Giving It Away: Having a Full Life.
One of the most popular classes at the University of Pennsylvania
Is taught by Religious Studies professor Justin McDaniel.[i]
There are only 26 spots,
But more than 200 people stood in line to learn about the class, and
156 of them interviewed for it, applied to get in. 26 made it.
The class meets every Tuesday, get this, from 5pm to midnight.
Every Tuesday, seven hours.
Students enter the classroom, leave their cell phones in a box by the door
And receive a copy of the week’s reading.
They have no idea what they’ll get when they get there,
And no choice in the matter, either.
For four and a half hours, there’s no talking, note taking, certainly no email or facebook.
Just silence as you read the material for the week.
“Most people don’t know how to just sit and read a book for five hours.”
“We could do it at 8, 9, 10 years old
but you start to lose it when reading becomes an assignment,
or a competition.”
After reading time, there’s discussion about the work,
writing exercises, small group activities.
And at midnight: campus escorts on hand to walk students back to the dorms.
The course is called, and I’m not kidding about this: “Existential Despair”
Which might accurately describe what I would feel
if I had to endure such a class myself.
I can barely sit for thirty minutes without doodling.
And while, reportedly, an 8, 9, or 10 year old can sit, silently, reading for five hours
Try suggesting that to my daughters, as you attempt to take their ipad away
For higher learning, perhaps.
I can just imagine the outcry!
There’s existential dread, right there…
But the class has struck a nerve, and the students reportedly love it.
And that, alone, might tell you that McDaniel is on to something:
They read material that deals imaginatively, constructively
with topics like religious struggle
The nature of faith
illness and the end of life.
Or the end of relationships, struggles with identity.
These are basic human questions: existential questions.
Questions that get closer to asking: What is the meaning of life?
What is all this about?
They’re not always questions that elicit despair, though.
We get that wrong.
These are the same sort of questions that take our breath away
With the most magnificent sunset you’ve ever seen.
Or when you realize that you are the one responsible,
for caring for a loved one, or raising a child
And they look at you with gratitude and love in their eyes.
That is the stuff of existential joy, existential hope.
All of this is exactly the sort of thinking that comes with an adult consciousness
Its exactly what we deal with, during that young-adult transition into adulthood
Questions that, we learn, we don’t just solve and put away
But questions which stick with us, one way or another, our whole life long.
I’m still not sure I’d sign up for a seven-hour course from 5pm to midnight EVERY Tuesday about it.
No thank you.
I’ll give you my spot if you want it.
That might be a sign that I’m no longer a so-called “young adult”.
Be that as it may
And even though the subject matter sounds interesting, if not the method,
This course is not the only way to explore such thing.
The impulse for most of us, when we face Existential questions
Is to reach for a pint of ice cream and curl up on the couch
Or maybe to call a friend and go out for coffee.
If you’re an artist, maybe you paint or go pound on the keyboard
If you play cards, you might head off for a round of bridge with some friends.
If you’re mourning, you remind yourself that you do not mourn alone.
We find ways of understanding it, of sharing it, of making meaning.
And maybe the basic way human beings face these things
Is to form relationships with other within a community of faith
A group of people who listen to big stories and ponder simple but profound thoughts
Like “God is Love”. From the letter we know as Epistle of John.[ii]
Whoever loves is born of God and knows God.
Or “those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Those are ideas that can orient our lives.
That can give us purpose and hope, through thick and through thin.
One of the enduring realities of the Christian Faith,
Is that we seek, together, a way of life that gives some answers
To these enduring questions.
A way of life that looks out into the abyss and affirms that, no: that’s not right
That there’s something more true, more meaningful, more beautiful
And that that something is a life in relationship with God.
We are gathered here to follow God on the way of Jesus
And we are drawn to that idea for all sorts of different reasons:
–Maybe you were born into it, with faithful parents who brought you to church
sure, maybe in starched collars and shiny shoes
As they gave you space to fidget in the pews while you took in
Sacred music and sacred time once a week
But that set you on a path to frame these questions
In a way that gave you life.
–Or maybe you came to it later,
Part of your own search for understanding and meaning and hope
That led you to these sacred stories and these audacious claims
About being welcomed and loved and cherished, no matter what
About having a purpose to share goodness and love with the world
A purpose and a welcome that comes from God.
