Scripture Lessons: Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6: 24-35
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Edward Curtis died on October 19, 1952 in a postage stamp sized apartment in Beverly Hills. He was 84 years old. He died virtually penniless. His daughter, Beth, commented that, “her father had left this world as he’d entered it, without a single possession to his name.” [Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Timothy Egan, 2012, p. 314] Many people die in obscurity. That is not unusual. But Curtis, a Seattle photographer, had at one time been a nationally renowned figure. He was personally acquainted with J. P. Morgan, one of the richest men in America. He had a close friendship with Teddy Roosevelt. Despite having only gone to school until age 11, what led Curtis to the hallowed precincts of power? What drove Curtis to spend months each year sleeping in tents, outside, battling the elements and enduring the discomforts of outdoor life when he had a successful business and a comfortable home with a wife and 3 children in Seattle?
As a successful photographer, Curtis was selected by C. Hart Merriam, the cofounder of the National Geographic Society, to join a scientific expedition to Alaska to document the landscape and the people of the region. Curtis agreed. On that expedition, Curtis became aware that the indigenous peoples and cultures were dying out and would soon be gone. The seed was planted in Curtis. He would spend the next 30 years of his life documenting for posterity the native cultures of North America.
Armed with photography equipment, notebooks, tent, bedroll, and a wax cylinder recorder for audio, Curtis and a skeletal staff, roamed the western north american content recording the culture and people who were being driven to extinction by Euro-American expansion. And they did so at a feverish pace. Because, as Curtis explained, his subject was dying. [Egan, p. 52]
While Curtis was dismissed by eastern academicians who wrote and taught about native Americans but had never been out west he gained the trust of the indigenous peoples and joined in their rituals and ceremonies and lived among them for many months each year. But his biggest struggle wasn’t acceptance by the Indians, or the trials of outdoor life, but funding. The expenses were sizable – for assistants,equip- ment, supplies, and the printing of the actual books. While Curtis was consumed by his work in the field, he had to repeatedly leave the work to travel to the east coast to seek funding from the wealthy elite. Much more comfortable in his tent in the desert than in the posh parlor of a New York City mansion, he eventually gained the support of J. P. Morgan. And he sought the support of the US government through then President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. Curtis became friends with Roosevelt and even photographed Roosevelt and his family.
Curtis’s dream took its toll on his finances since he essentially earned no money from the project and spent his fortune on its completion. And the project took its toll on Curtis’s family. His marriage ended in divorce.
But Curtis persisted. Volume by volume the encyclopedia emerged. Three decades later, in 1929, when Curtis was 61, the last volume was completed. But with the stock market crash, the funding to purchase such an extravagant resource dried up and there was little room in the national psyche to pay attention to his work. Even institutions of higher learning with extensive libraries largely ignored Curtis’s voluminous tomes. So Curtis’s lifelong project ended with no fanfare or notoriety. And he, and his encyclopedias, fell into obscurity.
Curtis completed The North American Indian, a 20 volume ethnographic encyclopedia, documenting the cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America. The idea of creating this record of the native peoples had sprouted within him and drove the rest of his life. All of his decisions, activities, resources, his being, were devoted to this project. While the project consumed him, he fulfilled it with no acclaim or recognition. It was his dream. And he gave his life to his dream. And that was what mattered.
Reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan made me wonder, what am I giving my life to? What is my dream? We live, day to day. Many of us very busy with many involvements and activities. But what are we really doing? What end is all of our busyness serving? What dream are we chasing? We work. To make a living. That is, money to live. Money to spend. Which fulfills the dreams of others to be rich. But what about making a life? What are our dreams and what are we doing to fulfill them?
We may not have one big overarching ambitious project, like Curtis, but we are each surely called to devote ourselves to living out our dreams. How are we doing with that? We show kids inspirational sayings like “Shoot for the stars” and “Dream big” but what do they see among the adults around them? How are we doing showing those who are coming after us about living our dreams?
This kind of issue concerned Jesus, too. Threading we heard this morning follows the story of the feeding of the multitudes. The people have just been fed bread and fish. Now the conversation continues in the aftermath of that story and the people remain focussed on the food. The literal food. What is eaten. Jesus is trying to use the story to get to deeper meanings but the conversation remains on two levels with Jesus trying to go deeper and the crowd stuck at the level of bread to put in their mouths. So there is that beautiful, telling line, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” [John 6:27] Jesus is encouraging the listeners to live deeper; to follow him in giving their lives to something more than just bread for the stomach. In devoting themselves to the commonwealth of God and not simply procuring food to eat, they will find the food that truly satisfies. We are created to do more than simply see that our bodily needs are met. It is our nature to invest our lives in the common good. We need that to live. Our dreams feed us.
