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Sunday, May 26, 2019

“This One Thing I Do…”

A Sermon based upon Philippians 3: 13-4:1
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 26th, 2019

Recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author, Mary Oliver passed away at age 83.   Some of great lines she wrote will now become even more valued; like these words in her poem, “When it’s over”:
When it's over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
 I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 
When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I’ve made of my life something particular, and real.  I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened or full of argument. 
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”

A similar line comes from another great Christian writer, Madeline D’Engel: “What you think is not the point, but what you do is what’s going to count.”

The apostle Paul had a similar approach to his own life, writing to the Philippians, in the middle of verse 13, he says: “… But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

When I was a teenager in college, and traveling across North Carolina working with Youth on Methodist Lay-Witness weekends, I quoted this verse most often.  It was a directive for my own life that I wanted to pass on to others.  I wanted others to discover what I had learned through a very difficult moment in my life.  I wanted them to know how I had been given me a gift: the gift of focus. It had given also me a sense of fulfillment. 

Perhaps it was the difficult days of imprisonment that helped Paul take stock in the focus of his life.  Normally that’s how it works, isn’t it?  When we are going through something very difficult, we focus on what matters most.
A moment ago, I quoted the late poet Mary Oliver.   In a world fixated on high tech, Mary found her focus in poetry.  After her death, a Harvard trained Psychologist wrote to honor her memory: “With stark simplicity, she offered us both spiritual guidance and common sense, all of which was garnered from lessons she learned while simply meandering in the woods.”   Interestingly, the focus in Mary’s life came through great pain and hurt early in a very difficult childhood.  Mary wrote: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Mary was able to find this ‘gift’ by putting her focus on nature, then books, which led her to God.  She said she starting reading, “the way a person might swim, to save his or her life,” and that nature offered her “an antidote to confusion.”  In another place she wrote about her unapologetic trust in God: “Why do people asking God for his identity papers, when the darkness opening up into the morning than enough?”   Out of her focus, through great pain, Mary gave three clear instructions for living a life: “Pay attention”, “Be astonished”, “Tell about it.”   I can’t think of any better way to find a modern example of what Paul meant when he said, “But one thing I do”.   People who find salvation in life, always find focus on something bigger than themselves, which leads them to confidence and trust in God.
The apostle Paul could have done many things with his life.   He had all the essential credentials necessary to impress his peers.   He was a circumcised Jew--a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews. More than that he was a Pharisee. He not only knew the Law, he practiced it meticulously. He certainly didn’t need all the persecutions, shipwrecks, imprisonments he encountered after putting his focus on Jesus Christ.   
But for Paul, Jesus became his ‘life-saving’ focus.  Building up to today’s text, Paul wrote in verse 8: "For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ."  The he adds: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death . . ."   Our text today is basically a summing up of everything Paul has said before: "But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."  This one thing, which gave Paul his focus was simply this-- knowing Christ.  From knowing Christ came power to live, no matter what Paul faced.
Zig Ziglar, a popular motivational speaker in the business world, once asked his audience to consider whether their life was defined as a "wandering generality" or was a "meaningful specific." In other words, he asked, is life best lived when we are focused on a few important things or do we too often loose our focus when we spread our lives too thinly?   A good analogy, he said, is found in light. Light is a marvelous thing, coming to us in many forms. But it is the focus and intensity of light that determines its power. For instance, light bulbs generally have a low level of focus and intensity. The light rays scatter out of the bulb, creating what we call incoherent light. But take those same scattered light rays and focus them in one direction at one target, and you have a laser, which is infinitely more powerful.
Is your life incoherent, or is it like a laser?  Staying focused is the key to a life-well-lived; no matter who you are, or what you do. Comedian Jay Leno once went into a McDonald's one day and said the person at the counter, "I'd like some fries." The person at the counter then asked him, "Would you like some fries with that?" Focus!  Audiologist David Levy recalls a frantic client who lost her hearing aid. She had been eating a bowl of cashews while talking on the phone. Her tiny hearing aid was sitting on the table next to her. In the midst of her conversation, she mistook the hearing aid for a cashew and ate it.
With so many distractions these days; so much to do, so many places to go, and so much to see, to learn, to know, and to have, finding the right focus in our very short lives is more important than ever.  When difficult or confusing times come, we need the same kind of ‘laser’ focus that enabled Mary Oliver to cut through darkness.  And of course, we all need the laser-like power Paul found in the light of Jesus Christ.
It is told that when comedian Jim Carrey was a struggling as a young actor, he wrote himself a check for ten million dollars and postdated it seven years in the future. That check kept him focused. Even more impressive is the fact that, when it came due, he was able to cover it.  What kind of ‘check’ might you write to find your focus and name your future?
Paul understood we need focus, but he also knew that the greatest obstacle to gaining our focus is not what might happen, but what already has happened—our past.  Paul’s past had been enforcing the law and murdering Christians.  Can’t you imagine, that after finding the truth about the love of Jesus Christ, Paul could have beaten himself down with guilt, shame, and regret? 

