This is a sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Psalm 90.
Thirty thousand and ninety-four days. That’s the average life expectancy in Australia (it works out to a touch over 82 years). Put like that, though – thirty thousand and ninety-four days – it sounds like a lot. It sounds like maybe I have all the time in the world for all the things I want to accomplish, to experience, to relish.
That’s not how life is, though. I don’t have to labour that point; you’ve all lost loved ones. No matter when life ends, there’s always more that person could have been, done, or loved. We often like to pretend to ourselves that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but death is the final, immovable human limitation.
It’s not really a cheerful thing to think about, though. But the psalmist today did want us to pay attention to it, just for a moment, when he wrote “teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.” Teach us to count our days; teach us to remember that they have a number, and after that, we die.
But not just for the sake of being morbid; the point of remembering, the psalmist says, is “that we may gain a wise heart.” So how does remembering our mortality and limitations help us to become wise?
There are two key aspects to this. The first is remembering who and what we are.
Here’s what I mean. I said before that we like to pretend that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but that that is an illusion. The problem is that because we like that illusion, we deny our own nature. We forget that we are creatures made of dust, who have borrowed the breath of life for a short time, but who have no power to sustain ourselves. And, because we forget that, and deny our own nature, we also deny God’s nature. You see, if we refuse to acknowledge our utter dependence on God for every breath of our existence… then we distort the relationship between us and God. By repressing the truth of our creatureliness, we also repress the truth that only God is God. And we often fail to let God be God.
Isaiah said the same thing when he pronounced:
“You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
‘He has no understanding’?”
In failing to let God be God, we grasp for control over things we can never really control; and we harm ourselves and one another in the process. In failing to let God be God, we use all our ingenuity and creativity for destruction and oppression rather than for human flourishing. In failing to let God be God, we fail to acknowledge the brokenness of human life, and turn away from the possibility of finding healing.
Here’s an example of what I mean: for messy church this afternoon, we’re going to explore the concept of slavery. I realised that I couldn’t really explain the gospel passage I wanted to, with the kids, unless they first had some idea of what slavery is about, so I thought I’d better lay that foundation first. And as part of my background reading on how to teach children about something which is actually fairly intense to get your head around, I came across this little online calculator designed to help people in first world countries estimate how many slaves are involved in the production of the things we consume.*
Now of course it’s an estimate. But based on the demographic data I gave it, and the details about things I have – like how much technology, how many pieces of jewellery, and so forth – it suggested that perhaps 46 people were involved in slavery in my consumer chain.
46 people being compelled to supply their labour, for the commercial gain of others, who keep me in the lifestyle to which I rather enjoy having become accustomed. Of course I knew modern slavery existed and is an atrocious evil, but when it becomes personal like that, it seems much more real.
But my point in using that example is that slavery is a good example of our refusing to let God be God. Our grasping for control over and exploitation of one another, as human beings. Our failure to honour God’s creation and allow others the dignity and full personhood they were created to have. And so on. I won’t labour the point, but it has reminded me of how much the price difference between fair trade chocolate and the other variety isn’t just about what I pay, but about the human price paid in its production.
So when we fail to let God be God, we try to take his place… and end up doing a very thorough job of messing it up. So that’s one way that learning to count our days helps us to increase in wisdom.
The other side of it, too, is that counting our days reminds us that we need to make choices. If I only have so many days to live, and I can’t do everything, what am I going to spend my time on?
In a way, that’s part of why I got ordained; the prospect of spending decades in big business making money for shareholders was enough to make me run screaming to the church. (And that’s saying something!)
But seriously, it is a case of, “We can’t do everything.” Learning to count our days means we need to choose. And if we think about our choices, and remember that God is God, and have some sort of measure for our priorities that puts us in line with God’s priorities… then we’re living wisely; in that Biblical sense of wisdom which is all about knowing what God wants and being willing to do it.
I’m told that in some monasteries, there’s a custom of always having a fresh dug, open grave; so that as the brothers walk past they’ll be reminded of the prospect of their own death. I’m not sure that we need to go that far. But it is good, sometimes to pause and be reminded of the aspects of life that we’d rather forget; because that helps us to keep ourselves, and our lives, in perspective; and it helps us to focus on making wise choices about how we steward our days.
If we’re paying attention to these reminders; in the psalms, and in our lives; that will help us to truly gain a wise heart.