A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 126:1-6; Philippians 3:4b-14
I’m not sure why this conversation has stuck with me all these years, but it has. It obviously made an impression on me. It took place when I was young, maybe fourteen or fifteen… sixteen at most. And it occurred, of all places, in the men’s dressing room of the public swimming pool at Reynolds Park, about a mile from my home. It is where I had learned to swim a few years earlier. At that point in my life, I spent a lot of my summer hours at the Reynolds Park pool.
By that time it was known by most folk who knew me – I grew up in a small town where news not only travels fast but travels to just about everybody – that I was going to be a preacher. That knowledge in itself, I was finding out, led to a number of conversations… conversations I was often not able to handle very well, as I recall, due to my youth, immaturity, and inexperience. For some reason, when people found out I was going to be a preacher, they wanted to tell me about their own faith experience.
The man who talked with me that day was the father of one of my high school basketball teammates, and worked as an attendant at the pool. I didn’t know him very well, if for no other reason than he was known around town (did I mention this was a small town?) as a bit of a ne’er-do-well. That was code for the fact that he was seen around the local liquor stores on a frequent basis, which may explain why he worked at the pool. It was a seasonal job that could have just as easily been filled by someone my age at minimum wage, which was, at that time, $1.49 per hour.
He was the adult and I was the teenager, but for some reason he felt the need to justify himself to me. So he did it by telling me that he was a Christian. Okay. I don’t remember thinking otherwise. He was a Baptist too, he quickly added. I’m not sure I aware of that, but again, okay. There were a lot of Baptists – all kinds of Baptists – in my hometown, so that came as no surprise. Then he commenced to tell me that he didn’t go to church much. Now that I could believe, if what I had heard was correct. But he didn’t need to go to church. Oh? Yeah, he didn’t need to go to church because he was a Baptist, and you know what Baptists believe… once saved, always saved. He had been baptized years before, professed his faith in Jesus, and that was all that mattered. In his mind and heart, he told me, he knew he was going to heaven.
He’s gone now, and I can only hope that he was indeed correct by being so confident in his faith experience.
So was the Apostle Paul; confident, that is, in his faith experience. He had reason to be, no doubt. Paul was the first-century example of a person whose religious background should give him the same confidence that did the baptism of this man I told you about. And his resume was absolutely impeccable.
Speaking of resumes… A friend of mine, who is hoping to be considered by a church looking for a pastor, told me he was going to “dust off” his resume. I haven’t done that in a long, long time. Wouldn’t know where to start. But I do recall, more than twenty years ago, working with a consulting firm that assisted people in doing just that. They recommended that in developing a resume their clients use what they called “power words,” words that would quickly grab the attention of the person who was reading it.
That’s what Paul does in his letter to the Philippians. Did you notice? I’ve often wondered why he felt the need to pull out his resume and offer it to his friends in Philippi. After all, he is thoroughly Jewish and his personal history reflects that, while his audience is largely Gentile. Why would he drag out his resume like that?
Maybe it was ego. Though we have accorded his words, recorded for posterity in our New Testament, as holy scripture, Paul on occasion lets his humanity show, revealing that he had the same prejudices, the same conceits and sense of self-importance that plagues us all. Is that true here? It’s like he’s whipping out his recently dusted-off resume and reading it to the congregation in order to justify himself. That’s the way it seems.
In the days when he was still known as Saul, these were the major elements of his life…
* circumcised on the eighth day, which means of course he is the prodigy of a thoroughly Jewish family that keeps all the rules and regulations of their faith and culture…
* a member of the people of Israel, which shows that he has bought into his faith and culture lock, stock, and barrel…
* of the tribe of Benjamin, which informs us that he’s of the upper crust, because, as we know, Benjamin, along with his older brother Joseph, was especially dear to their father Jacob due to the fact that they were his only two sons by his favorite wife, his beloved Rachel. Not only that, but the tribe of Benjamin was one of only two of the twelve tribes that remained loyal to Rehoboam, the grandson of David, when others were placing their political loyalty in the hands of foreign leadership. Solomon has died and Rehoboam has taken his throne, and everything is coming unglued. Rehoboam is being assaulted from all fronts and needs all the allies he can get. The people of the tribe of Benjamin supported him through all this. These considerations meant the people of the tribe of Benjamin – maybe rightly so – thought themselves better than those of the other tribes…
* and if you doubt that, listen to how Paul describes himself next: “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” Oh, isn’t he proud of himself?
Of course, all these things came to him by means of his birth. In that day and time, it was the equivalent of having come into the world with a silver spoon in his mouth. This was simply his heritage.
