Sermon: Finding Our Why – Why Matters

“Finding Our Why: Why Matters”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
February 18, 2018

Genesis 12:1-4
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

This week we start a sermon series called Finding Our Why. We’ll get to what that means in a minute, but I invite you to listen to this morning’s sermon as the opening of a larger conversation we’ll have all through this Lenten season.

In this morning’s Hebrew Bible scripture, we heard about Abram and his wife Sarai (later to be called Abraham & Sarah), who at age 75 set out from all they have ever known to embark on a new life in as yet unknown place. Did you catch that? God doesn’t even tell them where they are going – just that they need to leave it all behind to journey to “the land that I will show you.”

Let it never be said that God can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

It’s hard for us to imagine in this day of spontaneous road trips and hundreds of daily flights from Logan airport to anywhere across the world. But in ancient times your tribe, your family, your land were your everything; to leave the land you were born in and where your ancestors had lived for generations would be to leave behind your identity, your community, your income and all that made you secure.

Would you or I have had the chutzpah to do that, especially given that the destination was unknown? Would we have been able to trust God – who, by the way, was also an unknown as far as Abram was concerned? God hasn’t even introduced Godself or made any kind of formal arrangement with Abram yet – their famous covenant doesn’t come until three chapters later.

People who take great risks, leap out into the unknown, commit to following a course even when they can’t see where it will lead – what makes them do it? What force is powerful enough to overcome the fears and the doubts, the questions and the worries and uncertainties?

It’s the power of their “Why.” The power of their “why” – their purpose, their belief, their vision. They have found something so deeply true and motivating that they are willing to spend their lives on it – to pour their heart and soul and resources into their vision for a better world.

I hope some of you got a chance to watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk which I sent out on Friday. In it, he talks about “the golden circle” – the bull’s eye you hit when you get beyond the “what” and the “how” of a company or organization and make it to the “why” – the organization’s purpose, the cause, the belief. The example he gives is Apple, the computer company. Why are they so successful, and why are we willing to buy cell phones and tablets and mp3 players and all sorts of non-computer products from this…computer company? Sinek argues that they don’t market their “what” – making great computers – or even their “how” – that they make their computers user-friendly. Instead, they market their why: innovation and challenging the status quo, being on the leading edge. Remember those Apple billboards that simply said “Think different” with an Apple logo?

In Sinek’s words, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” It’s belief that drives action, not facts and figures; it’s emotion and feelings that drive commitment, not logical persuasion.

Now lest you imagine that finding the “why” is simply an effective marketing strategy, let me share with you another example from Sinek’s talk. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the icon of the Civil Rights movement. There were plenty of other preachers, speakers, and activists on the ground making it happen, but Dr. King is the one we lionize, the one we remember, the one who was able to draw a quarter of a million people to stand in the sun of a sweltering August day in Washington, D.C. to hear him speak. That’s because Dr. King was clear on his why – making human beings’ God-given dignity and equality a reality in this country, inclusive of any color or race.

“He didn’t go around telling people [specifics on what or how] to change…America,” Sinek says, “he went around telling people what he believed. People who believed what he believed took his cause and made it their own. …How many people showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It’s what they believed about America that got them to travel on a bus for 8 hours and stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. …And by the way, it was the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, not the ‘I Have a Plan’ speech.”

You know what I think Jesus was doing out in the wilderness for those 40 days, right after he was baptized and right before he started his ministry? I think he was marinating on his Why. He was fasting, and praying, and communing with God – focusing on the Why of the ministry he was about to undertake and resisting Whys that would have twisted or perverted that ministry. In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, we get a little more detail on the temptations Jesus faced – Satan tries to get him to turn stones into bread that will take away his hunger, and shows him vast kingdoms that could be his, and finally urges him to throw himself off a tall building and save himself. In other words, Jesus is offered ways to use his power that would serve himself; yet he comes out with a Why that will serve others.

He could have started with a what – reforming Judaism, say, or healing people. He could have even started with a how – getting really good at rhetoric and preaching or perfecting his miraculous powers. But instead he zeroes in on the Why, and if I had to take a stab at it, I’d say Jesus’ Why is this: inviting people into God’s expansive love. God’s kindom of love, justice, wholeness, and reconciliation is not somewhere far off but here, and now, and you can be a part of it. People wanted to believe that – they wanted to believe they could be a part of something new and beautiful that God was doing, something that would heal themselves and the world.