Mary Oliver could have also gotten beaten down by her own difficult childhood.  You know how that goes, “I’m this way because my parents were this way, etc.”  Certainly, not to belittle the pain, the hurt, or the anger that any of us might get locked into because of what was done to us in the past, we need to hear something else Mary Oliver said.   She wrote: “There are stubborn stumps of shame or grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.”  These kinds of stones will try to weigh us down, but in finding her focus, and letting go of her past, she gave some of her greatest advice:  “You must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”
Forgiving, and even intentionally forgetting our past doesn’t mean we don’t remember it at all, but it means that we don’t allow our past to control or diminish us.  If, for the rest of his life, Paul would have carried around with him all the mistakes he’d made, his life would have been so heavy, his soul so tied down, that couldn’t have freely and positively shared Christ’s love.  But because of Christ’s redeeming and amazing grace, Paul was able, not just to ‘forget’ his past, but learn from it, and to transform his past. In Christ, he turned the negatives into the great positives of faith, hope, and love.
Recently, I attended a seminar lead by Verlon and Melodee Fosner from Seattle, tell about the work they were doing in their ‘Dinner Church’ ministry.  The church they served was in serious decline until they decided to stop everything they were doing, so they could go back to the three M’s of the early church’s approach; music, a meal, and a message.  Now, by shaping their ministry around feeding the poor and marginalized with food, fellowship and faith, that declining church now has 13 satellites, and they are helping declining churches and denominations around the country to recapture the spirit and mission of the church.
But what was most amazing was a story she told about a Hispanic woman named Ruby, who recently started attending one of their churches.  Ruby was Cuban.  When Melodee asked her about her life, Ruby told a sordid story about being persecuted in Cuba under Castro, then fleeing to New York, where she lived a life full of abuse and addiction.  Then, she said, one day a man showed up at her door.  She invited him in and they started having coffee today.  For eight weeks they shared coffee and he discipled her in how to redeem and live her life.  When Ruby’s neighbor asked, who is that strange man and why does he keep coming?  Ruby answered, I didn’t know him before, but we just have coffee together and he keeps encouraging me overcome by past and live a better life.  “What’s his name?”  Ruby answered, “I didn’t know him before, but he said his name was Jesus.”
At first, I was a skeptical about this story, until I realized that in Latin Countries, Jesus is a very common name.  It was what this Jesus was doing that was anything but common.  It is what the church should be doing too, if we want to be Jesus’s body in the world today.  We must move from our past to reach for our future, and we can do this by helping others overcome their past find their future too. 
Rod Wilmoth, tells of visiting a very historic church in Cincinnati. He wanted to see it, it was a famous church. He found the church. It was run down, paint peeling, closed up tight. He couldn't get in. He found the sexton, who agreed to open it up for him.
They went into the sanctuary, cavernous, old, dark, musty.
"Who comes here?" he asked.
The old man said, "Not many anymore. If it weren't for visitors, there probably wouldn't be any at all."   Then he said, “Follow me!”  
They went down a dark corridor to the entrance of a tunnel. They walked down the dirt floor of the tunnel into a room with a dirt floor and dirt walls, but a ceiling of reinforced concrete. The sexton asked,
 "Do you know where you are?"
He said, "No. I have no idea where I am."
"You are standing in the old church cemetery. A few years ago, the city told us we had to have off-street parking. The only place that we could do that was behind the church where the cemetery was. So we moved all the caskets, poured the concrete. That's the parking lot above your head."

Then with great excitement the sexton went over to a hole in the dirt wall. He reached his hand in and pulled out a human leg bone. He walked over to Rod Wilmoth, held the bone close so that he could see it in the dim light, and said, "Isn't this the most exciting thing that you have ever seen?"
A church that is only tied to the past will in time become a graveyard. And the most exciting thing in that church will be the bones of its ancestors.

