Alive With Meaning - thrive UMC Official Blog

Alive With Meaning

So, as it turns out, we’re all alive.  I mean, at least I hope that’s the case (sometimes around this time on Sundays I do wonder a bit) –maybe we should check in with one another on that: first of all, no on here is dead, right? And I don’t mean people who just feel that way. If your heart is beating, and if your mind has some thoughts going through it, you’re very much alive. Even if you were drug here against your will, it means you have a will, and you’re alive.  If you’re here to see your friends or because you’re feeling a little down, or because you fully know how ordinary and life-saving what we’re doing here today is, then it’s because you’re alive.  So from all the living, let me hear you say ‘ay-oh!’

Now, most of us as least vaguely realize that we’re alive, and if we’d only dwell on that very simple fact for a while –even for just a few moments every day, we’d probably notice something absolutely incredible. I mean, can you believe it, all of us have our own, private, tiny little world inside our skulls –filled with information, and experiences, and feelings, and ideas, and hopes and dreams and fears and sensations, and a sub-conscious. I mean, if nothing else, we get to think whatever we want!  And then we get to use our bodies and do some really cool stuff too!  We’re all amazing creatures –and just a little while ago there was no you!  But now there is!  And that’s so freaking awesome!  Why?  I dunno, because sex!  It doesn’t make any sense!

Being alive is so strange and absolutely wonderful.  And you had absolutely nothing to do with your being alive!  Sure, you take care of a lot of the little daily maintenance stuff once you grow up, but that’s it right? Otherwise, you just happened, ready or not. And not only is there an inner world in you, but then, even better, there’s you in this huge, unfathomable outer world too –and it’s filled with so much awesome stuff like spicy tuna rolls, and volcanos, and penguins!  It’s gratuitous.  I mean just think about the penguins and ask yourself why?  There’s no reason for penguins. And there’s also no reason why human beings should see these awkward flightless birds and be so immediately inspired to pick them up and hold them in a warm embrace. They have razor-sharp beaks after all, and yet we just want to love them. Or, if you’re a terrible person, meaning penguins aren’t really your ‘thing,’ then there are also powerful orca whales, which snack on penguins.  It’s like an endless buffet of awesome; and we know that even our own world is just a speck in a much, much bigger collection of awesome things!  It’s literally unbelievable.

Yet, at the same time we also know that, no matter how great your self-maintenance is –no matter how healthy or careful or intentional you are, you’re not going to be alive as a person in this world forever.  You’re here for a cosmic blink, and then unannounced the buzzer sounds and it’s human-game-over! That beautiful thing of consciousness alighting the spongy tissues of your brain will spark and sputter, and that bright cranial kingdom of yours will go forever fizzle out.

And as far as we can tell, we’re the only species that knows this.  We’re alive, but only for a little while.  So the question of our breathing and being quickly becomes: um, so what are we supposed to do with this wonderful, weird thing? How do we live, before the life runs out?

Because life is filled with possibility, right?  You could do absolutely any number of things with yourself today, and then decide you want to go do something completely different tomorrow.  You could get a job at Wells Fargo trading loans, or you could wake up one day and decide to become a professional ‘people-walker’ like this guy I saw on the internet, who was looking for a way to make some money, but didn’t want to walk dogs because he didn’t want to clean up after them, so he says ‘hey, I’ll go walk people!’  You could help or hurt, feel hopeful or pessimistic; you could be a super-social party animal, or an ascetic hermit, an athlete or a bookworm, or maybe you’re a little of all of those things.  It’s all largely up to you, and the way you choose to invest yourself in this life!

And this is why we’ve been offering this new series, which we’re calling “Making Our Way: 5 Disciplines to a More Meaningful Life Now.” Because what you do with your life matters. Your choices matter. The way you interact with others and the world around you matters.  And it matters not just to you, but to us as well, because you’re our neighbor.  And when we align our lives and our energies, and add to it a sense of intention and purpose, we can create something that’s really rich and beautiful, and life-giving, together. We can actually make life better. We have a very particular kind of creative power that, for most of us, lies at least partially dormant for most of our waking existence.  So in this time, here, right now, we just want to draw your attention to this creative power you have. And we’re calling you to be intentional about setting it free and putting it to work.

