Finding Our Purpose

Can you think of a time in life when you were reasonably certain you knew what your purpose was?

One of those times for me arrived in my early teenage years, when I convinced myself that I should be an orthodontist. While I cared about the confidence that comes with straight teeth and a stunning smile, my primary motivation came from a much different place. My orthodontist had three framed items on his wall that inspired me—a picture of his red Porsche, another of his airplane, and his diploma. Even as a young person, I combined those signs of inspiration with what I overheard from my parents talking about the high cost of orthodontia, and I had a goal! I figured I could easily deal with some drooling kids during the day if I could drive home with the wind blowing through my hair in a fast car and fly away in my own plane. I held onto this goal until I received the course list from the school of dentistry that seemed to require an excessive number of classes dealing with biochemistry and calculus and preclinical periodontics. There wasn’t a single course on maintaining the fine leather in your world-class automobile or defensive driving on the PCH. With the wise counsel of teachers and family members who pointed out that my primary talents and interests were perhaps outside of the realm of dentistry, I instead decided to major in journalism and go to law school.

Throughout that part of my journey into business and in the years before entering ministry, there was a nagging question I didn’t want to answer: What does God want me to do with my life? Instead of viewing myself as one small part of a bigger community, I was inwardly focused on the things of this world and what I could attain.

In our Scripture lesson today, Paul is pointing to a bigger sense of purpose. He reminds us that we are more than individuals fending for ourselves:

1 Cor. 12:12-24; 24b-26

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Corinth was a city approximately 50 miles from Athens that is often compared to San Francisco. People had many options for business and pleasure. There was a major gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. When this preacher named Paul came along—I imagine his message was as counter cultural as the bearded guys from the hit TV show Duck Dynasty showing up for a champagne and caviar fest at an America’s Cup race. Paul’s words would have seemed ridiculous to many.

Describing people as parts of a body was a common metaphor at the time, but it was most often used as a tool to maintain the status quo with the powerful people as the brain at the top. Yale educated theology professor Lee Barrett explains that those considered less honorable would have been compared to, shall we say, lower body parts. Paul was compelled to redirect the new church he had founded because this hierarchy was finding its way into the followers of Christ. Those of means would act as the proud brain and host the church in their homes, and treat peasants like a sad little pinky toe.

Paul’s assertion of God “giving the greater honor to the inferior member” would have sent ripples throughout the community. It was threatening to people in power within the church and the Roman government. If your job was to clean stables or harvest crops, of course you were considered less important than a successful merchant, government official, or priest.

Paul challenged the first followers of Jesus—and us today—to consider how our gifts and purpose as individuals fit into the bigger picture of God’s activity in the world.

There are three key messages I hope you’ll take with you today and wrestle with in the days ahead:

God is still calling. This one can be especially frustrating. I realize that some of you here today worked for your entire career in the same vocation, and I commend you for that. Many are generous with the church and other non-profits, and we thank you for that. I firmly believe, however, that whether you are a young person in school right now, a professional new to the city, a parent, a retiree, or anything in between, God is not finished with you!

A few months ago, I met a woman named Tiadora. From an early age, she dreamed of becoming a doctor or a nurse. Around this same time, she fell in love, got married, and had children. Her family’s financial realities required Tiadora to work in a job that paid well, but had nothing to do with the medical field. She did this job for more than 20 years and was resolved to continue for the sake of her family. At a certain point, however, her sense of calling reemerged. She couldn’t shake it.

I met Tiadora when I pushed the call button on my wife’s hospital bed earlier this year. After several days in the hospital battling a brain virus of unknown origin, it was clear to Colleen that I was not called to run a beauty salon. My insensitive brushing technique aggravated her already excruciating headaches. She had some physical limitations at the time, and really wanted her hair washed and brushed. Tiadora emerged, all of four-feet, nine inches, wearing an ID card with bright butterfly stickers, and a beaming smile. Though I did not tell her I was a pastor at first, she proudly described how she had found her purpose. Though her job involved tasks such as washing patients’ hair, she had to do much less glamorous dirty work for people in life’s most difficult circumstances—and she loved it. Tiadora did admit, however, that her third career could involve opening a beauty salon and even invited me to be a partner and stylist. Colleen said no.

No one is excluded. Paul’s metaphor and the broad array of stories we have about Jesus remind us of this time and time again. Jesus broke countless cultural taboos as he spent time with people society deemed unclean. He associated with powerless children, crooked tax collectors and unfaithful husbands and wives. Whether you are here today feeling like you have lived a generally moral life or secretly wondering whether God will forgive you for some detours you took, you are welcome here. Really.

Christ is the unifier and we are truly one body. This is the hard part. When we come together as a community, things can get messy. In isolation, I can intend to be a loving contributor to the Body of Christ, but then I encounter . . . those people. Those people who drink the brand of coffee that I consider evil. Those people who had the audacity to sit in the pew I normally sit in. Those who like a different style of music than I do. Those children who make noise instead of just sitting still. Living in a community as one is really hard, even when we come mentally prepared to do it.

Being a divided community, each looking out for ourselves seems to be our tendency when we go unchecked. There are many reasons why people tell me they don’t come to church. Yes, sometimes we preachers speak too long or are too boring. Yes, sometimes there are amazing games like the 49ers vs. the Green Bay Packers—which I will be watching later today. But the number one reason is . . . . hypocrisy. “Why would I go to church when people talk about love, but don’t live it?” People hear about fights within the church about everything from worship to who should be ordained to outright hatred and exclusion of others.

People of Calvary;

Children of God;

The Body of Christ . . .

We can do better.

As faithful people living the Christian faith, we can have hope that light overcomes darkness.

As a community saying that all are welcome, and really meaning it, we can grow in number and depth.

As people of action, with a unified purpose, we can have an impact on the suffering so many in the world endure.

Yesterday I had the honor of presiding at the memorial service for Calvary member John Wilson, who passed away last week after a battle with cancer. Just this past Monday when I met with him in the hospital, he sat up and took my hand.

Even in pain and in his last hours, John gave a very clear charge:

“We have to fix the world.”

As the Body of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have a clear purpose.