First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"The Lawyer's Other Question" by Rev. Tom Schade

Sermon delivered on October 8, 2006

In a very familiar story told in 10th chapter of Luke, a man described as a lawyer, asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus asks him to remember what is required by the Torah, and they remember together that the commandment is to Love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

The lawyer goes to ask the very famous question, “But who is my neighbor?” And the story of the Good Samaritan follows, which I talked about the last time I preached, in the sermon entitled “Between Everyone and Nobody”.

But I have been thinking a lot about the Lawyer’s Other Question, the first question that he asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?

What are we to make of this question?

Does it have any relevance to us today?

I will note in passing that Jesus does not answer the question the way that the most orthodox Christians answer it – he says nothing about believing in him.

He does not quote John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, and whomsoever shall believe in Him shall have Eternal Life.”

No, he just says to one must Love God and Love ones’ neighbor as oneself.

To today’s secularly minded persons, folks with a scientific, naturalistic worldview, which includes many religious liberals, it appears to be a quaint question; one that we don’t struggle with too much. After all, the modern world has concluded that eternal life is not a real possibility. Death is final, and it is irreversible. Once you are dead, you are dead, and that is it.

At least, many of us think so most of the time.

I have to tell you, though, and many of my colleagues tell me the same thing, that a lot of people seem to have another and completely separate part of their mind, a part that is activated when someone they love one dies. And this other part of the brain, which is normally dormant and quiet, fully believes in the eternal soul, and in life after death, and indeed, in a heaven, where they believe the one they loved is now living, and where they expect to meet with them again. There was a time that I thought that this was some sort of philosophical inconsistency that needed to be resolved. Now, I just accept it that people are just like that; it’s way that we are.

People believe lot of different things about what follows death. I once attended a workshop at which the workshop leader identified some 14 different general theories of life after death, ranging from “there isn’t any” to a couple different types of reincarnation schemes, to the popular Christian versions of heaven and hell, to the classic Christian teaching of the general resurrection, to spiritualism etc. etc. Now I wish I had saved my notes from that workshop.

But what are we to make of the concept of immortality and eternal life?

Let’s start with this: In this largely secular culture, and In the absence of a clear belief in the after life, immortality becomes another word for lasting fame. Immortality is being known and celebrated long after you are dead. Immortal is a word that get mentioned at the funerals of entertainers.

The Immortals are the ones that Jesus Son of Sirach, or Ecclesticus, whom we read this morning speaks of. Let us now praise famous men. People of power and wealth and who made a great contribution to the arts.

Immortality as lasting fame. Immortality is having a line in the history books, a statue in the park and a mention in a song still sung years later.

There something about people that makes most of us very hungry for the recognition of a larger group. It seems that very few people do not have a hunger for recognition, although it also seems that some of us are really quite desperate for everyone to know us and know our name. President Bill Clinton says that he has suffered from Attention Getting Deficit Disorder all of his life, and when he said, I knew exactly what he meant.

I was going to say that we live in a culture, but I really think that one has to say that we live in a world that trades in fame and reputation.

So, you can see how immortality could become defined as lasting fame in this world.

You know, you can look at the value of everything and everybody in two ways.

One is what is it good for, what does it do, who is it. A hammer is good for driving nails. It’s good for hitting things, maybe for making something go where it doesn’t fit or want to go. That’s about all that a hammer is good for – that is the value of a hammer.

A person is good for being a friend, for thinking and talking, for the work he or she can do, for what they can think about and create.

On the other hand, somebody or something also has a value that is the measurement of what other people think that of it. Madonna can get thousands of dollars for performing in a concert. Alicia Tringale gets considerably less singing in our choir. Is Madonna really a better singer? No, but lots of people are willing to pay that much to hear her.

What is the value of hammer? Is the value of a hammer that it drives nails. Or, is the value of a hammer about $5 to $15 dollars? Because that is what people will pay for one.

Fame is the highest form of measuring people by what other people think of them. And it is a only a partial measure of the worth of a person. That is one of things that is interesting about the Scripture reading today: The author praises famous men, but on the other hand, he is aware of all those who are not famous, and he appears to be quite unsure as to whether these, the ones who are not famous, are equally worthy of praise.

