What is the Meaning of Life?


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If you ask your iPhone, Siri says “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya.” Nietzsche’s philosophy on humans seeking purpose through our “will to power,” is alive and well in society today. Rev. John Weems explores Jesus’ thoughts on the matter via the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. How do we find a fulfilling purpose for ourselves AND respond to the needs of the world?

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Luke 16:19-31

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

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Today we continue our series on “Questions of Faith,” featuring services exploring questions from the congregation. Today I have the very humbling task of responding to “What is the meaning of life?”

I decided to begin in the most obvious place any pastor would—by asking Siri, the artificial intelligence feature of my iPhone. Some of her responses, included:

  • “I can’t answer that now, but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens.”
  • “Life: the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.”
  • “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya.’”

Speaking of Nietzsche, the philosopher had a few things to say about meaning of life, including the following from Beyond Good and Evil: “Suppose, finally, we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will–namely, of the will to power . . .”[1]

In other words, our meaning comes as we seek power prestige and privilege to the greatest degree possible. I trust that each of you has philosophers and poets and doctors and Scripture passages that help you understand the meaning of life.

Today’s Bible passage comes from Luke 16:19-31. It’s sometimes referred to as Lazarus and the Rich Man. I didn’t pull it out of thin air. It is part of the Lectionary . . .

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

I know this passage is heavy. If you’re new here, please know that we are not typically the fire-and-brimstone sort of church. I tend to be a reasonably happy person. This passage is preceded by Jesus calling out the religious leaders—people like me wearing robes like mine—saying that no one is able to serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and mammon. This concept of mammon is deeper than just money. I don’t believe that Jesus is consistently saying that having money is inherently bad. When we allow wealth and systems to overtake us, mammon takes on what in ancient literal has this demonic quality in which the wealth owns us. I certainly have things that own me—mortgages, other possessions. What about you?

In this passage, learn that the nameless rich man feasts sumptuously every day. There are other places in Scripture such as the story of the Prodigal Son in which a feast is in order. This man does it every single day. He has this careless affluence and is not truly grateful.

Lazarus comes from the Greek word meaning “my God helps.” When you hear that dogs came to lick his sores, this was not intended to paint a sentimental picture. Dogs were unclean and this would have aggravated the religious leaders Jesus was trying to reach.

One of the key concepts here is repentance. We don’t like to use that word or talk about sin too much. It is very difficult in a world in which there can be so much darkness. In this story, the rich man is not repenting or turning back toward God. Even having Lazarus as his gate is not swaying him. The rich man’s heart is hardened by mammon.

This is a very heavy passage. I do want to state for the record that in life, I believe the grace of Christ flows throughout. I have been with people in their final hours who were still processing their experiences. I believe that God has the last word. Don’t let some preacher like me convince you that you have lost your chance for grace. Christ is always reaching out for you.

We don’t really like passages like this because we don’t like to feel bad. We don’t want to come to church to be made to feel bad.

Nietzsche knew this. In another work, Human, all too Human, Nietzsche wrote, “Christianity came into existence in order to lighten the heart; but now it has first to burden the heart so as afterwards to be able to lighten it. Consequently it shall perish.”[2]

If Nietzsche were our church marketing consultant, he would tell us to stop including a prayer of confession and just focus on the good. I get it.

Yet, we have to deal with tough passages like this.

About three years ago, I spoke with a man named David. He used to sit on a piece of cardboard near the Starbucks on Fillmore. One day we got into a conversation. He asked me what I do for a living, which always makes me nervous. “I’m in long term life insurance,” I replied. (Ok, I didn’t really tell him that. I admitted I was a pastor)

He said, “Oh, a pastor huh. Well I’m from Kentucky and I know the Bible.”

David started quoting today’s passage from memory, talking about how he watches us walk up and down Fillmore with our five-dollar coffees and $500 handbags and thinks about this passage. “I’m here looking for some crumbs.”

David watching us walk up and down Fillmore is observing the “hedonic treadmill” –think hedonism—as we pursue pleasure, power, and privilege. We are running really fast. Sometimes we step off to volunteer here or there. Sometimes we step off the have a conversation with David or someone else on the street. Some of us have grand plans about what we will do when we retire or win the lottery. What do we do in the meantime?

I want to be clear that I am not claiming to be better than any of you. My friends serving smaller churches around the country would definitely label me a “one percenter.” Calvary is a large church with resources and my salary is higher than many of theirs. I have power and prestige that some of them do not. I am looking in the mirror as I read this passage.

When we step off the hedonic treadmill, we can experience what researchers in a study at UCLA and University of North Carolina recognize as “eudaimonic” happiness—think euphoria. “Happiness derived from leading a life full of purpose and meaning seemed to protect health at the cellular level, while happiness derived from pleasure or self-gratification did not.”[3]

We know that those hedonic things fade, but it can be so hard to step off and pursue the matters that bring long-lasting fulfillment. Stepping off of the hedonic treadmill is difficult and uncomfortable

So back to the question of the day: “WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?

