April 23: Too Soon to Tell

There was once a poor old farmer who had worked his fields all his life, day in, day out, never doing any better than just scraping by.  All he had to help him in his labors were his faithful old horse, and his son.  One day, his horse, which had pulled the plough so faithfully all these years, just upped and died.  And the old farmer’s friends were quick to gather around to offer their sympathies on this misfortune.  What a sad thing, they all said, that your faithful old horse has died.  Well, replied the farmer phlegmatically, It’s too soon to tell.

But, as it happened, just about that time an insurance policy that the farmer had bought years before and had forgotten, well it matured, and he came into a little money, and with that money he could buy another horse.  Isn’t it great, all his friends chorused when they gathered around to celebrate this piece of good fortune.  You can get another horse.  Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.

Pretty soon, though, it became very evident that this new horse, fine looking beast that it was, had no heart for the drudgery of pulling a plough.  It just refused to be yoked into that kind of menial work.  The farmer’s friends were quick to gather.  What a terrible shame that you spent all that money on a horse that is useless in the field, they cried.  Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.

So the horse was released to roam free in a field, and the farmer noticed how fleet it was, why that horse could run faster than any other horse the farmer had ever seen.  So he decided to enter the horse in a local race.  And sure enough, the horse won, and with it, a handsome purse.  The neighbours were there like a shot.  How fabulous, they exclaimed, that this horse is a racehorse, you have won all this money, and will likely win even more money.  This horse will make your fortune.  Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.

Now the farmer’s young son decided he wanted to ride this frisky and fleet racehorse, so one day he saddled up and away he rode.  Unfortunately, the only horse he had ever ridden before was the faithful old plough horse which, at best, could summon up a gentle plod.  But now he was on a horse racing at a full gallop, and it was not long before he fell off.  He broke his leg badly.  There was immediately a knock on the door.  The neighbors.  Oh, how awful, they wailed, that your son has broken his leg, he is permanently crippled, and will not be able to help you in the fields as he did before.  Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.

Soon after, war broke out, and all the young men in the county marched off proudly to fight, all, that is, except for the crippled farmer’s son.  And all of those young men, in one terrible battle, were killed.  And the grief stricken neighbors came to the farmer, How lucky you are that your son did not go off to fight and die.  And the farmer replied, Well, It’s too soon to tell.

I know that Easter was last weekend.  It’s not that I have got my dates mixed up.  But here’s the thing.  The story of Easter did not end last Sunday morning.  It is not as if the disciples learned of the empty tomb and immediately thought to themselves, What ho, chaps.  Granted it has been a rather gloomy couple of days, what with Jesus being crucified and all, we hadn’t counted on that, but now he has risen and everything is just tickety-boo and we can set about proclaiming the gospel of the risen Christ and we’ll all live happily ever after as the founders of a great new religion. No, what did it all mean on that first Easter morning?  Well, it was too soon to tell.

This morning I want to put it to you that the story of Jesus in the Easter event and what follows is one of the most compelling narratives of what it means for us, you and me, here, today, right now to be fully alive to our own humanity in all the uncertainties and ambiguities and unpredictabilities of our own time; what it means for us, you and me, here, today, right now to be fully open to the divinity which might yet shine within us;  what it means for us, you and me, here, today, right now on Earth Day, to realize that we are custodians with duties and responsibilities beyond ourselves; what it means for us, you and me, here, today, right now to embrace life in all of its grubbiness and its grandeur, and to stand firm in faith that life is good, and we are blessed beyond words to be part of it, and it matters what we do with it. Even if, especially if, we can never know for certain what any of it means.  Even if, especially if, we can never even know if it means anything at all.  Does our life have meaning?  Well, it’s too soon to tell.

All of us live within a context which is always and ever too large for us to comprehend.  What is the meaning of your life?  Never mind such a big question about your whole life, what about that thing that happened just yesterday?  Was it a piece of fortune good or bad?  Was it cause for celebration, or consolation?  Take any example.  Perhaps the job you applied for and didn’t get, which left you discouraged and deflated and at the time was such a bitter pill of disappointment.  But then, you applied for and got something else, and it turned out to be so much more rewarding and fulfilling than the other job would ever have been.  Or the new relationship, in which you first feel such giddy delight, but which later turns sour and you wonder why you ever allowed yourself to be seduced into something in the first place which later caused you such anguish.  Any decision we make, any event which befalls us, is it for good or for ill?  Well, it’s too soon to tell.

That farmer I think we can safely assume was not in Jerusalem on that fateful Friday when Jesus was crucified, but if he had been, and someone had come up to him and said, Isn’t it terrible, all of our hopes in this man have been so cruelly dashed, or if they had said, Finally we’ve got rid of that troublesome preacher, I suspect that old farmer would have replied Well, it’s too soon to tell.

It is always too soon to tell whether our present endeavors will be for the longer term good or ill of ourselves or others.  It is always too soon to tell if the processes of the present are laying welcome or unwelcome foundations for the future.  For in the depths of our greatest despair can be born our greatest hope; in the midst of seeming death can be found the ultimate triumph of life; in the most impenetrable darkness even the smallest candle can cast the most welcome light.

