October 23, 2011
University Christian, Seattle
Rev. Janetta Cravens Boyd
Your Life’s Purpose”
// Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain -- that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees -- as far as Zoar.
The LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there."
Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.
Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.//
It’s the end of the line.
I’ve been preaching on the Old Testament, tracking the progress of the Israelite people from their origins in the book of Genesis, through their enslavement in Egypt, and finally their trek across the wilderness,
and they have arrived.
We’re at the end of the story.
And this is my last sermon in the sermon series on the Israelite people.
Their story isn’t done of course, but this part of the chapter in their life is coming to a close.
I thought about Moses, hiking to the top of the mountain, after having led his people through the wilderness for 40 years and able to see the promised land
but not able to go there himself
he had brought the people this far
to the point of being able to view the land that God had promised them
he had led them to the point of introducing them to the next chapter of their life together as a community
but he wasn’t able to go there himself.
and I thought,
it’s too bad this isn’t the text for my last Sunday.
I could preach that sermon.
This could be a sermon about our journey together as pastor and congregation. How we have journeyed together for a little over 3 years, trying to find the destination promised for this congregation, searching for this church’s purpose and mission. I journeyed with you as far as I could take you, but the future, which is yet to be determined, isn’t something I will be able to walk with you into. With only 2 more Sundays together, I couldn’t help but think about how my time with you is drawing to a close and how the community will need to go on, down the mountain, into the future, finding their way, without me -- which is a very humbling thought for a pastor -- and that “what do you want to do” -- or what does God want you to do -- is still the driving metanarrative for our congregation.
But I’m no Moses. And our journey hasn’t been as epic. Or perhaps, as conclusive as the Israelite story.
I’m not Moses in this story at all.
I wonder what that must have been like for Moses. To have worked that hard and seen that much and not been able to taste the fruit of his own labor. To have run the race, but not be given the prize, to have worked that hard to make it that far, and not even be able to kick up his feet on his new couch in his new homeland.
What an amazing act of service.
The journey wasn’t about Moses, but about the people, not about the leadership, but about the destination, not about his story, but about their story.
We’re a pretty results-oriented culture and so our our churches in this culture. If we aren’t going to benefit, it generally doesn’t get our vote. If we aren’t somehow going to see the advantage, we don’t support it. If we are going to work that hard, then we want to be able to reap the rewards.
This is not new in our culture.
Toqueville critiqued American deomocracy, back in 1851 on a tour of America to see how the experiment of democracy in this country was going. He identified in this country what he called “the tyranny of the majority over thought,” which is where the judgments of the wise is subordinate to the prejudices of the ignorant. This creates a kind of individualism, he proposed, with a memory only as long as the individual’s lifespan and as narrowly defined as that person’s imagination, and the ethos of the community is reduced to what individuals want to get out of it. Democracy, would be undone, he said, by those who fail to perceive the whole and what is good for the community, driven out of their own self interests.
Very un-Moses like. The experiment of democracy in America continues and I don’t know if we’ve improved our form.
There political satirist, Steven Colbert, has a quote making the rounds. Judy L. forwarded it to me last week and Wahab’s wife mentioned it in a car ride on Friday evening when I was on my way to give a presentation to the web committee at Lake Washington. Colbert sharply points out the American attitude if we don’t benefit, don’t bother. He says, "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don't want to do it." --Stephen Colbert
Purpose and service seem to go together. The quality of our communities depends on the integrity and stamina of our leadership. What we give our lives to, whether that be what benefits ourselves, or what benefits others, contributes to the quality of our neighborhoods and our world.
How we dedicate our lives, whether they be Moses, or Jesus, or us as a so-called Christian nation, is connected to what we believe about life.
My colleague in Macon, Rabbi Rachel Tamar, the Rabbi at the conservative Jewish synagogue,
explained that in Jewish tradition Moses’ death was considered the ideal
the epoc of a life lived well, and completed at journey’s end.
A common Jewish toast on a birthday is to wish : “may you live to be a 120 years old,” because that is how long Moses lived, which is an ideal time.
This birthday wish strikes me as a double blessing: that may you have a 120 years to make good on your life, and then after 120 years, may you be able to let go of it, stick a fork in it, and call it done. It seems to me that in our American culture that basically avoids all things related to death, that we hang on to the ideal of life too long. After 120 years of it, in some pockets of the Jewish culture, at least, there’s the Moses standard. An ablity to let go of life, even if it wasn’t entirely completed yet or there still seemed more to do, or the journey hadn’t ended. Regardless of what you thought of your life, after some time, you get to let go of it, be done with it, call it quits. This seems to be some wisdom, or blessing, from God. That life does not go on forever, that the struggle of the living has some limit, and at some point -- no matter what you did with it -- we get to say that a long time is long enough.
