Here are my notes, half way between a manuscript and bullet points from my sermon on Sunday October 8. About half of this is what I actually said out loud in worship (and its only a sermon in the preaching, so I suppose these are my sermon notes, not actually a sermon). I was asked to share by a few people, so here it is.
What Is The Goal?
October 8, 2017
First Presbyterian Church Norman
Barry has a great talent for leaving town right when preaching is going to be difficult (and also for dealing well with preaching in difficult times when he is here with us). The last time I preached while Barry was out of town was the morning following the events in Charlottesville. And today we have our first gathering for worship following the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
This week we have texts that are all about the law- the 10 commandments in Exodus that we used as our confession, a Psalm praising God for the law, and Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi and words about following the law and when not to.
So between the world and huge violence, and scriptures about the importance and the need not to follow the law, I spent a lot of time this week staring at a blank document on my computer, unsure what there is to say.
So let’s begin with the story- what is said. Paul talks in today’s letter to the church at Philippi about his goal. The text makes it clear that whoever he is speaking to expects him to follow, or respects him as a leader because he followed the law of Judaism. His childhood faith. But paul goes to length to say that yes, he has followed that law, but that in Christ he has seen that following the law, at least on its own, is not how God desires our devotion.
And in the other story today the Psalmist tells us- the earth and its patterns are wonderful, the law is great, God is good… and then asks how can we know if we are following the law, and then the psalmist says God may I, a sinner, be acceptable to you however well or poorly follow.
Paul says- I followed the church’s law to a T, did everything I was told and raised to do in the church and the world, and then I met Jesus and now that all means nothing when it comes to knowing Jesus and pursuing the call I have in Christ. I’m not great at it, but the journey is enough for now.
Following God’s law in the Psalm is a good thing, but even in the voice of the psalmist it is only good insofar as it is God’s law (says nothing of humanity’s law) and we are only good insofar as we follow it, even though we can’t really know if we have followed well.
Paul he lays out his credentials as a good follower of church law. Just how well he has been raised and just how good a church person he is. And then immediately says that is all nothing because it didn’t fit with who Jesus is and what he calls us to do.
Both texts tell us that following, belonging to God and to faithfully doing what God asks are the right and good and righteous things to do. Both also tell us that sin will keep us from doing this perfectly, and will mean that we are confused about what it even means to follow well.
But both also rely on the truth that loving God and Christ, and reaching and working toward following well should be our goal.
I can hear in the way Paul tells his story every woman I know who have had to say at some point ‘I am educated, I work hard, I am intelligent, there is no such thing as a single kind of ‘emotional woman’, and emotions do not make my point invalid or illogical. And aside from all that I am doing what I am called to do so don’t disregard me’ I hear the voices of the teenagers I have worked with in over a decade of youth ministry struggling with why the adults in their lives would teach them that they have value and are smart and capable and then not allow them to lead or participate fully at church and in the world because they are young. I hear the people of color in my life who have to defend their value, intelligence, thoughts and their being because they are disregarded others their dress, and hair, and skin, or where they choose or need to live, how they speak, or who they love are disregarded by white dominant culture and then have to say ‘I am a person and deserve respect no matter what vernacular I use, or clothing I wear, or where I went (or didn’t) to school. I am a person’.
There are times in life that all of us in frustration have to list our credentials even when we know that they should not matter because of the credentials we all share- human and beloved. And worse, when we have to list them because we know for certain that the person we are speaking to has forgotten, or has never believed that we were their equal in value and humanity.
Paul’s words today probably resonate with us because, while we all are human and beloved, our sins and particularly the sin of prejudice and discrimination on small or large scales mean that we do not hold on to God’s law and the life of Christ well enough to avoid this sin. Or to repent of it when we see that we have sinned.
In times like these when people are murdered in mass and we are happier to blame everything under the sun instead of facing that we are clearly a broken people if one of us could want to do such a thing to begin with.
Where our conversations turn away from the ways we have failed to show care and might better see the humanity in one another in favor of blame and excuses.
Where we blame mental illness in these crises instead of admitting that we have created a society where white men and boys are raised and told that rage and anger and violence are better answers to loneliness and pain and feeling inadequate than asking for help or being open enough to work through why one is in pain or lonely.
Where guns are so sacred a part of our way of life that we cannot see that the insane loss of life that is created with them is heresy and an abomination of God’s world and figure out a way to protect the people of God because we value our right to own these objects above the lives of the roughly 12,000 people who die a year because of their use in our nation.
In these times where if your credential is on the spectrum between ‘anti-gun’ or ‘in favor of strong gun-regulation’ you are called weak and selfish. If your credential is between ‘NRA member’ and ‘gun owner’ you are seen as terrifying and irrational. We, all of us out of fear, yes fear on both sides, and an inability to see one another’s perspective and experience, cease to be human and become only credentials and the judgements we attach to those credentials.