When Trump was elected President last November, most of us were deeply distressed, fearful of the horrors about to be unleashed.  I know I was.  I know I still am.  All the early evidence is that those fears were well founded.  On the other hand, forces of resistance and resilience have been aroused and strengthened.  Perhaps his election and the threat it poses to the very bases of democracy and human decency was the blip in history that will lead to the strengthening of democracy and increased vigilance by all of us for the rights of minorities.  Will it be?  Well, it’s too soon to tell.

On this Earth Day, the environment is under even more draconian assault from those whose only interest seems to be how much money they can make for themselves in the very short term.  Nothing seems immune to their depredations.  Not the water we drink, not the air we breathe, not the soil in which all things grow.  Our efforts to protect the environment might seem so small and puny, and hardly worth the while when pitted against such forces of indifference and disdain.  Will those marches for science held yesterday all around the globe have any impact?  We don’t know.  We can only know that any small effort might prove to be a turning point.  Any candle we light might be that which dispels the darkness.

On one of the sheep stations in the Australian outback on which I was a jackaroo in my wayward youth there was a noxious weed called Bathurst Burr.  It clung to sheep’s wool like Velcro, making it painful and difficult for shearers at shearing time.  We were very vigilant against it.  Whenever we found a patch of the weed we would stop and dig it up.  One day I asked the boss why we bothered, when days later we might find yet more weeds in the same location.   He replied that we would never totally eradicate the weed, but doing nothing would mean the weed would soon take over.  We could not know that our efforts would mean success.  We could only know that doing nothing would mean failure.

In working to defend and care for the environment, we can never know if our efforts will bring success.  We can know only that doing nothing will bring failure.

Who could have foretold, that first Easter in Jerusalem and the immediate aftermath, what far-reaching and profound consequences would ensue as the result of the life and death of that obscure peripatetic preacher from Palestine?  Who could have foretold that two thousand years later, that that life and death and what followed would be commemorated by millions, billions around the world?  In its first many decades of the fledgling Christian church clung to the edges of survival.  At any moment it could have succumbed to the forces of oppression and persecution which were all around it.  Those first disciples had no way of knowing what the future held for this new faith.  It was too soon to tell.

The miracle of Easter is made more so, not less, by believing in the full and unambiguous humanity of Jesus, human, just like the rest of us.  Had Jesus been a deity, God incarnate sent knowingly to die for our sins, all part of a master cosmic plan, then the ordeal of his crucifixion, unpleasant as it would have been, would have been little more than a passing inconvenience, a temporary discomfort before he returned to heaven and glory. 

But if Jesus was fully and solely human, as I believe he was, and even more importantly if his disciples were fully and solely human, as surely they were, then therein is the true power and impact of the story.  It is not a story about the victory of God over death.  It is a story about the victory of living fully in the face of death, living fully beyond death, living in the uncertainty of each and every moment, not knowing what the import of that moment might be.  We too, like those first disciples, are fully and solely human.  We too, like them, are frail, faltering and fearful, in a time when what we stand for is under relentless assault, yet we, yes, even we, might, like them be laying the foundations for something the like of which we cannot imagine.  Even in the face of what seems at best like dread uncertainty and ambiguity and, at worst, like defeat and annihilation.

It is the false seduction to which people like us are so very vulnerable – accustomed for the most part to power and influence – that we demand certainty and we demand it immediately.  If we are not guaranteed the success of our actions, we too easily surrender the struggle.  What do we want?  Certainty!  When do we want it?  Now!  But we can never know what will be the impact of our lives, the sum effect we have upon the gradual unfolding of the human enterprise.  It is always too soon to tell.  We cannot know in our own immediate time frame.  Kings and warriors, mighty and proud in their own time, have disappeared to history without trace.  And an impoverished itinerant preacher who never traveled beyond his own immediate country, who wrote no books, who died in humiliating circumstances, is remembered and revered twenty centuries later.  We are told that Jesus’ last words were “It is finished”.  Actually, it was just starting.  Even he didn’t know.  It was too soon even for him to tell.

Each of us has to come to terms with our own mortality, our own finitude.  How to do that has been one of the most penetrating and persistent of all religious questions.  Given that we have to die, each and every day how are we to live?  It is never for us to take full and final measure of our own lives.  The miracle, to which the post Easter event story gives abundant testimony, is that death does not negate life; despair does not negate hope.

The challenge which is ever before us, is to believe, and to continue to believe, in spite of all the disasters and ills which might befall us, in spite of our littleness and our frailty, in spite of our humanness, that how we live today is of lasting value, how we relate to other people and to the world matters and matters deeply, and that what reconciliations we make with ourselves and with our world and with our God affect the entirety of creation beyond our knowing.  We can never know the full story of our own lives, because that story continues to unfold long after our deaths.  We cannot know, because it is too soon to tell.  It is always too soon to tell.  But we can have faith, because the time for faithful living is always now.