Tuesday, January 26, 2016

January 24, 2016 Philippians: Keep On Keepin' On!

I have long been fascinated by the psychology of groups of people, in particularly the way in which we do not realize how our thinking is shaped by forces in society.  I think this is particularly evident in the way in which we associate ourselves with sports teams.  There is a lot of psychology in wanting to be associated with those who are successful and those who are winners.  We live in a world that values those who are successful and those who are considered winners; no one wants to be associated with losers.  This is even reflected in our language.  Have you ever noticed how, when watching a ball game, we will say we won, but they lost. Or, we might jump us and say we did it!  We scored!  But we will say, I can’t believe they blew that play!  When something good happens, it’s we, but when it’s not good, it’s they, and we probably don’t even notice we use that kind of language.  Perhaps that it is the subconscious urge to be associated with winning and with success that blinds us to this use of pronouns.  We don’t want to be associated with losing and with a lack of success so even our language is affected, albeit in a way that we don’t even notice.

This is representative of the way in which we place value in our society.  Our society is so taken with success and with winning that value is attached to those who are winners, not losers.  Value is attached to those who can generate money, not cost money.  Value is attached to those who succeed in business and climb to the top of the corporate ladder, not to those who are consigned to the basement mailroom.
You might not recognize the name Tom Monihan but there is a good chance that at some time you have patronized the business he founded.  Tom Monihan founded Domino’s Pizza, building it into a very successful chain of restaurants.  Beginning with one store it eventually grew into hundreds and attained a value into the billions of dollars.  In the late 80s he attracted attention when he placed his business holdings up for sale, after deciding to devote his life to a different goal.  Upon selling his business empire, he would spend his time and money traveling the world building churches and chapels.

Why, many people asked, would someone walk away from such a successful business and spend his money building churches, especially when many of them would be constructed in remote and destitute corners of the globe?  Countless people worked hard in business without attaining even a fraction of his success, so why would he walk away?  It was, in the opinion of many, a backward step in life, and a loss.

How do you measure loss and gain, in any true sense of measurement?  What does it really mean to succeed?  What does it really mean to lose?  One of the great truisms of Scripture is that it upends so many of the ways in which society assigns value, how it defines value, and how it defines gain.

As we continue our series of messages from Paul’s letter to the Philippians we come to 3:7-14, where Paul writes –

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ
and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

This is undoubtedly a passage written by a man who knew he was very near to the end of life, as I’ve mentioned each week of this series, and it really brought to Paul a very sharp focus about his life, how he thought about his life and the things to which he had devoted his time and his energies.  It would appear, from the outside, that Paul was a loser.  He was in prison and close to execution.  Many of the churches he founded were struggling.  Perhaps there were those who found him to be an object of ridicule.

But Paul was not one to be pitied, and he certainly was not seeking anyone’s pity.  It is very obvious that Paul was completely satisfied with his life and how it had been spent.  Whatever looked to be a loss, Paul said it was a gain for him.  He hadn’t lost his freedom; he gained opportunities to share his faith in the capital of the Roman Empire.  He wasn’t about to lose his life; he was about to gain eternity.
To those whom Paul wrote, there might have been some sense of despair, as their friend and leader was soon to be lost to this life.  In this passage, there are so many themes upon which we could concentrate today, but I want to focus on just one.  With all the final words Paul offered, one of the strongest messages was, to paraphrase it, Keep On Keepin’ On! I press on, he says, toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

In keeping with that theme, here are a few reminders this morning –

Keep On, Because You Are Not Alone.
Brothers and sisters, Paul says in verse 13.  That’s a phrase of friendship, of affection, and it speaks of a bond of faith.  Paul might have been absent from his friends, but he knew he was not alone.  One of the great blessings of being a person of faith is the bond we share with one another, and I hope and pray that everyone who walks through the doors of our church – or any church – will know the church to be a place where they can come and never be alone.

It’s an irony of our modern world, I fear, that while we are surrounded by people so much of the time, so many people are lonely.  They live in crowded neighborhoods and work in offices full of people; they walk down crowded hallways of schools or busy sidewalks teaming with people, and yet they feel alone

What were among the final words Jesus spoke to his followers?  I am with you always (Matthew 28:20).  It is a promise that we do not walk alone through this life.  The presence of God and his Spirit, certainly, are upon us but so is the presence of his people in our lives, those whom we can call brothers and sisters in faith, in hope, and in encouragement.

