A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

By: David H. May, Rector

Last Sunday was Youth Sunday, so one of the young people of our congregation, Jack Ireland, was our preacher at both services. I’ve thought about what Jack had to say last Sunday. A lot. If you weren’t able to be here, Jack began his sermon by wondering aloud, ‘what is my purpose?’ Someone that age is looking and looking hard at the question of ‘what will I do with my life?’ That is part of what I admire so much about people that age. They are wondering, ‘what is worth giving my life to?’ I think that’s what Jack’s question, ‘what is my purpose?’ was all about.

The word purpose has its roots in the Greek word telos which does mean purpose, but purpose in a special sense. For example, the telos, the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree. Its purpose is built right into it, into its very being. Unless something intervenes – like a squirrel or bad growing conditions – it will become an oak tree. It can’t help it.

But when it comes to people, it’s not so clear cut. What is the purpose of a person? The sciences might tell us that our purpose is to survive, physically, and to procreate to ensure the survival of our species and leave it at that. And as far as it goes, I guess, that’s not wrong. But that’s not what Jack was talking about.

To go a step further, we sometimes find a sense of purpose in what we decide to do with our lives as our work. We decide to be a teacher, or an artist, or an IT cyber security threat specialist. Certainly, the work we do can be an important part of the answer to the question of what is our purpose. But what of the vast majority of folks for whom a job is just a job, little more than a paycheck?

So, the work we do probably can’t fully answer Jack’s question. I think his question is one that all of us – whether we’re just surviving or just making a paycheck or even when our work is deeply fulfilling – come back to again and again: what is worth giving my life to?

The passage from the book of Deuteronomy we just heard is God’s response to that question to the children of Israel. God’s response comes through a long sermon from Moses just as they are about to finally enter into the land promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. These few verses before us this morning are the conclusion of the sermon. Speaking for God, Moses declares that the people have before them a choice: to choose life and blessings and prosperity, or to choose death and curses and emptiness. ‘Choose life’, God says.

All the long chapters that precede detail what it means to choose life. Your telos, your purpose is to become a person, a person who loves God and carries that love out into every single aspect of your life. All of the statutes and commandments and the laws that Moses has given them are meant to show what it means to be a person, a person made after God’s image in every aspect of life, so that all of life comes within and under God’s divine love and is lived as a response to that love.

A commentator on this passage write that “according to Moses, [choosing life] means to love God with heart and mind and soul. And in the twenty-six or so chapters that precede this passage, choosing life, living within the realm of God’s love, Moses says includes canceling the debts of the poor, pushing the government to guard against excessive wealth, limiting punishment to protect human dignity, restricting those who can be drafted, offering hospitality to runaway slaves, paying employees fairly, and leaving part of the harvest for those who need it.” Because God is merciful and loving, so should we be too. “When Moses looked back, he saw that life was best when they were trying to please God in these ways.”

Choosing death means all the thousand and one ways we give our lives to things that don’t matter. Choosing life, means all the thousand and one ways that we see our lives within the love of God and respond with love that reveals our purpose as surely as an acorn becomes an oak tree.

An Episcopal priest named Joe Slevcove tells a story of his wife Beth and how she chose life. Joe and Beth moved from the suburbs into a warehouse loft in the center of a large city. Beth embraced every aspect of urban life – even the sirens, the parking problems, and the car alarms at night. The homeless people made Joe nervous, but Beth learned their names. The only neighbors who bothered her were the guys who ran the tattoo parlor across the street. They got into traffic-stopping fights, harassed women on the sidewalk with lude comments, and intimidated men, including Joe. They were the reason Beth didn’t walk on that side of the street. For two years she glared out of her window at the row of men sitting in front of the shop whose presence sent a chilling darkness all around them; a darkness that grew silently but steadily in the woman’s heart.

Then one day Beth called her husband Joe at work to tell him that she had decided to get a tattoo. She’d never wanted a tattoo before and had even taken pride in being one of the few people in their group of friends with no body art. Though surprised, Joe said, OK. Later she called him back and announced, ‘I did it!’

When Joe got home, Beth excitedly showed him the delicately inscribed words ‘Love thy neighbor’ on her wrist. She explained how she’d marched across the street and gone into the tattoo parlor. The walls, she said, were covered with drawings of skull, bloody knives, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Manuel, the proprietor, was working on somebody’s backside. Beth introduced herself as his neighbor and asked if she could watch. He said, ‘sure, please yourself, lady’.

After a while, she went outside and sat in front to study the world from their perspective. The guy next to her asked what kind of a tattoo she was getting done.

“Love thy neighbor,” she said.

“Why?” the man asked.

“Well, you guys are my neighbors, and I’m having trouble loving you. In fact, you kind of scare me – you know, with all the fights that break out over here and the way that you holler at women – including me – when we walk down the block.”

The man ushered her back into the shop and announced with complete sincerity, “Manuel, dude, listen we’re scaring our neighbors! We got to stop fighting!”

Manuel was defensive until Beth explained that she didn’t want to change him. “I’m no do-gooder, ok, I just want to get this tattoo, you got a problem with that.”
Manuel showed her a picture in a magazine of “Love they neighbor” tattooed on a man’s inner forearm – with bloody knives in the background. “Uh, not exactly,” Beth said.

After they’d settled on a design, Manuel began to do his art on her wrist. Then he stopped. “How do you spell thy?” he asked sheepishly. “I didn’t go to school, lady.”

The other tattoo artist piped in, “Dude, it’s not because you didn’t got to school. It’s because you don’t read the Bible!”

From then on Beth would wave to the tattoo artists as if they were old pals. The music from across the street was not so grating to her nerves. No more fights broke out. The sidewalk began to feel safe.

Four months later, Beth took their car in for an oil change and saw Manuel talking to the repairman behind the counter. As she began to remind him who she was, he stepped forward and gave her a big hug. “Hey,” he said to his friend behind the counter, “this is my neighbor, the one I was telling you about.” He turned to Beth and said, “love thy neighbor right?”

Joe Slevcove wrote this story as a letter to the editor of his local paper as a word of encouragement that whoever we are and whatever occupation we may have, however we may spend our time, we can choose to live from love and grow into a person made after the image of God as surely as an acorn becomes an oak tree. That is worth giving your life to.

I’m so glad for the question that Jack put in front of us last Sunday asking, what is our purpose, what is worth giving our life to do. We may be more complicated than acorns. But that same purpose is built into us too, by our loving and merciful Creator, to become a person bearing the image of God. Today, I have put before you life and blessings and prosperity, and death and curses and emptiness. Choose life. Amen.