Straining forward, pressing on

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 3:4b-14 [Proper 22A]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier this week the chair of our archives team, which is the ministry responsible for cataloguing and keeping track of our congregational history, sat down in my office and said, “Pastor, we’ve found some slides of Epiphany’s first couple of decades and we’d like to  convert them to a digital format. It sounded like a great idea because if they remained slides, we reasoned, no one would ever end up seeing them. Curious, I asked how many he was talking about.

“Oh, about 1800.”

1800 slides taken of ministry in this congregation just in the first couple of decades of its life! That is a lot of slides for any organization or individual. We agreed that before any were converted to digital format, he and his team would go through all 1800 and determine if there were any duplicates or any that weren’t worth keeping. That’s quite an undertaking. Who knows what stories they’ll uncover by going through them.

Some people love to do that kind of thing—love to pore over the images and words of the past—and we’re the better for it. I suppose all of us like to dwell on the past, to some degree, but as we were talking I kept thinking about that number: 1800 slides. Even if that comprises slides taken during just two decades, it amounts to only 7.5 slides per month, which is not too bad. But then I sat down at my laptop after he left and realized just on my computer I have about 8,000 photos from my almost 9 years of ministry here. That’s what happens when you carry a camera in your pocket every day and you don’t have to pay to have film developed. I have photos of the last nine Vacation Bible Schools we’ve done and just about every youth group event, too. The photos go all the way back to the day I was installed in February 2009. I haven’t been able to bring myself to delete a single file! I still occasionally like to look back at the things we’ve done. So who am I to scoff at 1800 slides?

oldest photo on my hard drive – my installation on February 8, 2009

There is something about the past, our history, our so-called glory days that entices us to hold onto it. Pictures can do that, especially in this image-drenched era we live in where we have Throwback Thursdays on social media. And to some degree that’s OK, because these things can become a way of telling our story, of reminding us of important things. It’s good to remember how we’ve grown and changed. But sometimes, and often without our even realizing it, the past can become something we worship or something we use to justify ourselves. We cling to things like photos and past experiences as if to boast, finding our self-worth in these things we’ve done or these things that have happened to us. Just to be clear I’m not saying the archives team is guilty of such a thing, even if we save all 1800, but it is a trap that any organization or culture or individual can fall into.

And for the church, Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, this can be especially problematic. It can be problematic because the life of the Christian and the Christian community is one that is ever leaning into the future. In fact, Paul would even go so far as to say that the life of the people of God is primarily about pushing into what lies ahead. It’s one of its defining characteristics. It is a journey where more emphasis is placed on where Christ might be calling us to go, than on where we’ve already been. It’s a life where whatever Christ is calling us to be is more interesting, more important, more influential than where or what we’ve already been.

cross with clouds Epiphany
Epiphany’s cross at the end of Monument Avenue

This understanding of the faith can be found throughout Paul’s writings in the New Testament, but it really crystalizes in his letter to the Philippians. He writes to them in the midst of some sort of conflict they were having. We don’t know the exact nature of that conflict, but one of the main thing he urges them to do in the face of it to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. That is not to say that they should forego any necessary forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather they should focus on the gift that is Jesus and how Jesus always gives them a goal of working into the future.

As it happens, the ancient Greek and Roman cultures were prone to boast about their own pasts and their own prizes. They didn’t collect pictures in order to tell their stories, but they did tout their pedigrees. Things like who their family was, which tribe they belonged to, and where they had been educated got a lot of traction in the ancient world. It was what we call an honor-based culture, and people accrued these badges of self-worth or honor like some of us do photos on our hard drives or smartphones. Paul makes it clear that he has quite a list of those badges of distinction. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find someone in the ancient Jewish world with a pedigree to match Paul’s. He can literally check off every box in the list of things that would make him stand out. It is list that anyone would want to have to boast in.

And yet, he says, he counts all of it as loss, as nothing, as rubbish compared to the value of knowing Jesus Christ his Lord. In fact, the exact translation of the word he uses to talk about his pedigree—skubala—is a word that really can’t be repeated in polite company. His elevated status, his resumé, are all left behind—he pushes delete on all those wonderful photos—because he’s gained Christ and the righteousness that comes through a relationship with him.