Paul concludes our text by saying, "Let those of us who are mature have the same mind."  In other words, if you are a mature Christian, you have learned this too:  If you want to claim your future, you have to build upon, but not live in the past.  This is not only important for us when we have had difficulties over overcome, but may be even more important when the past was good.   Being mature in our faith, means that we learn to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

What is most important to understand here, is that Paul is not simply talking about going to heaven when you die. Paul is talking about knowing, living, and serving Christ here and now.   He goes on to talk about those who only live for ‘the god of their belly’ and only for ‘earthly things’, but they ‘press toward’ to live their most mature life, through answering the ‘heavenly calling’ of God in Jesus Christ.   Are you living your best, most mature, life?  Are you focused, can you move beyond your past, are you reaching toward a higher call?

One day Frederick the Great of Prussia was walking on the outskirts of Berlin, when he encountered a very old man who was proceeding in the opposite direction.
 "Who are you?" asked Frederick.
"I am a king," replied the old man.
"A king!" laughed Frederick. "Over what kingdom do you reign?"
"Over myself," was the proud reply.

There are very few kings and queens who have ruled over the kingdom of self.  God has given me and you an even higher calling than to rule to world; through Christ, we can rule over ourselves.   Anthony Campolo tells about a sociological study in which fifty people over the age of ninety-five were asked one question: "If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?" It was an open-ended question, and a lot of answers came from the eldest of senior citizens. Three answers, he found, dominated the results of the study. These three answers were:
If I had it to do over again, I would reflect more.
If I had it to do over again, I would risk more.
If I had it to do over again, I would do more things that would live on after I am dead.
So, let me conclude by asking: What is your ‘heavenly calling in Christ Jesus’?  Are you focused?  Are your able to answer?  Are you moving toward it?    Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

“The Righteousness…From God”

A Sermon based upon Philippians 3: 4-14
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday after Easter, May 19th, 2019

In the 1960’s and 70’s the Minnesota Vikings had the best ranked defensive line in the NFL.   Carl Eller, Alan Page, Gary Larson, and Jim Marshall were nicked named ‘the purple people eaters.  Their intimidating defensive play made it possible for the Vikings to have one of the most intimating defenses in professional football, leading the Vikings to several Super-bowls.  

In one particular 1964 game,  Vikings’ defensive lineman Jim Marshall scooped up a fumble by a San Francisco 49ers receiver and saw daylight ahead of him: none of the opposing team’s red uniforms stood between him and the end zone, some 60 yards away.  So he took off running, as fast as a big defensive lineman could go, churning in his purple helmet, purple pants and white jersey, dreams of a touchdown dancing in his head. He heard the crowd roaring around him. He saw his teammates running alongside him waving their arms on the sideline. He cruised the last few yards into the end zone and celebrated his touchdown by jubilantly tossing the football up into the stands.
Then a player on the other team walked up and gave him a hug. His eyes were opened. You see, Jim Marshall had just run to the wrong end zone, and scored two points for the guys in red. When you watch the television replay, you hear the announcer yelling, over and over, “He’s running the wrong way! Marshall is running the wrong way!” The only person in the stadium who didn’t realize Jim Marshall was running the wrong way was Jim Marshall.

Marshall was like the man driving down the highway whose wife called him on his cellphone to tell him to watch out, because she had heard on the news that there was a crazy person driving the wrong way down that same highway. The man replied, “You’re not kidding, honey -- there’s not just one crazy person going the wrong way; I can see hundreds of them!” 

In today’s Bible text, the Apostle Paul explained how he was once a man going the wrong way, sincerely believing he was right to murder Christians. He claimed pedigrees, accolades and reason upon reason to be self-satisfied with himself and his status in life.  Everything was just the way he wanted it.  He believed sincerely that only his way was right, and all other ways were wrong.   He also believed that Christians were a dangerous threat to true Judaism.    Then, he encountered Jesus and realized, on the contrary that what he was doing was wrong.  He found something in Jesus that he had missed.  Now, before he could move forward, he had to lose, before he could win.


Sam Wells, a pastor from England, who used to be campus minister at Duke, raises an interesting question concerning the Christian life.   He wonders that maybe the nature of Christian living is not only about being certain about what you believe, but maybe, he says, becoming and being a Christian is also about allowing yourself to become ‘‘uncertain’ about some other things you were once sure about.  Isn’t that part of what Paul explains in today’s text?  Saul was once a person who was self-assured about his views of God and life, but when he met Jesus, he became unsure of just about everything. 

Saul’s encounter with Jesus could be understood to be something similar to re-booting, or re-installing software on a computer.  When you reboot, if you do not save the information you will lose everything you’ve been working on.  Or, more positively, when you re-install Software, you will have a fresh, uncorrupted program to work with.  Sometimes, in most everything we do, it can be a good thing to occasionally reboot your life, so you can have a new, fresh start.

