09062501~ Click here for an audio recording.
Today our sermon series asks us to consider how we create meaning and find purpose. The work of Brene Brown, a Houston University professor, suggests that in order for us to show up fully, to live that abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, we need to consider how we create meaning, how we find purpose. I cannot imagine a more poignant time for us to consider our purpose and the meaning we create together than today.
Our text today tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, which implies we do love ourselves. It implies we need to support and care about ourselves and that we must not injure or diminish ourselves. It implies that we live fully into the identity that God has given us and it is out of that genuine, authentic expression of who we are, who we are created to be, that we can give, that we can love, that we can be that light in the darkness. If we accept that we are created in the image of God, as an expression of God’s love, created in and for relationship, then how do we live into that? Who are we as individuals, as church? What is our meaning and purpose in the world?
Meaning and purpose are issues that arise during times of transition, of transformation. They arise at the end of life with particular clarity. Did I live as fully as I might have? Was I authentic and true to the unique identity that God gave me? Was I faithful?
A palliative care nurse, working with people at the end of their lives, wrote a wonderful article called A Nurse Reveals the Top 5 Regrets People Make on Their Deathbeds. The number one regret she found is a lack of authenticity; the failure to live a life true to one’s self rather than the life others expected. This regret is followed by others that to my eyes appear directly related, working too hard at a job that isn’t your passion, failing to express the love you have for those nearest and dearest to you, losing touch with those you love, and finally putting your happiness aside to satisfy the expectations of others.
When I worked as a chaplain intern at Abbott Northwest I was privileged to work on the cardiac floor of one of the best heart transplant centers in America. Not knowing this initially, I was surprised to find that this was a place of new life, where people came from all over the world to receive heart transplants. It was also, as I expected, a place of death and loss where people came in the hopes of a transplant that would never happen; it was a place where some came as they transitioned from this life to more life.
Working this floor and being present to this place of transition was a powerful experience. It was to witness families who refused to allow their loved ones to pass, to witness those who struggled with so many words of love and forgiveness painfully unexpressed. It was also a place where I witnessed lives fully lived, fully embraced surrendered, and often I witnessed all of this on the same day, one only a few feet down the hall from the other. It was to walk from one room filled with regret and longing for one more chance, to another where I was invited to pray for a quick departure from this life, a happy return to God, the ever hoped for words, “well done good and faithful servant,” then pulled close for a farewell kiss on the cheek before they passed on.
Times of transition and change beg us to entertain the question of meaning and purpose. What unique calling has God placed on our hearts? As a church First Presbyterian has come together to say that God has called us to be a reconciling presence in Jasper, to bind up the wounds of racism, to be a living witness to the love God in Jesus Christ. As such we must consider how we might live fully into that, what expectations of others might get in the way of this. What unique calling has God placed on your heart? Are there expectations that others have of you that get in the way of your expressing that unique gift?
We can get very caught up in living into the expectations others have of us. Expectations are tricky things, at the rehab we called them ‘resentments in training.’ Living up to the expectations of others can keep us busy, so busy we fail to become who we truly are and we are left struggling with regret. Holding expectations of others can leave us resentful when they don’t live up to them. Expectations can keep us from seeing what is actually there as we search for what we thought we would see. Expectations are tricky things. They shape and help form our relationships and they also limit them, constrict and sometimes fill them with resentment and regret.
This business of living fully into the meaning and purpose God has laid on your heart is difficult. It can mean breaking with tradition, breaking with expectations; it can mean becoming something no one has ever seen before, and this is where the courage, the wholeheartedness is most vividly seen. Last week a friend of mine preached on the reformation. He said that what amazed him the most about Martin Luther was not that he took issue with the church as it was; others had done this previously, Jan Huss in Prague, John Wycliffe in England, they had brought up the same issues 100 years before Martin Luther. So the ideas were not new. What is amazing is that Martin Luther voiced the same things knowing that Huss was burned at the stake and while Wycliffe avoided this fate due to his popularity with the royal family, his followers were burned at the stake for voicing these things. It was this refusal to be quiet, to be safe, to live into other’s expectations instead of claiming one’s own truth that created the reformation. This is what was amazing, what was wholehearted and completely courageous. This courage transformed an entire world religion and it is our heritage.
Martin Luther knew these stories. Even today when we talk about someone’s goose being cooked we are unknowingly referring to the burning of Huss, who’s name literally translates as goose. Martin found Huss’s sermons as a young man and in finding them, found a hero. He often reminded his followers of the goose who was burned for defying the pope. Huss’s courage and faith emboldened Luther. It is in living wholeheartedly and courageously into our truth that we help others to live into theirs, literally loving our neighbor as our self. Isn’t that amazing?
Ruth Chang, a lawyer and philosopher, gave a TED talk in New York where she talked about hard choices, and why they are hard. She said that hard choices are not necessarily the choice between which one is better, as in is it better to have 10 dollars or 5, but rather making a choice which is about creating meaning and purpose, choices that help to form our identity. It’s hard to differentiate between the value of being a lawyer or a philosopher, she explained, and early on being a lawyer felt safer, it felt more sure, so she chose that.
She heard the expectations of her family, their fear of her being poor and unemployable, and she became a lawyer. Only to find that it did not reflect the unique and wonderful calling that God had put on her heart. She was not called to be a lawyer even though being a lawyer or being a philosopher were pretty equal choices for her. Living into her unique identity, her gifts, required her to let go of her income and safety as a lawyer and re-enter school, to become a philosopher. Hard choices are hard because they confirm or betray our identity, not because one is necessarily better than another. For Ruth Chang meaning and purpose come together when she lives as a philosopher, which is not better than or worse than being a lawyer, it is just more authentic to who she is.
Hard choices, she tells us, are a gift. They allow us to shape and form our identity and to express to the world what it is that matters to us. Hard choices ask us to love ourselves that we might love others, holding aloft the deepest truth that we know, embodying the love of God for all people, a love we give witness to as it is lived out and expressed in our lives, is to love others. It is to find our deepest meaning and purpose and hold fast to these and by doing so give courage to all who are touched by us and our example.
We begin the process of loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self as we allow ourselves to fully inhabit the identity that God has given us, when we are truly faithful to the call God has placed on our hearts. Love is the fulfillment of the law, for love does no harm, and in this is a spaciousness that invites us to discern what God is asking of us, what call has been placed on our hearts, and how we might live more faithfully into this call.
As Christians living with meaning and purpose is about continually inviting God to draw us further and further into embodying and living fully the call that God has given us, to love our neighbor as ourselves. As the church it is to continually seek to be reformed, ecclesia semper reformanda est, the church is always to be reformed, again and again, as we seek to live more and more fully as the body of Christ in the world. We are invited to be both fiercely passionate and gentle in this process, that as we find that place where we can say, here I stand, and I can do no other, we are also acting in love, not a pale and superficial love but a passionate and deeply committed love, as full and wildly exorbitant as the love of the one who came to save us.
The wisdom of the cross is foolishness to the ways of the world. It is a foolishness we are invited into, a wild, exuberant, passionate foolish love, a life fully lived.