What is it about autumn coming on? The sudden chill in the air. The sense that the year is slipping away a little faster. Surely you must feel the pace quicken a bit. You feel the need to gear up with new resolve and sense of purpose. Keeping the days from becoming just one thing after another. Maintaining some grip on what life is all about. I read a sad and poignant piece some time ago. “The turning point in my life was the death of my father. It was a funny thing. Here you are watching this beautiful guy with white hair lying in his bed, dying of a heart attack. You hear him ramble and wander and talk about his life: ‘I never was anything…I didn’t mean anything…’ You watch death, and then you say, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on with him is going to hit me. What am I doing between now and my death?…’ You begin to assess your own life and that’s a shock. I didn’t come up smelling like a rose.”
So that’s the question the season presents to us. What are you doing with your life between now and your death? What does your life mean? So how do we answer the question? Seems to be an increasingly pressing one for many in our culture and time. How is it that so many find their days here so devoid of meaning and future, so filled with a sense of futility? Part of the reason may lie in the fact that a life of purpose makes demands upon us, calls upon us to get out of ourselves in commitments to something higher than our own interests, preoccupations, pastimes.
The world is full of urgent needs that call for our attention and energy, but we so easily get wrapped up in our busy schedules, our diversions and the demands of life’s maintenance, that we never stop to ask whether we ought not to pare some of it away a bit, and give more of ourselves to the needs of a larger world.
Ben has just come off the racquetball court and Stan has arrived at the club to play tennis. Stan sees Ben and says, “’Hey, buddy, what’re you doin’ down here?’ Ben: ‘ Oh, just tryin’ to stay in shape. ‘ Stan responds:’ Yeah, I know what you mean. I’m supposed to meet a guy for tennis. Do you come here a lot?’ Ben says: ‘Once or twice a week. I volunteered at church to spend time with Travis. His step dad died about a year ago, and he’s havin’ a hard time. But he seems to like racquetball, and he keeps me hoppin’’. Stan: ‘That’s great! You mean you just meet him here and…’ Ben says: ‘Yeah. So far he’d rather play than talk. But he’s starting to open up a little. I’m finding out how tough life has been on him.’ Stan responds: ‘That’s great! I oughta do something like that. Beth and I have talked about it, but we’ve never found anything that really “fits” us. Know what I mean?’
“’Sure,’ says Ben. ‘Have you ever thought of tutoring in the inner city?’ Stan: ‘ Well, I would, but, uh…Well, you know, Beth and I would kinda like to do something together….and…well, I don’t feel that safe about having her downtown. You know what I mean? It’s just I wouldn’t want to take any chances.’ Ben says: ‘Well, I can understand that. How about something in your own neighborhood?’ ‘My neighborhood’s kinda quiet. They don’t like to be disturbed. Besides, I’d rather do something with really needy people. My neighbors don’t need much of anything..’”
“Ben speaks: ‘Well, I’m on the mailing list for the Crisis Pregnancy Center. They always need people to do volunteer counseling. ‘ Stan: ‘ Well, I don’t know about that. That’s such a volatile subject. I’d rather do something less revolutionary. You know what I mean?’ Ben says: ‘ I know…The church always needs Sunday school teachers or youth workers. You could really help out there. In fact, the youth group’s going to Great America next weekend.’ Stan: ‘Ooh boy! I can’t stand those roller coasters. I lose it every time. Besides, running all over the state with a bunch of kids. I don’t know. And Saturday we’re going to the zoo with the kids. Well, not this Saturday! Some other Saturday! We’re so busy on weekends already. I don’t know how we could…’
“Ben interrupts: ‘Look, you don’t have to make excuses for me. You’re the one who said you wanted to get involved somewhere, so I was simply trying to give you some ideas. If you don’t want to do anything… ‘ Stan interrupts: ‘It’s not that I don’t want to do anything. I do. We really do. It’s finding something that fits us. ‘ Ben responds: ‘OK. Let me get this straight. All you need is a kind of service that’s in a safe environment, with people like you but that doesn’t disturb anybody, is cheap, non-controversial and involves no risk and very little time commitment. Is that right?’”
So I suspect the question remains with many, just below the surface. The nagging feeling their life doesn’t quite add up. The question as to what they are really here for. The fact that many today find their days come up short of real purpose may explain why the Rick Warren volume, The Purpose Driven Life has taken the publishing world by storm, sold over twenty million copies. However you judge it as a piece of writing, it obviously has struck a responsive chord among millions out there. We cannot live vital lives without a sense of high purpose.
Terribly important question, because when meaning goes, health, strength, energy, life itself goes, these all begin to bleed from us. As Victor Frankl said, reflecting upon his experiences in the death camps of the Nazi’s, “There is nothing in the world that so effectively helps one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life…He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
But here we need to stop and recognize that the issue is not just one of finding a purpose for our lives, but which purpose, what kind of meaning. I don’t know if you caught any of the interviews of the suicide bombers this past week on the television news, young men who for whatever reason were unable to fulfill their mission. Nevertheless they spoke of the sense of focus, the heightened vitality the great cause of Allah gave them. I have no doubt that the terrorists who flew into the Twin Towers led purpose-driven lives.
But what a contrast with Jesus of Nazareth. He too was possessed by a sense of purpose. His mission, to bring into being a new kind of human community, one based no longer on blood line, the seed of Abraham, nor upon an all embracing culture, the old Levitical Laws of the Hebrews, based not on power and popularity, but one based on new vision of God, God approaching us in sacrificial love to draw us together in one family of his creation, where neither gender, or class or ethnicity or status count. To that end he is willing to suffer and die to give birth to that new covenant community among those closest to him based solely on his love for all his children.
