“The Meaning of Life”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 18, 2022
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.’
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
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As soon as I started my seminary degree, my Uncle Joe started asking me, deadpan, what the meaning of life was. “I don’t know, why are you asking me??” I replied. “Well, isn’t that what they teach you there?” And then when I graduated and got my Master of Divinity degree, he asked again, saying, “Well, didn’t you just get a degree proving you have mastered the divine?” And then when I got ordained, “Surely now, you know the meaning of life!” (Can you tell he has a sense of humor?)
It’s a question that countless people have asked over thousands of years, with everyone from classic philosophers to medieval poets to modern-day pop stars chiming in. And it’s the question floating in the background of this morning’s Hebrew Bible reading.
Abraham, still known at this point as Abram, is minding his own business when God comes to him and says, “Listen, I want you to pull up stakes and leave your extended family and follow me somewhere new, and there I’m going to bless you with lots of descendants so that one day your family will become a blessing to every family on earth.”
To get an idea how truly earth-shattering this was, it helps to know that the entire organizing principle of society at the time was the kinship system. Who you were, what you were worth, what gods you worshiped, who your enemies were, where you lived, what you would defend with your life – your entire identity was wrapped up in your extended family, your clan, your tribe – your kindred, as the scripture says. God tells Abram to leave it all behind – essentially to uproot himself and his household and set themselves adrift in a world where no one would know them, care about them, or owe them anything. It would have been incredibly disorienting – they must have felt like they were losing their purpose.
Except that God was giving them a new one: to follow God, to become God’s people, and ultimately to bless all the peoples of the world. As pastor and author Rob Bell puts it in his book What Is the Bible?: “this God is going to bless Abraham with such love and favor that through Abraham everybody on earth is going to be blessed…Not just people who love and obey and offer sacrifices to this God. This God intends to bless all people, everywhere.”
A pretty powerful purpose, and one that was a pretty radical concept for the day. Bell continues: “Tribes at that time existed” (and gods did, as well) “for their own well-being and preservation…But [this God, and] this tribe, the one that Abram would lead, would be different…This tribe would exist to bless all the other tribes.”
Again, this was a novel concept, because “[y]our tribal identity wasn’t just about your bloodline and [the] gods [you worshiped,]” Bell writes, “it was also about safety. The world was extremely dangerous, and without the protection of a tribe, you could easily find yourself enslaved or worse by another tribe… Imagine what would happen if the tribe next door obtained a new technology, like iron or bronze. It would be terrifying, knowing that if there was a battle, you would be outgunned. Your entire way of life would be at stake.
“…It’s in this world at this time that we read the story of a man called to be the father of a new nation, a new tribe, one that would exist not just for its own self-preservation but also for a much higher purpose – to bless all the other tribes… Can you see how radical this idea was?” he asks.
Using our blessings to bless others may not seem like such a countercultural concept to us these days, partly because we’ve heard this story before; we’ve probably even seen the Christian shorthand of it on a t-shirt or a wall hanging: “Blessed to be a blessing.”
But take a moment to consider what messages our society gives us about what to do with our blessings. Year-end bonus? Put it in retirement or go on a vacation. Free drink on your punch card from your favorite coffee place? Treat yourself. Day off? If you’re like me, you’re thinking more “Ah, a day to catch up on errands and visit my favorite thrift store!” than “Ah, a day to see who in my world could use a little extra blessing!”
Stop and think back to what your first thoughts were when you heard we would all be getting stimulus checks, or the upcoming Massachusetts tax refunds – I bet most of us thought of paying off a bill or doing a DIY home project or buying that piece of technology we hadn’t really been able to justify within our regular budget.
It’s not that we’re never generous, or that taking care of ourselves is inherently bad – we need days off to rest, we want to be financially responsible, we need to do things that feed our souls as well as others’. It’s just that our knee-jerk response to having something good happen to us isn’t to wonder how we could share that goodness with others, it’s quite frequently to use it for ourselves and those closest to us. Because even though we no longer live in a tribal kinship system, most often we still use our wealth, the power or access we enjoy, even just our plain good luck to benefit ourselves and our loved ones. “Like anything has changed in thousands of years,” quips Bell.
But what would it look like if every time something good happened to us, we immediately thought of ways to share our good fortune with others – to use our blessing to bless not just ourselves or our family, but to bless “all the families of the earth,” as Abram was invited to do? What if we were like Abram’s descendants who “carried with them,” Bell writes, a “sense of calling, [a] sense that they were different, that they had a unique role to play in the world”?
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You may have seen headlines this week about the extraordinary decision by Yvon Chouinard, CEO and founder of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, to donate his $3 billion company to a trust and a specially created non-profit organization that will use Patagonia’s profits to protect the environment and fight climate change. It’s the latest, and boldest, of his unconventional business moves, which have included leading the switch to more expensive but less environmentally harmful organic cotton; providing on-site childcare; paying employees to do conservation work full-time instead of doing office work; and scrapping his first company’s best-selling pitons, rock-climbing anchors that accounted for 70% of his company’s sales, when it became clear they were damaging rock faces in Yosemite, and then creating alternatives that ushered in a new era of “clean climbing” meant to protect nature.