Fame is not really a measure of immortality is it? How many of you recognize the name Elfriede Jelinek? And how many of you recognize the name Anna Nicole Smith? Elfriede Jelinek wone the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. I admit that I am vague about exactly what Anna Nichol Smith did to become famous, but not as vague as I am about Elfriede Jelinek, of whom I know nothing. So this is not a criticism of anyone.

Fame and reputation, the modern secular understandings of immortality are not enough. I I do not think that the lawyer’s other question was really, Jesus, you seem to be well-known, able to draw a good crowd, how do I become famous too?

There is a poem that I read regularly at funerals; so probably many of you have heard me read it: It is by Robert Hugh Orr and it ends with these lines:

They are not dead who live
In hearts they leave behind.
In those whom they have blessed
They live a life again,
And shall live through the years
Eternal life, and grow
Each day more beautiful
As time declares their good,
Forgets the rest, and proves
Their immortality.

This is a theory of immortality that I think resonates for many of us: immortality that rests on lasting influence that we have had on the lives of others, immortality that rests on the love that others carry for us. Immortality which is somehow linked to the good that we have done, and the good that is remembered about us.

If we take this definition of immortality, and use it to unpack the lawyer’s other question, his question becomes something like this:.

Jesus what must I do to gain immortaility? Teacher, what must I do to live in hearts I will leave behind? Rabbi, what must I do to live a life again in the lives of those whom I have blessed?

You see this is not a quaint question from another era, but one that challenges each of us today. It is a question that asks us to look at the effect that we are having on others, and asks to evaluate that? We will be among those of whom each day, time will declare our good, and prove our immortality? Or will we be among those whose legacy is bitter memory and pain?

Will there people whose lives are different because I have lived, and what can I do to leave their lives better.

Perhaps this question haunts me because I am passing into yet another stage of life – one that is less focused on what I can do and more focused on what I shall leave when I am done.

I have some suggestions for achieving immortality, for living again in hearts you leave behind, living a life again in those whom you have blessed. These are how I would answer the lawyer’s other question?

  1. First of all, think about what it is that you have inherited that you do not want to pass on into the future. Some of the greatest contributions to the future of the world are being made, right now and everyday, by the people who suffered cruelty, neglect, abandonment, and abuse as children and who have decided that the chain of pain will stop with them. It takes a conscious effort to not simply treat other people, especially children, as you were treated. The default is that we pass along what happened to us without even thinking about it. Yet, millions of people were spanked and beaten as children, and they will not pass that on as their inheritance. They will live on in hearts they have blessed, and live eternal life.
  2. We live in a culture and a civilization. Values like tolerance for others, open minds, respect for all people, commitment to the truth, equality of the sexes, respect for gays and lesbians: these are hard won habits of the mind that must be maintained, or they can be lost. Progress is not inevitable. What was formerly taboo can become normal over time. So much that has happened in the last few years has been the breaking of taboos: preemptive wars, indefinite detentions, secret prisons, euphemisms like aggressive interrogation techniques, warrantless wiretapping. If it is true that we live a life again in hearts that we have blessed, surely we will live on in those hearts that we have abandoned and cursed. And each one of plays a role in the maintaining of the cultural boundaries between good and evil that we will pass on, however we leave them. Part of your immortality is all of our immortality.
  3. What are the institutions and organizations, causes and, yes, churches, that you are going to bless with your living. You have the power that comes from being a powerful example of the power of commitment. More than anything else, don’t we need to have role models of people who are willing dedicate themselves to something beyond their own interests and concerns?

Finally, we approach the question of purpose: what do you believe to be the purpose of your life? Have you dedicated your life to a purpose that will bless those that you will someday leave behind?

Are you drifting through life without purpose, unreflective, not caring if your way through this world is a blessing to those whose lives you are touching.
Or have you become so discouraged that purpose and dedication are just memories?

Last May, we heard here a wonderful sermon from Dr. Peter Levine, on the power of hope when we are facing terrible challenges in life, including serious life-threatening illnesses. He offered a recipe for the kind of fierce hope that we all need. We have given away more copies of that sermon than any others in recent history.

I want to add one additional ingredient to his recipe for hope. It is this: know where your immortality lies. See yourself as living forever. Plan for it. Plan how it is that you will live on in hearts you will leave behind. Have a strategy for living on through those whom you have blessed, so you can start blessing them now.

Live your life with an eye on the ages, with an eye on eternity, with an eye on the generations that will come after you. Know your answer to the lawyer’s other question, and live to build up the world that you want to leave.


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