On the drive back from Nova Scotia, I happened to catch the eulogy delivered by former president Barack Obama at the funeral for his political rival John McCain, the senator and war hero, who for many represents an ideal of public service and sacrifice. Perhaps you listened as well. I was reminded this week, for instance, that after his 5 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam – during which he refused to leave if all the men serving underneath him were also not freed – John McCain was unable to lift his arms above his shoulders, and needed help putting on the suit jacket he wore every day in Washington. We learned from former President Obama that the two had met periodically in private, finding a place of respect despite deep ideological differences. And that every time he visited the leaders of a country with a questionable human rights record, he also insisted on meeting the activist groups working and risking to turn things around on the ground. There was a lot of talk in the speeches about the ideal that people hold dear – in those they admire and for the county they love. Words like kindness and tolerance and equality.
In his eulogy, Obama quoted that famous line from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls: “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.” A mission statement for the crowd, to be sure.
All of this sounds very familiar to the elegant instructions in our second reading, this letter from James intended to be the directions for a good, and Godly life. Listen to a few of the lines again: be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and preserver.
Those are beautiful words, simple and clear, written long before 2018. They describe the kind of life that we should strive to create, and the faith that we work to be worthy of. And we are warned in our second lesson – and again in the gospel – that what leads us off that path is not only ourselves, but the rules on earth that we choose to follow.
What strikes me, returning from vacation, is how often we allow for versions of ourselves to emerge as a loophole from following that letter in James. There is Vacation US; and work US. Christmas with the in-laws US. Dinner with the Boss US. Stranger on the Bus Us. And often we give ourselves wiggle room – yes vacation me, might listen more, but that person doesn’t have the stress of work and getting the kids to the bus on time. Work Me pays more attention to others than Stranger on The Bus Me – but that’s the job. It’s only natural, but is it right? Can we aim higher? Are we to seize our days – like a prize to which we are entitled? Or to be grateful for them, and make them as pure as we can, wherever we find ourselves? Isn’t that the point of that quote from Hemingway: it’s not to live every day as if it is your last. But to live each day as if it is the only one you have.
The gospel is a warning of where we can go wrong with the precious time of a day. The Pharisees are, once again, in a stew about some rules being broken. This one about washing hands. And Jesus gives them a good old talking to: stop fussing over what doesn’t matter, while what is really important is neglected. And then he lists the pitfalls of the human spirit – among envy, pride, foolishness, and greed and deceit. Those Jesus says require our energy to resist and confront and, also, to forgive, both in ourselves and others.
As it happens, the rule the Pharisees were defending was a good one. Modern medicine has settled the questions of hand washing. But of course Jesus wasn’t against handwashing, he was simply saying that, in each moment, we make a decision: is the rule more important than everything else around us? Does it matter most in our day? Do you send someone away for a little dirt on their hands, and lose their presence? Or welcome them to the table, to break bread together in community? Do we follow the law for the sake of the law? Or do we walk with grace?
This was all inherent in the message that was expressed at the funeral for John McCain, at the best political speeches that still inspire us: this notion of institutions not for the sake of instutions but for the people, and this calculation that a day is not be conquered but to be made into something big and worthy and grace-centered. Not just when we are feeling up to it. Not just when it serves us to show our best selves. Not just when we have the energy to put into it. But every day. As if it is the only one we have.
This Tuesday, after Labour Day, will feel more to many of us like a train picking up speed as it travels downhill, going faster and faster and faster, until, we wake up, and it is winter. But that letter from James is not meant to guide some of our days, but all of them. To strive to be quick to listen, and slow to anger, to be doers of the word, and to persevere in those things, every day, and in every place.
Martin Luther had his own line about the idea of each day being a mission of faith of its own. “Even if I knew the world would go to pieces tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree.” The digging of the soil, the gentle placement of the seed, the careful sprinkling with water – that act of hope and faith, mattered as much as the tree that came from it. Because it happened on the day that we were given. Be careful, kind and gentle with your todays, as they pick up speed this month. What happens on all the other days can depend upon it.