In his poem, “Ask Me,” William Stafford has a line I have tucked away in my pocket and it’s one of the lines that seem to find me when I most need it: “Ask me whether/what I have done is my life.” It is haunting in its simplicity. Every time I revisit this poem, I am reminded of the common impulse to brush this sort of poetic wondering away, because of course what I have done is how I have lived my life. But it is the way in which he phrases it so that the question is not about the things with which you have filled your life, but your life itself. Ask me whether what I have done is my life. For most of us, we very often want our lives to be more than the things in our homes or the clothing we wear or even the jobs we hold. These, obviously, are part of who we are, but are they our life?
Yesterday here at the church we had the funerals for Pat Waddington and Jane Coleman, and as family and friends milled about for each of these women, stories of their lives were told. Photos from across the decades of their lives scrolled by and with each one a story was shared. These were the sorts of stories that the writer of 1st Timothy describes as, “the treasure of a good foundation for the future.” It is not lost on me that in a little over 24 hours, we will have had two funerals and a baptism in this space, because today we welcome Elyse Gilbert into the household of God. And it is especially not lost on me that baby Elyse begins her life of faith upon the good foundation that Pat and Jane helped cultivate in this congregation over their 93 and 87 years of life, respectively.
Throughout the history of Christianity, these words from 1st Timothy have been read in spaces like ours by gatherings of Christians like us as a reminder that there are things that can pull us away from who we are called to be. The focus for congregation of which Timothy was a leader seems to have slipped away from the baptismal call toward a fascination with wealth, status, and power. As so many of us know, modern day Christianity has not absolved itself of this very problem; it’s a problem that’s easy to see in others and perhaps harder to see in ourselves. Because for us it might not be financial abundance or a sense of haughtiness that creeps in and pulls us away from who we become as that water is poured over our heads. Rather it might be social sway or feeling more enlightened or attuned to the world’s problems; what is pulling us away from who we are called to be in our baptism might even look wholly unappealing, maybe a deep sense that your brokenness is irredeemable or it might be a fear tells you that you do not need or deserve God’s abundant grace and love. The author of Timothy, it seems, gathers us around these words so that he might ask us “is what you have done really your life?”
The author asks us this by pointing out the ways in which we can be pulled from the grounded center into which we welcome Elyse today, the foundation which Pat and Jane and all the saints before them have worked so hard to build. But in pointing out all the ways in which love of money or power or even the love of self-loathing, the author casts a vision of good works and generosity that helps us, as he puts it, “take hold of the life that really is life.” We are called in our baptismal covenant not just to live a good life, but one that *really is* life. God invites us to live an authentic and full life that is built upon the foundation of those Christians gone before us like Jane and Pat, as we stand grounded in the baptismal promises which we will reaffirm alongside Elyse’s parents and godparents.
The question before us today is not if we love money or power or any other earthly thing that will pass away, but rather, what sort of life are we living. Because for those of us who wear the name Christian, we are only truly living our authentic and fullest lives when we are following the Way of Love, when we let our lives be shaped more by the cross than the world. On this day that we welcome Elyse, and the day after we commemorate Jane and Pat, I ask that that you recenter your baptismal call, and that you take seriously the promises that you reaffirm when you respond, “I will with God’s help.” I ask that we stand together upon the foundations of the saints gone before us and, with God’s help, to take hold of the life that really is life with all those around us.
A sermon preached on September 25, 2022 to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on 1 Timothy 6:6-19 for Proper 21C.