Sermon on living the best life – Psalm 90 and the Parable of the Talents from Rev’d Ian Tattum

I apologise to a lot of you this morning, because I am going to start by mentioning a poem again. It is one of those that is most famous for the question in the last two lines:

‘Tell me what it is you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?’

They come from The Summer Day by the American poet Mary Oliver. But, weirdly, the words are often attached to social media photos of elaborate dinners or exotic locations, or moments of high achievement and economic success. Mary Oliver, however, led a quiet, undramatic life with her partner in Province Town, New England, and in the poem made it clear she was not talking about exciting experiences but about attention to the small things.

She was writing about a typical day, for her, wandering in nature and a close encounter with a grasshopper that eats out of her hand. It is about making the most of time by being conscious, aware, and attentive. It is about depth of experience rather than excitement and thrills – a kind of mindfulness.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel 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?

It seems to me that the poem has an echo of Psalm 90, which gave the English language another famous phrase, as rendered in the King James version, which Oliver would have known well.

‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut of and we fly away.’

Psalm 90, it has been noticed, is part of what is called the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures – reflections, that is, on what life is actually like and what it is for, before, as the translation we heard this morning puts it, ‘Our years come to an end like a sigh’.

Today is a baptism day when we would naturally turn our thoughts to the beginning of life and its potential, but everything is put into context by what is to come. At a baptism we celebrate that we believe that every human life is made in the image of God. Each person, from the cradle to the grave, and indeed beyond, is precious in the sight of God.

When we talk about rejecting evil, we acknowledge that there are temptations which may lead us from the path, that being vulnerable human beings liable to error, selfishness, lack of courage or conviction affects all of us in our ability to love, be truthful, and follow lives of meaning and value.

But we also believe in forgiveness and the chance to start again and that no one is ever perfect. The image of God is marred in us, but hope is never extinguished.

In a couple of weeks, we are going to have one of our evening sessions with our Theological Consultant, Ben Wood, and it is going to be about what he sees as a kind of Christian mindfulness that we find in St Matthew’s Gospel. And I do think he is on to something. Today’s Gospel included one of the most misunderstood parables – the one about three servants who are given large sums of money when their boss goes off on his travels. The two given the most go and invest it and double their money, but the third just buries his sum in the ground. On his return the master rewards the initiative of the first two, using another phrase which seeped into the English language – ‘well done good and faithful servant’ – while casting the non-productive one into the famous ‘outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

This story, though, has nothing to do with Jesus encouraging a sound investment strategy or the nurture of personal talents, but with making the most of time to lead a life fully lived out in the image of God, now with a sense of urgency.

This parable comes in the gospel in the middle of a cluster of teachings about how God will measure the quality of human lives. Love and be active in generosity and kindness to neighbour and stranger borne out of a sense of your own need and fragility, is the underlying message. Be mindful of who you are. Seize the day. Live your wild and precious life. But let it be rooted in the love of God, which flows through every life.

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