What if it’s really true that life is not “all about you”? That’s the first line in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life. The book has sold more than 30 million copies, and although I am not a fan of the book, a lot of people seem like it. The book attempts to answer the questions “What is my purpose?” and “What am I here for?” And millions of readers have started their journey by being confronted with these words which open the very first section: “It’s not about you.”
Personally, I think maybe it IS all about me! Microsoft Corporation seems to think so. It asks me on a regular basis, “Where do I want to go today?” Visa tells me that it’s “everywhere I want to be.” L’Oreal reminds me that “I’m worth it” and Gatorade wants to know if it’s “in me”? Budweiser encouraged me years ago when it reminded me that “This Bud is for me and even now UPS urges me to “See what Brown can do for me.” Then there’s my email account’s inbox which is filled with daily messages and offers to make me slimmer and sexier, get me more money, bring me more satisfaction in every area of my life. But just when I’m starting to believe that it really IS about me, something comes my way, like Rick Warren’s book, and tells me, “It’s not about you.”
Our first reading this week is from Isaiah, chapter 53, and it tells us that God is the one in charge, that even God’s Servant will be crushed in infirmity, and will surrender his life for others. Through the suffering of this person, many will be justified. It seems, all of a sudden, to be all about God. It seems, incredibly, to be more about God’s plans than my own!
Jesus has an annoyingly similar viewpoint to share with his disciples. While they are on their way to Jerusalem, James and John come to him with a rather arrogant request, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” The brothers explain that they want to sit on thrones on either side of Jesus when he establishes his kingdom. Curiously, in the paragraph just before today’s passage, Jesus has taken his disciples aside and explained to them exactly what is going to happen to him when they get to Jerusalem. First, he is going to be handed over to the religious leaders who are going to sentence him to death. They are, in turn, going to hand him over to the civil authorities who will then mock him, spit on him, beat him and finally execute him. He, however, will then be raised from the dead in three days.
The disciples seem to have missed the part about the suffering and death. They want to fast forward to the happy ending. More often than not, I miss the part about the suffering and death and want to fast forward to the happy ending, too! No matter what Jesus has said up to this point, they and I still have this image of the Messiah as a victorious king rather than as a suffering servant. “Yeah, OK, mocking, spitting, flogging, we get it. Tell us the cool part about what reward we’re going to get once you become the one in charge!” But Jesus says, “Oh, gee, I’m really sorry, you misunderstood. It’s not about you. It’s about serving others. It’s about putting others ahead of yourself. You want to be great? I get that. So, be a servant. You want to be first? Be last. You want to be a ruler in my kingdom? Be a slave to all.” The guys don’t want to hear this, and most of the time, I don’t want to hear it either!
I’ve read Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and I’ve seen Dr. Phil’s Seven Keys to Weight Loss Freedom. I have read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success . I own my own DVD copy of “The Secret”. I know how to set goals for myself, how to devise strategies and I expect some nice results. And quite often I think that attaining success IS fulfilling my purpose.
If I could keep on believing this way my life would be less complicated, but my soul has a deeper knowledge. The fact is that I might reach every one of my goals; I may live out every one of my dreams. I might be successful in everything I do and yet fail completely at living out my purpose. Because, dammit….it’s not about me.
Isaiah makes it clear that God will use the Suffering Servant for God’s own purposes, not the goals of the man himself. It’s going to be God’s project from beginning to end. The Servant, whom we recognize in the person of Jesus, is going to surrender his own purposes and embrace the path laid out for him by God. That path has nothing to do with success or money or fame, it has to do with pain and loneliness and rejection.
Jesus tells the disciples that it’s about serving others. It’s about recognizing our role in relation to the rest of humanity. It’s about giving priority to the needs of others over our wants. It’s about making sure we put ourselves in proper relationship with all of God’s children.
I am fully aware that there are Christians who teach that living in God’s will means that we will be rewarded with fortune, health and material abundance. Certain passages in the Bible, taken by themselves—out of context–might even lead us to that conclusion. But the overarching message of the Bible as a whole, combined with the message of Jesus, remind us that even faithful people suffer. Bad things happen to good people. Like my former colleague, Virginia, who lost a son 2 years ago to suicide and just this past week lost her 30 year old daughter to heart failure. She has survived the loss of both her children and when I saw her at the funeral home this week, she just held onto me and kept whispering, “I don’t know how I am going to get through this.” And I was honest with her. “I don’t understand and I am so very sorry. God is sorry, too.” It would have been just plain dishonest and phony to say something like, “Oh well, it’s part of God’s plan” or “When God closes a door, He opens a window!” Unspeakable tragedy exists in our world and just because we are living according to God’s purpose doesn’t mean that we won’t have to face difficulties and heartache and disaster.
Despite that, the comforting news is that we do have a purpose. There is a reason that we’re here. We have a role to play–a crucial role–in fulfilling God’s plan for all of creation. Rick Warren begins his book by advising the reader “It’s not about you.” But he quickly moves on then to chapter two where you are assured that “You are not an accident.” You are a unique creation of God. You were fashioned to play an important part in the great cosmic drama. You have value just because of who you are, not because of how much you have or how attractive you may be or how well-liked you are. St. Benedict writes in the 6th century that it’s not about us, that we need to cultivate a humble heart. When we do that, when we consider ourselves less talented, less successful than others, when we put their needs above our own, suddenly we realize the greatness we do possess.
What we need to do is to prayerfully consider our purpose: the unique reason that God created each one of us. The parish church, I believe, is the place where we can explore our purpose together. This is where we test our ideas, where we develop our gifts, where we seek to discern God’s purpose for us each as individuals and God’s purpose for all of us together as a community of faith. In the final analysis, it really isn’t about you. And, it’s not about me, either. It is about God. It is about being servants to all of God’s children. As we move into the third year of operation as a community that prays and acts for justice together, let us bravely step onto the path of our future, a journey of discovery and pain, joys and disappointments, a journey of searching and finding our ultimate purpose. I am so grateful for the support all of my parishioners and friends have shown me to this point, and the reality is I can’t do this without them. This is their parish, not mine, although I am proud to serve them. The future is in our hands.