Sermon for Sunday, October 8, 2017 - Pastor Stephanie McCarthy
Tragedies have power. They can devastate, and they can change. When they involve senseless death, we often become far more grateful for the lives we are living; our priorities are given a good shuffle and re-arrangement. When they involve a natural disaster affecting many people, we see kindness and compassion as neighbors help neighbors. When we lose a loved one unexpectedly, far before their time, we dream of shaping our lives like theirs to carry on their legacy.
But isn’t it bothersome that it takes tragedy to bring people together? Why isn’t this kindness, compassion, decency, and respect part of life every day? Especially for those of us who acll ourselves Christian? Why couldn’t we come together before the war, before the violence, before the injustices that leave so many so vulnerable? Why couldn’t we care for one another and stand with one another in a way that might have prevented some of the pain? Isn’t there something other than fear and pain that can unite us, make us better?
Today, we hear from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul was a man whose life had been turned upside down, changed completely. One commentary compares the transformation in Paul’s life to that of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles’ Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” Like Scrooge, Paul’s life had been transformed from one of focusing on earthly success at the expense of others to one of charity and love. Scrooge’s life was changed because he was given a glimpse of his future if he continued on the same path. It was scary. Scrooge was shown that the end of his life would be empty, lonely and tragic. And so, waking up in the present after his ghastly journey, Scrooge turned his life around. He re-arranged his priorities.
Paul, too, was a man who rearranged his priorities, someone whose life was drastically changed; but not out of fear, not to prevent a tragic ending to his life. Paul is transformed because of a glimpse of a certain future, but one of hope. Paul’s life is changed because of the certainty of the resurrection. And so Paul ministers and travels and teaches and writes with enthusiasm and abandon.
In our text today, he may seem a bit braggadocious, but the style of his writing would have been not only accepted but appreciated by his audience at the time. He is using the example of his life to instruct, as those who were considered the best teachers did at the time. He lists all the many reasons why he is awesome, how he was at the top of his game. He has status and rank, knowledge and expertise. He has followed all the rules, done everything right. He highlights these things so that it is clear how much has changed.
Now, because of Christ, he regards all of these reasons to brag as rubbish, or more literally translated - it’s all dung, fit for nothing more than flushing down the toilet. All those things that were important before? They caused communities to be ranked and divided. Boasting in Christ, however, paints a different picture--a picture of unity. If we are relying on God alone then distinctions are abolished. Sure, different gifts are given to different people, but they are a sign of community unity, not division - there are many parts of one body. They are a sign of a community’s need to work together, not compete.
Paul’s words are passionate, and they reflect the fact the complete reversal he has experienced; he has been entirely re-oriented to Christ. He still lives in the midst of the world, of all things earthly, but he is no longer defined by them. He is not defined by his past, only God can tell him who he is. And God says to him--and to each of us--that we are God’s own beloved and we are righteous; not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done in Christ.
This week, I was at the funeral of our dear colleague and friend, Maggie, back in Minnesota. During the sermon, the preacher was speaking directly to Maggie’s children - Zoe who is seven and Leo who is four. She reminded them of the day they had gone together to visit their mom at the hospital and the time they had spent in the chapel together. Upon entering, there was a large baptismal fountain, at which they all traced the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads, remembering their baptism. The preacher recalled that, after a bit of exploration around the chapel, they were headed past the font again and Zoe rolled her sleeve all the way up to her shoulder. And it was at this point that Zoe shouted out, “I wanted to see how deep it was!” With that sentence, the gospel was proclaimed. All who gathered, all who watched from afar were reminded how deep the waters of baptism go: deeper than any death, any tragedy, anything the world can throw at us.
Once we have reached into the waters of baptism and realize that there is no bottom, no limit to God’s love and grace, we begin to see that the story is just beginning. Paul reminds us that there is still a race to be run. The tremendous and bottomless love of God needs to be shared with all who hurt, all who mourn, all who question their self-worth, all who doubt their own ability. All people need to experience the deep and abiding love of God through us, through the work of our communities.
In the end, if we are only changed and transformed by tragedy and threat and fear, then we are running the race always looking behind us, always on alert, always afraid. But with the sure knowledge of the resurrection, of a God who transforms our lives through love, we can run the race with our eyes set confidently on the finish line, at full sprint, knowing what is coming, knowing what is assured, knowing that the waters of baptism will never run dry.