My father was a public-school teacher in southern California. That’s how he earned his living. But in his heart, he was an actor. I grew up with a love for theater because of all the plays he was in: The Tempest, Oklahoma, Oliver, the Fantastics, and a long list of others. There was one role he always wanted to play, but never got the chance. That was Zorba the Greek. I remember him one time putting on the music from the play and dancing around our living room. He really identified with Zorba. I suppose that’s why it has always been one of my favorite plays; that and the fact that it’s a wonderful, life affirming story.
It starts out, you may recall, with group of people standing around having a discussion. One of them calls out, “So what should we do now?” They start going back and forth. “How about a story?” “Great. What’s it about.” “What’s it about? What’s any story about? It’s about life! Do you know what life is?” One by one they call out their suggestions. “Life is a glass of rum.” “NO!” “Life is a sip of sage.” “NO!” All kinds of suggestions are made and rejected. Life is a Walnut leaf, an olive tree, a beautiful woman. One poetic soul sings, “Life is a farmer’s growing orchard and two lovers passing by it.” Zorba replies, “Life is my fist in your face if you don’t keep quiet.” Finally, one very wise woman shuts them all up. “Hold it,” she says. “Listen to me. I’ll tell you. Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die. Life is how the time goes by.
That’s true, isn’t it. Our lives are made up of the things we do. How we pass the time. Life is not an abstraction. It is not an idea or concept or image. Life is what we do. Life is the sum total of our day to day moments. It is the choices we make, the friends we have, our successes and failures, our routine chores and our exceptional experiences all lumped together in one big pile. This is my life. This is your life, this moment, this worship service, this Sunday morning. Look around you. We are all sharing a few minutes of each other’s lives. That is very significant. It’s very precious. But, mostly, we don’t think it’s so precious. Just another Sunday. I wonder if the preacher is going to keep me awake this week. I think a lot of people spend a lot of time wondering what life is all about without realizing that their lives are dribbling away while they’re wondering. There’s an old saying that goes, “life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans.”
I remember seeing a very powerful short movie when I was in my Junior High youth group at church. The film was a series of scenes of elderly people reflecting on their lives. There was a common theme. I’m 70, or 80 or 90. I always wanted to do so much with my life, but now I’m old and I haven’t done what I wanted to do. I’ve wasted my life. It was a very depressing movie, but it had a profound impact on me. I remember coming away with a fierce determination. One thing I never wanted to do was get to the end of my life and feel that it was wasted.
That’s part of the reason I love Zorba so much. One of the great beauties of Zorba is that he chooses to pass his time passionately. He’s filled with wild dreams and plans. He loves easily and dances at the drop of a hat. “I believe in grabbing at life,” he says. “Every minute a new minute, every second a new second. Never happened before.” Now, I think it was something like this that Jesus had in mind when he talked about abundant life. We are called to abundant life. We are called, not to be wild and crazy all the time, but to live with an appreciation that the moments of our lives are … not endless. And that makes them precious.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” That is what Jesus was about. This line from John has always been a favorite of mine. This is the only place that Jesus uses these exact words, but the idea of abundant life lies behind everything he says and does. Abundant life is the goal of his teaching. It’s another name for heaven. It’s another name for oneness with God. When Jesus talks about love and joy and peace, he is telling us how to move more deeply into the mystery of life. Life in all its abundance. Life in the Spirit of God.
Over the years, the church has spent a lot of time talking about abundant life. But I’m not sure we always get the message. We often think that abundant life means having a lot of time. I once read a book by Leo Buscaglia called, “Bus 9 to Paradise.” It was published in 1986, so it’s been around a while. In the book is a chapter called “A Passion for Life,” which talks about how much energy people have spent in trying to lengthen their lives. “There’s always someone seeking a fountain of youth or ways of extending the life span,” it says. “People have made millions from gadgets, vitamins, creams and special surgery – all of which hint at having the eternal secret.” But then comes the question: “Will greater longevity really improve the quality of our lives? Will it relieve a growing sense of discontent, loneliness and frustration? Will it help quiet our basic fears? Does a longer life necessarily mean a happier one?”
Well, no, of course it doesn’t. At some level we all know that. Happiness actually has very little to do with how much or how little time we have. What difference does having a lot of time make if we can’t appreciate the time we have. There’s an old story about two Buddhists who went to a Guru to find out how many lives they had left. In the Buddhist understanding we are continually reborn into new lives until we reach perfection. So having fewer lives is actually a sign of a higher spiritual attainment. Anyway, the first man goes to see the Guru. He has worked all his life to gain enlightenment and is very serious about it. The Guru tells him, “My son, you have seven lives remaining.” “Seven lives,” the man wails. “I have given up drinking and smoking and relationships with women. I have turned away from material possessions. I eat next to nothing. I meditate day and night. What more can I do?” And the man goes away sad and dejected. The second man was not like the first. He had led the life of a playboy. He has denied himself nothing. When he goes before the Guru he is told, “You have 59,000 lives remaining.” “Well,” he says, “I’m having fun so far.”
