This is the message I preached on Sunday, May 6, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
So then, my brothers and sisters, be glad in the Lord. It’s no trouble for me to repeat the same things to you because they will help keep you on track. 2 Watch out for the “dogs.” Watch out for people who do evil things. Watch out for those who insist on circumcision, which is really mutilation. 3 We are the circumcision. We are the ones who serve by God’s Spirit and who boast in Christ Jesus. We don’t put our confidence in rituals performed on the body, 4 though I have good reason to have this kind of confidence. If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.
6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15 So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.
Still-speaking God who does not just speak in our pasts, in our comfortable places, but who also brings mercy that is new every morning, speaking in new places and times we do not expect words as fresh as sunrise over the horizon, we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Word. Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In his song “Unanswered Prayers”, Garth Brooks sings about moments in his life he prayed for God to keep things as they were – to keep that job, that relationship, that situation right in front of him remaining the same. In particular, Garth croons about a lost love, a woman he had prayed and prayed things would work out with, even though he saw no hope of things improving. Despite all his prayers and efforts, things don’t work out in that relationship so long ago. As the song continues, he describes running into her years later. When he does, he is struck by a sense of gratitude that God had not let him stay locked in his past with her which, when he had been in the midst of it years earlier, had seemed so wonderful he could not imagine it ending. Now he sees that past pales in significance to the wonderful new doors God opened for him once that first door was fully shut.
“She wasn’t quite the angel,” he sings, “that I remembered in my dreams
And I could tell that time had changed me
In her eyes too it seemed
We tried to talk about the old days
There wasn’t much we could recall
I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all
And as she walked away and I looked at my wife
And then and there I thanked the good Lord
For the gifts in my life
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”.
In a way, Garth Brook’s words echo the words the apostle Paul gives us in our Scripture reading today. Paul points to many things in his life which, at one point, he had prized and wanted to hold onto. Paul could point to a long list of accomplishments that, at one point in his life, led him to believe he was a better person than others, closer to God than others, and more deserving of respect. And unlike some of the things we often try to hold onto from our pasts – our high school sports accomplishments, attachments to old relationships that have died out, resentments or griefs that weigh us down – what Paul once held onto were accomplishments in terms of strictly obeying the Bible’s rules.
These rules, found in what we would call the Old Testament today, were what marked out Jewish people as different than others – things like not eating shellfish, keeping Saturday as a Sabbath, wearing the appropriate fringe on your clothes, and a long list of other rules that, by and large, most Christians today never have heard of, let alone kept. Keeping all these rules so well, knowing his Scripture so well, had once been a point of pride for Paul. He had felt it made him better than others, closer to God and able to look down on those who were different. This pride even inspired him to persecute people who believed differently than him – including the early Christians, who followed Jesus’ example of welcoming all people to God’s table as equally children of God, loved and embraced by God, just as they are. These early Christians welcomed everyone into God’s family, whether they were Jewish or not, whether they were poor or rich, whether they were the insider or the outsider, whether they kept all the rules as well as Paul or not.
To Paul as he used to be, opening up the faith for all people, as these early Christians did, watered it down. If the Bible says it, then God spoke it, and that settles it for me, Paul probably had said. To him, saying people who didn’t obey the letter of every law in the Old Testament, the only Bible there yet for anybody, since the letters of the apostles and Gospels which make up our New Testament had yet to be written, saying such people could be welcomed as much as a part of God’s family as people like him, who spent their whole life studying Scripture and trying to follow its guidelines strictly and literally, felt like tearing down everything he stood for. What gave those liberal minded Christians the right?
Paul’s commitment to hold onto this identity – as a good, Bible believing, Jewish man – and to hold onto how things had always been done, including who had always been excluded from faith, led him not only to avoid joining up when the Gospel began to be preached in his community, but even to go one step further: Paul worked to stamp out those early Christians, organizing others to persecute and even kill them.
How ironic it is, that as Paul writes today’s Scripture reading, he does so now in chains for being a Christian. As Paul writes, Paul himself is being persecuted for the same faith he once had tried to wipe out. How ironic that now, writing years later, Paul has become to loudest voice in the faith calling out for the church to tear down every wall that kept out those before deemed as too different, too strange, too lost, too last, and too least. How ironic that Paul became the one crying out, as he does in 2 Corinthians, warning all who will listen that the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit of the law which Jesus revealed gives life, warning people to not judge others who do not obey the exact letter of the law in the Bible, if they are following the spirit of its message.
The book of Acts tells us what happened between between these early days Paul counts as “sewer trash” and today, while he writes in prison – Paul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. In that encounter, Jesus challenges Paul, asking him “Saul, Saul,” which is the Hebrew form of his name “Paul”, “why do you persecute me?”. Paul’s eyes are opened. He no longer can see others as people to persecute or put down, no matter how different they are for him. For to persecute another person is to persecute Christ himself. After all, did Jesus not say, “Whatever you have done to the least of these… you have don to me”? Paul becomes a changed man out of this encounter, now speaking out and fighting against every voice that puts down other children of God, against every power that forces them to jump through a thousand hoops to get to God, against every message that says people can only be welcome into God’s family if they fit another’s predetermined image of what God’s people must look like or be.