–Or maybe you were introduced to these things
And left for a spell, and find yourself wandering in and out
Like someone browsing at a bookstore
Knowing you need to find something to help answer your questions
But unsure which book will lead you right
and worried about the one that might lead you wrong.
But whether you were born into it or found it later in life,
this place, the church
Is an answer to these deep questions in our lives.
Not just an intellectual answer, mind you.
But a deeply personal one, a deeply emotional one:
Because its not just that idea, that story, that purpose
But the relationships that the Message of God leads us to form
And the comfort that we find from living a life of generosity.
That is the point.
To love God with your whole heart, mind, strength, spirit
And to love your neighbor as yourself.
The greatest commandment, yes, but also the greatest gift
The most contented way of living. The stuff of existential joy.
In the reading that John offered for us this morning
Jesus tells us that life in abundance, a full life,
is found by giving it away.
Why might Jesus say that?
This is an idea that runs throughout the New Testament:
–From parables that tell us about an elderly widow who gives two pennies
And how that gift was greater than any other
Because it was given in joy and hope and trust[iii]
–To stories Jesus told about a master entrusting his workers with great wealth
And some bury their share in the ground, where it does nothing
And others invest it in the work of others and grow their share.[iv]
Jesus tells us that life in abundance, a full life,
is found by giving it away.
Jesus tries to remind us that God’s world is one that is full of gifts
And that God is a generous giver.
We believe that God is the Giver that keeps on Giving.
At every moment in the simple, mundane, earthy everyday blessing of our
lives: up at 6,
go to work, go to school, go play golf
read, talk, play, laugh, worry, cook
home, dinner, study, bed….
God is there: creating, renewing, loving, healing.
The Kirk, like many Presbyterian churches,
takes a few weeks every fall to pause and reflect on stewardship.
But it is really something that we are talking about all the time.
Every sermon is, truly, a stewardship sermon.
Because every encounter with God is an encounter with God’s generosity
And God’s encouragement,
To you, and to me, that a life where we give ourselves away
Is a joyful, happy life
The stuff of love, of existential joy.
It is true that this is stewardship season,
Because we take some time to focus on what that means
Given the real needs to equip an organization like The Kirk
But my point is that these are basic questions for us:
Why are we here?
What does it matter?
Who do I serve, and why?
It makes a big difference if we say that this world of ours is a world
where there is not enough
and I’m going to protect mine, thank you very much
or, if we say that the more we give,
the more that is multiplied, and the more potential that is created
beyond what we could possibly imagine.
This week we finished packing up our Be the Church Sunday supplies.
If you weren’t here last week, we joined with six other Presbyterian Churches
On a day of service to our community.
We asked our neighbors to join us, inviting them to donate supplies
For clean up buckets and hygiene kits for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
Knowing what other churches had accomplished, and calculating our size,
I was guessing we’d put together, what, 8, 10, maybe 15 clean up buckets,
if we had a good day.
And we went into it not knowing, at all, what to expect.
So we gathered, and we gave thanks to God, and we got to work
And after it was all sorted and put together,
We had 34 complete clean up buckets and some 94 Hygiene kits.
And very much like the story of Jesus feeding the 5000, there was much more besides
Extras that couldn’t fit in those buckets
Soap and wash clothes and toothpaste
Fifteen brown bags full
That will go to our mission partners like Community LINC.
That’s not even to mention the other mission project we did last week
Where we wrote some 40 or 50 letters and made some art
Thanking the teachers at Center Elementary School
Part of our November Thanksgiving Project for them
Expressing our gratitude and our awe
At their work in caring for the kids of
South Kansas City, and their families.
That’s not even to mention the other work we’ve done in October,
Including the Christmas in October house, where our team
Tore out and replaced the plumbing in our host house
A new water heater and bannister railing
Electrical fixtures rewired, lawn work redone
A drainage swale dug
And a lunch shared, our workers and our host family
Bread broken in gratitude.
It makes a big difference, whether you look at our life
As having to deal with scarcity,
Or as getting to live in abundance, giving it away so that
What we have can become even greater
In the hands of an amazing, awesome, living God.
Pablo Picasso is reported to have said that:
That the meaning of life is to find your gift
And the purpose of life is giving it away.[v]
Picasso, if he really was the one who said that,
Knew something about stewardship, as we Presbyterians understand it.
All that we have is a gift from God,
And the meaning of life is to find those gifts and to understand that
We are to have gratitude for them, and then to give them away
So that good things may happen:
–Hungry people may have food
–Hurting people may have comfort
–Hopeless people may find a future with promise.
