WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR?
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church January 2, 2022
Texts: Isaiah 60: 1-22; Matthew 2: 1-12
Yesterday was New Year’s and, as usual, I spent much of my day trying to put together all the stuff that needs to get organized. The problem was, of course, I needed to find the stuff. Many of us have a junk room, you know, the room where we put stuff that we don’t need immediately and that we’ll get to later.
But if any of you are like me, we forget what we put where and spend time looking for things that we need, or at least think we need to get organized. I was feeling pretty good by 10:30 since I had gotten up at 6 and started with my busy bee New Year’s Day writing and organizing. But the best laid plans…. Well, they get waylaid when you can’t find certain items you need.
The day before, which was the official holiday so I was not at my office, I began by looking at the papers stacked on my desk – and the floor. The problem is that I can’t throw anything away until I am sure I won’t need it in the future. So I thought the easier job would be to reorganize my books, which are stacked like that front cover form The New Yorker, the one with books double stacked and even piled on the floor.
I started with the books, and then, I wondered, what was it I was looking for in the first place? I did finally find what I had begun looking for in the first place, not to mention those other useful books that I had forgotten that I had purchased over the years.
I don’t think that my experience of looking, looking for something and getting waylaid is unusual. In fact, I would say that it’s unfortunately quite normal. Over the Christmas weekend, travelers’ plans were waylaid because of cancellations due to virus infected airline staff. But that’s not the kind of waylaid I want us to think about this morning. It’s more about how we have trouble finding what we are looking for -- in fact, it’s about defining what we are really looking for, searching for, in the first place.
In his book written in light of his experiences in Auschwitz, Victor Frankl looked at our search for meaning in our lives. Sometimes an event will seize us in such a way that we can only find meaning through that event; the event does not have to be as world changing and cataclysmic as was Auschwitz.
The event could be the death of a spouse, the loss of a job, or the breakup of a marriage. Sometimes the event is health related; then, we ask, “Why me?” These kinds of events make us confront the question of meaning in our lives.
That is, of course, what we ultimately search for: meaning. We like to think that we define the circumstances of meaning, but, in truth, events around us catapult us into a search that can shake our foundations. For almost the last two years it has been the pandemic, our 21st century equivalent of the plague.
In fact, Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, one of the best books on 9-11, wrote a piece called “The Plague Year,” which took up the entire issue of the December 28, 2020, The New Yorker. The article starts with a discussion between CDC head Robert Redfield and his Chinese Equivalent about the mysterious respiratory virus in Wuhan. It then documented how people outside of the CDC and other public health agencies did not realize how serious the virus could be. The first detected case in the U.S. was January 20. By January 24, dozens of people were infected. By March we were all in lockdown.
In hindsight, of course, we think. “They [meaning the doctors] should have realized what could have, what did happen. But even as the medical experts and public health workers tried to get our government to realize that this virus was not as easy to contain as the Sars-2 virus had been in 2009, our governmental officials were more worried about its effect on the stock market than on people.
We all know what happened next. Bodies piled up in morgues and nursing homes, survivors were not permitted to go through the mourning rituals of funerals and memorial services, resulting in depression but also anger. Not sure where to direct the anger, it turned on the health care professionals who were desperately trying to help and getting sick as well.
Reflecting on how plagues have affected us in prior times may help us think about our search for meaning. Plagues were first seen as a punishment from God for disobedience and sin.
Galileo’s Daughter, written by Dava Sobel, based on many of the letters written by his daughter Suor Maria Celeste, cloistered at the Convent of San Matteo, includes her letters written during the many outbreaks of plague that affected Italy. She struggles to find meaning in them which had killed so many people. She only found meaning in God’s presence.
We read stories and see images of pain and suffering that remain seared in our brains: One, a mother caring for her son who had been almost destroyed by an IED. Almost totally paralyzed and barely to talk three years after the attack, I had to wonder if he ever wished he had died rather than continued to live in such a condition. The mother kept talking about the hope of recovery. I could barely make it through the article without crying. God, where is the meaning in this?
We search for meaning in suffering but like Job, find none. The pious platitudes about there is a reason for everything pales in the light of the destruction of villages in Yemen or failed crops that promise only famine.
Another approach was taken by Laura Blumenfeld whose father was shot by a terrorist in a random attack while on a trip to Israel. At first, she decided to search for her father’s attacker to get revenge and that became her life’s work, her meaning. She wanted to know why this young Palestinian shot her father. He was not a soldier; he was just walking down the street.
So she searched for an answer. Meeting his family, she learned about the hopelessness they experienced. The search consumes her. And it’s only when she finally met the shooter face to face and the shooter himself comes to appreciate the damage he has done, that there is a form of reconciliation between shooter and victim. The victim David Blumenfeld, who survived the attack, was able to look the shooting as a casualty of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Laura’s book Revenge: A Story of Hope details her coming full circle to reconciliation.
Coming back full circle back to Frankl, his answer to the senseless suffering at Auschwitz was a realization that even when everything else was stripped from a person, that person could still have dignity. It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote, “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."
We all search for meaning in our lives. The question for us is how we continue our search in the face of the vicissitudes of daily life with its tragedies, its sometime horrors, and find both love and forgiveness in our search. None of us has an ultimate answer to the meaning of suffering, illness, natural events, or other catastrophes. But we can as a community of faith find hope in our common search for meaning, a hope that comes from the love we have for one another knowing that even if we do not find what are commonly called “answers” that our search has a meaning of its own.
Let us pray: Inscrutable and holy God, we are so often torn by our search for answers to so many questions in our lives. May we find comfort in our shared search, may we be open to each other as we wrestle with the events that frame our lives, and may we always love as you have loved us. Amen.