There is quote often attributed to Picasso or Shakespeare: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Those words to not appear to have been spoken or written by those two, but were perhaps inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a stone; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing.”[4]

What happens when we step off the hedonic treadmill and give sacrificially as Jesus did? Sometimes it causes us to take a risk and change our life or career. Sometimes beauty comes, like last week when I had the opportunity to see Calvary members and friends sharing their career experience with 17-24-year-old disconnected youth at New Door Ventures. Calvary members and friends shared lessons learned as principal, information technology professional, banker, youth minister, and entrepreneur. Sometimes looking beyond ourselves breaks our heart as we are truly present with someone. We need not have magic words, nor sometimes do much more than know that when some says they are “fine” that they really aren’t.

Sometimes stepping off the treadmill it pierces out soul when we stop to listen to the names and stories of people with lives every bit as sacred as ours including Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott.

Sometimes even when we aren’t looking for a battle, God brings one to us.

I want to take a moment to explain to you why I care so deeply about the Black Lives Matter movement, though it is controversial and though I acknowledge that many police are out there doing good work and putting their lives on the line for our community.

From holding the bars from Dr. Martin Luther King’s jail cell in Birmingham at the Newseum in Washington D.C., to being in a room full of mothers who had lost children at Mario Woods’ memorial when they welcomed Gwen Woods to their circle, God has moved me. Not all lives were lost at the hands of police. The group includes people like Paulette Brown, whose son Aubrey Abrakasa Jr. died in community violence at the hands of other young men. People like Aubrey could be my son. People I feel a deep desire to stand up for.

I can tell you that if anyone comes after William, the little one I baptized today, I will stand beside him. If you are under attack from cancer or anything else, I will stand beside you.

People are under attack. We are called as Christians to stand with them.

The struggle of the group of mothers and loved ones are represented by a poem by Leslé Honoré of Chicago called Backpacks:

“When black boys are born
We mothers kiss their faces
Twirl our fingers in their curls
Put them in carriers on our chest
Show them to the world
Our tiny black princes
And when they start school
As early as 3
We mothers
Place huge back packs on their backs
And we slowly fill them with bricks
Etched with tools
Tattooed with truths
Hoping to save them
Don’t talk back
Don’t get angry
Say yes ma’am
Say no sir
Don’t fight
Even if they hit you first
Especially if they are white
Do your best
Better than best
Be still
Work hardest
BRICK
they get a little older
And we add more
Keep your hands out of your pockets
Don’t look them in the eye
Don’t challenge
Don’t put your manhood before your life
Just get home safe
Don’t walk alone
Don’t walk with too many boys
Don’t walk towards police
Don’t walk away from police
Don’t buy candy or ice tea
Don’t put your hood up
I’ll drive you
I’ll pick you up
You can’t be free
Don’t go wandering
Come home to me
BRICK
They get a little older
And we add more
Understand you are a threat
Standing still
Breathing
Your degrees are not a shield
Your job is not a shield
Your salary makes you a target
Your car makes you a target
Your nice house in a nice neighborhood
Makes you a target
Don’t put your ego before your safety
Don’t talk back
Don’t look them in the eye
Get home to your wife
Your son
BRICK
They weigh them down.
This knowing
Of having to carry the load
Of their blackness
the world hasn’t changed
The straps just dig deeper into their skin
Their backs ache
But their souls don’t break
Our beautiful black men
When you say to me
All lives matter
I simply ask
Will your son die with the world on his back
Mine will.”

I do not assume that because one opposes a sign that says Black Lives Matter that you are evil or that you are a racist or are not a Christian. We are trying to wrestle with a matter of life or death that has not been resolved in our nation’s history. We need you.

We can read today’s passage from Luke through the eyes of power, which I often do. I’m the powerful man walking down the street and maybe I have something I can give to Lazarus.

The way the passage was presented to me by the Holy Spirit this week, features Lazarus calling out to me now—to our community now. He is telling us to turn back to toward God. Lazarus is speaking to us.

If I had to give a single answer to the question, What is the meaning of life?, it would come from Jesus quoting Hebrew Scripture in what is often called the Great Commandment:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Amen.

[1] Laird Addis, Nietzsche’s Ontology. Ontos Verlag, 2012), 128.

[2] Nietzsche, Human, all too Human, s.119

[3] Brickman, Phillip & Donald Campbell. Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. 1971. New York: Academic Press. pp. 287–302.; http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/a_healthier_kind_of_happiness

[4] 1843 July, The Dial, Volume IV, Number I, Gifts (Essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson), Start Page 93, Quote Page 93, Column 1, Published by James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts.

 

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