One Wild and Precious Life

April 28, 2019 | Macalester Sunday
Jon M. Walton

John 20:19-31

In mid-January of this year the poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 82. She came to fame rather late in life, though her obituary in the New York Times said that she had the “aura of a reluctant, bookish rock star.”[i] How’s that for an epitaph? “Here lies a reluctant, bookish rock star.”

One of Oliver’s poems entitled “The Summer Day,” has often been quoted as typical of her work. It ends with this musing of what she has seen during a summer day’s walk. She writes,

I do not know exactly what a prayer is,
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life.[ii]

In the lesson we read, that is the question that is implicit in this encounter between the risen Jesus and the disciples who are hiding in fear in a closed and locked room. It is the question the disciples must face once they realize that, indeed, God has shined the light of life on the shadow of death, overcome the intensions of evil with the purposes of good. So, the question of Easter Sunday has shifted over a week’s time from “Is it true?” to “What should we do now?”

Or as Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I need to put this in the context of John’s larger story so that we can catch its full implication for us. It is Easter night in John’s account, and some of the disciples (we do not know how many or which ones), are behind closed doors, locked because of their fear, as John puts it.

Actually, more precisely, John says they are hiding because, and let me warn you, this is jarring… hiding because of their fear of the Jews. But we know some things about that now.  John should have more precisely said that they were afraid of the authorities, the Temple Police, the Sanhedrin, Herod, Caiaphas, or even Pilate whose singular prefect order alone was necessary for the death sentence rendered in this case. Galilee was, after all, an occupied Roman territory where Pax Romana was maintained by Lex Romana, (Roman Law).

John says they were afraid. But who wouldn’t be? They had witnessed the crucifixion of their friend and confidant, their teacher and itinerant guide, their rabbi. Having seen what Roman power could do who could blame them for fearing what lay ahead?

They might have been afraid that they would be next,  that the same mob that had shouted “Crucify,” might come after them as well.

After all, the woman in the courtyard of the high priest had asked Peter, “Weren’t you one of his followers?” Who could blame them for fearing the consequences of hanging out with Jesus, so to speak?

And we know that John, the gospel writer, had a thing about blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus, a theological misdirection that led to historical tragedy, influenced Luther’s antisemitism, and in the 20th Century contributed in no small part to the Shoah, the extermination of the Jews.

It’s not just Jesus’ own people who are the reason for the disciples’ fear in that closed and locked room on Easter night. Jesus’ death and the reports of his resurrection had stirred up all kinds of inner and outer turmoil.

So, I wonder, and won’t you wonder with me for a moment, whether the reaction of the disciples to the reports of the women on Easter morning were not so much “Oh joy,” but “Oh no.”

Maybe what was locked inside of that room was not so much fear of the Jews but fear of the unknown, fear of what was now on the table, the terrible truth that the disciples didn’t want to admit.

If Jesus were dead and laid in his tomb, life would be so much easier. They could go back to fishing (any Minnesotan can understand that). They could ignore his call to follow him any further, to bear the good news of God’s love expressed in the resurrection. They would not have to risk anything really,  just get on with their life, picking up where they left off. And spend their one wild and precious life in a not so wild way.

They could wait until things quieted down, enter some witness protection program, slip out in the dark of some night, and find their way home, returning to whatever they had been doing before. They knew their trades. They still could go back to their day jobs fishing, or tax collecting, or whatever constituted their everyday lives.

But if he were risen, as Mary and the others who had been to the tomb affirmed… well who knows what might happen next? The world would be a place where wild and precious things do happen.

If everything that Jesus had taught them was now in their hands, they had to get to work. There was a lot to do… a message to share, roads to travel, sacrifices to be made, dangers to face, a wild and precious life to live for the sake of something larger than themselves.

[i] Margalit Fox, The New York Times, Obituaries, Friday, January 18, 2019.

[ii] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day” Poetry 108: A Poem a Day for American High Schools, Hosted by Billy Collins.

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