 I recall when my home pastor, during my youth days, reported to the church that his home had been broken into, but the only thing the thief took was his briefcase containing all his old sermons.  One of the men in the church later said it was a great thing and the thief ironically did a good service for the church. After the theft, the pastors sermons greatly improved. 

Sometimes we all need new reinstall of how we are living.  Of course, it is something that should happen when we meet Jesus for the first time, but isn’t it something that could keep happening as we get to know Jesus better and better, more and more?   Couldn’t it still be just as important to wake up in the morning and have some type of fresh, new adventure into the unknown waiting for you rather than the same ole monotonous, same ole life?  Isn’t it good that we can still be challenge by what don’t yet know, not just be reassured of what we think we already know and are sure about? 

The greatest part of Paul’s religious story is that when he started following Jesus, he had to lose before he could have new gains in his life.  Paul’s new life in Christ was a lot like it was for my Father when he left the security of working at JC Penny’s and started a partnership with his brother in their own grocery and service station business.  It was risky.  It was hard work.  It meant leaving his old life behind.  It meant stepping out into the unknown.  It also meant that the whole family had to adjust to a whole new, and sometimes an even more demanding way of life.  But even with all that was risky, it was also adventurous, exciting, and it was the most rewarding days of his life.  Instead of going through the daily monotony of punching his time card, life ‘hummed’ with new energies from connection and service to the community where he, and we all lived.

I can’t help but think that Saul’s conversion to become Paul was something like what our family experienced way back in 1965 and 1966.  Even as a child, I too had to let go of a few things.  I had to leave our little city home of 1300 square feet.  I had to leave the great little school in town in the middle of the third grade.   I also had to leave the church where I had been going since birth, and I had to leave all my friends in the city.  Everything I had to count as loss for the new life I was going to have in the country. 

At that time, however, a new life in the country ‘stunk’ literally.  I had never smelled a skunk until we moved out on Tomlin Mill Road.  I had never walked in the woods in absolute darkness, until I moved into the country.   I had to count all those city lights as loss, for the excellency of sleeping out under the stars in the dark.   Did I make a good trade?  Was it a good move?   Was losing everything I had known as a 8 year old boy, worth losing for the adventure of walking, living, and now spending the rest of my young years exploring a life I hadn’t known or ever thought about before?

I guess, you who have always lived in the country, know already, that this was a good loss---losing my city life.   Maybe my parents knew it would be good for me too.  But as a child, having to leave my neighborhood and friends to enter a world where I knew nothing and no one was frightening, disconcerting and strange.  But, I came to realize later, that losing the city, and that neighborhood, which was dying even then, was one of the best things that ever happened in my life. 

PAnd I could add that there have been some other great ‘losing adventures too; like when at 18 years, I left my home to go off to college, or when I left home to move in with a girl I married, but still didn’t know, or when we left the security of being alone together to adopt a child, or when we left the security of the US to move to Europe; in most every time I have lost the security and surety of one way of life, striking out into the adventure of leaving one way of life behind to go toward another, I have found ‘uncertainty’ can be also be a great blessing rather than the frightful curse one might think.

After Thanksgiving last year, the CBS Morning News interviewed a 40 year old man who had recently established a multimillion dollar business, which produced and marketed a skin-care business that was even being used by certain movie stars.  The guy came up with the skin care product from dealing with own skin problems, which developed from his having to spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair.  At age 24, as an athletic young man, he drove into what he thought was the deep part of the pool, only to see the ladder to the shallow side beside where he dove.  He remembered his chin striking the ladder, then his neck snapping back when he hit the concrete bottom.  When after surgery, the doctor told his parents, he’d never walk, raise his arms, or breathe on his own, his Italian mother immediately ask him to move his arm, and he was able to shock the doctor by raising his shoulder.  He still remains in a wheelchair, but out of his loss and having to deal with skin problems, he has found a new purpose for living in developing a business that not only enables him to provide for himself, but he can still help others too.   Out of great loss, came a surprising new gain of hope, meaning and purpose of life.


All of us, if we are somewhat reflective about life’s purpose and meaning, will wonder why bad things happen to good people.   The whole question of why God allows evil, hurt, pain and loss, is the most difficult theological question of all.   In fact, most theology scholars today think there is no answer to why, and shouldn’t be.   Life is not finally about having all our questions answered, they suggest, but living life is much more about asking the right questions and learning to live the into these questions, than settling for having answers.

