Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rearview Mirror (Philippians 3:4b-15)

If anyone 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 I 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 of my own 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 for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, then this too God will reveal to you.

My brother, David, is 6 years younger than I am, and shortly before his college graduation, he sent me his resume to look over. David was 20 at the time, finishing up a degree in computer science in only three years. I looked over an impressive resume of an eager young man who hoped to land a job in programming or network security. He was not going to have any problem finding a great job.

David is the one in our family who I will never have any worry about. Sure enough, he started a position the Monday after college graduation making about twice what his older brother makes. He called and asked if he needed to figure out how to pay me back for helping him through school for a few semesters when he couldn’t pay his full tuition. I told him not to worry about it, but when he came into his own and his poor older brother called, wanting to use the boat for the weekend, or the house in the Caymans, or the chalet in Aspen, he should remember my kindness and generosity when things were not so good for him. He’s now 24, married, with a child. He has nearly paid off his student loans and those of his wife. Last year, at 23, they bought their first home – 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, on two acres with a few outbuildings.

I like to think he’s where he is because he has a good older brother – one who was willing to help him tweak the resume that opened doors for him, got him noticed, and landed him a good job. But that got me thinking just a little bit about resumes. Resumes are a brag sheet – one piece of paper, preferably – on which you tell a potential employer about every positive experience you’d had, everything of value you’ve done, everything that makes you a vastly superior human being to every other applicant for the job in every way conceivable.

In today’s Scripture, St. Paul whips out his religious resume, and you know what? St. Paul was an egotistical braggart. Even so, his resume is pretty impressive. But even Paul looks at his resume – all his accomplishments, his education, his family background, his practices, his knowledge, all the stuff he’s ever done – he looks at all of it and says, “You know, there’s more to it than all of this.” May we pray.

This morning, I realize that many of you may be like me, in that you have an easier time remembering something if you take the time to write it down. So, let me invite you to take the sermon notes out of your worship bulletin – it’s easy to find, it’s the piece of paper that says “Sermon Notes” across the top – and grab a pen or a pencil so you can jot some notes down.

Today is “Welcome Home” Sunday, basically a new take on Homecoming Sunday. I realize many of you are here today because it’s “Welcome Home Sunday,” and I am so glad you’re all here. If you haven’t been here in awhile, I’m glad we can see your face and hear your story about how you experienced faith through the ministry of this church in years past. And, if you’re relatively new to this church, I’m glad you’re here so you can tell some of these other folks what we’ve been up to lately. You’ll all have a chance to greet each other and spend time doing just that downstairs immediately following worship.

Today, on Welcome Home Sunday, the past, present, and future of St. Paul United Methodist Church meet in a fascinating confluence of forces, an amalgam that is not unlike where we find St. Paul in today’s Scripture reading.

St. Paul opens this passage by outlining his religious resume – all the great and glorious and wonderful religious things he’s done in the past. Some of his opponents want him to prove his qualifications to them. Have you ever noticed that there are always people who oppose religious leaders? For instance, every pastor expects that 10-20% of the congregation, at any given time, are mad at us, upset with us, disappointed with us, or opposed to us. That’s just life, and I’m not going to waste a lot of time worrying about what people think of me – life is too short to get caught up in that game! I’d also suggest that you not get caught up in playing that game either, because some of you have less time than I do, and I wonder if you really want to spend that kind of time on such trivial matters!

The situation wasn’t that different for St. Paul. There were those who opposed his leadership and who didn’t like the direction he was headed. Remember that in those days, there was a very loud and vocal group of Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile converts had to be converted to a Jewish lifestyle to really be authentic followers of Jesus. In other words, there was a certain set of rules they wanted enforced, a code-of-conduct they wanted all the worshipers to follow, and Paul had the nerve to say that all their rules were just man-made injuctions, the sort of thing people come up with to preserve and protect what is important to them, a holier-than-thou way of keeping outsiders outside – exactly where self-righteous religious snobs wanted them to be.

They accuse Paul of coming up with a new, foreign, and strange teaching that isn’t rooted in what they perceive to be the real, true, way of discipleship. In other words, he had changed the church, and the old guard didn’t like it too much. And so the gossip and the accusations and the opposition and a dispute about Paul’s legitimacy started.

And so Paul gets out his resume. Paul whips it out on the table and says, “Beat that!” If anyone has the right to boast in their accomplishments, it’s Paul. He is a true Jew, a true Israelite. Who could beat him in following the law? No one. Who could beat him in his passion and zeal? No one. Who had a better education? No one. Who came from a better family? No one. If they really wanted to play the comparison game about who was the most qualified based on religious activity, no one could beat Paul.

Let’s put this into modern context. Paul pulls out his religious resume, and he shows us all the things he’s done in the church. He’s been an usher, he’s been on the board, he’s chaired the board, he teaches, he memorized Scripture, he taught Sunday School, he came from one of the most important families in the church, he sang in the choir, he served on trustees, he gave great sums of money and his family even donated the land the church was built on.