If you have any familiarity with conventional business wisdom – that profit is priority, that keeping shareholders happy is what counts, that you don’t make decisions that undercut your bottom line – then you can hear how wildly unconventional Chouinard’s business career, including this latest move, has been. The 83-year-old told the New York Times that his hope in essentially giving away his company, rather than passing it on to his kids or selling it and keeping the profits, was to “influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people.” Instead, he said, “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet.” In this age of burgeoning billionaires, that is radical. That is what it looks like to take your blessings and use them to bless others, and the whole world; it changes the story entirely.
You may be thinking that sounds great but that you are not an eccentric rock-climbing CEO and you don’t have billions to give away, so let’s scale this down a bit.
I remember buying our first home in Atlanta and feeling substantially uncomfortable, given how many struggling and homeless people we knew, that we had three bedrooms when we only needed two. So we made a promise to ourselves to use the blessing that we were enjoying (thanks, essentially, to our parents’ wealth and the jobs that our higher education got us) to always have a room open for someone who might need it. We kept that promise when we moved into the parsonage that we are, indeed, truly blessed to live in now; whenever we don’t have family or friends in town, our guest room is open to our friend Matthew, the homeless writer, artist, and activist whom many of you have met, and who often stays with us.
If finances in your family or room at your house are tight right now, there are always the blessings of your talents, your presence, your friendship. For a long time I thought of myself as the “terrible” friend – the one who never remembers to send birthday cards and who always has the great idea to bake cookies for new neighbors but who never seems to get my act together enough to actually make or deliver said cookies.
But then the pandemic happened, and I realized that I had different blessings to share: the blessing of a big backyard where other people’s kids could run around for a few hours while their Covid-stressed parents took a break. The blessing of a working car and a flexible schedule to drive a friend’s teenager to therapy when that friend went back to work at the office. The blessing of hospitality to invite new neighbors and new friends over for dinner most weekends to nurture the community we have all realized we desperately need.
Compared to a billionaire giving away his fortune, it may not sound like much, but I radically bucked my own perception of myself when I discovered that, even as a busy, working parent, I actually got more joy from sharing my blessings than I did from hoarding them to myself. Don’t get me wrong – I still love an afternoon at the thrift store or a quiet hour to read on my couch – I just shifted from thinking that all my free time had to be spent on preserving my sanity to thinking that maybe my sanity depended, in part, on blessing others.
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Speaking of perception, this morning’s gospel passage is one that has, over the years, been perceived largely in one way: “Go and make disciples of all nations,” part of Jesus’ last speech to the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, has been read primarily through an evangelical lens – to convert people, especially “foreigners” and “savages,” to belief in Jesus Christ.
Many of us feel uncomfortable with this verse because we don’t think our religious beliefs are inherently better than anyone else’s, or simply because we think that the primary purpose of our faith isn’t to make others believe as we do, but rather to help us to express more of God’s love in the world. We can understand the gospel writer’s drive to grow the then-brand-new church through discipleship and baptism without adopting for ourselves his goal of converting everyone we meet or sending missionaries to evangelize indigenous peoples.
But what if there was another way to look at this verse – a way that could bless without necessarily assimilating, that could transform without necessarily conforming? What if “to make disciples” – essentially students – “of Jesus Christ,” that is, to engage all those whom we meet in his ways, meant something much broader than narrow belief? What if it meant a radical new understanding that God’s ultimate hope isn’t to have ever more people believing something specific about Jesus, but that each of us would bless every person, every nation, as we live out Jesus’ unconventional way of justice, mercy, and inclusion?
After all, “[t]his God,” as Rob Bell wrote, “intends to bless all people, everywhere…[n]ot just people who love and obey and offer sacrifices to this God.” What if God’s ultimate hope isn’t more souls to mark up on some cosmic tally sheet, but more souls blessed by and alive in God’s love because we shared the abundance and freedom and wholeness and justice and peace we know in and through God with all peoples? That we would take the unique ways we’ve been blessed and use them to bless all the peoples of the earth?
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A few years back I told Uncle Joe that I had finally figured out the meaning of life. “It’s about time,” he said. “Well, what is it?”
I told him I’d seen how he took the blessing of time and so faithfully cared for his mom, my grandma, visiting her every day in her home and then in the nursing home, staying on top of nurses and aides to take the best care of her, until the day she died. And I’d seen how he took the blessing of re-marriage and loved on his step-kids and their children just like he loved on his own, even though he didn’t “have” to. And I’d seen how he took the blessing of the land he stewarded and planted wildflowers every year along the side of his barn so they would raise the spirits of every person driving by, and how he’d reverted some of his farming land to prairie to make a home for the wild animals that have a special place in the tender heart underneath his tough-looking farmer’s tan, even though it meant a few less arable, money-earning acres.
And that I figured that that was it: to use the gifts he had been given, the blessings he had, to bless others, both in his family and beyond it, both people and planet. And that I knew he’d figured out this truth long before I had: that blessing others with our blessings, instead of just keeping them for ourselves, is what makes our lives meaningful, even worth living. So, simple, yet so radical.
“That’s it?” he said.
“Yep,” I said.
“Good enough,” he replied. Amen.