Sunday, March 25, 2007

Biggest Loser - Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.

Last week, my brother asked me to look over his resume. David is 20 years old, will graduate from college in May. He’s finishing a degree in Computer Science in a mere 3 years. I looked over what is an excellent resume from a fine young man who hopes to land a job in programming or network security. I realized that his starting salary will be about twice what his older brother makes, and can only hope that he’ll remember me favorably for all the support I’ve provided through the years, including tweaking the resume that will hopefully get him that job!

We have all heard the old saying: there are lies, “darn” lies, and statistics, but I wish to add one more level: resumes. Granted, at 20, David doesn’t have too much room to “embellish” his resume yet, but give him a few years. Think about what your resume is – it is one sheet upon which you inform a potential employer about all your good qualities. You’re trying to put your best foot forward and distinguish your work and experience from the other hundreds of resumes who are all trying to do the exact thing you are. A resume is your way of introducing yourself, and giving that potential employer a chance to determine if they want to get to know you any better.

Paul opens our text for this morning with his religious resume. I’ll admit: I’m impressed. Paul wins. He’s got bragging rights. If it’s ethnicity, family background, education, denominational affiliation, or accomplishments – I don’t care what criteria you wish to judge by – Paul’s got it. In other words, when it came to being a Jew, Paul was all that and a bag of Doritos. He had every right to rest in comfort, and know that he had arrived in the choicest of positions.

Yet, Paul looks over his religious resume – his bloodline, his knowledge of Hebrew, his scholarship, his enthusiasm, his adherence to every jot and tittle of the Law – he looks over all that, and says that compared to life in Jesus Christ, all of those things, are rubbish. The Biblical translators have actually softened the language here; Paul actually says that all of those things, compared to life in Jesus Christ, are human excrement. Paul looks over his religious resume, and turns it into toilet paper.

Many in Paul’s day had come to confuse their religious resume with faith in God. It all hinged on an individual’s accomplishments rather than on what God had done in, through, and for them.
I wonder how many of us have done the same thing. People ask us about our faith, and we rattle off a list of affiliations and accomplishments rather than talking about how it is between God and us. While I was in seminary, I interviewed with a church for a staff position which I did not get. During my interview with the senior pastor, he asked me to tell him about my faith. I began to explain what it was like growing up in a parsonage family, my involvement throughout high school and college, things I had done, places I had connected and served. And he just stopped me short, pounded on his desk, and said, “But tell me about your faith! What about your faith?”

We live in a society where success is based on one’s accomplishments, and the church is merely a reflection of that. This senior pastor wanted to know about the deep places of my faith journey, and I showed him accomplishments, awards, and affiliations. Instead of having a heart-to-heart discussion with him about the trials and joys of my relationship with God, I simply pulled out my religious resume.

We’re told to be productive, to make a name for ourselves, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’re told to harness the power of positive thinking, to tap the secret deep inside ourselves, to be self-made people. Fundamentally, this is the bedrock upon which liberal democratic societies like ours are built. We are self-made, on our own, and completely self-sufficient. We carry the same language into our religious discourse.

The problem with one’s religious resume is where it focuses. What is a resume, if not a brag sheet that is all about me? As it turns out, “me” is one of my favorite subjects. I can talk on and on for hours and hours about me. Where I grew up, my family, my schools, my likes, my dislikes, my hobbies, my passions. At the end of the movie, The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino leans into the camera, grins, and says, “Vanity: my favorite sin.” I’ll confess that vanity is also my favorite sin, and if you’re looking for a favorite, may I suggest vanity. Vanity is a great one, because it focuses on my favorite subject: me. The problem with focusing on me and my accomplishments is that, after awhile, I actually begin to believe my own hype, and I begin to think that I matter a whole lot more than I do.

Then, along comes Paul in this morning’s text and reminds us of where our priorities are. You think you’re something? You think your accomplishments are something to be proud of? You think it’s all about you? Turns out it’s about being connected to Christ. It’s bigger than me. It’s about my values, and my attitudes, and my behaviors being shaped by the mind of Christ. It really has nothing to do with what people think of us, or if we’re keeping up the right religious appearances. At the end of the day, none of it matters. My accomplishments and affiliations are nothing more than rubbish, than human excrement, the text tells us.

I cannot tell you what wonderfully good news this is. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I don’t have to appear as the character made famous in one of Andy Harkins’ children’s messages a few months ago; I don’t have to show up as Super Christian. I can be a real person, someone with the same doubts and fears and shortcomings as anyone else in the room. I realize that everything does not rise and fall on my own personal accomplishments, because I am part of something greater than myself. I am part of Christ, I am connected to his body, and this is now the greatest and most important thing going on in my life.

Do you know what this means? It means I’m not alone. It means that the sun does not rise and set on my accomplishments alone. It means that you are vitally important to me, because we are intimately connected. It means we’re in this together.

Who among us is a self-made person, standing completely free of a web of relationships? If so, I feel very sorry for you. One, you must be very lonely. Two, it means you’ve deceived yourself for a long time. The intimacy that happens in a community is not possible in a world of isolated, self-made people. When we all believe ourselves to be self-made, every other person is a stranger, a competitor, someone who may at any time try to take my share of the pie, evict me from my land, or shine in my limelight. What a miserable way to live.

A society full of self-made people has no room for those who are dependent. There is no room for the mentally and physically handicapped, for the emotionally disturbed, or for the elderly, because such people are dependent: the rules of a self-made society would view them as “unproductive.” Perhaps what is most disturbing about this viewpoint is that it reduces all of us to cogs in a great machine of productivity. The moment one of the pieces in the equipment becomes unproductive, it becomes expendable.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the dark night of the soul, when we are least productive, least self-sufficient, is when we need the love and concern of others the most. As Christians, we believe that we have been charged by God to love and care for every human life, especially the most vulnerable ones. Our society is most likely to dispose of people such as these, which is precisely why they need our care the most. Our society hates them because they are truthful reminders of who we really are, and we can’t handle the truth. Independent and self-made, we fear dependency even more than death itself.

One of those dependent people would be my friend, Sarah. Born with down syndrome, Sarah would be considered, according to the laws of self-sufficiency, an “unproductive” member of society. But Sarah has impressed many virtues upon me that might have otherwise been lost. She has taught me more about unconditional love than any other person I know. The seriously incapacitated and ill have taught me about courage and patience, and shown the joy in the little things of life. And a young man born with life-threatening medical conditions has taught me about perseverance and overcoming adversity, and I can’t tell you how proud I was to look over his resume last week. We need each other – we all have much to learn and much to share. I have no desire to be a self-made man, and would gladly lose my religious resume – I would gladly be the biggest loser – in order to be closer to God, in order to bring others closer to God, and in order to be closer to the rest of Christ’s precious body.

Friends, hear the good news on this fifth Sunday in Lent: God loves you, not because of what you have accomplished, not because of how hard you have worked, not because of your stellar resume. You are valuable to God, not because you’re productive, or because it’s in God’s best interest, or for any other good reason. God cares for you, as do your brothers and sisters in the Faith, simply because that’s the way God is. God is with you in those dark times, when your own efforts and abilities have left you woefully short, and he reminds us that it is your connection to him – not your own accomplishments – that really matters. It’s called grace, so stop trying to earn it.

And when I am able to sacrifice my ego on the altar, I find that I, one who has worked, one who once bought into the notion of being a self-made Christian by beefing up my religious resume, I find that I have much to lose. And in losing, I find that I have much to gain.

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