But then he throws in the twist: all of that, compared to knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord, means nothing. It is rubbish. In fact, the Biblical translators were wimps here – if you go back to the Greek, the word that is translated here as “rubbish” would actually be translated as a four-letter word for excrement. Does it shock you to learn that that kind of impolite language is recorded in the Bible?

Paul is basically saying that it’s possible to do all sorts of religious things and miss the point entirely. We can have a very crowded and impressive religious resume and not actually know Christ. Moreover, the very things that appear to be religious success – all those activities, all that service to the church, all those things we’ve done in the past – all those things can be the very barrier to actually knowing Christ. Because sometimes the thing for which we are passionate and working so hard can be the very thing that attacks Christ and Christ’s mission in the world. Can one be a blameless devotee of Scripture and at the same time an enemy of Christ? St. Paul’s answer would be a very definite “yes!” Paul saw such fundamentalism as one of the very things which stood in the way of true faith. Such fundamentalism was one of the very things from which people needed to be liberated.

Fanatical devotion which loses perspective and blindly follows beliefs and maxims, even when they are scriptural, is so often dangerous, because it justifies hate and perpetuates violence in the name of God. Such violence is as much present in Christianity as it is in other religions, wherever human worth and dignity is given second place to some notion of God’s laws, and when we believe that God’s priorities are self-aggrandisement and self-absorbtion, and not love and compassion.

That’s why Paul says he wants to know Christ. He doesn’t want to know things about Christ –he wants to know Christ. Jesus is the embodiment and fullest expression of God as love. Paul wants to know Christ – to know and experience the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, and in that act of self-giving sacrifice, we find the greatest possible expression of love. Paul says, “That’s what this is about.” Self-sacrifice and compassion, love and respect and dignity. It’s not about following a bunch of rules – it’s about being shaped by the cross of Christ, it’s about putting on the character of Christ, it’s about giving ourselves freely as Christ gave himself freely, it’s about surrendering ourselves and our wills and our desires and our religious resumes – it’s about knowing and experiencing the love of Christ in such a way that it flows from our hearts and touches every life with whom we come in contact.

It echoes things we find in other places in Scripture in which people are trying to do all the right things to please God and somehow earn eternal fellowship with God. The rich young man who came to Jesus in Mark 10:17 asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus first addresses the externals – the elements of the man’s religious resume, in other words – and the guy says, “Hey, I’m doing pretty well!” But then Jesus tells his to divest himself of his wealth, realizing that the man’s wealth and possessions were the thing he carried closest to his heart, and that the manner in which he used his wealth in service to others would demonstrate the degree to which the love of God flowed from his heart.

Or, think about the Pharisee and the tax collector who came to the temple and prayed, as recorded in Luke 18:10ff. The Pharisee was quite proud of his religious condition and his prayer is essentially a recitation of his resume. Listen to his prayer, and see if this sounds like prayers you’ve heard or conversations you’ve had: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evil-doers, adulterers—or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The description of the Pharisee here indicates that he prayed by himself, about himself, and with himself – an implication that God is not even present or involved in such self-congratulatory religious expression!

The Pharisee considered himself very righteous. He would have felt very justified in telling other people how they were supposed to behave when they came to worship, because he supposed himself to be the self-appointed expert on all matters religious. But where was love in his life? Noticeably absent. The tax collector approaches in humility, he beats his breast, and he begs for forgiveness. Which one went home having actually had an encounter with God?

Or think about 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as the love chapter. In that section of Scripture, we are told that we can do all sort of wonderful, marvelous, impressive things – things that fill out our religious resume – but if we don’t have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, all of those things are meaningless.

Paul looks at his own resume – impressive as it is, and says, “That don’t impress me much.” We can get so busy doing all the right church stuff – the activities, the meetings, the commitments, the recognition – without knowing Christ. There’s a warning here – can being a good Christian get in the way of following Jesus? Absolutely. We can do all the right Christian things but know nothing of Christ’s suffering and resurrection. We can follow all the made-up rules of the church club but know nothing of the love of God. We can be good and diligent members who brag about our own status, but know nothing of extending love and grace and forgiveness to others. Our resumes can all be in good order, but our hearts can still be far from God and in desperate need of the Holy Spirit’s transformative touch.

I suppose this is the word of caution for us on a Welcome Home Sunday. It is easy for us to fall into the trap of narcissistic self-congratulation – “wasn’t it good that Jesus died and founded a faith that came to include persons as remarkable as ourselves, and look around, aren’t we jolly good people!” A Welcome Home Sunday can too easily become a celebration of all the things that have happened in the past and the people who have done them – turning the church into some sort of odd religious museum instead of the living, breathing, body of Christ which still has a mission in the world.