Last week, the excessively talented Chris Petrick called your attention to this power by inviting you all to become storytellers. You were challenged to examine your own lives and look for the narrative, and to meter the mood, and notice the plot arch of your days and years.  Because when you pay attention to the characters and setting, and the flow and rhythm of your own life, you’ll notice that it has themes that keep recurring, and that it’s going somewhere.  You’ll notice that some things have reliably given joy; and other things have reliably given heartache.  And you’ll notice that certain people and events make you feel alive, while others have a numbing or deadening effect.  For Chris, the simple act of enjoying and telling stories brings life for him.  And so that’s a big part of his sense of life’s meaning and purpose.  And as I sat there and listened to him last week, over and over again the voice inside my own head was going: ‘me too!  Me too! Me too!’ Because storytelling is a creative and life-giving act.  And as Chris showed us, storytelling brings us together to generate a deeper sense of community. And storytelling puts a spotlight on the things in life that give us a sense of value and meaning.

So we want to know what kind of a story you want to tell with your life.

The challenge and the invitation we’ve been offering you throughout the month of January is simply this: we’re calling you to identify your sense of meaning in this life.  We all have some deep, and maybe even subconscious, sense that we’re here on this earth, with these people, for something.  So what is it? What is that thing?  What are we here for?  What kinds of stuff are we here to do?  To what, or to whom, are we devoting the energies of our days?

And this isn’t just a rhetorical exercise, right?  Because if we aren’t clear with ourselves about what we –as individuals and as a community together- are all about, then we become susceptible to all kinds of advertising, don’t we?  For instance, if we aren’t already clear that a new car or some kitchen gadget actually can’t make our lives better or more meaningful, then we’ll buy it, won’t we?  And if we don’t already have at least some sense of what our purpose is as a nation, then we’ll vote for whoever has the biggest, most confident-sounding promises, won’t we?  And if we aren’t already clear about our own sense of personal value, then we’ll believe and internalize the first negative thing somebody has to say about us, won’t we?  And the result is that those voices will become the power that guides our lives and our story.  And we’ll be demoted to becoming passive spectators to our own lives.  We know this is true, because we’ve already seen it –and to greater or lesser extents we’re already living it.   If we’re not clear about our purpose, then a hundred other people with a million other agendas are waiting on standby to hijack our lives from us, along with our money and positive emotions.  Because our purpose is the filter by which we say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to everything in this life.   In short, your purpose will determine your personal code.

So to help us unpack some of this, let’s turn to our Bible story for today.  For the last two months we’ve been reading the story of Jesus as its found in the Gospel of Matthew.  And so far, we’ve seen that Jesus’s purpose is to save humanity from their sins.  That’s what he came to do, and we know that he needed the help of John the Baptist and some fishermen to do this.  Then, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at his teaching.  He started out teaching about what it looks like to be happy or blessed, and today he’s here to talk about rules.  You see Jesus was Jewish, and in the Jewish faith and culture, they put a lot of emphasis on their law.  The law was a source of instruction, learning, tradition, and social accountability in Jesus’ day –and even way back then it was rich and complex.  There were people who spent their whole lives studying and interpreting the law –and it got to be so deep and so complicated that it became difficult for ordinary people to get a handle on it.  In fact, in the Hebrew Bible there are over 600 distinct commandments of ‘do’ this, and ‘don’t do that.’  Which, let’s face it, is a lot to remember, especially considering most people couldn’t read or write.  So most Jewish communities just tried to stick to the basics, so that the ordinary citizens could keep up.

