I was in the Tivoli diner, down the street from the church, and I was with one of my former students. He’s struggling with questions about his career. He’s not sure what he wants to do anymore: what direction to take in a job, where he should live, even whom to love.
It’s a conversation I’ve had many times before with him and lots of other people, and I can relate to it because it’s always on my own mind.
I used to bring groups of students to see the play Avenue Q, a fun Muppet puppet musical which is all about that question: what should I do with my life? There’s a song that speaks directly to the issue, with these lyrics “Purpose…it keeps you going strong…gotta find out, don’t wanna wait…gotta make sure that my life will be great…gotta find my purpose before it’s too late…gotta find me!”.
I have been asking that question for over 40 years of my life: what is the purpose of all of this? What’s the meaning of the universe, and what does that have to do with me? I’ve been plagued with that question since I first seriously encountered it in college, and it sometimes boggles my mind when it doesn’t seem to bother everyone else as well. When you are searching for the answer to that question, it puts a perspective on just about everything you do, doesn’t it?
So I threw the question across the table at this young man, and of course he threw up his hands and said…”I know, right? What is the point of it all? I’m afraid I won’t know my purpose in life until I’m dying!”
It was at that precise moment that our orders arrived. I watched the waiter place a scrambled egg sandwich with cheddar cheese and ham nestled softly within two halves of a perfect roll right in front of me: this my most favorite, mouthwatering dish at the Tivoli. Oh man….I have to admit to you that there are many times when I am in the rectory sitting at my computer working on something when my stomach rumbles and I get this tempting vision of that perfect scrambled egg sandwich.
My companion complimented my meal choice, and I suddenly blurted out: “This…this is a great example!”
He looked at me quizzically and asked “An example of what?”
Of what we were talking about, I explained. About purpose, about the point of it all.
He paused for a moment, still clearly confused. “The point of the universe is a scrambled egg sandwich?”, he asked.
Well sort of, I tried to explain. The chef, the guy I could see behind a counter at the back of the restaurant, he may or may not like his job, but for me right here and right now, he is fulfilling a purpose that is pretty important to me. And he is a master at least of this—he makes the most awesome scrambled egg sandwiches I have ever had.
My companion still didn’t look as though he got it.
Just at that moment I felt a series of vibrations in my pocket from my phone that seemed to go on and on, and normally when I’m with someone I don’t check those alerts out, but it felt like there was an emergency or something, so asked for my young friend’s patience as I checked the phone.
It was a series of texts from my niece in Los Angeles, who has been frantic about her dog that ran away last week during a thunderstorm. She has mounted the most extraordinary search for the dog, and has had an army of people helping her. When she got the dog as a rescue years ago, it had clearly been deeply traumatized from someone who beat her, and Hilary has provided her with a secure and loving home ever since. These text messages I was getting were all about how the dog had been sighted in various spots in the city, and about the progress that was being made to retrieve her.
It’s just a little dog, a little life lost in a city of millions, but there’s something really beautiful about this effort to save her.
Purpose. The meaning of the universe. The point of it all. A little lost dog, a scrambled egg sandwich, and a young man confused about his life.
In the Gospel today Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that was not producing any figs for its owner. He tells the gardener to cut it down---it’s useless, and besides, it is exhausting the soil that could grow something more fruitful. But the gardener protests. Please, sir, give it more time and maybe more manure. I’ll help it bear abundant fruit.
The gardener, I’m quite sure, is expression of the gentle compassion and support of Jesus.
Sometimes it takes a while to figure out your purpose, and sometimes the fruit doesn’t reveal itself right away. I love the message behind this: that God is patient with our confusion and is at the ready with manure and tender love, even when we have lost our way in the world we are dealt.
But in our search for the grand answer to our purpose and meaning—when we think it will take a lifetime to figure it out and act on it—we forget that God has given us this day, right now and right here to make a difference, to produce important fruit for those who are all around us. It may not seem like much---a perfect scrambled egg sandwich, the rescue of a tiny dog in a bustling city of millions---but it is something, isn’t it?
Listen. Everything we do matters. Everything.
Every smile or frown we share or impose upon a stranger; every deliberate act of support or neglect towards another human being or any life; every extension or withholding of love… matters enormously towards the progress of God’s creation. Our good fruits are desperately needed right now, right here, yes even right here in this room. The people who you don’t know sitting beside you or behind you or in front of you are starving for what you have to offer… just as you are as well.
When Jesus went into the desert after his baptism at the Jordan, he was on the same search as the Muppet puppets on Avenue Q, just like my young companion across the table, just like me, just like every single one of us , just like all our sisters and brothers outside these walls! Jesus needed to know his purpose, and perhaps the most sinful of all his temptations was the one that encouraged him to believe that he didn’t matter at all. He came to realize that the answer about who he was and who he was meant to be was within him all along.
Each and every one of us is beloved by the God who made us, who sustains us in our every heartbeat, and who will never ever abandon us.
We are an essential, crucial, indispensable member of the body that is the Christ of the cosmos.
And God will relentlessly pursue us, accompany us, and save us even from ourselves when we run off like a little dog under thunderously frightening skies.
Hey. We’re in the middle of this time we call Lent. God is with us.
This is the time to produce the low-hanging fruit of our repentance from selfishness and faithlessness.
Someone near you needs your loving phone call, the generosity of your time, the kindness of a compliment, the gentle touch of your hand.
Our purpose is to be the face of love and the Word of God to everyone we meet---and when we engage in that great work, the meaning of the universe, the purpose of your life and love will become very very clear.