The reading from Ephesians picks up on this theme. The writer is encouraging spiritual maturity. Jesus followers are to pursue the virtues of which the human spirit is capable though not always inclined: humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, peace. In addition, those in the community have been given gifts. And what is the purpose of those gifts? To make money? To create jobs? To start a business? That’s what our culture tells us to do with our assets. But Ephesians tells us that these gifts are for ministry. For serving others. For building up the body of Christ. Believers are not to be fooled. We are told: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” [Epheisans 4:14] Yes, think Q Anon. Think fake news. Think advertising propaganda. And, yes, think religious manipulation. There are all kinds of influences, subtle and not, that are trying to shape our thinking, our values, our character. And Ephesians is encouraging us to be thoughtful and discerning. To think deeply. Don’t just take things at the sur-face. Don’t just accept the cultural milk around you like a baby taking its mother’s milk. That is fine for a child, but as adults seeking spiritual maturity, we are to seek the truth in love and grow into the likeness of Christ as we see it in Jesus.
Trickery, craftiness, deception. There are those who will use these tactics to entice us to follow and to form our dreams around self serving aims rather than the common good. To give our lives to personal gain and the lure of wealth instead of bettering the lives of others. These are the things which do not ultimately satisfy. The food that perishes. And it is all around us.
Our faith tradition invites us to choose the food that satisfies. To choose service and other centered living. To choose the health of the community and the earth. To choose to dream big. Of course, we want to be healthy. But what about creating a society that fosters the health of all people? Sure, we want meaningful work. But what about investing in a community that encourages everyone to be engaged in useful, meaningful labor? Yes, we want to enjoy a day at the beach. But what about protecting the environment so that everyone can enjoy the beautiful outdoors. I love to read a good book. But what about making sure that everyone can read and has access to books? We have been given gifts, skills, graces, time, voices, money, access, and power. What are we doing with all that we have been given? What dreams are we serving? Are they in keeping with our faith? Are they worthy of our calling? Are they big enough? Are they dreams that will satisfy?
I don’t normally read the obituaries. Maybe a couple of times a year, I glance at that page in the newspaper. Well, I happened to look at the obits on Thursday August 2. For some reason I found myself reading the obituary for David Allen Palmer. And I was stopped by the first line. “David Allen Palmer, 63, a new resident of Pensacola, FL, passed away July 31, 2019.” Yes, the date said, 2019. But it’s only 2018. Yes, a typo. Surprising. But what if you knew about your death a year ahead? What if you knew that you had a year to live? A year to live out your dreams. What would you be doing? How would you spend your time and money? What would you do with all of your resources and assets and gifts and graces? How would you chase that food that does not perish?
Maybe that is what impressed me so much about the photographer and ethnographer Edward Curtis. If you had told him he had a year to live, I don’t think he would have changed anything about what he did. He gave all he had to the encyclopedia of The North American Indian. And when he wasn’t out actually documenting the Indians, he was chasing after funding so the project could go on. He could not have done anything to be more devoted to his dream. He could not have accomplished any more in achieving his dream. He gave it everything.
The last volume of the The North American Indian was about the native peoples of Alaska. Curtis told of “how they made parkas from bird or fish skins, and heavier coats of caribou and bear hide. Their socks were woven grass; a rain slicker was fashioned from seal intestine. The people were tattooed and pierced and handsome. . .” Curtis’ assessment of those very northern North American Indians? “In all the author’s experience among Indians and Eskimos, he never knew a happier and more thoroughly honest and self-reliant people.” [Egan, p. 296-297] It was good to return to Alaska where his dream had begun and to have a positive experience when the overall story of the indigenous peoples was a tragic one.
In this last volume of his encyclopedia, Curtis thanked those who had helped him with the project through the years and there were many. The people “who never lost faith.” Who encouraged him. We need others to help us pursue our dreams and to support us along the way. Curtis recognized this as he concluded his herculean project saying, “Mere thanks seem hollow in comparison with such loyal cooperation; but great is the satisfaction the writer enjoys when he can at last say to all those whose faith has been unbounded, ‘It is finished.’” [Egan,p. 297] Curtis knew the food that does not perish. The bread of life. May we taste that bread! Amen.
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