Like shining from shook foil.
We’re almost three weeks into autumn, but you’d never know it living in Manhattan. Up in Connecticut at the university where I used to live and teach the leaves are pretty much at peak: flaming yellows, reds and oranges, whole trees looking—from a distance—as though they were on fire, flaming wildly on the horizon. The autumn is a time, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, when “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”, when “it flames out, shining like shook foil.” “For all this,” said Hopkins, “nature is never spent, there lives the dearest freshness deep down things…because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.”
A couple of years ago on Columbus Day weekend the campus was deserted, the students having fled home for the semester’s first holiday. I was on my way to give a recruitment talk to a bunch of prospective freshmen and their parents, and I walked amidst the fading sun. The light was so beautiful--pure and golden and clear—illuminating an astonishing canopy of leaves overhead. I recalled the fable of the man who was so obsessed by the beauty of golden leaves that he traveled far and wide, sticking them to every part of his body until he could no longer move under the shear weight and eventually disappearing beneath the mountain he had accumulated.
Suddenly two huge turkeys appeared on my path, followed by five little ones. The adults walked slowly and elegantly, their heads elevated and watchful, every so often reaching down and pecking at the ground. The little ones, on the other hand, were overly focused on pecking, ravenous, like they couldn’t get enough no matter what. The whole family seemed, I thought, pretty happy, and rich—certainly in food.
I didn’t think turkeys could fly, but I’d been told that they are quite capable. So I decided I’d try to scare them a bit to see if they would take off up into the trees. I ran towards them with my hands in the air, making loud uga uga uga noises. They turned to see me coming and just kind of looked at me, and then they moved a little to the side so that the crazy human didn’t knock them over. I tried one more time, this time hopping up and down and flapping my arms, making even weirder, louder sounds, but nothing got them going.
That’s when I heard someone laughing, and turned to see one of my students staring at me, now in hysterics. “You are crazy, man”, he said, still laughing. I smiled back, a little embarrassed, but not that much. I asked him how come he wasn’t home, and he said he stayed back to do some work. It didn’t surprise me. He was one of those really dutiful freshmen, on top of his game all the time, eager to get the good grade to get ahead.
A few minutes later I was standing in front of a room of 300 high school students and their parents. I was talking about why they should come to college there, trying to tell these seniors about how much they would learn about themselves when they moved to university life. I was giving my best idealistic ideas about the nature and purpose of education, the deepest purest goals of educating mind, body and soul, setting yourself up for a lifetime of seeking the truth piece by piece, until you take your very last breath on earth.
A hand went up in the crowd. It belonged to an earnest-looking young man sitting next to his father. “What’s the best major to take to get a good job?” he asked. Alright, I knew that kind of a question was coming, but I didn’t expect it to interrupt my la dee da part of the talk. So I threw it back to him.
I said, “What kind of a job?”. He smiled, good-naturedly. “Any kind of a job, it doesn’t matter as long as I can be rich and happy!” “Oh,”, I said, getting into the game, “rich and happy. Then you’ll want to major in philosophy.”
And there was a loud roar of laughter from the room, mostly coming from the older faces of the fathers and mothers who were already calculating how they were going to be able to juggle a $60,000 tuition bill. $60,000 a year, that is, times four": $240,000 total—to get an education that will make you rich and happy. Philosophy? I don’t think so, they were all saying. OK, maybe accounting, or finance, or whatever you need to do to become a lawyer or a doctor, if the goal is to be rich and happy. (Although I don’t know kid. Somehow I don’t think that kind of success is an automatic if you are in accounting or finance or law or medicine.)
That’s not a bad goal in life, to be rich and happy, right? Who doesn’t want that? Even baby turkeys peck the ground like they can’t get enough no matter what. But should that really be the goal of an education, even a $240,000 one? For that matter, should that be the goal of anyone’s life, education or not? Maybe the more important question is a Wisdom question, like the one posed by the dutiful, eager young man in the Gospel: what should I do to have a really meaningful life? He was so inspired by Jesus that he literally ran up to him and knelt before him to ask the question.
I’m always touched by Jesus’ reaction to the young man. He looks at the boy with deep affection. And then he offers him a challenge he never expected. “There is one more thing you must do. Go and sell everything you have to the poor; you will then have treasure in heaven.”
My mother used to say that no one ever really owns anything in this world—land or possessions of any kind. We’re lent it just for a little while, she would say, to do some good with it. To be rich and happy, and maybe more importantly to have a meaningful life, Jesus gave a simple answer: follow him, and let go of all the things that the world tells us are so important. “There is no one who has given up home, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children or property, for me or the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much---and in the age to come, everlasting life.”
Hey, I know that a bunch of you sitting in the pews were attracted to New York because of its promise to make you rich and happy (at least some day). It seems like everyone I meet at Epiphany who is younger than 40 years old is working in finance or accounting, or in a tech industry. But I suspect that many of you are here in this church tonight because you know that there is more to life than your adolescent dreams of wealth and fame and influence.
That student I told you about—the one who thought I was a crazy man with the turkeys? We had many a long talk during his time in college. His dreams matured over four years, and so did his questions. He went on to do wonderful things with his life. Even with his degree in business, he used the gifts God had given him to take care of so many people—family, friends, children, his coworkers, and me. And last week he lost his courageous battle with cancer, and a golden leaf fluttered back down to the good earth from which it had grown—flaming out, like shining from shook foil.
In the autumn, when the leaves are turning red and yellow under the golden sun, when turkeys strut about campus as if they own the world, and when young women and men travel far and wide on campus tours to find just the right place and right major, you hope that we all try to get a perspective on life.
You want to know what will make you rich and happy? You want to have a meaningful life? Imagine the Holy Ghost bent over the autumn world where you and I yearn for something we deeply need, imagine the Holy Ghost brooding with warm breast and ah! bright wings, imagine the Holy Ghost whispering into your ear telling you the truth about richness and happiness. Maybe the earth’s autumn, from which we all come and to which we are all going, can speak the Wisdom we all need to hear. May we all prefer Wisdom to gold and silver and scepter and throne.