birthday, I yearn to see in myself not the obliviousness that Emily finds, but a suspicion, at least, that every word and gesture and person holds so much more meaning than we can ever unpack and acknowledge. To be aware, if not of the full sacred significance of all things, that it is there, and I am constantly missing much of it. “Just look at me one moment as though you really saw me,” Emily pleads. How hard is that? And yet it is the hardest thing we do, the most demanding way to live.
It may be that the only way to get there is from the graveyard. We must make, in imagination, that journey – like Emily, like Ebenezer Scrooge, and others – from life to death, and back again, recognizing both our own mortality, and that of everyone and everything we love. If you knew that the harsh, impatient words coming out of your mouth were the last thing you would ever say to your child, to your parent, to your spouse or your friend, would that shift your tone? What would it be like, to re-live that moment knowing it was the last you would have, but unable to change your own cluelessness? People sometimes ask me what I mean by spirituality as a non-theist, and it is just this: to not be clueless, to look at each other as though we truly saw, to realize life while we have it, in all its poignancy, leaving as little as possible for regret when it is all done. Those artists of meaning, the saints and the poets – to live like that.
Introduction Part Three:
You might get the impression that everyone sleeping on the hill
at Spoon River had a complaint;
it is true that many speak of regrets,
and lives that did not turn out the way they had planned.
Many faced into fates determined by forces far beyond their control.
Yet others embraced the circumstances they found themselves in,
however limited they were;
some found their wholeness in the beauty of nature,
others in the joys of art, or the fulfillments of ordinary human connection.
For me, the final word from Spoon River is always Lucinda Matlock’s retort
to the unsatisfied –
“Degenerate sons and daughters, life is too strong for you.
It takes life to love life.”
Reflections Part Three:
My beloved colleague Victoria Safford writes this about her experience in a graveyard:
In a cemetery once, an old one in New England, I found a strangely soothing epitaph. The name of the deceased and her dates had been scoured away by wind and rain, but there was a carving of a tree with roots and branches (a classic nineteenth-century motif) and among them the words, “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” At first this seemed to me a little meager, a little stingy on the part of her survivors, but I wrote it down and have thought about it since, and now I can’t imagine a more proud or satisfying legacy.
“She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” Every day I stand in danger of being struck by lightning and having the obituary in the local paper say, for all the world to see, “She attended frantically and ineffectually to a great many unimportant, meaningless details.”
How do you want your obituary to read? “He got all the dishes washed and dried before playing with his children in the evening.” “She balanced her checkbook with meticulous precision and never missed a day of work – missed a lot of sunsets, missed a lot of love, missed a lot of risk, missed a lot – but her money was in order.” “She answered all her calls, all her e-mail, all her voice-mail, but along the way she forgot to answer the call to service and compassion, and forgiveness, first and foremost of herself.” “He gave and forgave sparingly, without radical intention, without passion or conviction.” “She could not, or would not, hear the calling of her heart.”
How will it read, how does it read, and if you had to name a few worthy things to which you attend well and faithfully, what, I wonder, would they be?
Like my sister in ministry, I often find myself at risk of earning “She attended frantically and ineffectually to a great many meaningless details.” It’s such an easy trap to fall into. What about you? I know, I know – you want to be donated, you want to be cremated, you want to be scattered; there isn’t going to be some weathered stone a hundred years from now, pronouncing the essence of your life in a few graven words. It’s out of fashion, that sort of thing. However, I think there could be worse exercises than contemplating what your headstone might say, if it were to tell the truth about you. What would you wish it to say? What are the secrets it might tell about you, and why are you hiding? What were the longings life never fulfilled for you? What were the opportunities you never seized? What pain shaped you? What were the human connections of love and hate that bound you? What simple joys and pleasures fed your spirit? Did your strivings ennoble you, or make you bitter? Was your laughter generous, or cynical? Did you hoard your gifts, or share them with the world, and did the world receive them graciously? What mattered to you, and what were you grateful for?
As far as I know, I’m not going to care what my tombstone – in the unlikely event that I ever have one – says when the time actually comes. It’s only important now, while I still have the opportunity to become what I want it to represent. I know this, and yet I forget it constantly; we all do. We live as if there were no end; as if we had all the time in the world to squander, juggling frantically and ineffectually with a great many meaningless details. Instead, let me make this my birthday prayer, and all the year around, too – that I might give my attention well and faithfully – in clarity of mind and awareness of heart – to a few worthy things. To covenant, and community, and justice, and you, my dearly beloved. May we look at each other, moment by moment, and really see. May we realize life while we have it, until the time comes when we, too, like all those before us, are sleeping on the hill.