Now which one of these two people would you say was having an abundant life? I’m not suggesting that we should all behave like playboys or narcissistic materialists; eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. But doesn’t abundant life imply a certain quality of experience? Isn’t abundant life supposed to be joyful, serene, happy? That’s the hope, at least, that people of faith live with. We hope, and we believe, that our connection with God will bring with it a better quality of life. Yet looking around we have to admit that even church people are often less happy, less joyful, less serene than they would like to be. Abundant life isn’t something we always find in abundance.
Why is that? Well, when Jesus tells this story about sheepfolds and gatekeepers, I think he’s trying to answer that question. As usual, his answer is wrapped up in a story. Sheep were pretty common in ancient Israel, unlike Manchester, and most everyone Jesus talked to would have known a few basic things about them. For instance, sheep are rather helpless on their own. They depend for their very survival upon the guidance and protection of the shepherd. They must learn to recognize and follow a trustworthy voice. Otherwise they’re probably not going to be around for very long.
Of course, Jesus isn’t really talking about sheep. He’s talking about the sheep like qualities of people. It may not be very flattering to think of ourselves as sheep. Most people I know don’t think it’s very flattering. But the point is that sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd. They come to associate that voice with their safety and security. When they follow that voice, they are led “into green pastures and beside still waters,” as the psalmist said. Now to a sheep, I suspect that would be a pretty good description of abundant life: safety and security, green pastures and still waters. For people, the message is this: if we’re interested in abundant life, we also need a shepherd whose voice we can follow. As Christians, our shepherd is Jesus. It is his voice that we must learn to recognize and trust and follow so that we might be led into our own version of abundant life.
The problem is that there are many other voices. Voices of strangers, thieves, and bandits. Voices which will lead us astray if we listen to them. What are these voices? They go by lots of names, but some of the worst are those that poison our souls: arrogance, fear, hate, greed, envy, pride, addiction. These are just some of the strangers, thieves, and bandits that Jesus had in mind. “The thief,” he says, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” And what is stolen, killed and destroyed is precisely that abundant life we’re all looking for.
What does it mean to listen to the voice of the shepherd? It means that as Christians, we find our center, our spiritual home, in Christ. It means that we live with an openness to the same Spirit in which Jesus lived. It means we allow that Spirit to bring into our lives the same qualities of love, compassion, peace and tolerance that were the hallmarks of Jesus’ life. It means being willing to trust that God has a better idea of how we can best live our lives than we do ourselves. But trust, of course, always involves an element of risk. There is an interesting little parable which Pat shared with you in one of her recent sermons. But it bears repeating. It’s called Risking, by Patty Hansen, and it goes like this:
Two seeds lay side by side in the fertile spring soil. The first one said, “I want to grow! I want to send my roots deep into the soil beneath me, and thrust my sprouts through the earth’s crust above me… I want to unfurl my tender buds like banners to announce the arrival of spring… I want to feel the warmth of the sun on my face and the blessing of the morning dew on my petals!” And so she grew. The second seed said, “I am afraid. If I send my roots into the ground below, I don’t know what I’ll encounter in the dark. If I push my way through the hard soil I may damage my delicate sprouts… What if I let my buds open and a snail tries to eat them? What if I open my blossoms and child pulls me from the ground. No, it is much better for me to wait until it is safe.” And so she waited. And a chicken, scratching in the ground for food, found the waiting seed and promptly ate it.
The moral is pretty simple. If we refuse to engage life for fear of dying, we will die anyway, but without having lived in the meantime. For life to be abundant it has to be engaged. It has to be risked. That’s a large part of the problem. Taking risks can be painful. There’s an old Nancy cartoon I used to like. Nancy is complaining to her friend Sluggo. “My life is totally dull. If just ONE unexpected thing would happen to me, I’d be happy!” Sluggo sticks out his leg and trips her, so that she sprawls on the ground. Nancy yells at him: “I meant one PAINLESS unexpected thing!”
Life isn’t painless. Not even abundant life. But when we trust in the Spirit, the pain that is borne, the fear that is faced, the risk that is accepted as a challenge, is always transformed into greater strength and courage; and ultimately into happiness, joy and serenity. If we listen to the voice of the shepherd, we will be led; into green pastures, beside still waters, through the valley of the shadow of death. Our souls will be restored and we will come to enjoy abundant life. Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die. What our faith invites us to do, with this precious time we have been given, is to follow the voice of the shepherd and live abundantly.