Most of our aversion to death is that we still feel that there is unresolved matter to attend to. We cling to life because we know deep within ourselves that life has purpose and our life matters, and our reluctance to let go of it is that there is still something unfulfilled in what we were called or wanted to do. Many of you have walked much closer to death, along with it, more than I. You can speak to this more than I can. My mother’s fight with death, had something to do with the way she had wrapped her life and her heart around her granddaughter, my niece, Madeline. She knew that caring for Madeline was the purpose her life had that would go undone with her passing. “Take care of Madeline,” she said to anyone who sat by the side of her bed. Take care of Madeline -- the torch she carried that worried her, that needed, to be passed to someone else.
Purpose. If we don’t find it, it makes for a fretful life. There’s an African proverb: “When death finds you, may it find you alive.” Alive means living your own life, not the life that someone else would have you life, or the idea of life you have about you, or even what your religious or political party would have you life, but the life that your own soul wants to live. (Michael Meade, “Your Own Damn Life,” The Sun, November, 2011, Issue #431.)
I have to think that death found Jack alive Wednesday night. He seemed the kind of person who lived his own life, fully, and completely clear to the end. This row seems a little unbalanced without him. I will miss the way he called me “coach” -- “morning coach” -- he’d say, which has always struck me as a pretty apt description for my job.
A good death is about having had a completed life. We may say that we are going downhill, that the aging process means life is going downhill, but it is optimally a process of going deeper into one’s self. Michael Meade, well known storyteller and author on many things, including aging, said in an interview in the magazine The Sun, that the point to our aging processes is not about loosing, but about realizing -- gaining a deeper understanding of who we are and to arrive at the place where we can see that our life has meaning if we view it from the inner work of connecting our story with the outer reality of destiny, meaning, and life. Going deeper is the work of the soul.
Without the tug of the soul to connect our life’s activity, Meade says, we just end up producing “olders” as a culture, not elders. Aging is a biological process that happens to everyone. Everybody gets older. Every body dies. But an unrealized life just produces olders who cannot awaken from the fear that they are over the hill and going downhill. Becoming an elder involves a lifelong awakening to and reflecting upon the story that is in your own soul. The elders stay young at heart because they remain close to the dreams they had when they were young and stay in touch with the eternal sage that lives in them. The role of the elder is to go deep inside and stay in touch with the Eternal. (Meade, “Life,” Sun.)
I am not yet an elder. Still a “younger,” I have been fortunate to meet some elders in my life. Elders act not out of fear, but out of wisdom and understanding. They aren’t at death’s door still checking their portfolios on-line, but are inspired to give back the wisdom they have extracted from life and not simply benefiting from life or receiving material benefits. Meade says in his interview, that “if there is to be a genuine revolution in this culture, which claims to be free but increasingly lacks freedom, it’s more likely to come from older folks who give up the fears associated with aging and dying and become elders instead.” (Meade, “Life,” Sun.)
Elders. Like Warren Buffett, who decided to give away most of his money. Maybe he had awakened to the fact that when you get to a certain age, the material wealth you have accumulated is no longer meaningful to you. You can’t take it with you -- as they saying goes -- your portfolio and possessions, real estate and insurance policies -- aren’t worth much to you on the other side. So, Warren Buffett decided t do something good with it now. Maybe while he could see some of the befit of those gifts. Buffett is a model for older people, for all of us. Donald Trump seems to be the opposite -- still trying to “trump” everybody. (Meade, “Life,” Sun.) Meade says in his interview that the next stage of growth in American culture would be for the elders who can afford it to begin giving away what they’ve accumulated rather than worrying too much about security. As an Irish poet once said, a “false sense of security is the only kind there is.” Elders know that. (Meade, “Life,” Sun.)
Who am I to preach about aging or dying? I began dying the day I was born. There is tremendous liberation once this reality begins to sink in and we can begin, as the song says, to live like we are dying. That once we claim that our purpose is to live out our own uniqueness, and our time is limited, we have all sorts of permission to act out our life’s story as it connects to God’s dream for humanity. Moses had his own unique essence, and no one will ask on the day of our death why we were not Moses. But God will ask why you were not you. Loren sent me an e-mail with an excerpt from the book by the man who gave the Turner Lectures this year. A book called “What Would Jesus Deconstruct,” by John Caputo. I’ll summarize a bit, but the author says:
"If you knew very well where you were going from the start and had the means to get there, it would almost be like getting there before you even set out or like ending up where you were all along...The result would be nothing new--no surprise, no discovery, not 'event,' and no advent... or not much of one. Real journeys are full of unexpected turns and twists, requiring faith that can move mountains and hope against hope, where one does not see what one was trying to do until the journey is completed. [Going deeper into our life].. deconstruction,..is not a Platonic 'recollection,' a getting back to where you already were or a recovering of a possession that you did not realize you possessed all along. It is not a matter of becoming who you already are but of becoming something new, a new creation -- which eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the heart imagined, an openness to the coming of the other, which we don't already possess...It comes by way of an unexpected turn of events, by shattering our horizon of expectation." (John Caputo, “What Would Jesus Deconstruct,” pages 52-53)
The myth of our culture is that you must become somebody. The myth of our culture says that you must make something of yourself. But God says, that you already are somebody. You already are. And the journey of your life is... what you make of it, maybe
what we make of it, perhaps
What God makes of it, definitely.
In God, you already are.
With God, you are enough.