And what that means, often, is that we need to make all of this
Less about us, and more about God, about something bigger than ourselves.
Every time I think THAT thought,
I think about Moses.
Moses was such a larger than life figure, it is hard really to get my head around it.
The most famous person in most of the Old Testament is Moses.
Some would say Abraham, the one to whom a great nation was promised.
Others might say David, that Royal King, who inaugurated a dream
That would eventually yield a messiah.
But Moses is mentioned, even if indirectly,
Almost every time God gets mentioned after Exodus:
Remember God, the one who freed you from bondage in Egypt
The Hebrew Scriptures remind us.
A memory that leads us to Moses, the one who led them out
towards the promised land.
Moses is such a compelling figure for me.
Complex, imperfect: like every human being, like every human leader,
Flawed, aware of the guilt and worries that he bears
Unsure if he is gifted for what God is calling him to do.
God assures him.
God pleads with him.
God sometimes unsettles him, along the way.
The task is to shepherd the Hebrew people from Egypt to Canaan,
Which was all well and good, but it took so much longer than he, or the people,
So. Much. Longer.
A generation longer, at least, and there were complaints and trials and tribulations
Along the way.
God kept reminding the people how, even during their difficulty
That God would provide. Provide water. Provide manna, food, from heaven.
Provide a law that would order and structure their society
A law that, compared to their neighbors, was so much more humane
And generous and life giving.
But that’s not what strikes me most about God and Moses.
What I keep coming back to is how Moses was so deeply important for that journey
And how Moses was told that he’d not make it all the way there.
Moses struggled with that.
He, like anyone else, had pride, had a desire to succeed.
He worried that if it wasn’t him,
who would corral the wild and untamed yearnings of the people.
But God assured him that all would be well.
And that God had a bigger plan.
And that he should keep giving his all, trusting God,
the giver of every good and perfect gift.
And Moses did that. All the way to the end.
And after 40 years Moses leads them all the way to the edge of the wilderness.
And he climbs up a mountaintop where he can see it.
Its right there!
Gilead, as far as Dan!
The land of Ephraim, and Manasseh
The land of Judah as far as the Western Sea!
The valley of Jericho—that beautiful city of Palm Trees
All the way to Zoar!
God grants Moses a gift of seeing how all his giving is going to pay off
How his generosity is going to be magnified
in this people that he saved from destruction and enslavement.
God reveals to Moses how a life given away contributes to the greater good.
How Moses’ legacy is secure in the men and women, the children
Who are alive and thriving because of him.
And there, Moses dies.
Not quite there. So very very close.
This one through whom the mighty deeds of God were accomplished.
Moses dies on Mount Nebo, a breath from accomplishing
The promise given to their ancestor Abraham.
Moses had a full life.
He might not have made it to where HE thought, in his mind, he should go
But he accomplished where God needed him to go
And because of that, so many more people were given life too.
It makes every difference in the world
How you view this life:
Whether you see your gifts as something to protect and horde,
Or as gifts from God, to be used
To provide for your people, certainly,
but also for the needs of the world.
This year, as we reflect on Stewardship, on accepting the responsibility God gives us
To make good use of the good things
My prayer is that we celebrate this as a good opportunity
to find anew the meaning of our lives
a meaning that is rooted in loving God with our whole being
and as we love our neighbor and love ourselves.
These are existential questions. They matter.
And the right answer gives us a possibility of such a full and joyful and meaningful life.
May we give thanks to God the giver who keeps on Giving
By sharing what God has given us with the world.
May it be so.
[i] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-this-college-professor-is-teaching-a-7-hour-class-on-existential-despair_us_5903a9fae4b02655f83d7f03?ncid=engmodushpmg00000003 accessed on October 28, 2017.
[iii] For more on the lesson of the widow’s mite, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesson_of_the_widow%27s_mite
[iv] For more on the Parable of the Talents, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_talents_or_minas
[v] While this quote is often attributed to Picasso, there is no evidence that he actually is the origin. For more, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/06/16/purpose-gift/
Image Credit: Pablo Picasso, “Succession Picasso,” part of a “never before seen art gallery” described in the New York Daily News (accessed October 28, 2017): http://www.nydailynews.com/news/picasso-works-found-treasure-trove-never-before-seen-art-gallery-1.12828