Isn’t this the ‘turn’ Paul makes in his life?  Instead of living a life built on what he already thinks he knows, Paul finds, not just adventure, but also wisdom in building his new life around what he ‘wants’ to know.  Do you notice here that Paul does not describe his Christian life as having come to know everything about Jesus, but he describes it as his ‘wanting’ to know Christ.   For Paul, knowing Jesus is much more a journey for your whole life, than it can ever be a single destination in life.  Like one person has said, ‘someday I hope to be a Christian.’  That person did not mean that they hoped one day to believe in Jesus, but they meant that becoming a Christian was so consuming it would take their whole life.

You can understand how limited and unreasonable it is to say you that you already ‘know Jesus’ when you try to tell outsiders about your faith in Jesus.  How can you know someone who has been dead 2000 years?   But when you tell someone you want to know Jesus more and more, you don’t claim anything except your hearts desire, so it could make an outsider wonder, not about how superior or crazy you are, but they might begin to see how spiritually hungry you are, just like they may be too.   To ‘want’ to know something puts us all on a much more shared foundation in life, than to talk about what we already know, doesn’t it?   Paul’s way of looking at faith as a process and a journey, makes us all pilgrims who are much more alike, than different.     

 For if you read on,  you understand that Paul’s new desire to know Christ is also a way of living that is much less about being right about everything, and is much more about trying and learning to do right in everything you do.   This idea of constantly learning what is right is much more in tune with what Paul means by the righteousness of God.   It remains God’s righteousness, so that what is right and good can be constantly renewed and followed throughout your whole life. If you ever settle for or think you already know everything righteousness is, or means once and for all,  ironically even what came from God once, now becomes yours, and you limit what God can do for you, and in you for the rest of your life.  You settle down with what God has done, or what you once did, rather than to stay with a living God who still leads you.  When you allow God’s righteousness to remain God’s, which you draw from daily to live and guide you life, then God’s righteousness doesn’t become limited by your own ‘rightness’.   This is how God keeps leading you, instead of you taking the lead, by making a false god who not alive in you, but is now dead, and will mistakenly cause you to end up with a self-made, dead-end life.   You certainly don’t want to end up there.

Last fall, as I was leading some youth through a study of the Bible, the lesson was about the rise of prophets in ancient Israel.   We discussed that prophets were seers, who told the truth few wanted to hear.  Prophets could see the future, not because they knew the future, but they could see into the future because they knew the truth.   I also explained that a prophet could see into the future much like their parents when they told them to be careful when went out the door.   Their parents could look into the future, not because they actually saw the future, but because parents know their children they know how to warn them about the future. 

And one of those things prophets constantly warned the people of God about was making or having idols.   The reason that idols or false gods were so dangerous was not what worshipping them did to God, but what having false gods and worshipping idols did to people.  When the people worshipped idols they stopped caring about the poor, the needy, and the disadvantaged among them.  When they turned their focus on the false gods, they lost their focus on who and what the true God cares most about---people showing their love for God by sharing that love with people, especially those who are struggling or need the love and care that only a human will give to another when they know God expects this kind of love from them.

When we think about the righteousness of God revealed fully and finally in Jesus Christ, how do we picture it?   Of course we think about the good God did for us by sending Jesus to reveal God’s forgiveness.  That’s still most important, and ‘once for all’ in establishing God’s Love, but it not all God wants to do in and for us.  It’s also important to understand that God’s righteousness was revealed as Jesus went about doing good to show us how to do good too.  If we want to know more and more about this Jesus, we must keep following him.  This is the true Jesus, who not only came to promise heaven, but he also came preaching and praying for God’s rule and God’s righteousness to be realized now, on earth, as it already is in heaven.    This is a righteousness that comes from God and keeps coming from God, as we keep serving Jesus day and day after day, taking us to places we haven’t been to do things we would have never done, if we hadn’t see Jesus doing them, or have a living Christ in us, who keeps showing us what we should do.    

The final thing Paul says about the Christian life is to consider where Jesus is taking him.   Jesus not only takes Paul away from things he thought were important, but weren’t. Jesus not only keeps revealing to Paul what he should do and know,  but Jesus also takes Paul toward a finish line that Paul will never cross, until after the very last day of his life

Does that sound bad; that in this life you will never finally have arrived?    For a Christian, the greatest thing about living in Christ is not what we have or know now, but what is still to come.   As Christians we don’t have to be afraid to sacrifice or lose, and we don’t have to know, have, or experience everything in life, or have to finish some kind of unwritten ‘bucket list’.   In Christ we not only have a life that is already worth living all by itself, but can also live, lose,  learn, and keep on living, learning and even losing too, because we trust, hope and believe, that the best is yet to come.  This well worn phrase means that the Christian life has a finish line that is always ahead and before us, so that we have always have someone to run with and something to run toward, until the very end of our journey in this life.  To live in Christ is to never get stuck in the past, but to keep our focus on the future and the finishing line that always remains ahead.

