Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
Click here for directions
|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
A Trip to the Landfill
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson: Philippians 3:4-14
· “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.”
These words are attributed to Albert Einstein. I first heard them from a friend in the midst of a complicated and painful divorce. They became a sort of mantra for her as she coped with changing her name and where she lived and how often she saw her son -- things that each changed her sense of her identity.
I think Paul would have understood this, although he had a different mantra, which we’ll get to in a few minutes. I said earlier that this letter to the Philippians is widely regarded as one of Paul’s most joyful letters, and it is. However, today we have come to the section of the letter that deals with some unhappiness. There appears to be some conflict in Philippi, which Paul is writing to address. To establish his authority, he lists off his credentials – which are quite impressive. He says that he was circumcised on the eighth day – exactly the correct day for a Jewish baby boy. He was an observant Jew from birth, born to Jewish parents, not a late convert. He was from the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe that gave Israel its first king, King Saul whom Paul was originally named after. A “Hebrew of Hebrews” probably means that he spoke the Hebrew language before learning Greek. He was a Pharisee, the denomination known for their most careful attention to keeping God’s law in every detail. Paul has impeccable credentials, which he lists here to establish his authority with people who might respect that sort of thing.
Dr. Jack McKinney is now retired, but when he was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Bethesda, Maryland, he saw a parallel with these kinds of achievements in his own life. He interpreted the text this way:
"If anyone thinks they have a birthright in the church, let him come talk to me. I was born in the church. Cradle roll from day one. I wasn't a week old when I attended my first church potluck… I memorized the Ten Commandments when I was six. I memorized the Beatitudes when I was seven. I memorized the Sermon on the Mount when I was ten. I not only knew the rules at an early age, I kept them. No drinking, no chewing, no dancing. I had perfect Sunday school attendance for seventeen straight years, and it would have been longer if that doctor hadn't insisted that the flu was not something I needed to share with my sisters and brothers in Christ.” 
Perhaps some of us could name those kinds of accomplishments as well. Paul is not ashamed of his accomplishments, and he shouldn’t be. But he says that he has left it behind. He let go of his church, the theology that he’d studied and worked out, all his understandings of how to please God, his status as a leader in his church, his seminary degree, even his justifiable pride in his family – all that is in the past. In fact, verse 8 says that he regards them as rubbish. The Greek there is much stronger. It would be more like Paul saying “all that stuff is like a pile of crap to me now.”
Paul found a way to let go of things that once were extremely important. It is as if he has made a trip to the landfill and left behind all his trophies, all the markers of his status, all the accomplishments that he once relied on to define his identity. He is willing to give up what he was in order to become who God is calling him to be.
Paul had a great past. He had been a rising star, the golden boy of the religious establishment. Now, writing from prison, he takes a look back at his life. When he wrote to the church at Corinth, he told them that he had been whipped on five different occasions; that he had been stoned once and beaten with rods three times. Once he was shipwrecked. I think that in his place, I would be tempted to think that I had made some bad choices. I would be asking myself how I went from that former golden boy life to this one.
We each have a past. Maybe some of us were once rising stars. Maybe we were going nowhere and believed ourselves to be losers. Sometimes people choose to live in the past because they think their best days are behind them. Sometimes we live there because of unresolved anger or pain or grief. Whatever happened, it has become a part of us, something that we rely on, for good or bad, to help us define our identity.
Here’s a promise I can make to you: You will never have a better past. Whatever you achieved, you can’t do more. What is past is past. You can’t go back and make it better. What you might still influence is the future. Don’t let past success or failure keep you from receiving what God has for you in the present. If it means a trip to the landfill to dump some baggage you’re carrying, then find a way to do that. Don’t let past success or failure keep you from receiving what God has for you in the present.
In chapter 2, Paul described Christ who abandoned the privileges that went with being equal with God. In a similar way, Paul has abandoned all the privileges that rightfully belonged to him. They cannot compare with the value of knowing Christ.
He says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Paul understood that the death and resurrection of Jesus provided a new way to relationship with God. Paul saw himself participating in that relationship by dying to his old identity and learning a new way of life.
Those of you who use Facebook know that every Facebook participant has an information page where people can list all sorts of things about themselves – their hometown, where they went to school, their favorite books or movies. One of the things you can list is religious views. Lots of people don’t put anything. Some people put the standard – Jewish, Christian, Muslim. But I’ve found some interesting answers here. A number of people like “Spiritual, But Not Religious” which is popular elsewhere in our culture. One young woman tagged herself as “Angry Agnostic” I’m not sure what that means. I’ve seen “Christ Follower” which appeals to me. I think that if Paul had a Facebook page, his religious views would be “In Christ.”
My friend’s mantra was “I must give up what I am in order to become what I will be.” Paul’s mantra was different. He said, “I am in Christ.” The phrase “in Christ” appears over a hundred times in his letters. For Paul, being “in Christ” far outweighed the value of everything he once possessed.
In Galatians 2, Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
Being “in Christ” involves a process of personal trans-formation, an internal death and resurrection. Those of us who are “in Christ” have joined ourselves to him. We follow Jesus’ model of laying down our lives, of being willing to give up who we are in order to become who God calls us to be.
Sometimes we think about identity as something that gets established at a young age. Maybe it seems a long time ago that we chose our current life path. It seems a long time ago that we decided on a vocation, a long time ago that we chose a life partner, a long time ago that we became a Christ-follower or an Angry Agnostic. We think that our identity is set, for good or bad, and that it’s too late to change now.
But Paul, who is earnestly and fervently “in Christ” says “not that I have already obtained this or already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” This personal transformation that Christ is working in us is a lifelong process. We are never too old or too young to participate.
Paul compares life to a race which he is still running. It is reminiscent of the marathon at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. The winner had crossed the finish line over an hour earlier. But as the last spectators were getting ready to leave, the lone figure of John Stephen Akhwari, from Tanzania, came into view at the end of the 26 mile event. Early in the race, he had taken a horrible fall. He had hit his head, damaged his knee and endured a trampling before getting back on his feet. He limped his way into the stadium with his injured leg bloodied and bandaged, but he hobbled around the final 400 yard track and crossed the finish line. The crowd stood and applauded as if he were the winner. Afterwards someone asked him why he had endangered his leg by not quitting. He replied, "My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it."
Paul says, “I press on. . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Sisters and brothers, let us press on. Letting go of the past, may we be willing to give up what we are in order to become what God is calling us to be. Let us run to the finish the race set before us. Amen.
 As quoted in Mickey Anders sermon, “The Persons Formerly Known as Us” March 25, 2001, http://www.mickeyanders.com/Sermons/Sermon20010325.html