The Chief End of Humankind

Psalm 100
November 18, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

If I were to ask you, “What is the chief end of humankind?” what would you say?  

Today, I might be inclined to answer that the chief end of humankind will be taking a plunge into Foster Lake, or at least it might be the end of this particular member of humankind, but the actual acceptable response is, “The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  This question and the accompanying answer are part of the Westminster catechism developed in Scotland and England in 1646 as part of the instructional material for new converts to the Christian faith and since that time, the Westminster catechism has influenced a great many other traditions’ catechismal instruction.  Consequently, even those of you who didn’t grow up in the Presbyterian church may have learned some form of this question and answer as part of your confirmation class, and those of us who never studied a catechism may still feel that this refrain is familiar because its question, “What is the chief end of humankind?” has become shorthand for the philosophical pursuit engaged in by people throughout human history, namely the pursuit of the answer to the meaning of our lives.

What is the chief end of humankind?  What is the purpose of our lives?  What does it all mean?  How are we meant to best use these lives that we have been given? 

You probably first began entertaining that question at a very basic level when you were in high school and your guidance counselor asked you to consider your career path.  ‘Do you want to go to college or learn a trade?  Do you plan on marrying and starting a family, or do you want to establish a career first and if so, what kind of career?’  Even though those questions were more practical than existential, that may have been the first time that you considered seriously how you intended to spend the bulk of your life which in itself required giving some thought to what was most meaningful to you.  As you became older, the questions deepened, and sometimes developed into full blown existential crises.  Maybe that crisis came when you were buried in dirty diapers and sleep deprived from a cranky baby, and you said, “What have I gotten myself into?  Is what I wanted my life to be?”  Or maybe it came one day sitting at your desk, when you realized that your job was no longer a challenge and life had become tedious, and you asked, “Is this all there is?”  And of course, for many, the question gets more profound as we begin to cope with an aging body and the unavoidable realization of our mortality: “What is the best use of this very short time a person is given on earth?”    

In the cartoon, “Pearls Before Swine”, a comic strip populated by a cast of funny and often philosophical animals, Goat and Pig are sitting in a diner, and Goat says to Pig, “No matter what I do in life, there’s this hole inside me and it never gets filled.  Not by accomplishments.  Not by acclaim.  Not by respect.”  

Pig barely looks up from his plate as he replies, “I fill mine with cheese puffs.”

There are undoubtedly times when many of us would be happy to follow Pig’s philosophy of life joining with the cynics who proclaim, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will die,” but on the whole, I think that all of us want a little more.  If we didn’t believe that life is more than cheese puffs, we wouldn’t be here in church, or at least, we would skip the service and go right to Coffee hour, but we are here in worship because we believe that proclamation of the Westminster catechism:  “What is the chief end of humankind?”

“To glorify God and to enjoy God.”

We believe that the meaning of our lives is rooted in our praise of God and in the joy we find in God’s presence and the presence of the community of faithful serving God with us. 

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord all ye lands,” the Psalmist declares.  Here is where you will find the meaning of life.  Here is where you will discover the purpose which will fill your existential emptiness.  Here together we will glorify God, enjoy God, and serve the Lord with gladness.

Of course, in spite of all of those imperative commands that start out Psalm 100, in spite of believing that we can fill the hole in our souls with the joy of the Lord, we are caught in a dilemma because we also know that joy cannot be manufactured.  A lot of what we are called upon to do and be as Christians does come down to a matter of willpower:  even the naturally impatient can, with work, learn how to to be patient with others.  We can be generous with our money even if secretly we would much rather save up our bucks to travel to Europe.  We can choose to withhold our anger, no matter how justified it might be, and we can decide to treat the refugee as our neighbor even if frankly that refugee frightens us with their unfamiliar ways or because of the different color of their skin.  So much of what Christ calls us to do requires a decision of the mind to choose to act in a way that may be contrary to what we are feeling, but joy is different.  Joy is the one Christian attribute that is not within our control.  We can’t make ourselves feel joyful by plastering on a happy face because joy is something that wells up spontaneously from within, born of a deeply felt gratitude that our days are precious and worth living.  

And so knowing this, in verse three, the Psalmist goes on to give us the reason to be joyful:

“Know that the Lord is God,” the psalmist declares.  “It is God who has made us and we are God’s.”  