One of the great truths of which we want to be assured in life is whether or not there will be someone who will mourn with us in our time of loss, comfort us in our time of need, and celebrate with us in our time of joy.  To know we are not alone is a great gift.

Keep On, and Don’t Quit.
It’s hard to be consistent with anything.  Here we are almost at the end of January so I’ll ask you this question – how are those New Year’s resolutions working out for you?  Anyone still managing to keep them?  Anyone remember what their resolutions were?  It’s hard to be consistent and to keep from quitting.  I’ve long said that if anyone were to build a monument in my memory they would get halfway through and quit.  And everyone who walked by that half-finished monument would immediately know it was for me, because it wasn’t finished.  Hey, look at that half-finished statue – that’s a monument to Dave, because he would give up halfway through a project.

It’s so easy to quit.  I used to run in a lot of 5K and 10K races, and I almost never ran by myself; I tried to always run with a friend, and I did so because it was easier to keep going when there was someone there to encourage you – come on, keep going, don’t quit!  That’s one of the great benefits of being among our brothers and sisters, isn’t it, people who will encourage us and remind us not to quit.

I know it’s easy to quit, but don’t quit.  I know it’s easy to say I’ve tried and tried.  I’ve tried to turn my life around.  I’ve tried to change.  I’ve tried to be different.  I try to believe harder, live better, and prayer harder, but I just can’t manage to keep at it.

Paul had so many challenges to face.  In II Corinthians 11:22-29 he offers a long list of challenges he faced – 23  I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?  I would find it easy to quit after just one or two of those challenges!  It would have been easy, considering the challenges, for Paul to quit, but he didn’t.  We see this time and again in so many of the Biblical characters, as they suffered great difficulties to the point that most people would have given up, and yet they continued to persevere.  After the crucifixion, the disciples were back in the upper room, fearful for their lives, wondering what might happen next.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John, perhaps, were considering returning to their fishing boats.  Matthew, perhaps, was considering returning to the tax office.  But they did not.

All of us, at some point, consider giving up.  And certainly, as we move through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the message we find from this one who writes at the end of his life, who continued to be faithful, was that I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (verse 14).  Paul never quit.  He never gave up.  Don’t let life and its struggle wear you down to the point where of saying I quit!  Don’t quit.  Don’t give up. 

Keep On, Because You Are Loved.
Maybe sometimes we feel unloved; maybe sometimes we feel as though no one cares.  And the reality is that it’s hard to love some people and some groups.  At every point in history, and even in our age – when we believe we have progressed to a greater level of enlightenment and openness and acceptance – we’re still not very good at understanding how we label some groups as being lesser than others and less deserving of love and acceptance.  It’s just how, unfortunately, we operate as humanity.  We want to be the ones to have the privilege of passing judgment upon others and to have the right not only to say who is worthy or unworthy of our love but also who is worthy or unworthy of God’s love.  And yet the truth that always comes through loud and clear in the Scriptures is that God loves every person, no matter who they are and Jesus calls us to love every person as well, even those who would be considered our enemies – 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  (Matthew 5:43-47).  It’s very easy to love those who love us, and I am grateful for those who encourage and love me and in return I am more than happy to love them and to be encouraging to them.  But we are called to go far beyond that level of love.  We are called to love every person.

In another congregation I served we developed a connection with a residential home for foster children.  There were cottages on the property and 15 or 20 kids could live in each one.  On the occasion of one of our visits we had a birthday party for some of the kids and one young lady read to us a poem she had written.  She was 15 or 16 years old and her poem was titled Welcome To My World, and it was a harrowing, heart-breaking journey through the struggles of her life.  It was a window that told us of the abuse, the struggles, and the difficulties she had experienced, and raised the question of who could love her.  It was hard to listen to her words and our reaction to her experiences was to question why any young person should have to experience such struggles.  What kind of world is it that would harm a young person in such a way and cause her to believe that she was not loved?  What she was asking was will anyone love me?  Will anyone take me into their lives and care about me?  In a world that assigns value according to winners and losers and the successful and unsuccessful, can I be of value to anyone?  What kind of world does this to a young person?  Our world does.

It’s easy to forget we are loved, but we need to remember that perception is not always reality.  We might think we are alone, but we are not.  We might think we can’t keep going, but we can.  We might think we are not love, but we are.

No matter what, keep on keepin’ on!

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