A LIFE’S WORTH
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 24, 2013, 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year C
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1
“But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…?’”
We’ve all heard the news from the Vatican: how Pope Benedict XVI has announced he’s going to do something no pope has done in over 600 years: he’s going to step down. Every other pope in recent memory, following church tradition, has toughed it out till the end. But not Benedict.
From the beginning of his papacy, this pope has let it be known that he just might resign his position before death came to claim him.
And so he did. The world was shocked at first; but Vatican insiders say it wasn’t a total surprise. Yes, the timing was a surprise: but not the announcement itself. They say it was consistent with public statements this pope has made over the years.
Now, the Vatican-watchers are all scratching their heads: what’s a retired pope going to do? There’s absolutely no model to follow. Benedict will blaze the trail for future popes who may, one day, decide to retire as well.
If Benedict is like most people who retire, he’ll spend at least some time reflecting on what his life has been all about: what he’s accomplished, what sort of mark he’s made on the world. He’ll ponder what his life’s been worth.
We have, in today’s Old Testament lesson, another example of a man pondering what his life’s been worth. His name is Abram — the man we’ll later come to know as Abraham, father of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
At this time in his life, all that seems highly unlikely. Abram, at age 75, imagines he’s about to hang up the old shepherd’s crook and take it easy. He’s spent his life doing what most men in his society do, raising sheep and goats. Abram seems to have been more successful that most: were it not for one thing.
That one thing is summed up in a line Abram speaks to God, just after God has promised him, in a vision, a great reward. Abram can’t imagine what the Lord would possibly give him, that he doesn’t already have. The one thing he most craves is the impossible dream to which he gives voice: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…?”
It’s a little hard, today, for us to understand the depth of Abram’s frustration. We all know older adults who don’t have children. Maybe they never married. Or, if they did, they either decided not to have kids or found they were unable to. Yes, some of them may feel some lingering pain or regret about that, even to this day — but then again, they may not. As the world’s population continues to expand, the choice not to have children is losing the stigma it once had.
Yet, for Abram and his wife Sarai, in that place and time, stigma is all they know. They live in a culture that values large families above all else. For a nomadic people who herd livestock, each healthy child multiplies the family’s wealth. The more adult children a couple has, filling out that extended clan, the greater the numbers of sheep and goats the family can raise: either to sell, or to create products for their own consumption. Children are the linchpin of the whole enterprise: without plenty of them, a family never moves out of subsistence farming into significant wealth.
Quite apart from economics, to the ancient Hebrew mind, having lots of children is a spiritual obligation. It’s obedience to God’s command. The prime directive from God to the Hebrew people is “Be fruitful and multiply.” With that in mind, you can see how reaching the age of 75 without children could bring on a spiritual crisis.
Abram’s reply to the Lord is a sad and plaintive cry: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…?” As a younger man, Abram had hoped the Lord would give him children. But at 75, that hope is getting pretty stale.
I think we can read in Abram’s question a deeper, more personal concern, a vocational question: ‘O Lord God, when my life is ended, what will it all have been worth?”
It’s a question most of us come to, sooner or later. When we’re young, life is filled with possibilities. The decisions we make in young adulthood require us, one by one, to gradually shed some of those options. We no longer imagine ourselves doing many things; instead, we come to focus, in time, on doing a few things well.
Sadhu Sundar Singh, a wise Christian teacher from India, tells the story of a hunter who was stalking some game alongside a river. The hunter looked down at his feet, and noticed some brilliant stones gleaming in the river mud. Picking the stones up, he dropped them into his pocket and continued on his way.
As he drew near to the birds he’d been stalking, he quietly reached into his pocket and placed one of the stones into his slingshot. It sailed through the air, straight and true. A bird fell to the ground.
The hunter repeated this action again and again. Some of the stones hit their mark; others missed. All of them fell down into the river and sank in its fast-flowing waters.
At the end of the day, the hunter had a half-dozen or so plump birds slung over his shoulder. He set off towards the nearby town. He knew he could sell the birds in the marketplace for a handsome price.
A short while later, the birds were gone, replaced by a handful of coins. As he dropped them into his pocket, he noticed that one of the stones he’d picked up on the riverbank was still there. It was the last of them. Pulling it out, he began to absentmindedly toss it up in the air, and catch it again, as he walked down the road.
As he was doing this, he passed by the market-stall of the jeweler. “Stop!” cried the jeweler, running over to him. “Let me look at that stone.”
To the hunter’s astonishment, the merchant informed him that the stone he was tossing into the air and catching again was a precious gem. It was worth thousands of rupees. “Do you have any more of these?” he wanted to know.
“I did, but I shot them all into the river with my slingshot.”
As he walked away from the jeweler, the hunter began to reflect on what he’d done. Unknowingly, he’d picked up a handful of valuable gems and, one by one, used them to come up with a brace of birds that was worth only a tiny fraction of their value.
