Who Are You? And Why Are You Here?

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
— Mary Oliver

Last week, I ended my message with a brief tale about the First Century Chief Rabbi, Akiba ben Yosef (often referred to as Rabbi Akiva). As the story goes, he was returning home on foot late one evening after speaking in a village gathering. Somehow he had become disoriented, or perhaps distracted, and missed the turn to his own village. After some time, late into the night, and hopelessly lost, he finally arrived at a closed gate to an unfamiliar city. The guard above the entrance shouted down, “Who are you? And why are you here?” Akiva was clearly confused and didn’t reply.

So the guard yelled again, emphatically this time, “Who Are You!? And Why Are You Here!?”

Suddenly Akiva smiled and inquired, “How much do they pay you?”

“Excuse me?” asked the guard.

Akiva repeated the question and the guard replied, “10 denarii.”

To which Rabbi Akiva smiled and said, “I will pay you three times that if you will return with me and awaken me each morning with those same two questions!”

The Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christian community at Corinth where there was confusion around how to relate to one another in the context of this new faith that included both Jews and Gentiles — people of diverse religious backgrounds and cultural experiences and different bodies and appearances. What could their new life together mean in a world of oppression, power, and greed, especially with their diverse histories and backgrounds? He used the metaphor of the body to encourage the community to understand its purpose to be present in the world as a witness to this diverse community of love. But it cannot do so without acknowledging it must do it together, with all of their distinctiveness intact. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ . . .  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

It seems that at least part of the key to living faithfully in our world has to do with recognizing we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. And that we get there together. But the real challenge to recognizing we are a part of this greater body of God’s presence in the world, may be to first recognize the giftedness of our own body, our own presence, “the soft belly of our own existence and what it loves.”

There is an old saying that goes, “To make a love that endures between you and another, you must learn to love the world together. But to love the world together, you must first love yourself.”

This Sunday, let’s explore, together, what it means to have a body, to be a body in the greater body of creation. “We are so much more,” Elizabeth Gilbert recently said in an interview, “than brains in jars carried around by stick figures.” She went on to suggest that until we really come to terms with that, it’s more like we’re using the latest, greatest new MacBook as a placemat.

Join us Sunday for some special music with the eleven:eleven band and the music of Ben Harper, One Republic and Carrie Newcomer, as we celebrate our singularity, Jr, the way of emptiness, and finding “our place in the family of things.”

See you Sunday!


Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven

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