Several years ago, a NC pastor, JD GREER, wrote a controversial book asking people to stop asking Jesus into their heart.  His point was not that people should stop ‘getting saved’ but his point was that some people have mistakenly made faith in Jesus into a vicious cycle that goes nowhere.  Life in Christ begins by trusting in what God has done, and life in Christ moves ahead by trusting that Christ can take us through life to its rightful purpose.  But to be in Christ, you must stay with Christ and keep your eye on the ‘prize of the high calling.’   For Paul understood, and wanted the Philippians to understand too, and for us as well, that the only right way to live your life is to keep your focus on how you should  ‘finish’.  The only way to live your life toward the finish is to live your life as your answer to God’s call.

Isn’t this where we are all headed?  We come from God and we end with God.  Because life is a gift and not ‘a given’, or something we have created ourselves, life comes to us not just as a gift, but it also comes with a responsibility.  So, the right question to ask yourself is not, ‘what do you want to do’ or ‘what do you you want in life’, but the right question is ‘what is God calling you to do with your life’? How does your life answer God’s call?  For Paul the voice of God came to him, not just through following rules and laws, but the voice of God spoke most clearly through the Christ who called him toward love; a love that was answered not just with words, but also with deeds. 

Paul answered the high call to move toward a Christ-like love that was so big, so great, that this call came not just once, but it kept coming to him over and over, so that it could only be answered by how he lived everyday for the rest of his life.  What about you?  Is your answer a one shot deal, or is it a purpose, a goal, and a race that you are still running, and will keep running until you come to the finish line?  As the best athletes will say, what matters most is how you start and how you finish.  A good race most always comes down to a runner mastering these two most basic skills, a good start and finishing well.  Then, the rest will fall into place.  In the much the same way, Paul’s understanding of living a life in Christ also focused on the start; what he needed to leave behind, and the finish; how Christ was calling him to finish. Paul was no longer living for what was behind, but he was living toward what was still ahead.  That was how Jesus helped Paul stop living in the wrong direction and start living in the right direction.  Could Jesus do the same kind of ‘course-correction’ for you?  Could Jesus move you from ‘rightness’ to God’s righteousness that only comes through a living, and life-long relationship with Jesus Christ?   Amen.                     

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Your Attitude Should Be

“Your Attitude Should Be”
A Sermon based upon Philippians 2: 1-13
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday after Easter, Mother’s Day, May 12th, 2019

An old adage goes: "Pray as if everything depended on God; work as if everything depended on you."   These words point straight to the end of today’s Bible text where the apostle Paul gives some very unexpected advice.  He encourages the Philippians, and perhaps us as well, to ‘continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, ‘for’, he says, ‘it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Phil. 2:13 NIV).  

Coming from Paul, if it was from Paul, this is rather surprising, since the letter to the Ephesians emphatically states, “For we are saved by grace, through faith, not of your own doing; it is the gift of God---not of works so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).   If God saves us solely by grace, and God ‘works’ in us, what could we still have to ‘work out’?  What could I, you, or any of us, ever do to add to the saving work God has already done for us in Jesus Christ?  

My first thought, of course, is ‘nothing’!  We can add nothing, and should not need to add anything to what God has done for us in Jesus.  Jesus is not only the ‘author’ but, Hebrews says, Jesus is also the ‘finisher of our faith’ (KJV, the NIV translates it ‘pioneer and perfecter’).  In other words, through Jesus, who ‘did not sin’ (Heb. 4:15), God has done what only God could ever do.  In Jesus, God has reconciled us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18), giving to us a saving hope that only the eternal, true God can give (1 Tim. 4:10). 

But interestingly, at the same time Paul told the Corinthians that God had ‘reconciled us to himself’, in the very next breath Paul emphatically implores the Corinthians with this imperative one liner: ‘Be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:20).  At the same time Paul has announced God’s reconciling work, he goes straight to the human work that still needs to be, and still must be done.  When you think about this, Paul is right, isn’t he?  While God has done what humans could never do, there is still a ‘working out’ of salvation that both Corinthians and Philippians must do, and just as there is a ‘working out’ of our salvation’ that we must do too.   This does not mean that we have earned or worked for our salvation, but it means that even the greatest ‘gift’ given must still be received, acknowledged, opened, unpacked and claimed as our own.   

