May 18, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
We had a big family dinner at a big fancy restaurant to celebrate Helen’s birthday this year. We were visiting in Central Oregon at the time, which expanded considerably the number of family members who were available to join us. It was quite a meal. It was quite a check. It occurred to me as we were getting ready to leave that the check was still sitting there on the table. I want you to know that I picked it up. And then I said to myself, “Why me??”
But that’s not the “Why me?” question that we’re going to be looking at today. When something bad happens, we reflexively ask, “Why me?” Which implies, “Why couldn’t this terrible thing have happened to someone else and not to me?” Which is kind of selfish, if you think about it. So I have heard people say when something bad happens to them, “Why not me? Why should I be spared the difficult things other people have to go through?” But again, that’s still not the direction I’m headed today with the “Why me?” question.
The direction I’m headed can be introduced by sharing with you a bit of the table conversation at that fancy birthday dinner. We were talking about Beth Crow who had recently passed away. Beth Crow was my third grade teacher. She was a great teacher. My mom reminded us that Beth Crow was the one who encouraged my dad to ask my mom out on their first date. I think we were all thinking the same thing when one of us put those thoughts into words. Looking around this big table at all the children and grandchildren, the comment was made, “If not for Beth Crow, we wouldn’t be here!” I owe a debt of gratitude to Beth Crow for more than just what she taught me in third grade.
But it took more than a first date. What if that first date had turned out to be a disaster? What if they weren’t able to see that they were meant to be together?
I learned not that long ago that when my dad proposed to my mom the first time, she said “no”. I’m grateful he was persistent. I’m grateful he asked again. I’m grateful she changed her mind.
My mom shared with me a letter she wrote to her parents, my grandparents, in January of 1954. By then my mom had said “yes” to my dad’s proposal. It was to be a June wedding. And in this letter written five months before their wedding day, my mom wrote, “I hope and pray I’m doing the right thing with my life.”
If I had been permitted to be there, kind of like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future”, I would have gotten right in her face and said, “Yes, you are doing the right thing with your life! Marry him, please!! I’m begging you!!!”
Clarence Darrow, the famous trial lawyer of 100 years ago, began his autobiography like this:
Did you who read this ever figure what a scant chance you had of getting here? If you did come from Adam, you must have had millions on millions of direct forbears and if one ancestor had failed to come into the combination, you would not be you but would be someone else entirely, if anyone at all.
Have you ever thought about that? The odds against you having ever been born are staggering. More than staggering. The odds are virtually zero. It’s impossible that you could be here! And yet here you are. The impossible happened when you were born. Specifically when you were born as you and not someone else.
Now I realize I’m venturing close today to the kind of philosophy I used to hate to read. I read it only because it was required for the class I was taking and as soon as the class was over I put the book back on the shelf and I haven’t opened it since. You know the kind of book I’m talking about. The one where you have to read each sentence about three times before you can go on and even then you still aren’t sure you got it. I never want you to have an experience listening to one of my sermons that resembles my experience reading one of those books. But in all fairness, I should warn you that if you drift off today, you might not catch back up.
I met Helen on June 1, 1978 in Vancouver, Washington. It was a young adult gathering hosted by First United Methodist Church. It was a gathering Helen had decided not to attend but then she changed her mind at the last minute. It was a gathering I would not have come close to attending except for a job notice I pulled out of a garbage can. I was planning to stay in Denver that summer, but I saw a job listing for Vancouver. I thought it over, decided against it, and threw the notice away. Then I thought again, pulled it out of the garbage and applied for the job. I got the job. That’s how I happened to be at that young adult meeting where I met Helen.
But she wouldn’t have been there and I wouldn’t have been there either if our parents hadn’t met. And all four sets of their parents. And all eight sets of their grandparents, back and back into the distant recesses of the unknown and unknowable past. Out of all those people, over a million people in just the last 20 generations, it would have taken just one of them taking a fancy for a person other than the person they ended up with, and you would have had to find someone else to preach this morning.
Bill Keane in his “Family Circus” cartoon has the little girl explaining to her little brother: “If Mommy hadn’t married Daddy, we’d be in some other family.”
Well, actually if your mommy hadn’t married your daddy, you wouldn’t be in some other family. You wouldn’t be here at all! And even after your mommy married your daddy, you still weren’t home free. Not even close. A woman in her lifetime produces about 300 egg cells. A man in his lifetime produces about 2 trillion sperm cells. But it took one particular combination of the two to make me. So you see, Beth Crow talking my dad into asking my mom out, important though that was, was not all it took to get me into this world. And it’s true of you, too. It’s true of every person who is alive or who has ever been alive.
There are seven billion people living on planet earth right now. There is another 100 billion who have lived and died. So, 107 billion people are either alive right now or once were alive. That’s a lot of people. But when you factor in all the sperm/egg combinations that could have occurred, that is all the people who could have been born, you get a number so enormous, it makes 107 billion a drop in the bucket. Or look at it this way: If one grain of sand on the seashore represents all the people who have ever lived, all the grains of sand on all the seashores in all the world would not be enough to represent all the people who ever could have lived.
If your head is hurting about now, I don’t blame you. Mine is too.
One of my early pastoral mentors was a man named Bill Bray. He spent most of his life as an overseas missionary. He said something I have never forgotten. He said, “The central question of religion is this: How do I relate to the mysterious power that brought me here?” We were all brought into this world by a series of events so incredibly improbable that our being here is truly a mystery. That we are here at all is evidence that there is a mysterious power behind it all. That is to say, there is a God.