It’s tempting to get focused on our past, to get focused on all the things that crowd our collective religious resume as a congregation, and to spend more time reminiscing about those things and preserving those ways than in continuing to engage our mission in the present and in the future. If we’re going to be faithful to our call and to our mission, we need to find a way of looking back and looking forward all at the same time, but more importantly, we need to keep our back-glances and our forward-orientation in proper perspective.

Write this down: the Christian life is best thought of as a journey. That makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re all disciples, and disciple simply means “one who follows.” Well, if we’re following, it must mean we’re going somewhere. So throughout Christian history, there are all sorts of phrases we have used to describe the Christian life that imply we are on a journey of some sort – pilgrims, sojourners, travelers, seekers, climbers – but all the time, we are going somewhere.

Now, when you go on a journey, there are all sorts of ways you can travel. Today, you have no limit to the choices in how you can travel somewhere. If you want to get from here to there, what are some of the options you have?

For Christians, our journey takes place in a very specific vehicle called “the Church.” Jesus founded the Church to be his ongoing presence in the world, to be his hands and feet, if you will, and we have a very specific task – to make disciples. In other words, we invite people to follow, we invite people on the journey.

I like to think of the church as a car. Everyone here familiar with a car? You know what one is, right? OK, so what’s a car’s purpose? What is a car designed to do? A car’s purpose, a car’s design, is to provide transportation. Most basically and fundamentally, a car takes you someplace. So, would it be fair to say that a car’s mission – the reason for a car’s existence – is to take people on a journey? Likewise, the church’s purpose is to help people on their journey of following Jesus.

Yet, there are some cars that do not fulfill their purpose. Some cars are involved in accidents and are no longer in good working condition. Some cars undergo years of neglect and eventually suffer a mechanical breakdown. Some cars become too cumbersome to maintain as they age. Some cars are no longer practical as conditions around them change. And some cars are showpieces – intended to be viewed, but they never actually take people anywhere.

Ever know a church to be like any of those cars? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be part of a church that functions like a car who can’t fulfill its most basic purpose. So if there’s been an accident, let’s fix the damage. If we’ve neglected the church, let’s take good care of it. If our ministry model is out-of-touch and doesn’t reach people like it should or did in days gone by, let’s change it and make it effective again. If we’ve been more interested in preserving the church as a museum or a showpiece or a private members-only clubhouse, let’s worry less about stains in the carpet than we do about the love of God in people’s lives, worry less about preserving and conserving and be willing to take bold risks if it will help us fulfill our mission, and the moment any of thinks we are here to keep ourselves happy, let’s remember that this isn’t a club – it’s a church – an expression of the body of Christ who reaches out selflessly and recklessly so that others might know that God is very much alive in the world, and that God cares about them and loves them no matter who they are, no matter who they love, no matter how they vote, no matter what they do.

It comes back to mission, to understanding why we are here in the first place, and keeping our past and future in proper perspective. Back in today’s Scripture, Paul wrestled at the intersection of his past and his future. Rather than forgetting his past, he simply puts it in proper perspective, saying that the past of his own experiences and accomplishments are nothing when he considers the future he has of knowing Christ. He’s not throwing out the past; he’s simply putting it in perspective.

That’s what we need to do, as well. Go back for a moment and remember our analogy that the church is like a car – the vehicle in which we travel on our journey with Jesus. Between the windshield and the rearview mirror, which one of those represents the past? The rearview mirror. And which represents the future? The windshield. Do you think you should spend more time looking through the windshield or more time looking at the rearview mirror? The windshield, of course. You can stare at the mirror if you want to, but eventually you’re going to crash.

The same is true on our faith journey. We are trying to get somewhere; we aren’t only concerned with where we’ve been. The past is important, and we need to reference it occasionally, but if we obsess over it, we’re going to miss a lot of the good things that God has yet in front of us. And yes, traditions are important – they are like signposts along the road that remind us who we are and where we’re going, they are like postcards that remind us of the places we’ve been. But they need to be kept in perspective. We need to view them through the rearview mirror, while our eyes remain focused on the road ahead, because God calls us to step out in faith and to trust God to lead us.

We need to know where we’re going and why we’re going there. And you know what? Where we’re going hasn’t changed all that much. On this Welcome Home Sunday, I leave you with words of Nell Dick penned only two days before the first worship service in this sanctuary:

“It is the earnest prayer and sincere desire that this church will always be a church in the truest sense of the Christian Mission, always faithful to the preaching, teaching, and healing ministry of Christ, always mediating His love and compassion to the world about us.”

Friends, we are on a journey, and we haven’t reached our destination yet. We haven’t stopped to pick up all our passengers yet. We haven’t finished our work yet. As we press on, driving down that road, we realize that we are on a journey that was started long before we came along, and others will join us on the journey for a time, and they will continue on that journey long after we are gone. And you know what? The quest is still the same. Times may change, styles may change, methodologies may change, but our mission remains the same. Take an occasional look in the rearview mirror if you must, but don’t stare too long – you might just miss the great things beyond the horizon.

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