What is God’s purpose for my life?

Preacher: The Rev. Heidi Haverkamp

Preached on: February 6th, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany


What is God’s purpose for my life?

Scripture Text:

Matthew 5:13-20


This sermon is a raffle prize. Last fall, Eric and Erika M- won their choice of a sermon topic at the auction night.  They asked me to write a sermon on “How do you know God’s purpose for your life?” or “What makes for a worthwhile life?”  The Gospel for this week – on salt and light – seemed to me to answer those questions well.

Salt and light. This week we hear Jesus, giving the Sermon on the Mount (the “mount” is a hill near the Sea of Galilee) telling us that we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” He doesn’t say that, well, to be salt and light, you have to do this, this, and that. He just says, “You are.” I love this passage because it’s so clear and so vivid. You are salt. You are a flavoring for the earth. You make everything taste better. You are light. You shine. You brighten the world around you. You! Maybe that’s hard to believe?

It’s so easy to forget that God created us to be who we are. That we already possess wonderful gifts and talents, gifts God knew even when we were in mother’s wombs, as Psalm 139 says. God created us to be salt and light, in very particular and specific ways.

Now that clashes with something we’re so often taught: that we can be anything we want to be, that we can do anything we want to do, if we only work at it. But I don’t think that’s true. Who we are is a very particular set of gifts God has given us. We can’t just decide to be someone else, or to become something that we’re not, or do something that we’re not really meant to do. God created you to give to the world in a certain way.

But we often think, “I wish I was more like so-and-so.” I want you to think of the people in your life whom you may have thought you should be like. Maybe it’s a parent, a sibling, a mentor, someone you’ve admired from afar, maybe even a celebrity or a saint. And I invite you to listen to this story:

Once, the great Hasidic Jewish leader, Zusya, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear. “Zusya, what’s the matter?” they asked. He answered,

“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that God will one day ask me about my life. God will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ God will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’ God will say to me, ‘Zusya, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’”

“God will say: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

Everyone is given gifts by God. We all have (at least) two or three things that are very easy for us to do well, maybe even to the point that we wouldn’t even call them gifts because we don’t notice them. They’re just part of who we are. And everyone has them, even people who haven’t used them very well, people who are in prison, or trapped by an addiction, or stuck in an abusive relationship – even people who seem like they’ve been stripped of who they are. But anyone can ignore or discount their gifts, or not see their worth in the eyes of God and the eyes of the world. Salt can be trampled underfoot. A light can be put under a basket.

I like this quote: “Whenever we struggle with what we are to do in life, we are struggling to uncover our talent or gift.” (Elizabeth O’Connor, The Eighth Day of Creation)

And this anonymous quote: “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” And your gift to God’s world! You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Salt isn’t any good all by itself – it seasons other things. Light shines and lights up what’s around it.

The Bishop’s Committee and I were on retreat this weekend, and we spent a good part of out time talking about spiritual gifts. I want to read you a quote by the author Frederick Buechner that we read together:

“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work

A) that you need most to do, and

B) that the world most needs to have done.

If you really get a kick out of writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement “B”. On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you’ve probably met requirement “B”, but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are that you have not only bypassed “A” but probably aren’t much help to your patients either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

So, this isn’t: “Follow your bliss.” Even the professor who first said that later said that no one understood what he meant, and it’s been reported that he once grumbled he should have said “Follow your blisters” instead. (Joseph Campbell) Living into our vocation isn’t about living a comfortable, blissed-out life where everything is wonderful all the time, and where laws don’t matter because our law if just “luv.” It’s still about living a moral life, a life that has accountability to other people, a life that seeks to loose the bonds of injustice and to share your bread with the hungry, as Isaiah reminds us. Jesus tells us that he hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.

Now there isn’t a lot in the Bible outlining how you know yourself, or how you know what your individual purpose in life is. To tell you the truth, we’re kind of unique in history in how much we like to think about the thing we call “me.” We give advice like: be yourself! Or: do what you think is right. We ask: what do YOU want to be when you grow up? But the Bible is more concerned with what society looks like. When God calls people in the Bible to do specific things with their lives – like Moses, or King David, or the prophet Jeremiah – it’s in the service of others or because God wants the community to look a certain way: to be freed from slavery, to worship God more fully, to take care of the poor and disabled, to go to war, or to make peace. In scripture, your vocation has as much to do with your community as it has to do with you.

Sometimes the best way to know who “Zusya” is – who you are – is to look at the community around you. How do your friends see you? What are the gifts people come to ask you for? The reason I became a priest, actually, is not because I felt called to be one. It was other people who kept telling me they thought I should get ordained. Other people kept saying to me, “Have you thought about ministry?” For a long time, I really anguished about what the right decision was, because I thought I should feel more strongly about becoming a priest before deciding to become one. On the other hand, I didn’t have many other ideas about what I might do with life (except maybe read books on a nice beach somewhere?). Over time, I realized that my deep down feeling was that God was open to either choice: whether I became a priest or not, as long as I was using my gifts. And so, I let everyone else’s perspective guide me.

One of my favorite Christian writers on vocation, Parker Palmer, says that our vocation consists of the things we “can’t not do” (Let Your Life Speak).

Your vocation is about who you are. Who God created you to be, what you love to do, what you can’t NOT do, what gifts your community keeps asking you to share, what you love to do that the world needs to have done. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it doesn’t have to be your job, it doesn’t have to be something you’re famous for. But it’s something that the world needs and it’s something that God needs – or God wouldn’t have knit those gifts into you. It’s what seems ordinary to you, but it’s also what makes you precious and distinctive to your friends and your community.

You are the salt of the earth and the light the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


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