The fourth gospel, John’s gospel, echoes our own responsibility in accepting God’s gift, “He came unto his own and his own received him not, but as many as did receive him, the gave them power to become sons (and daughters) of God (John 1:12).  Do you hear your own responsibility in this, and your own ‘working out’ of God’s saving work for us, and for you?  Some received Christ, and others rejected him.  Only those who ‘received him’ were given ‘power to become sons (and daughters) of God.  In the receiving of Jesus Christ, there a power given to help us ‘become’ and to ‘work out’ God’s saving ‘power’ in our own lives.

On this Mother’s Day, we have wonderful analogy of what Paul and John meant.  Our Mother’s gave us life, not just physically, but in so many other loving, selfless, and caring ways.   I’ve told you how for several years, my own mother worked in a Textile mill on third shift, just so she could be at home to wake me up for school, sleep while I was at school, and then go to work, after she tucked me into bed.  The only what I realized my mother worked, was because we went to the annual Christmas party.  And they gave the children great big presents!  

When I think of the sacrifices she made for me today, cold chills go up my spine, and I wonder, did I tell how much I loved and appreciated her enough?  But even as much as my own mother did for me, I still had to grow up and ‘work out’ living my own life; becoming the person her love and care enabled me to be.  Isn’t that a picture of what Paul means here?  While we are in no way responsible ‘for’ our birth, or our new birth, our eternal salvation, we still have to receive it, accept it, own it, apply it and live out the rest of our lives making our own decisions and choices.  Even though our parents gave us life just as God gave us our saving hope, and both these ‘gifts of life’ are ‘gifts’ we can never give ourselves, we still have to ‘work out’ who we are and who we will become because of God’s love for us.  

Paul’s concern in writing his letter to the Philippians is that they will continue to ‘work out’ their own ‘salvation’ with both ‘fear and trembling’.   What all this ‘fear and trembling about?   We don’t have to guess.  Paul says that his ‘joy’ is not ‘complete’ because he wants to the Philippians to ‘have the same mindset’ or the same ‘attitude’ that was in Jesus Christ (2:5).    What was still needed in this church was ‘having the same love’ for each other and ‘being one in spirit and one in mind’ (2:2).  In other words, according to Paul, what they still needed in order to ‘complete’ his joy and to ‘work out’ their salvation, was an attitude adjustment.   They needed to have their minds, as well as their conduct and their hearts, so transformed by Christ’s love, that it becomes real and transforming in the everyday life of the church.  Why would a church ever need an attitude adjustment?

Will Willimon, a Methodist pastor, told of the very first church he served. He was a student at Emory, near Atlanta, at the time.  He says he drove out to the church on Saturday to meet with the lay leader. He met at the little one room church, then named, "Friendship Methodist Church".  He got there before his host so he thought He'd go in the church and look around. But he was surprised by a big padlock and chain barring the front door. When the lay leader arrived he said, "Glad you are here to open the lock on the door."
"Oh, that ain't our lock. The sheriff put that there," explained the lay leader. "Things got rough here at the meeting last month. Folks started yelling at one another, carting off furniture they had given to the church. So, he had to call the sheriff and the deputy came out.  He put that lock on the door until the new preacher could get here and “settle 'em down” and perhaps ‘straighten them out’.   And that was the young preacher’s first church, and his first job.

Instead of the church modeling what needs to happen in the world, sometimes the church ends up just as divided and polarized as the rest of the country.  Is there really such a thing as a united congregation or a truly united country?   Has there ever been?  At least a third of the New Testament deals with division and polarization.    After saying some beautiful things about Jesus and the Christian life, Paul finally gets down to what's bugging him: Disunity.  The church knows Jesus but still doesn’t know how to get along.  They need an attitude adjustment.  They need to get a new mind about things, but who’s mind will it be?  Whose mind will get their way?  We are so used to thinking in terms of winners and losers, aren’t we.  We are so used to thinking that no matter what it takes, we have to be on the winning side or on the winning team.  It’s hard to go out and just enjoy the game. 

Fred Craddock, the late preaching genius from the last generation, played quarterback for his school in high school.  ‘It was a small team in a small school’, he said.  They were not that good.  It was not long after the Great Depression years, and their heaviest guy weigh just 170 pounds.  He was the fullback.  Craddock said, ‘he had all the speed and grace of a spastic turtle.’  Craddock was no athlete and their team was not that good.