But this is what Jesus has to say about the law.  We’re reading from Matthew, chapter five, starting in verse 17.  And I wanted to cover a lot of ground today, so I’m going to skip over some parts here.  I would very, very strongly encourage you to go back later this week and read this whole passage, because there’s a whole lot to learn from the stuff I’m skipping over.  But what I want you to notice for this morning is first the theme.  Jesus talks about the law and then he goes on to draw his audience’s attention to six specific laws that we found in the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament).  And he’ll identify these specific laws by saying ‘You have heard it said that…’ and then he’ll go on to offer his own interpretation of how his audience should stay faithful to that particular item. And again, the question here I hope you’ll be asking yourself, is what sense of meaning or purpose is Jesus trying to illustrate for them?

It says this: 17 “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. 18 I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. 19 Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder,[a] and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.

27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery.[b] 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.

31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’[c] 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord.[d] 34 But I say to you that you must not pledge at all

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.[e] 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[f] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.  

Now, if we look at this passage as a kind of story, we’ll notice that Jesus does not make following the rules any easier.  In fact, he seems to single out the very commands that most of us feel pretty good about keeping.  Most of us, when we ask ourselves whether or not we’re good people, we say ‘hey, I don’t kill people; I don’t cheat on my spouse; I don’t hurt people who didn’t first hurt me!’ Therefore, we’re pretty okay!  But what Jesus seems to be saying here is that following the literal rules isn’t enough.  Just because you don’t kill people doesn’t mean you’re not violent!  Have you yelled at anyone in anger lately?  Have you called someone a fool or an idiot?  Then than hurts people! It’s violence against their spirit.  I can remember driving down 235 not too long ago, and I look over and the driver next to me is staring right at me while flipping me the bird. And as far as I knew I hadn’t done anything to deserve that, but I’ll tell you, I had a little less pep in my step for the whole rest of the day.

And as lots of us married people know, just because you don’t cheat on your spouse doesn’t mean you’re faithful.  If your attention is elsewhere –whether it’s on other people or on your phone or the news- then you’re not being a good spouse.  If you don’t cherish them all the time, then you’re not fulfilling your contract.

And technically, the old law entitles you to compensation if someone wronged you.  If they knock out your tooth or damage your eye in an accident or a fight, then you get to demand that someone do the same back to them!  But Jesus says that acting on the technicality of that law actually betrays it.  What the law actually demands is that you don’t oppose people who hurt you at all!  In fact, he goes on to say that if someone hurts you, then you’d better step up and volunteer to be hurt some more!

Then lastly, he closes with this, and I just want to read this last paragraph one more time.  It says this:

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[f] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

In other words, love first.  Don’t wait for someone else to show love or kindness to you, but do it first.  Love even those who don’t and won’t love or give back.  Greet people who aren’t family or already connected to you.  God’s is complete because He demonstrates and offers love to everyone –those who are worthy of it and those who aren’t.  So be like God: complete in the way you show love.  And the suggestion here is that you can’t actually be you until you show love to everyone.

And here is where we find our purpose: we become complete when our love is complete.  So let the focus of your life always be on what you love.  Love your family and friends, yes.  Love art and work and technology that helps you and speaks to you –why not.  But don’t stop there. But instead let your love grow. Let it reach further.  Let it go deeper.  Show love to people you don’t know.  Show it to people who hate.  To people who don’t care.  Try to love things that annoy you, like Kesha songs, and Roundabouts and you’ll be closer to God in your power to create goodness. Do nice things even when you don’t feel like it, because that simple act will transform your mood, and your life with it.

For, brothers and sisters, this is our purpose: to love in a way that grows us.  To give ourselves in a way that glorifies God and the inherent goodness of creation and creativity.  So as you go about, continuing to live your life, let it be guided by your love. Pour yourself into things and the people you love.  Let them be your guide. Let them be the lighthouse for your meaning and the focus of your life.

You’re here for something.  Let’s discover what that meaning is.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll give you some practical tools and resources to make the most out of your focus.  Join us next to learn about the discipline that hone your life.  And let’s turn to the One who gave us life and pray.