But here’s where the mystery deepens. And here’s where you’re going to lose me if your mind is wondering right now. It’s not as mysterious that you are here as it is that I am here. You could say the same thing from your perspective. It’s not as mysterious that all the rest of us are here as it is that you are here. Each one of us experiences life as a living, breathing person from within our own skin. How did we get to be the unique living, breathing person that we are? That is the mystery of mysteries.
From my vantage point, I can look out upon the rest of you who are also lucky enough to have been born much as a scientist looks upon an objective set of data. It’s amazing that you all are here, too, but every one else’s life can be explained. That you are here is a matter of biology. It’s a matter of theology, too. God created the process that brought you here. But I can look upon your life as an outside observer. Mysterious and wondrous as your life is, it is still your life, not mine. I can begin to see how you got here. That there is life on this planet is something I can at least begin to get my head around.
But when I start talking about my own life, that’s when I start getting tongue-tied. When you talk about your own life, it’s as if you’ve entered a whole new realm. The mysterious power that brought other people here, well that’s a mystery to be sure. But not nearly as great as the mysterious power that brought me here.
“Why me?” turns out to be a much harder question than, “Why you?” Look at it this way. There could have been many other possibilities for you. Don’t take offense. I’m glad that, against all odds, you are you. I like you just the way you are. But you could have been different. That chain of ancestors and chance meetings and DNA and everything else could have lined up differently and there would still be a person. It just wouldn’t be you. And much as I like you, I probably would have liked that other person, too. There could have been many other possibilities for all the other people who were lucky enough to have been born. But there was only one possibility for me. From a statistical perspective, it’s impossible. And yet here I am. Why? Why me?
OK, let’s all take a deep breath now. This has been a little heavy today, I know. And maybe you are totally lost. You have no idea what I have been saying. It wouldn’t be the first time. It’s been said that pastors are invisible six days a week and incomprehensible on the seventh. If I’ve been incomprehensible this morning, I apologize. But I do want to be comprehensible as we close. You can forget everything else, I have said, but I want you to get this.
That you and I are alive is a pretty good reason to believe in God. I’m not sure there is a better reason. Each one of us is a miracle. A miracle of God. Next time you wonder about God or about life or about deep things, just remind yourself that you are alive. You wouldn’t be having these thoughts if you weren’t. How do you explain your own life? You don’t. You can’t. Why me? I don’t know. But I do know with all my heart there is an answer to this question and that answer is held by God.
When it comes right down to it, the real question is not, “Why me?” If you haven’t spent much time pondering this question, it is probably a good thing. “Why me?” can be a dead end. It can lead to navel gazing. It can lead to narcissism. It can lead to unhealthy preoccupation with self. The real question is the one Bill Bray posed. “How do I relate to the mysterious power that brought me here?” And the emphasis belongs on the first part. How do I relate to God?
I am here because God wants me here. You are here because God wants you here. The point of life is not to ponder the point of life but to enter into a relationship with the One who gave us life so we can get on with our lives and live them well. So we can find and fulfill our reason for being here.
And finally we arrive at our scripture for today. Jeremiah ponders the miracle of his own existence. This passage is written as if God spoke directly and audibly to him. Maybe God did. More likely, I think God spoke to Jeremiah much as God speaks to us. God speaks to Jeremiah as Jeremiah listens in his own heart for the voice of God. The promptings of God, as we put it last week. Here is what Jeremiah hears:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
It’s the “Why me?” question being answered. Jeremiah has life because God saw fit to give Jeremiah life. God formed Jeremiah in his mother’s womb. God figured out a way for all the right people to meet and that whole biological process to unfold in such a way that Jeremiah could be born. It says that God knew him even before he was born. That is quite a thought! God knew us before there was anyone to know!
But the point of this passage is not to get stuck in all this awe and wonder over how Jeremiah got here. The point of the passage is that Jeremiah is here and he is here for a reason. He discovered that reason when he was a youth.
This is a day for honoring our youth. Confirmation Sunday. We celebrate their lives and we celebrate their faith in God. God often does let us know when we are young the reason we were born. The purpose of our lives. But if that hasn’t happened for you yet, don’t sweat it. It hadn’t happened for me when I was your age. It happens when it happens on God’s timetable, not ours.
Jeremiah was a youth when he realized that the purpose of his life was that he was to be a prophet. Jeremiah was a youth when he entered into a relationship with the mysterious power that brought him here and through that relationship he came to know God’s will for his life.
He knew it, but that doesn’t mean he liked it. That’s in this passage also. That’s made very clear. Jeremiah said, “I don’t know how to speak! I am only a youth!” In other words, why don’t you ask someone a little older? Someone with a little more experience? Someone with a little more talent? Jeremiah feels inadequate. That’s the usual way we feel when God calls us to do something significant. But God won’t take “no” for an answer and the rest of the book makes it clear that Jeremiah said “yes”. Not a reluctant, hesitant “yes”, though it may have been that way at first. But Jeremiah’s life spoke a bold “yes” to what God had called him to do. He was a prophet. He was a good one.
Being a prophet is not the most desirable calling. Because the better you are at it, the more people will hate you. They hated Jeremiah. He was called a traitor, he was arrested, he was imprisoned, he was thrown into an open cistern, he left for dead. He escaped death that time, but the tradition is that he was killed by his own people.
The precious life Jeremiah was given by God for a reason was taken away by those who didn’t like that reason. I wonder if that reminds you of someone else. Someone who “came unto his own and his own received him not.” Jeremiah’s life was taken from him, but not before he had spent that life as God intended for that life to be spent.
Because you see, for Jeremiah “Why me?” was not an abstract question to ponder. It was a divine summons to obey.
Lord God, here we are. That we are here at all is a miracle too great for us to understand. You don’t expect us to understand it. You do expect us to live the lives we have been given, fully, faithfully, boldly, to your glory. Help us to do that, in Jesus’ name, Amen.