“Paul Writing his Epistles” (Valentin)

Now this is significant because typically the people at the top of society—the ones with the most relative status to everyone else, the ones with the greatest power in relation to the world, the ones with the best access to resources that provide for an easy living—they are the ones who typically find the least usefulness of faith. Privilege often provides some insulation from having to look outside oneself for meaning and help. Paul would have fallen into that category, and yet he is so moved by the love God has had for him in Jesus Christ that he can throw all that away. Even as he languishes in prison, his message for the Philippians is that this love has been lavished on them, too. The power of faith and the promise of resurrection from the dead is worth all of those badges of privilege and more. They can move into the future with the confidence that God is calling them there, that God is waiting for them there, that God will reveal even more as they press on.

And this is all possible, of course, because that is what Jesus first did for them. Just prior to this section of the letter, Paul has used this wonderful hymn about how even though Jesus was equal to God Jesus did not exploit or use that status to his advantage but instead emptied himself.

Jesus leads the way in letting go of self-glorification and self-preservation in order that others may live. That’s the whole message of the cross—that Jesus Christ has made us his own. He has given all that he is, even his very life, in order to conquer all that separates us from God, even death. For this reason none of us needs to live to him or herself. We can forget what lies behind and empty ourselves for the life of those around us.

large logo

Today our congregation kicks off a special campaign that will help this congregation strain forward into the future God is preparing. Most people would probably say that Epiphany is a strong, vibrant congregation. We have a rich history of serving our neighbors in the Richmond area, and a strong legacy of building up God’s kingdom in the lives of people who come here. But Paul would surely tell us this morning that this congregation’s best days are still ahead of it. Paul would say, “1800 slides is nothing! God is urging you to take 18,000 more in the years to come.”

Paul would love, for example, the conversations I overheard in the Community Service Team meeting last week as the leaders brainstormed about how to get more people in the congregation involved in our marvelous outreach ministries. Paul would commend the HHOPE Pantry team as they seek ways to expand their reach into the often invisible immigrant communities in our midst. And he would likewise help us understand that sometimes certain ministries need to die so that resources and energy might be freed up to envision even greater opportunities. When a community is built around Christ, of course, resurrection and new life is what we can anticipate. The stone that builders rejected has become the cornerstone. He is the risen leader who beckons us into the future as we Brighten our Light.

Jasper straining forwardIn my office is a wooden carving of Jesus praying at Gethsemane. It was given to me by Jim DeLesDernier. It’s the ideal figure to rest on the little table that lies between the chairs where people sit when they visit me. My 18-month-old loves that figurine and somehow he already knows who it is. When he comes in my office it’s usually the first thing he goes for, but it’s just at the height where he has to strain forward and reach out his arms as far as they’ll go. It’s Jesus who’s determining his height and his reach. It’s Jesus who’s stretching him to his capacity, helping him grow. That is what we pray will happen here as God Brightens Our Light, stretching our community into greater potential.

This past week I was visiting one of our homebound members who until fairly recently used to join us in worship each Sunday. She is now confined to her bed and a wheelchair in the nursing home. She is a delight to visit, always asking about how my family is and how things at church are coming along. She’s had to downsize quite significantly to go from a house of her own to the double room she now shares. I imagine she’s had to leave behind quite a few worldly possessions. I was shocked, however, to see that one of the things she keeps close at hand, rubber-banded to her daily planner right on the tray table by her bed is a Bible devotion book that once belonged to her father. The book was published in 1900 and all of the pages are falling out, each one containing handwritten notes from her dad from his youth and young adulthood. She was glad to let me hold it and thumb through it.

It kind of struck me that this little devotional booklet was the one thing she had requested her family bring her in the nursing home, and how symbolic that it was rubber-banded to her calendar, with its days of potential stretching into the future. Even at her stage in life she is still joyfully pressing onward, still walking that journey with Christ, wanting to know more, wanting to strain forward to the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

20171005_131008It made me think: I wonder what I’ll have by my bed when I’m in the nursing home, should I be blessed to be there one day? 10,000 photos of all the things I’ve already done, the places I’ve already been, the days I’ve already spent? Or, like Margie, words for each brightened day from the Lord Jesus Christ who has already made me his own?

And what about us? As we ask God to brighten our light, can she be our model of faith, and Jim DeLesDernier, too, and those who have gone before us, whose stories and slides, put together, would tell of nothing other than the surpassing value of knowing Christ our Lord?


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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