On one occasion, he recalls, the team from the next town had them down at halftime, 21-0.   They crawled and limped into the dressing room, licking their wounds, wishing the game was over.  Craddock says, “The coach got up, as was his custom, and stood at one end of the dressing room to speak.  We were ready to be chewed out.  He said,  ‘Fellas, I don’t have much to say today.  I just want to read this to you.’  He pulled out of his pocket a yellow sheet of paper, and, as he started to read, he chocked up.  He tried to read it again, and again, and got very emotional.   He handed it to the assistant coach and left the room.  We were all quiet as could be.  The assistant told us that the coach wanted to read a telegram he just received.  It simply said, “Win this one for me,” and it was signed, “Joe.”   We didn’t know who Joe was.   The country was at war, and we pictured Joe in a foxhole somewhere about to be shot.  We imagined that he had graduated from our school and had played football.  Surely, we could win one for Joe, we said to ourselves.  Every guy on the team grew about six inches and put on fifty pounds.  We went back out on the field and beat the other team, 28-21. 

The local paper ran a story about the game with a headline that read, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”  We were all proud.  We felt good!  About three of four weeks later, we found out that the coach had made up the telegram.  There was no Joe in a foxhole.  He had been using this ploy as a motivational trick for years. 

Do you know what a motive is?  A motive in that which inspires, sustains, and calls forth energy and activity.  It is the ability to ‘push someone’s button.   In this passage, Paul wants to ‘push’ the church’s button.  But he does not want to push it with a fib, or a lie, but he wants to push it with the truth.  Even more surprisingly, he doesn’t want to push their button to win, but he wants to push it make them want to lose.  What in the world kind of motivation is that; making people want to lose, when we all want to win?

The ‘motivation’ button Paul pushes for the church is the only way to ‘work out’ one’s own salvation in Jesus Christ.   Like Jesus ‘emptied himself’ of being God 2:6) so he could later be exalted by God, Paul revealed the kind of ‘attitude’ the church must  have to win, even by losing.

If you think this kind of ‘salvation’ is strange, you’re not alone.  When Jesus told his disciples he was headed to a cross,  "…Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you."  Peter's plea for Jesus not to avoid the cross—to only think of himself was, according to Pam Driesell, like pleading with a woman not to suffer for the birth of her child.   You see, the point of our lives is NOT TO AVOID PAIN...neither is it to endure pain for pain's sake. THE POINT OF OUR LIVES IS TO FOLLOW CHRIST and do the will of CHOOSE LOVE AND JUSTICE AND GOODNESS...and to bear whatever suffering comes in order to ‘bring the Christ-in-us TO LIFE in the world’ (Pam Driesell).

Pam Driesell tells how her baby sister Carolyn was primarily known in her growing-up years for her indulgent lifestyle and absolute abhorrence of doing anything that was inconvenient.  She was, in a word:  SPOILED.  When she finally got married, Driesell’s son Walker was having a hard time getting his mind around self-indulgent Carolyn having a baby.  Walker asked his mom one day after he had seen Carolyn, who was well into her pregnancy,
"Mom, doesn't it hurt to have a baby?"
  "Yes," his mother said, "it's a real PAIN!"
  "Do you think Carolyn is scared?"
Walker got quiet.  He was thinking about Carolyn having to endure all that pain and wondering if she could handle it.  Finally, he broke the silence. 
"She shouldn't go through with it!”   
A bit startled, his mom looked up straight into the dancing brown eyes of her youngest.
 "It's not worth it?" he asked with a smile. 

Ask any mother whether going through childbirth was worth it?  Most would do it again, even if it put their life at risk, which it did, and it still does.   When you think about it, especially on this Mother’s Day, working out our salvation can bring us pain and challenge too.  Perhaps this is the ‘fear and trembling’ Paul means.  Having the mindset of Jesus can be like picking up a cross, taking up the towel, bearing a burden, going the extra mile, and as Paul says here, it is:  ‘valuing others above yourselves, not looking after your own interests but each of you looking to the interests of others’  (2:3-4).  Ouch!   Having that kind of mindset can hurt, but it also bring healing and hope, and it can be how God works with us to save us too.  

As the the commentator Matthew Henry expressed our ‘work’ in God’s salvation:  "We must resemble him in his life, if we would have the benefit of his death.’  Any salvation ‘worth its salt’ will imitate Christ’s love with his humility.  This is why Paul concludes: “If you have any comfort from his love, if any sharing in his spirit, or if any tenderness or compassion,….be like-minded, having the same love, being in one spirit, and of one mind… In your relationship with one another, have the same mindset, the same attitude, as Jesus Christ” (2: 1-5).    

Has your faith changed your ‘attitude’ so God can ‘act’ through you ‘in order to fulfill his purpose’?    Reversing Matthew Henry, if you want his life, you must with love and humility join him in his death.   Then, God will exalt you too.   Amen!