Ever since I was in graduate school I have carried a copy of Henry Thoreau’s Walden in my car. This practice came in handy a couple of weeks ago when I found myself in the line at the District of Columbia Vehicle Inspection Station. In other places I’ve lived, having your car inspected takes about 15 minutes. Here in DC the process can last several hours. Since I’ve already read my car’s owner’s manual and tire warranties more times than I can count, I was glad I had my copy of Walden at my side.
As I began reading, I remembered the circumstances that led Henry Thoreau to move to Walden Pond in the first place. The year was 1845. He had recently suffered the loss of his brother John who cut himself and died of lockjaw. Henry had also had a difficult time holding down a job. The economy was still recovering from what we would call a Recession, our parents would call a Depression, and Thoreau’s contemporaries called a “Panic”. Times were hard for everybody, and though he was grief-stricken and broke, Thoreau wanted to show that it was still possible to live abundantly, even through personal and economic crises.
Thoreau’s answer to the question of how to live in the face of adversity, as all readers of Walden know, was to suggest that we give up pursuing luxuries and simplify our wants, so that our energy can go less toward paying for stuff we really don’t need and more toward enjoying life in all its fullness.
Sitting in the DMV’s vehicle inspection line, it was easy to affirm with Thoreau that life is hard and that there ought to be a better way to live it. But soon after that realization came another one: life can be more than merely annoying and frustrating. It can be really, really hard in more serious ways. When I looked around, I saw all sorts and conditions of cars and people, and I was reminded once again that life can often be painful and unjust. People suffer from both natural and human causes. We can easily feel that we are living in a universe with the deck stacked against us.
Henry Thoreau saw that most people were ground down by life—as he famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” [Walden] All of us experience hardship. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that our human spiritual experience often begins with the experience of suffering. We cry out as an expression of our grief or pain or bewilderment, and what we want in return is not so much an explanation as to be heard.
The poet (and former Poet Laureate) Robert Hass tells the story of taking his grandchildren to a museum where they saw a statue of the Buddha. Because they didn’t know who the Buddha was, Hass told them a bit about how the Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha. As he puts it,
I told them the story of Prince Siddhartha, how his father had brought him up in a kingdom of the Himalayan foothills in such a way that he would never see any form of human suffering, how when he was a young man and curious, he snuck out of the palace compound and visited the local village, how he saw there a sick man and a poor man and a beggar and a corpse, and how, overcome with infinite sorrow at human suffering, he vowed to set out on a path that would lead him to overcome the violence in the human heart. [Robert Hass, “Study War No More: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant”]
Living in contemporary America is much like being raised by Prince Siddhartha’s father. We have constructed a world in which we increasingly try to insulate ourselves from engagement with all forms of human suffering—including --with alcohol, drugs, overwork, or medication--our own. But those of us drawn to the life and witness of the spirit, those of us drawn into the mystery of a transcendent space like this Cathedral, we know somewhere inside ourselves that the attempt to deny the reality of human pain is not only impossible; we know that such an attempt runs counter to the whole religious enterprise.
Like Thoreau, Jesus lived in a time of economic scarcity. And like Thoreau, Jesus upended all conventional thinking by telling people that they can actually live a joyful, free, and abundant life even in the midst of oppressive misery. For Jesus, the trick to living abundantly in hard times is a simple one. Acknowledge your frailty. Gather together with others. Make common cause with them. Share what you have. When we isolate ourselves behind our possessions, our power, our privilege; when we try to hoard what we have and protect it from the world, the forces we would flee gain power over us. When we admit that we’re finite and vulnerable, when we band together with others and share what we have, we discover not only the inner resources of God among and within us; we discover also that there is miraculously enough to go around. And more than that: we discover that there is joy and hope in a life of compassion and generosity. In the presence of Jesus, people are healed and hopeful, and there is, simply, enough: enough food, enough money, enough companionship to get through life.
As we think together about our scriptures for today, we find two implications for us in how Jesus empowers us to live abundantly. The first has to do with the Gospel reading we just heard, the one in which a rich man comes to Jesus and asks him the key to eternal life. As Mark tells us,
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." [Mark 10:21]
The rich man comes to Jesus looking for fulfillment. He has a lot, but he doesn’t have enough. What Jesus says to this man is that he will find fulfillment not by trying to shield himself with his possessions. He will find that fulfillment by opening himself up to life in all its beauty and ugliness, joy and pain, in fellowship with others. When Jesus uses the famous comparison of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, he is naming the difficulty we all have in moving from fear into trust. If I want to get through the eye of a needle, it will be an easier journey if I don’t try to take my Volvo with me. (My wife says her Mini Cooper could make it, but I’m not so sure.) The stuff we trust in turns out to be not an asset but a burden. It doesn’t protect me. It walls me off from others and the world. Yes, life can be hard, but it can be abundant and joyful, too. We usually let our fear of life’s pains insulate us from the joy of life’s pleasures. The rich man in this Gospel story cannot make the transition from fear to hope. But others can and do and will, and they are the ones who in Jesus’s words “receive a hundredfold now . . . and in the age to come eternal life.” [Mark 10:30]
I said there were two implications for us in Jesus’s call to abundant living this morning, and here’s the second. It’s found in a gem of a verse from our passage from Hebrews this morning:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. [Hebrews 4:15-16]
Jesus shows us how to live abundantly in a world filled with joy and sorrow, happiness and pain. But more than that: Jesus’s experience of human joy and sorrow, happiness and pain, has changed the way God knows and loves us. God took on human life and experience by coming into human life in Jesus of Nazareth. By becoming one of us in Jesus, God now knows what it is to be you. God has experienced everything—the good and the bad—that human life has to offer. God is not some abstract remote being out in space someplace. God is some One who has gone through human life in all its fullness. When we pray to God—when we complain about our problems, when we give thanks for our blessings—we are praying to some One who gets what it us to be us. That is the mystery of the Christian life and faith. God loves accepts and blesses you with full knowledge of what it is to be you. That’s the miracle of how we “find grace to help in time of need”.
Reading along in Thoreau’s Walden in the inspection line, I came across another sentence, one not as well-known as the first. Thoreau says, “I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.” [Walden, “Economy”] God knows and loves you. God made this world and placed you in it so that you might live and thrive in it. Here’s what God and Jesus want you to do. Trust the world. Love the world. Engage the world. Embrace the world. Weep with the world. Rejoice with the world. In so doing you will not only live abundantly. You will come to know and trust and love God. And in coming to know and trust and love God, you will come to know and trust and love yourself. And when you know and trust and love yourself, you can serve and heal and bless the world. Amen.