PSUMC building
Site hosted by Build your free website today!

What Are We Passing On?

Rev. Finley Schaef, preaching
Park Slope United Methodist Church, Brooklyn, NY
Sunday, January 7, 1996

While studying about the prophet Isaiah in preparation for this sermon, I was reading an exposition written by Professor James Muilenberg, with whom I studied Old Testament during my one year at Yale Divinity School, in New Haven CT. Everybody said what a wonderful teacher he was, but I wasn't impressed because I couldn't understand what he was talking about. I don't blame him for that. My ignorance of the Bible when I went to seminary was profound.

I began dreaming and reminiscing about Dr Muilenberg and the people like him who devoted their lives to studying the Bible and then wrote articles for The Interpreter's Bible, a work of 12 thick volumes published 40 years ago. Prof Muilenberg wrote about Isaiah and quoted other scholars who had gone before him. Now I was reading him and getting ready to quote him. No doubt he is dead and in the bosom of Abraham and Sarah by now. He spent his life studying the Old Testament and he lectured numbskulls like me and he wrote articles that I am reading long after he passed away. Did he live his life well? Did he do what God hoped for? What did St Peter say when he knocked on the Pearly Gate?

Some unknown person in our church raised a fundamental question last year. When we passed out a questionnaire inquiring about our concerns, this person raised the question, What is the purpose of my life?

How shall we answer such a question? Can we give a general answer that fits everybody? Or must our answer be tailored specifically to the person who is asking it?

Speaking generally, Thomas Berry maintains that the purpose of the human being is to stand in awe of the Creation and to celebrate it. That's why we're here and all human activity should be oriented in that direction. The bottom line is not profit -- the bottom line is praise.

So if you're debating whether we should balance the budget, the bottom line is this: Will balancing the budget enable more and more people to celebrate and praise Creation? Will balancing the budget protect God's Creation from the ravages of human greed? We never seem to hear fundamental questions like these being discussed and debated.

Another piece of the answer about human purpose comes out of my musings about Prof Muilenberg. We can say that the purpose of the human is to receive learning from those who went before, perhaps improve it in some way, and in any case pass it on, like the scholar who studies the writings of the prophet Isaiah and writes an article about it for us to read. There's a popular phrase that says the same thing simpler and better: "Make the world a better place."

We're all links in a chain and the point is to pass on what we have discovered and the new insights we have received. The Chain of Being progresses through the efforts of teachers like Prof Muilenberg, through my efforts, and through your efforts.

When I was in high school, I ran on the track team. I ran the hurdles and I ran the 880-relay, which means 4 of us each ran 220 yards. In the relay races it was crucial to practice passing the baton. The baton was a piece of wood resembling a piece of broomstick about 9 or 10 inches long. If you dropped the baton, forget it -- the race was lost. You had to wait for the baton but you also had to be moving ahead when you received it, and you held your hand just so. That is the way we must see our lives: as receiving, moving forward, and then passing on.

So far, so good, but these thoughts need to be more specific to help young people make decisions about their futures.

What would you say to the question, What shall I do with this understanding that my purpose is to be a strong and intelligent link in the Great Chain of Being? How would you answer a young person who came up to you and said:

I understand that I am a vital link between the past and the future, and the I have responsibilities to receive from the past and to pass on to the future. Now where do I go? What direction do I walk in?

An age-old answer is so to live that we minimize pain and maximize pleasure; that when making a decision we look for the path of pleasure and avoid the path which entails suffering and pain. The great theologian Paul Tillich said that he has never met anyone who actually lives by this philosophy. This desire to eliminate pain and live only for pleasure is not a dream, it's a pipe-dream.

I heard recently another description of the gap between rich and poor. "The wealth of the richest 150 people equals that of the poorest 3 BILLION." I don't know anything about these 150 people other than that it is more difficult for them to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. And I would also agree with Tillich that even these super-rich 150 people sometimes choose the path of pain and struggle over the path of ease and contentment, for the sake of their family or friends.

First of all we have to say to our youth who question us about purpose: AS CHRISTIANS, our purpose is to enable others to find and fulfill their purpose. Some people, like goodhearted doctors and nurses, do just that -- bring others to good health so they can lead purposeful lives. The mark of a Christian is humane treatment of THE OTHER. The Other is not an enemy until proven a friend. Our religion teaches us that the Other is a friend until proven an enemy. That's our first Principle when thinking about Life's Purpose.

SECOND PRINCIPLE: When getting down to specifics: Start big & broad. Then narrow down, eventually to yourself as one little human being in the big bad world.

I find one big and broad answer to our question about purpose in the quotation which I have printed in this morning's bulletin.

Women, population and environment are increasingly recognized as closely interlinked. . . .

A neighbor of ours who works at the U.N. told me recently that the people who are struggling for women's rights, and the people who are struggling to protect the natural environment, and the people who are struggling to slow down the human birth rate -- these 3 groups of concerned human beings are discovering that their interests are inter-linked and that it will profit them to work together.

We said earlier: if you're debating whether we should balance the budget, the bottom line is, Will balancing the budget enable more and more people to celebrate and praise Creation? Now we can add a second stipulation. You want to balance the budget? What effect will this have on the welfare of women and nature, and will it slow down the human birth rate?

These are my initial reflections on purpose. Much more can and must be said because this is the most important question of the modern age: why are we here and what are we about? What are we going to pass on? May God please guide us in this quest for the right direction and the right path to walk on. Amen.

PSUMC Home Page | PSUMC News | Calendar | Recent Sermons | Back Sermons