Sermon for September 9, 2018
A sense of futility can be a great teacher. It can be the ultimate teacher.
Most of us, no doubt all of us at one time or another, run away from the feeling of futility. It’s something we fear because we believe it will take away our ability to go on in life. Futility seems like a punishment, something that makes life unbearable. In the myths of Tantalus and Sisyphus, futility is used as a punishment. Tantalus is constantly trying to get relief from his desire that is always just out of reach while Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down, over and over, with no reprieve. How could futility possibly have any value?
Indeed, in many situations in life, others try to warn us against futility. People will often try to tell us what our limitations are, who we are, when we should give up, how we should define our lives. When you accept these things, go down the rabbit hole of allowing specific meanings, even meanings assigned to you by others, this is the beginning of the end of your life. What if Rosa Parks accepted someone’s idea of the futility of her actions? God forbid!
From an individual, moment to moment perspective, it is common for us to seek meaning. We want to feel that what we are doing, things we are working toward, actually matter. When used in the right way, this can be valuable for a time. It helps us endure hardships, muster the energy to keep going when things get tough. We don’t want to go to a job that feels like pushing a boulder up a hill everyday only to see it roll back and need the same thing done, day after day. Finding meaning helps us continue on until we can see something more.
There is, however, a hidden trap in trying to find constant meaning, and a hidden freedom in futility.
Trying to find meaning in life seems to be one of the great struggles of the human condition. From this struggle, one could find the source of nearly every great worldly thing man has done. Art, technological advances, religion, philosophy...so many things spring from our desire to find deeper meaning for our own lives, and in life itself. This is effective when we are dealing with concrete, worldly experiences. It works in the context of our worldly condition, and in dealing with that condition. But it won’t work forever, and can’t work in every situation.
What happens, however, when we look up and see that death is inevitable? What happens to our struggle for meaning when we know all the things we assign meaning in life, are going to fall away in death? What happens when the normal things we use to find meaning, suddenly don’t work? What if we have used our kids as a motive for doing certain things, as a way to define our lives, and then they grow up and leave, or change, or even die? What if our health, the happiness we feel in being physically fit, gives our life meaning, and we suddenly lose our health, our very ability to be independent? In this context, the actual struggle for meaning itself begins to seem futile.
This is often the beginning of one’s true spiritual path.
Now we begin to rethink our whole method of searching for meaning, for the reasons we live and do what we do. If even our search for meaning has turned out to be futile, what are we to do?
The key to allowing futility to become a teacher is EXHAUSTION. Not just in the physical sense, but in the spiritual, holistic, sense that touches every part of your being. Futility will only be something you fight until you become exhausted, until your search for meaning becomes exhausted, your thinking, acting, your very individuality, becomes exhausted.
We often like to think that reading the bible, praying, meditating, all bring us closer to Christ. These things all give our lives meaning and bring us closer to God, don’t they? In a paradoxical way, they do, but not in a direct way. These are all things we do to exhaust ourselves, even though we think we are actually doing something meaningful. It is a game we play with ourselves to continue believing we can conform to the world, be of the world, find meaning in it, yet still find Christ, Grace, God.
Think of the story of Jacob, the deceiver. He had so many schemes in his life. He found all kinds of ways to keep his worldly story going, until he simply couldn’t run away any longer. He knew the consequences of what he had done in life were finally coming to get him. His tricks, his worldly intelligence, were all EXHAUSTED. When he finally accepted the futility of his game, he wrestled with the angel of God, and his life was transformed. Even his name changed, the essence of his identity.
Christ is not calling you to find meaning in life, to continue YOUR game. He is calling you to see, and accept, the futility of your life, and to accept the Grace that will come once you realize that the very things you believe define your life, actually keep you from living the life He intended.
The idea of futility only has a negative connotation to those of us still trapped in a belief that life needs our opinion, our definitions. For those that have let go, futility is nothing but freedom.
When we talked about all the wonderful things that have been done in the name of man’s struggle for freedom, there are an equal number of horrific, evil things that have come of this desire for meaning also. Wars, genocide, all manner of suffering, have also come from someone’s idea of finding meaning, establishing a reason for something they’ve decided was correct. You cannot get away from the fact that one person’s search for meaning will always clash with another person’s idea of their search for meaning.
The one, most important, thing that man’s search for meaning has never directly ‘caused’ is being saved, awakened, enlightened, whatever term you wish to use for communion with God and ultimate realization. This is not something that can be found, or realized, through one’s search for meaning. It is the essence of the letting go of the search, the profound peace and stillness, one finds when the futility of the search is seen in its totality, and one stops and simply abides. This is the only thing that can stop the conflict caused between those who are all searching for their individual meaning.
Futility teaches us how to surrender to the moment, to exactly what we are, by showing us that it is only our search for something that prevents us from seeing we are already what we are looking for. EVERY major religion, and philosophy, points to this truth in their own way.
What is it, in your life, that you are struggling so hard with, struggling to assign meaning to, that seems so futile, that you haven’t allowed yourself to stop and become exhausted with? There’s always something with which our usual tricks don’t work. There’s always something we can’t find a meaning to make better, something we can’t redefine nor run away from- THIS IS YOUR TEACHER. It will come back over and over again, in the same form, or different forms, until you stop your game, and sit with futility.
At some point, you have to become Jacob. You have to take your stand on the banks of the river of your life, and let the Angel of God come. There, you will wrestle with futility, and you will find your new name.