Paul spends the rest of his life reaching out to those who until then had been overlooked by the people of God. Paul goes to the ends of the known world to do it. Whenever and wherever he can, Paul continues to call God’s people to lay down the walls they have built up to hold out those they deem as too different.
Now, chained for this message, and facing possible execution, Paul can look back at his life and see –- losing how he had always looked at life, losing his comfortable assumptions, losing his black and white way of looking at God, faith, and the Bible had been worth it. Through this journey of following Christ, of working to widen the welcome of God’s people, Paul had encountered God in ways he never could have before.
I don’t know fully all the ways in which Paul had seen his life open up since this, even in the face of trials, but I imagine it is like what I have heard some fellow pastors describe at our United Church of Christ association meeting this past fall as having happened in their mostly white, English speaking churches when those churches began to intentionally welcome and reach out to Spanish speaking and Latino neighbors in various ways. Each of these ministers shared how they saw their churches become more alive, more aware of ways God was working in their lives, and more open to God’s Spirit. These churches laid aside their sense of comfort and privilege, choosing to welcome people their communities said were so different from them, and in some of these churches, this included even welcoming some under threat of being sent out of our country, dragged away by immigration, cut off from their spouses and children here. Each of these ministers shared how through the lives and stories of those they built relationships with through their Spanish-language ministries, their eyes were opened to see Christ in ways they never could have if they clung to their comfortable way of always doing church.
My own experience mirrors their own. I have found whenever I let go my own expectations about others that kept those who seemed different to me at bay — when I would get to know them, really hearing their story, and really accepting the gifts God had given them in their life, I would begin to encounter sides of God I never would have otherwise.
By letting go of his past, with its rules and regulations that kept others at bay, Paul opened himself up to see God in new ways, to grow closer to God.
This is the challenge our Scripture reading gives us today:
What are you holding onto personally? What am I? What are we holding onto as a church?
What parts of our past are we refusing to let go, which keep us bound in our personal lives, preventing us from looking ahead to what doors God might be opening for us? What about in our families? Our communities? Our church?
What labels or identities for ourselves are becoming more important than being a follower of Christ who welcomes and serves all people in Christ’s love, or being the family of God as a church, open to all? What are we holding onto that keeps some person or group at bay as an “other”, too different to be welcome?
It is a funny thing about holding onto something. To hold onto something, we have to keep our hands closed tight around it. While your hands are tight around whatever it is you refuse to let go, they cannot at the same time be open, palms out, ready to receive what new thing God has for us.
This is why Paul challenges us to follow his example, to let go what has come before, and press onto what future God is opening before us as individuals.
That grievance or grief you are holding onto, that past job or relationship you cannot let go of after losing it, those people whose hard words about you or actions toward you left you in pain, that way you have always done things or way you’ve always been told church had to be done –God is calling you, calling me, to let it go. What is your holding onto these things keeping you back from being open to embracing? Only in letting it go, can you become open to God’s bright future, God’s new beginning for you.
I have to admit, I am not there either. Even as I preach, there are areas I am trying to let go personally in my life, as some of you are, that I must lay down to God before I can embrace God’s good future for me. If we are honest, many of us are in that situation, aren’t we? But ultimately to embrace the bright future God is opening up for you and me, we must be willing to let go and step out with God’s help.
In closing I want to ask you to close your eyes and stretch out your hands, held in fists. Around what has your hand been wrapped, unable to let go? Around what has the church’s hands?
Take a moment and quietly name this to God.
Now, I want to encourage you to turn hands over, palm down, opening them like you are dropping a pebble on the pavement. As you do so, imagine yourself letting go of whatever you have been holding onto that is holding you back.
Now, as you feel the weight of that drop off, I want to invite you to open your hands, palms up to the sky, as if you are open to whatever God has for you.
As you do so, express your openness to God.
Let us pray – God, who shuts doors no one can open and opens doors no can shut, who at times calls us to lay aside our past and all the entangles us, so we can run with endurance the race set before us, help us to lay aside every weight that keeps us from moving forward into your future for us. Amen.
I want to encourage you – if you are like me, one day saying a prayer isn’t the end. It is easy to pick back up what you thought you have laid in God’s hands. Let’s commit to focusing on whatever we have been holding onto individually and as a church that keeps us from being open to God’s future, in prayer like this, each day, until we find that burden lifted and us opening like flowers to the sun to God’s bright future. Amen. And Amen.
May God now send us out into our communities,
not clinging to tattered rags of our faded pasts,
but open to share all the new things God is doing.
And now, may Jesus calls us to notice those around us,
to shower them with hope,
to feed them from our deep pantries,
to welcome them in as family.
And now, may the Spirit anoints us with grace,
to make a way through the injustices around us
so we might walk with our sisters and brothers
into the kingdom springing forth in our midst. Amen.