Recent news stories have been highlighting the increasing ways in which automation is replacing the human worker.
One of these articles--in the Wall Street Journal--highlighted the fact that an automated machine that distributed money to the cashiers had displaced an entire job description at one of the nation's largest retailers.
The people who had been replaced by this machine at this particular retailer had been reassigned to positions where they would greet people at the door, but it made me think about how, in the modern economy at least, so many of us are replaceable.
That same publication, the Wall Street Journal, recently listed those professions most likely to be replaced by automation, at least by its estimates. Those included food services, transportation (we have been hearing so much about automated cars), real estate, and finance. In increasing ways, it seems that, in our modern economy, so many of us as individuals are replaceable.
Even if we aren't replaced by machines, we can easily be replaced by another person. Should we be unable to continue in our work as a nurse or a lawyer or a whatever, someone else will take our place, and the work will continue on.
To add to this, we need only think of those natural disasters that wipe out thousands of people at a time.
It is easy for us who live in North America and not give much thought to these, for it has been some time since we have been faced with this directly.
But think about those, for example, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia that killed 230,000–280,000 people, or the Syrian Civil War, which the United Nations has estimated to have taken more than 400,000 lives.
Does the life of an individual person matter? What does life mean? What does my life mean? Does the God of the universe even care?
One of the reasons that we gather here together in this place every week, is to find shelter from these kinds of questions. This is a place for us to ask those deep questions of human existence.
At least I hope it is.
It is easy for us as the church to forget why we exist. It is so easy for us to forget that God established the church not just as a place where we see our friends or listen to good music or hear a person say some interesting words from the pulpit.
The reason that we exist as a church is for us to gather together and be a place where we can ask these disturbing questions, find answers to these questions, and then be strengthened to go and share our findings with those who are beyond the walls of this beautiful sanctuary and wonderful place.
These parts all exist together: gathering, growing, and going--and if we focus on only one of them, we miss the whole point of the church.
At the core of our mission of the church is to remind ourselves and remind each other that we are not in life alone. We as individuals are not the only ones asking these hard questions. Late at night, as the darkness of the evening envelopes us and the questions of life swirl around our minds since they are no longer drowned out by the noisiness of life, we have deep and disturbing questions about who we are and what life means.
But as we gather on Sunday mornings, we are reminded that we ask these questions together and we listen for their answers. For, we are assured, there are answers to these questions, and God's Spirit is here among us, animating our lives, helping us to understand these questions and then igniting our life together as we build a community, the church, that is not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of all of those around us, a community that is a witness to the reality and existence that God so desires for this world.
We are, of course, not the first ones to seek answers to these questions.
Shortly after the life of Jesus, the Apostle Paul began to write, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, reflections on these same questions we have raised this morning. He sought to expound upon what answers the life of Jesus the Christ might have to these questions.
Much of the new testament is made up of Paul's writings, and in many of these letters he addresses issues about how the church is to organize itself, how the members of the church are to treat each other, and what the purpose of the church is, which is to say that the church exists not for its own well-being, and the church exists not only for the benefit of its members, but the church exists, perhaps even primarily exists, for the benefit of those who are not yet here.
Of course, within all this, Paul also reminds those who are a part of the church that their lives have meaning--our lives have meaning.
In Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul uses the language of familial bonds to underscore this point. He says, "all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God ... all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God."
If you have a child you know that there is nothing you won't do for your child. Nothing.
Of course there are those days when they drive you crazy and know how to push every single one of your buttons.
And, of course there are boundaries--things that you won't do because so doing would be to the ultimate harm of your child, even though they think otherwise.
But such relationship--parent to child--is, according to Paul, how God views God's relationship to us.
In a world that increasingly views the individual as replaceable, Paul's words reassure us that through the grace of God manifest in Jesus the Christ, we have become God's people, loved, chosen, valued, and irreplaceable.
As we gather in this place, not only on Sundays, but whenever we gather, it is to remember that the Spirit of God makes us a part of God's family. We know, without a doubt, that God has chosen each one of us, that God paid a great price to bring us in, and welcomes us to this family.
We are an interesting lot, this church, or any church. Like any extended family, we do not all look alike, we come from very different backgrounds, we think quite differently regarding many different topics, we bring with us varied experiences and unique gifts. Sometimes it seems that we have so little in common it's a surprise that we can gather together at all.
But adopted by the Spirit, we all gather here as the church, forming a family, a bond, a unity that is like no other.
But more than that, we are a family that is commissioned, compelled even, with the opportunity and the responsibility to show the world the potential and the possibility that God imagines for the whole human family, and not just for us.
In the face of the powerful, dehumanizing forces of life in the twenty-first century, what I see in the scriptures is hope.
We earlier mentioned one of these dehumanizing forces, the replacement of individuals by automation, but there are many more, as we know. The headlines of the newspapers keep them all before us. We need not agree on which of these forces and trends and developments troubles us the most. I would guess that we do all agree that they are troubling.
But the scriptures, the word of God that is alive and moving in us and through us, brings hope.
But so that we need not be seen as having rose-colored glasses, we must be clear on what we mean by hope.
Author Rebecca Solnit said it well when she said, "Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes.... Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same."
That is who we are as the church. We know and trust that God holds all things and that God will ultimately bring things to their ultimate completion according to desire of God, but that time has not yet come. We live in the "spaciousness of uncertainty" that exists until that day comes, and what we choose to do within that spaciousness of uncertainly matters. "What we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward."
That is the hope I see in the scriptures today: that God will ultimately act, but until that time, we matter, and what we choose to do with our lives, matters.
The church exists not for its own well-being, and the church exists not only for the benefit of its members, but the church exists, perhaps even primarily exists, for the benefit of those who are not yet here.