Now, honestly, at first glance, this isn’t seem like much to hang our joy on.  In fact, it sounds like nothing more than a boring statement of the obvious:  God is God, and God made you and therefore you are made by God.  The statement is as self-obvious and as mundane as saying something like “McDonalds is McDonalds and McDonalds made you this hamburger and therefore you are holding a hamburger made by McDonalds.”  This is not a profound revelation nor does it seem like much of a source for joy, but to understand the impact of the Psalmist’s declaration, we have to read it in the original Hebrew or at least one word of it in the original Hebrew.  When we do, we discover that the verse actually says, “Know that Yahweh is our God.”  Yahweh is the name God gave to Moses when Moses wanted to know who this God was who had called to him on the mountain.  The Psalmist says, “Know that you were made by Yahweh, not by some other god — not by one of those Canaanite gods or Egyptian gods — but by Yahweh, the God who brought the slaves out of Egypt; Yahweh, the God who had been steadfast in faithfulness; you belong to Yahweh, the God who declared love for you and has been patient with you and out of whom was born all good things in creation.”  The psalmist declares with a forceful reminder that we could belong to any sort of god but we are fortunate to belong to a God of saving power and grace.  Even though we no longer today believe in the existence of a multitude of gods as the ancients did, when we stop to think about it we should realize that the underlying claim of the psalmist is still profound because there is nothing in the word “god” that requires a divine character to be just or compassionate.  We could just as likely have been created by a sadistic god who delighted in torturing us, or by a neglectful god who walked away from us once the creating was done.  Our god could be a god who is unpredictable, caring one minute and abusive the next, or a nervous nelly of a god, indecisive, needy, and no help whatsoever, but the Bible tells us that we can thank our lucky stars that the God of the universe is a God whose character is good and faithful and strong and empathetic and willing to walk through hell and back with us if that’s what it takes to ensure that our souls remain whole.  

When the psalmist says, “Know that the Lord is God,” he isn’t at all stating the obvious.  He is saying, “Be thankful because the hamburger you are holding is made by the finest restaurant in America when you could be holding one made by McDonalds.”

When we consider the nature of our God and realize that this God of such deep mercy and grace has chosen to be with us, our joy will naturally well up and our praise will be the praise of a genuinely thankful heart.

In an article titled, “Do You Really Need Church?” Tara Woodward-Lehman wrote,  “There is at least one very good reason why I need Church: I have a really bad memory…. Especially when it comes to remembering who I am as a child of God.  Especially when it comes to remembering what God has done, and continues to do, in and through Jesus Christ.  I forget who I am. I forget who God is. I forget God’s Epic Story of Redemption and Liberation and Renewal and Beauty and Hope.   I forget.  A lot.  “On top of that,” she says, “there are a gazillion other demands and voices that are vying for my attention all the freaking time.  So I admit it.  I get tired. And I get distracted. And more often than not, I forget. 

“I need Church, because Church reminds me of everything that’s important. And when I say Church, I’m not talking about a building. I mean the people. I’m referring to the organic, collective, flesh and blood Body of Christ. I’m talking about the beautiful but undeniably imperfect community of people who help me remember who I am, and to Whom I belong, over and over again.…..”  1

What is the chief end of humankind?  To glorify God and to enjoy God.  

And so here we come together week after week to laugh together and work together and pray together and do crazy things like jumping in a freezing lake in order to raise money for strangers we don’t even know and will never meet but who will be the beneficiaries of this joy we have found together in God and his son Christ.  What joy we experience when we raise our voices together in hymns whose melodies pierce our hearts with the expression of our gratitude.  What joy we feel when we confess our sins and realize that not even our worst selves can separate us from the love of Christ, but that his mercy has the power to cleanse us and remake us.  What joy we know when we lay our burdens down in this place and feel a moment of freedom from our anxieties and know peace for our aching hearts.  Yes, our God is good and for that we are truly thankful because it didn’t have to be this way.  The universe could have been constructed under the power of a totalitarian dictator who cared not a whit for us but instead we get to live in the shelter of a benevolent God, a God of mercy and grace who honestly cares for each and every one of us.

Make a joyful noise to this Lord, for our God is good. 

God’s steadfast love endures forever and God’s faithfulness to all generations.     

Footnotes:

  1.  Do You Really Need Church? | Tara Woodard-Lehman, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tara-woodardlehman/do-you-really-need-church_b_3751147.html