Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 2, 2011

2011.10.02 “Keep on Track” – Philippians 3: 4 – 16

Central United Methodist Church
“Keep on Track”
Pastor David L. Haley
Philippians 3: 4 – 16
October 2nd, 2011

“We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it — even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash — along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant — dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ — God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward — to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.
So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision — you’ll see it yet! Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it.”
– Philippians 3: 4 – 16, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Only those here older than me will remember an early TV show, broadcast from 1952 to 1961, called This Is Your Life. On that show, the host would surprise a guest, and then give them a tour of their life in front of an audience which included friends and family. Even with all the reality TV on today, as far as I know, there’s still nothing like it.

The older I get, the more often I feel like I’m a guest on an episode of This is Your Life. Is it for you as it is for me, that every now and then, something will trigger a memory of what seems like a previous life? It might be a song, a photograph, something I find in a forgotten box. Sometimes it fills me with happy memories, sometimes it makes me want to weep; sometimes it makes me want to cringe in embarrassment or regret.

Two examples: last year I came across my 1969 high school yearbook, always fun to look over, even though now it seems like somebody else’s life. It didn’t help that my girls, Becca and Anna, laughed their way through it, in disbelief that I could or ever would look like that.

The other example: after my son’s wedding last year, on the tables at the reception, Chris and his bride Lynne placed pictures of each of them while they were growing up. Because I had lost all of those pictures in my divorce, I hadn’t seen those pictures of Chris in about 20 years. I think, of everything about the wedding, that got to me the most.

Of course, it’s not just memories of people and places past. Most of us can think of sports or hobbies or interests we once pursued, the only reminder of which may be some piece of equipment stored somewhere in the basement or garage, a collection of baseball cards or a tennis racquet or golf clubs unused in decades. I was recently at someone house, and they had a tennis racquet just like the one I have (somewhere), mounted in a case on the wall. I could hardly wait to ask if maybe it had grown to be highly valuable, a collector’s item or something, but no: no such luck. It was only there to fill a blank space.

Today, as we come to the third chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we find St. Paul in such a nostalgic mood. But it’s not high school reunions or old hobbies he’s remembering, it’s the life that he lived before Christ: who he was and what he stood for.

What had set Paul off on such a line of thought was that after he had moved on from the Church at Philippi, others – likely Jewish Christians – had come to Philippi flashing their credentials, questioning Paul’s authority, and insisting that to be Christian, Christians still needed to observe Jewish law and ritual, such as circumcision. Paul was crude in what he called them: “barking dogs, religious busybodies, knife-happy circumcisers.”

And then Paul said, essentially: “You want credentials?” “I got credentials.”

“You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.”

But then, on the Damascus Road, when he had met Christ in a voice and vision, everything changed. Such that the life of which he was once so sure, so proud, became his greatest failure and regret:

“The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash — along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant — dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.”

All he previously stood for? All those credentials. “Dog dung,” he called them.

Do we have anything in our past we may feel that way about? (And I’m not talking about that leisure suit we used to own!) Maybe it was a habit we used to have. Maybe it was things we once believed and argued, that to think about now, in the light of our current beliefs, makes us cringe in embarrassed. (I have preached things as a preacher, before I knew better, that I wish I could go back and erase. Not these things now, only those things then.) Maybe it was not a belief, but a complete lifestyle, a way we used to live, in disregard of others, and also of God.

But then, like Paul, somewhere along the way we met Christ. It may not have been with a vision and voice or with a flash of light, but from our childhood. It might have been sudden, or it might have been slow. But like Paul, faith for us has not been static, but dynamic, constantly changing: changing what we believe, changing what we care about and what’s important, changing the way we live, changing us. And so, here we are in church today, followers of Jesus, asking to be changed even more.

Some of us here today may be considering big decisions in our lives, grieving the loss of people or things we loved, looking to what’s next in our lives. Sometimes that involves giving up things, sometimes it involves taking on new things.

Many years ago, when I was pondering such a decision, I came across a quote by Gandhi, where Gandhi said: “Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.” (Louis Fischer, Gandhi, His Life and Message for the World, 1960, p. 34.) That was what happened to St. Paul, and sometimes happens to us.
I came across recently and have been reading with interest a book called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr. Says Rohr, leaning heavily on Carl Jung, the spiritual life has two stages.

In the first half of life, you are devoted to establishing yourself, making a career and finding friends and a partner, crafting your identity. During this time of our life, we are drawn to order, to religious routine, to letting ourselves be shaped by the norms and practices of family and community. Says Rohr, “the first task of life is to build a strong “container”; the second task of life is to find the contents the container is supposed to hold. Sometimes, he says, we are so busy with the first task, that we never get around to the second. Or, as someone once put it, “busy climbing the ladder of life, rung by rung, until we get to the top and discover it is leaning against the wrong wall.”

Unfortunately, sometimes what it takes to awaken us to the second task, is a crisis. “Some kind of falling,” says Rohr. “Normally a job, a fortune, or a reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, a disease has to be endured.” What we discover at such times is that what we thought we knew about the spiritual life no longer suffices for the life we are living.” Many of us are nodding our heads, right now, because we’ve been there.

But the good news is, says Rohr, is that after the crisis, if we are open to it, we can enter a place of spiritual refreshment, peace, and compassion that we could not have imagined before. We all know people who are in this second half of life. They are the people about whom we say, “That is the kind of person I want to be, the kind of Christian I want to be, when I grow up.”

This is where St. Paul arrived, and what he was talking about here in his Letter to the Philippians:

“Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant — dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him . . . I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.”

In case we haven’t gotten it yet, then Paul uses an image that makes it clearer, at least for all of us who love sports: the image of the runner.
I don’t know if Paul was a runner, other than from the mobs who were always trying to stone him (you know, the typical pastor’s life), but he must have at least have been a fan of the Greek games. So he says: “By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward — to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”

Most of my life, my primary form of exercise has been running. Now that I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to diversify a bit, and it’s not quite as easy as it used to be. But I still love that feeling: the symmetry of mind and body. Sometimes you are running from things, sometimes you are running toward things. But you can’t run looking back, only ahead, focused on the finish, mind and body striving in unison.

This is, says St. Paul, our life in Christ. It is not static, but dynamic, where we keep going on or we go off. We can’t run it looking back, only forward, looking ahead, to what the future holds.

Who knows, maybe the last judgment will be less like the one Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel, and more like This is Your Life. Maybe Jesus will be the host, and we’ll look at the people and places and scenes that made up our lives; sometimes cringing (at that leisure suit), sometimes weeping, looking at the things we thought meant so much to us, before we came to see how some of them, even the things we once thought so important, meant so very little; often giving God thanks for this wonderful life we were given. Saying with St. Paul, “We gave up all that inferior stuff that we might know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.”

Until that day, be off and running, keep on track, keep your eyes on the prize, no turning back. Amen.

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