A sermon preached on October 2nd, 2011 based upon Philippians 3:4b-11.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised 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; 6as 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. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus 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 9and 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. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if 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. 13Beloved, 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, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
In this passage, Paul speaks autobiographically. He describes how once upon a time, he had all the things his culture and community admire. He had cultivated a successful life, making him the object of admiration. He was respected. He was, as he said, “blameless.” He had, it seemed arrived.
He alludes to losing all of these things.
Surely if early in his life you had told him that he would one day lose all of the things he was working so hard to attain, he would have been horrified.
But from his new perspective of having encountered the living Christ, he considers all that he once possessed nothing more than garbage. On the road to Damascus, he was startled to experience the glorified Christ, and a love the width and depth and height of which he could not have imagined. And now all he is concerned with is being where Christ is. And, as it turns out, where Christ is with the outcastes, the broken folks, those who aren’t considered blameless, who aren’t admired. The rejects.
This, of course is a hard thing for most of us to grasp, since we haven’t had the depth of experience of Christ that Paul had, transported as he describes in one of his letters to the seventh heaven. For us to lose everything that we’ve worked to establish ourselves in this world would be nothing short of devastating.
But we catch glimpses of what Paul grasped in the stories of our lives.
At the men’s group this past Friday, we read together a story by Rachel Naomi Remen in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom in which she describes a young man who had it all. He was a much admired college athlete, with a life full of beautiful women, fast cars, and accolades. A diagnosis of cancer, however, quickly led to the amputation of a leg. Suddenly his playing days were over. He descended into bitterness, began turning to alcohol and drugs, and quitting school, before being referred to a Rachel for counseling.
She gave him a drawing pad and asked him to draw a picture of his body. He drew a crude sketch of a vase, just an outline. Running through the center of it he drew a deep crack. He went over and over the crack with a black crayon, gritting his teeth and ripping the paper. He had tears in his eyes. They were tears of rage. The vase was useless; it could not hold the water.
His attention began to turn towards stories of other young people who suddenly had their bodies damaged by accidents or disease, and his anger about the fact that the people who were treating these young people had no clue what it was like to be them. In his mind, no one understood them, no one was there for them, no one really knew how to help them. He was still enraged, but it seemed that underneath this anger a concern for others was growing. Encouraged, she asked him if he wanted to do anything about it. Caught by surprise, at first he said not. But, just before he left he asked me if I though he could meet some of those others who suffered.
He began visiting such young people, and found he had a gift for connecting to them. More and more referrals of patients who could benefit for his contact were sent his way. He met a young woman who had lost both of her breasts at the age of 21, and managed to break through the familiar rage she was lost in.
Together they became a team. She encouraged him to go back to school to study psychology to support his work. Eventually they were married. She was quite a different sort of woman from the beauty queens and cheer leaders he had earlier associated with.
At their final session, Rachel brought forth the picture of the cracked vase that he had drawn so bitterly in his first session. Saying it wasn’t finished, he took a yellow crayon and began drawing streaks of light from the crack. “The crack is where the light comes from,” he said.
He lost everything that had seemed important to him, but the crack in his armor turned out to be an opening to quality of life far more wonderful than the superficialities he had lived in previously.
Yesterday I drove out to Everittstown to the little country church I served for seven years prior to coming here almost 23 years ago. Memories of those years flooded back to me. I arrived there at the age of 26 never having really failed in any sort of big, public way. I had gotten good grades at good schools, graduated with honors, and glided through the ordination process without any bumps. Exceedingly lonely, I entered into an ill-advised marriage too quickly. I was blessed with the gift of a son, but a few months after his birth my wife and I separated. As it became clear our differences were irreconcilable, and that we were moving to divorce, it seemed to me that I would have to give up being a pastor. How can I be a pastor when I had failed to make my marriage work?
In the breaking however that was my divorce, I discovered a deeper love than the one I had known working so hard all those years to do everything without blame. In my calling to ministry my personal breaking took me to a deeper place. I was now more approachable for people who similarly had experienced breakings in their life. We were in this thing called life together. I lost the aura of perfection, but discovered the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul said, I didn’t arrive in that breaking – I didn’t reach the goal – but I saw the way forward.
In a few minutes we will share holy communion, during which great emphasis is placed on the fact that Jesus himself was broken for us. His vase was cracked so that we might be blessed. We come not because we have earned a place with Jesus, but because he enters the muck of our lives, and provides that which in our pretences of perfection we could never give to ourselves.