More than any plan or method or strategy, this Why fueled Jesus through three long years of ministry and through betrayal and suffering and death on a cross. It’s fueled countless saints and martyrs and everyday people; and it has fueled a millenia-long movement – of which we, today, are a part. Wow.

Thank God Jesus didn’t come out of the desert with a slogan like “Judaism: you’ll like it better reformed” or “Be healed, because I’m really good at miracles.”

We’re going to spend the next four Sundays digging into our Whys – our personal Whys for being part of this faith community, and our Whys as a body – Park Avenue’s Why. In my experience, the more we try our hand at finding Whys, the easier it gets. So for a little food for thought, as it were, let’s try another one.

I just finished reading Julia Child’s autobiographical book My Life in France. Like Jesus and like Sarai & Abram, she didn’t find her Why right away – she almost stumbled onto it while her husband was posted to France as a diplomat. Anyone who’s seen one of her French Chef cooking shows on WGBH would probably hazard a guess that her Why was cooking. But that’s a what. It wasn’t cookbook writing or TV hosting – that’s a how. What I learned from reading her reminiscences was that her drive, her purpose, her passion was understanding the science of a particular recipe – pulling apart what worked and what didn’t, discovering the key to a particularly tricky technique, ferreting out all the variations and alternative methods – and then sharing that knowledge with others who would be just as delighted by it as she was.

After more than 8 arduous, unrelenting years spent sweating over stoves and typewriters, perfecting recipes and typing and editing manuscripts, she and her editor and her coauthor faced their final struggle: to come up with just the right name for their labor of love, a name that would communicate the revolutionary nature of this cookbook in a sea of Betty Crocker box mixes and that would inspire the public to take a leap of faith into a whole new, more involved but more satisfying, way of cooking. In other words, they were looking for their Why. A few of the clunkers included Do-It-Yourself French Cooking, French Cooking from the American Supermarket, and my two personal favorites: French Magicians in the Kitchen and The Witchcraft of French Cooking. (All of those are Hows, or Whats.)

What they and their editor finally settled on was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I’d wager that also encapsulated Julia’s Why – her love affair with a field so rich and nuanced that she would spend her entire professional life plumbing its depths – and sharing those treasures with as wide an audience as possible. As soon as she got her Cordon Bleu diploma she was teaching housewives in her Paris apartment in the hopes that they, too, would fall in love with her beloved art.

Julia Child doesn’t mention any spiritual leanings in her book; I’d wager she wasn’t particularly religious. But I see a few themes in the quest to define her Why that ring true with any God-given Why.

First is that although a Why may give us the satisfaction of passion and drive, of knowing our purpose, it doesn’t guarantee the road ahead will be clear and smooth. The ups and downs of collaborating with a co-author, navigating the publishing business, even just the sheer amount of work involved in testing recipes, all backdropped against the uncertainties of life in the diplomatic corps, particularly in the era of McCarthy witch hunts, gave Julia a run for her money. Likewise, we know where Jesus’ Why led him – to the cross. They aren’t always a picnic in the park, but Whys, especially ones given to us by God, provide the motivation to see the difficult parts through.

Second, and more gratifying, is that a real Why doesn’t just satisfy us, it benefits others. Like Julia’s teaching or Jesus’ determination to serve others rather than himself, a good Why expands beyond ourselves and makes other people’s lives better, richer, fuller.  

Before I close, let’s circle back to Sarai & Abram and take a look at their why.

Is it that they will get a whole bunch of offspring? No, that’s a what, or a result. Is it that they’ll settle and work this new land? No, that’s a how. (Or vice versa; I told you this is a little tricky!) Is it because they’ll be blessed, they’ll get something out of it? No, instead, God says, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse;” why? so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Here is the Why that made Sarai & Abram leave all they had ever known, face another 20 years of barrenness, wade through family disputes, and be asked to sacrifice a beloved son: to be a blessing – not just to their family or their community, but to the entire earth. God wanted to use Abram & Sarai to bring something good to all of humanity – and that vision, that why, fired their souls and set their spirits alight, and off they went into the unknown, ready to face the risks and adventures that come with any great Why.

Park Avenue, it’s time to figure out our Why. And in these 40 days I can’t wait to discover with you Why God has called us into something new together, something that may at times be difficult but that will surely bless us and bless others in ways we can’t yet imagine.