I don’t have an answer about how we fix this, but we must. Things need to change in our nation, people need to be seen and heard and known so that we stop being a people who create so many children who are willing to murder so many of their neighbors.
In times like these where we choose to see one another as the opinions we hold, or the norms we choose to follow (or don’t) the Psalmist and Paul have a lot to show us.
I am not a universally huge fan of Paul, but he does something in today’s text that we all can learn from. He lays out what is expected of him, and then explains in clear and concise words why they should not matter and just how he is going to follow Christ despite the world’s expectations.
He lays out what norms and rules he was once an adherent of, and tells us clearly why that in and of itself is not good, and was not the right thing for him.
He explains that none of it means much if he is not keeping his eye on the prize, eternal life in Christ. And that this is why he has turned his back on so much of what he once so strongly believed.
I don’t think Paul is saying that we all have to go out today and break the law for Jesus, church or civic law. What he lays out is more the idea that the goal he had in mind was wrong and needed to change. In his early years before knowing Jesus his goal, as he states it here, seems to have been piety and righteousness through perfect following of his community’s law. And now his goal is aiming for Christ’s Way. A much more amorphous and frustrating goal.
When there is a clear list of rules and following them is the only goal, life may not be easy but it is clear. When there is just the example and call of Christ, things are much more confusing and more difficult to figure out what it means to follow well.
The Psalmist tells us first that the modes of nature, the rising and setting of the sun, the movement from one day to the next even tell us of the goodness of God’s law. This to me sounds like the laws of science- Creation was made with patterns and firm, clear modes of being that do not change, and God made them and the Psalmist includes them in this poetic discussion of the law.
But then the poet takes it further and says that God’s law rules human behavior too, it enlightens the foolish, they bless those who follow them, and they are inherently good and righteous.
But then, as poets and particularly the poet of psalms often do, the point shifts. This poem begins by extolling the goodness of God’s law for nature and for us, but then the perspective turns in verses 12 and 13 “But can anyone know what they’ve accidentally done wrong? Clear me of any unknown sin and save your servant from willful sins. Don’t let them rule me.” and become introspective. Yes, says the psalmist, the works of God, the law of God are perfect and right, buuuuttt….we suck at following them. I do in particular. So help me God to not mess up too bad, and forgive me when I do.
The psalmist and Paul both know they need forgiveness. They both readily admit it and repent. If only we could do the same.
These laws they each discuss are not laws like not jaywalking or paying on time for car registration, or even the kind of law that the first or second amendments are with their more philosophical underpinnings, there is far more at stake with God’s law. Our very being is at stake. With God it’s about who we are created to be, and the goodness God gave us. Failing to follow God’s law for the Psalmist and for Paul is about righteousness and goodness, philosophical ideas that perhaps we water down with how we use those words in our time, but that at their core are about living out the calling God has placed in our lives and that living that calling will make us doers of Good and Righteousness such that others can see it. It’s about the fruit of our faith, and the ways that our faith show the world who God is. It’s about following well, if never perfectly, so that God and Christ’s love and grace are shown to the world.
Everyone can do it, no one can do it perfectly, but we all do it better if we do it together. But instead we are really great, all of us, at getting bogged down in the minutiae of the laws we know. We are great at getting distracted by ‘he took my toy’ or ‘she cut me off in traffic’ instead of worrying about ‘who has nothing to eat’ and ‘who never had access to education’ and ‘she is dying because she cannot afford adequate health care, and when she does it will bankrupt her family’ and ‘they came to this country without the right paperwork, they have to return to a place of poverty and hopelessness without those papers’. There are clear evils in our world, any place people die or are harmed because they are treated as statistics instead of humans, we have lost our way. Any time we let our fear of the unknown or of one another distract us from the only call that matters- to love one another, we have strayed from God’s law and Christ’s path.
And in these days where our nation is far more concerned with ‘what will i lose’ and ‘what ways will that inconvenience me’ over the welfare of our neighbors, we have a lot of repenting to do, a lot of small and big ways we need to return to God’s path. And lots of ways we need to hear the Psalmist and Paul and find God’s beauty and truth in the world.
The world was created by a loving and gracious God, who loves and cares for each of us, and maybe if we try to remember that both we and everyone we meet is equally loved and grace filled, we might do a better job of being together, of caring for one another, of less pointing of fingers and more pitching in to fix things. We would do better at finding peace and love in a world that appears to have forgotten them.
My prayer is that in the words of the Psalm and the words of Paul you hear a voice asking you to take one more small step toward goodness and love. That you are able, with the solidarity of our forbearers in scripture to admit when you have become distracted and repent of how it has led you away from love, and that once we all can do those things, we can be a world where there is more peace and love and care than there are violence and hatred and separation.
Because “ Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.” and because “The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” and when we all know that these things are true, and live into them, the world will know it because of our love. May it be so.