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First Congregational

United Church of Christ

... exploring the frontiers of faith in Jesus

Chasing the wind

We find meaning -- Paul and Liz and Lauren and me and you -- by making a narrative, by fitting our lives into a story. We make a narrative that makes our lives not merely a series of random and disconnected experiences or random and disconnected choices, but a journey, a journey toward a destination of our choosing, of our hoping. And it is pursuing that journey, following that path, that gives our lives direction, that gives our lives meaning.

It might be the path of hard work. You work hard to feel productive, to feel useful, to feel needed, to feel that your life is being well-spent, not wasted, not just frittered away, but meaningful.

It might be the path of service. You give yourself away -- your energy, your compassion, your time, your money -- because it is in giving that you receive, that you receive a sense of value, that you receive a sense of meaning.

Or it might be the path of righteousness. I am OK, my life has meaning, because I try to do the right thing, because I will not succumb to the temptations and delusions of this world, because I pursue temperance and chastity, faithfulness and holiness and justice.

Or it might be the path of personality. I am OK, my life has meaning, because people like me, because I have many friends, because I am a good listener, because I know how to have a good time.

It might be the path of motherhood or fatherhood or grandparenthood. Your life has meaning when you invest yourself in your children or your grandchildren, when you provide for them, protect them, encourage them, love them.

Or it might be the path of accomplishment. Your life has meaning because you know you have made a difference, because your contributions, your ideas, your gifts have left a mark on your family or on your community or even on the world. It is your legacy, the list of your achievements, that gives your life meaning.

One of these may be your path or it may be another, but whatever it is, it is a path or a narrative that gives direction and meaning to your life. A path. A narrative. A story. Or we might call it a system, a system that helps you make sense of the confusing spectacle of this life, of all the duties and desires clamoring for your attention, competing for your allegiance.

Or we might call it an orthodoxy, your bottom line belief in what it is that matters, in what it is that you should do and be, your bottom line belief in the people or institutions or nation or gods to which you have pledged your ultimate loyalty.

You put your faith in that orthodoxy. You trust that system. You follow that path. Not perfectly. Sometimes you stray off the path. Sometimes you fail the narrative. But that's your problem, not the problem of the narrative itself, not the problem of the system itself, not the problem of the orthodoxy itself.

But what happens, not when you fail the narrative, but when the narrative fails you? That's the question posed by the book of Ecclesiastes. What happens when the narrative of a meaningful life proves empty? When you get everything you want, when you accomplish everything you set out to do, and you realize that it doesn't mean a thing, that you have been chasing the wind?

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Short and hasty ... and useless?

Useless, useless, said the Philosopher.

I used to be a philosopher. I was a student of philosophy at Yale University. There were few of us then and probably even fewer now. I was so thrilled when I found out that Cole Highnam was studying philosophy and loving it.

Philosophy used to be called the queen of the sciences, but now it is deemed an afterthought or an oddity, an esoteric and rather useless area of study. Now it's all about STEM -- science, technology, engineering, mathematics. Now it's all about turning out efficient and productive workers that can grow the economy, cogs in the machine of human progress. Now it's all about empowering and overcoming: overcoming obstacles, solving problems, making everything work better, faster, bigger.

Now it's all about developing technologies that will allow us to extract more and more power and wealth from the earth, to cure more and more diseases and to prolong life, in other words, technologies that will allow us to rein in nature and push back death, to overcome nature and overcome death, to control our own destinies instead of being at the mercy of the elements around us and the brevity of our own lives.

It's all about hubris! We are striving for nothing less than invincibility and immortality. So how is it working? Are we invincible? Are we any closer to immortality? Who gets the last word? Nature or us? Death or us?

Is bigger, faster, and better better for us? Do our technologies serve us or do we serve them? Are our lives richer, fuller, better than they were before smartphones, before the internet, before nuclear power, before 5-hour energy shots?

We seek knowledge or, more accurately, we seek know-how, because we believe knowledge is power, because we believe know-how pays off. But pays off for whom? Power for whom? And do power and pay-off even matter?

We need to ask other questions, not just "How can we do it?" but "What will happen if we do it?" or "How will doing it change who we are or how we are or how we are together?" or even "Should we do it?"

These are the kinds of questions a philosopher asks and more, not "How can we put it to use?" but "What is it, in itself?" "What gives it value and meaning?" A philosopher looks at the big picture, how one thing, one person, fits into a universe of things and a universe of people, and a philosopher asks different questions, not "What do we know?" but "How do we know what we know?" and "Can we really know anything at all?"

A philosopher begins with doubt, questioning assumptions, questioning appearances, questioning motives, purposes, values, questioning everything, so that anything that is not what it seems to be may be exposed, so that the core of what does matter, what does have value, what does have meaning, may be revealed, so that we may live wisely. That's the philosopher’s goal: not knowledge, but wisdom ...

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Shalom

We wait for what God has promised

Earth

... new heavens and a new earth!

• Read my essay, Heaven can wait

Staff Corner

"I was hungry and you fed me."

It's clear. It's specific. It's indisputable. Jesus said this is what righteous people do.

The author of the gospel of Matthew places this message at the end of the twenty-fifth chapter, just before beginning the account of Jesus' last days -- his passion, his arrest, trail, and execution. These are Jesus' "final words," his "parting message," to his followers. This is what matters. It is by this standard that you will be measured. "I was hungry and you fed me."

But when did we ever see the Lord hungry and feed him? Whenever you did this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me. That is Jesus' message. Clear. Specific. Not metaphorical, but quite literal. You see a hungry person? Feed her and you feed Jesus.

I was overcome with grief and horror when I read about the plight of the people of the Horn of Africa as I was doing research for last Sunday's sermon. Twenty million people in Somalia and South Sudan and Yemen at risk of severe famine. The equivalent of the entire population of Iowa and Wisconsin and Minnesota and Missouri combined, all starving to death.

If that were indeed true here, we would think it a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. It is a crisis of apocalyptic proportions! I could not do nothing: "I was hungry and you fed me." If you want to do something, consider a gift to the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), a relief organization based in Minneapolis. A gift of $150 supplies one family with a relief package that includes a "food basket, nutrition packs for children, and water" (https://araha.org/drought-relief-2/).

In rural Haiti, only half the people have access to an improved water source, water free from contamination. "I was thirsty and you gave me a drink." If you want to do something for thirsty people in Haiti or elsewhere around the globe where people lack access to potable water, consider a donation to charity: water (https://www.charitywater.org).

"I was a stranger and you received me in your homes." As followers of Jesus, we must be at the center of the debate about the response of our nation and local communities to the immigrants and refugees among us, because Jesus told us that our welcome of strangers is a measure of our welcome of him. As a church, we have welcomed a community of Burmese worshippers into our "home," and that matters. Other churches have sponsored refugee families, or provided legal services to refugees and undocumented immigrants, or advocated for a compassionate response to foreigners among us. Some have chosen to identify as sanctuary churches. There is no one "right" response, but we must respond in some way because the stranger among us is Jesus.

Tim