“Woe is me!” said the hunter. “I have shot a fortune into the river. I could have been a millionaire. But, thank God — I have saved at least this one.”
The story is meant to teach us that our lives are like this man’s day of hunting. Every day we live is like a precious diamond, and a great many of them we waste. We shoot so many precious gems into the river, chasing idle pursuits and trivial rewards. Those wasted days are lost for good in the deep, swirling waters of the past.
Yet, the opportunity is still here — even this day — to awaken from the trance we’ve been in, and take advantage of the treasure we’re still holding in our hand. It matters not how far we’ve traveled on the journey of life. The jewel still clasped in our hand has not diminished in value. It’s still worth just as much as when we first picked it up.
The Bible numbers Abram among the wisest of men because he fully understands the value of the gem still resting in the palm of his hand. He doesn’t let his age stop him, nor does he continue to mourn the hopes he once had of a multitude of descendants. At the age of 75, Abram sets out on an epic journey that will change not only Sarai and himself — leading them to take on new names, Abraham and Sarah — but will forever alter the religious landscape of the entire world. And yes, through God’s miraculous intervention, Abram and Sarai will eventually welcome their son, Isaac.
I’ve been spending some time, in recent weeks, getting to know the volunteers who have been staying in our Education Annex. They’re here to help people rebuild their houses, following Hurricane Sandy. They’re remarkable individuals, who give up a week or more of their time in order to help people they’ve never met. People of all ages come to do this, but quite a number are retired folk. They’ve worked hard all their lives, and now choose to give significant amounts of time — and paying their own expenses at that — to help us rebuild.
I’ve been especially impressed by these retired volunteers. There’s something about them, hard to describe, that distinguishes them from many others of their age. There’s a twinkle in the eye, a spring in the step, that shows how much they love what they do. These people could have stayed home: pursuing hobbies, socializing with friends, playing golf, watching TV — whatever retired folk do to relax.
No one would fault them for doing so. Most would say they’ve earned themselves a little leisure. But that’s not what they choose. They spend long hours on the road, driving to a beachfront community in the middle of winter, to sleep on bunk beds, eat communal meals, and pull soggy insulation out of crawlspaces.
They do it because serving others is part of who they are. And thank God for that!
The Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, carefully observing his fellow prisoners. All the inmates had experienced unimaginable losses. The Nazis had plucked them out of their homes and communities, confiscated all their possessions and separated them from their families. Most had no idea whether their loved ones were alive or dead. As a final indignity, the guards had stripped them naked, shaved their heads and given them miserable, lice-infested convict uniforms to wear. After months of near-starvation rations, the inmates had no way of telling whether the man toiling beside them had been a doctor, a lawyer, a street-cleaner or a thief. Each man’s eyes were just as sunken, his cheeks just as hollow.
Yet, Frankl observed, some of his fellow prisoners died very quickly, while others clung tenaciously to life. It was this latter group he was most interested in studying — they whose eyes were brighter than the rest, whose walk was a little more energetic. What was it about these men that made them different, that gave them such better odds of surviving?
Frankl concluded it was their sense of purpose. Most of the inmates who managed to hang on until the camp was liberated were men who retained a strong sense of purpose in their lives. They kept their minds focused on what they could do, in the here and now, to benefit their fellow human beings. That purpose came not from economic status nor from social rank — indeed, poor men were just as likely to display that gleam in the eye as were the rich. It came, rather, from some place deep within, some well of meaning within the very soul itself.
Indeed, Viktor Frankl himself retained that sense of purpose. He did survive the war to become not only a distinguished psychologist, but also a best-selling author. In Frankl’s case, the saving purpose was his discipline of observation, his determination to use the death-camp experience to produce some good, somehow. Frankl knew the things he was learning would be of benefit to the human race, so he willed himself to live.
So, what is a human life worth? The conventional answers we’re inclined to give seem less than adequate.
Biologists have estimated that the value of the elements in the human body — could they somehow be removed at death, refined and packaged for sale at the going rate — is about $160.
The U.S. Constitution says — or did say, in its original version — that an African-American slave was worth just three-fourths of a white person, when it came to Congressional representation.
When a person dies tragically in some kind of accident, the lawyers may sue, trying to recoup what they figure to be the value of that human life. Some of these damage awards may be in the millions of dollars — although nearly everyone who gets one would declare that, if that were the price of bringing their loved one back to life, they would cheerfully pay it. So, to someone we love, the value of a human life is greater yet.
God loves us, more deeply than we could ever love another person. God loves us regardless of whether we are old or young; without distinction as to how faithful we’ve been in the past, nor how recently we’ve repented; paying no attention to deeds of kindness we have done, nor failed to do. God loves us wildly, passionately, even irrationally, because of the death of Jesus for us on the cross. Because of that divine love, my friends, you and I are of infinite worth!
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.