But there are at least two almost incidental dimensions of that mission as played out by Jesus that I would like to lift up this morning. The first is its intensely personal character. Jesus seems to find the meaning of his life and mission in family and friendship, the friendships of that small group gathered for dinner on the night before his death. The crowds came, of course, as he began his ministry, but they soon faded away as the demands of this new way became apparent, and in the end it was a few friends he sought to inspire and guide toward the future he hoped for. And I wonder if there is not something here for us as we ponder our purpose in life. Part of our problem may lie in the fact that when we think of purposeful living, we think of powerful career or some public cause worth great diversion of time and energy. Rick Warren’s book is in many ways a moving exploration of how we may find meaning right up to the last chapters where he seems to say that the real purpose of life for everyone of us is to go out and find people, the more the better, who are heading for hell and convince them to accept Jesus. I quote: “What are you willing to do so that the people you know will go to heaven? Is anyone going to be in heaven because of you? The eternal salvation of a single soul is more important than anything else you will achieve in life.”
Strangely, in all of his letters to early Christians, I do not find Paul pressing this narrow imperial purpose. And the picture of Jesus with his few friends that night before he died suggests that the most significant moments, the real meaning of our days here may lie not in careers or causes, but in the intimate and personal relationships that are near and often taken for granted. At least it did with Jesus who at the last settled in with a close circle he trusted to fulfill his vision.
This past May, author Ben Stein gave the commencement address at Ithaca College. Instead of urging those young graduates to go out and change the world, he talked about his mother and father. “After Mom died my father was desperately lonely, so I took an apartment down the street from him in Washington and just kept him company.
“On my birthday in 1998, he sent me a fax that read: ‘Happy birthday to the best son in the world, my support, my confidante, my advisor, my friend. Love, Pop.’ This note means more to me than anything else I possess. My Father had had a difficult upbringing, yet he had made my life a sumptuous palace of material comforts. And I thought, this has made my life worthwhile.
“Then he was taken to the hospital in the summer of 1999 with heart disease, and he never left. I spent six weeks with him in the hospital…read to him…watched the Redskins…spent a lot of time just sitting there. And I realized what a blessing my father had given me to let me take care of him —as he took care of me for much of my life.
“On September 8, 1999, the doctors came to me and my sister and said, ‘Your father is in a coma, there’s nothing more we can do for him, we’re going to remove him from life support.’ My sister and I sat with him, each on one side, reading him the Psalms, watching him disappear into immortality….I thought, I don’t know how I’m going to live without him. But he gave me this final gift of letting me know that if I could take care of him, I could also take care of myself and my wife and my son.”
Then these are the lines that caught my eye. Stein went on to say, “If you care about the people in your life who have cared about you, that by itself is an incredibly successful, great life. That by itself is more than winning prizes and money.” That seems to me more consonant with what that man of Galilee is about, gathered with his friends, all of them, even frail Peter and ambitious Judas, going out then into the night pleading with them to stay near and awake.
The power of the personal, the impact of person to person. Perhaps the real meaning of our days here is as simple as our closest relationships, and clouded by this world’s judgments as to what counts have we lost touch with it. So as you take the bread and cup this morning, you might reflect on who is there in your life, who gathers about your table, whose care is meaning enough. But there is more here. You might also reflect on those you might reach out to who are not there. Not only does he live out his purpose in the intimate and personal relationships of his life. He does it in a way that includes all sorts of human beings. It is there in that room on his last night with us. What a strange bunch of friends, a revolutionary, a servant of the Romans, an unstable fisherman, a traitor to his cause, a couple of ambitious entrepreneurs, all of them welcome at his banquet table. And by the way, women may well have been there also. We know they were in that same room with him just days later. His vision and purpose, a new kind of family for his God, where all are welcome. In his new community there is to be neither male nor female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, but all one in his love.
Two thousand years later the church that bears his name is found in every land under the sun, over two billion, but I ask, has it truly and fully embraced that vision and purpose of his? I like to think we are trying here at Kenilworth Union.
Why are the communities of this world so fragile, and unable to heal and save? They all tend to be conditional upon something that separates human beings, ethnicity, race, caste, competencies, pedigrees. We are called to be different as Jesus was different, as we try to embrace as God does in mercy and love, as we reach out to include wise and simple, young and old, highborn and ordinary, accomplished and struggling, whoever drawn by the love of God finds their way to us.
There is an old story I love about the child who got it right, this kind of community we are to be. Forgive me for repeating it. The woman who taught Vacation Bible School had an experience she will never forget. Her class was interrupted on Tuesday when a new student was brought in. The little boy had one arm missing, and since the class was well along, she had no opportunity to inquire about the cause of his problem or his state of adjustment. She was very nervous and afraid that one of the other children would comment on his handicap and embarrass him. There was no opportunity to caution them, so she proceeded as carefully as possible.
As class time drew to a close, she began to relax. She asked the class to join her in their usual closing ceremony. “Let’s make our churches,” she said, They each folded their hands and began to recite. “Here is the church and here is the steeple, open the doors and there’s…” The awful truth of her own actions struck her. The very thing she had fear that the children would do, she had done, exclude this unfortunate. As she stood there speechless, the little girl sitting next to the boy reached over with her left hand, placed it up to his right hand and said, “Davey, let’s make the church together.”
So the church of this Jesus, the new covenant in his life is something we make as we meet and gather here on Sunday or on occasions in between, and welcome one another with all our gifts and weaknesses, all our strengths and shortcomings in that community of meaning, and mercy which is the foundation of real life in our families, our neighborhoods, our world. .