But then, he took that heritage and built on it. By education and desire, he became more, according to this resume:
* as to law, Paul says, a Pharisee. The Pharisees, as most of us know, were the guardians of the Hebrew legacy. Paul was all about keeping the faith, and in his mind the best way – indeed, the only way – to do so was by guarding it jealously. That was the job of the Pharisees, an organization in which Saul proudly held membership.
* as to zeal, a persecutor of the church. That is how seriously he took his faith. He would do anything to keep anybody, especially these new followers of the Nazarene Jesus, from infiltrating their way of life and making it something it was never intended to be.
* as to righteousness under the law, blameless. And when you feel that way, you will go to any measure, even the taking of another’s life, to see that your way of life and faith is sustained.
Power words, that’s what he’s using here. Very powerful words.
But the most powerful – or at least the most telling – word he uses in this whole discussion is the word yet. “Yet” tells us immediately that he’s moving the conversation in a different direction, that all these accolades he has earned over the years are being left in the dust, put behind him not to be considered of any importance ever again. There’s great, great power in that small, three-letter word yet.
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Indeed, Paul says, “I regard them as rubbish…”
Go back a few pages in your New Testament to the Gospel of Matthew. There you will find Jesus saying something that we often hear but do not heed, that we read but do not take unto ourselves. He is talking about the sacrifices one must make in order to follow him and to be a part of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven that he talks about so much and says he embodies. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” He concludes that thought with these words: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Can you think of anyone – anyone – who took those words more seriously than did the man we know as Paul? “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ… I regard them as rubbish…”
The Greek word for “rubbish” is skubala and in common usage referred to street-sweepings or table scraps or even excrement. It is, as you might guess, a term of contempt.1
Have you ever had someone tell you something you didn’t believe, and so you either said to the person or thought to yourself, “Man, that’s rubbish.” Or maybe, “Aw, that’s for the birds.” I’ve taken an interest in birds lately, have placed some feeders in my small backyard, and have enjoyed watching how they behave and take advantage of what I offer them… when, of course, I can keep those pesky squirrels from raiding all the food.
I’ve also discovered that bird feed can be quite expensive, even at Walmart, but that birds are just as likely to enjoy table scraps and all manner of refuse such as egg shells, bits of spoiled fruit, or stale bread. In other words, birds will eat just about anything… which, I would imagine, is the source of that expression: “Aw, that’s for the birds.”
Well, that’s where Paul is coming from. His past, as lauded as it may be, he says, is for the birds. It’s street-sweepings, it’s table scraps, it’s – and this is a much more graphic way of describing it – excrement compared to what he has now. And what does he have? He has Christ, he has “the surpassing value of knowing Christ.” And the more he knows of Christ, the more he wants to know “the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
How many of us, if it came down to that, would be willing to tear up our resumes right now, if need be, to follow Jesus? Our diplomas, our standing in the community, the very things we have worked so hard for? How many of us would be willing to turn our backs on our families? We are not told we must do this, but that we must be willing to do it.
It was one of those ubiquitous training seminars that organizations sponsor from time to time. The purpose, of course, was to hone the skills of the participants. Have you ever taken part in one of those? At one point the leader asked the participants to imagine themselves setting out on an adventure with only ten items in each of their packs. Ten things. If you were involved in this exercise, what ten items would you bring along?
Let’s see… your cell phone (gotta have that, right?), a journal perhaps, and a pen with which to write in your journal. That’s three. Some of you might insist on including an iPad, if you have one. If this little adventure is going to span several days, you would want to bring along your utility kit and some clothes. You could probably fill your list of ten pretty quickly, couldn’t you?
Well, in this particular exercise, a few minutes later the participants were told that an imagined mishap had occurred and it would be necessary to leave behind five items. They could keep the other five. But soon they were required to reduce their possessions to three, and then finally to only one. Oddly enough, many of them found that even after having to relinquish many of their things, they still had enough.2
At what point do our life’s essentials become rubbish, for the birds, excrement? Maybe when we finally realize what it means to follow the One who gave up everything that we might have the “surpassing value of knowing” him. Perhaps it is time for us to think upon such things.
Help us, O Lord, to count up what really matters in following you, and then give us the courage and faith and resolve to figure up everything else as loss. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Frank Stagg, The Broadman Bible Commentary, Clifton J. Allen, General Editor (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), Vol. 11, p. 206.
2adapted from Clay Oglesbee, The Christian Century, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” September 20, 2011, p. 21.