First United Methodist Church, Oak Ridge, TN
September 24, 2017
Philippians 3: 3b-14 (CEB)
We are the ones who serve by God’s Spirit and who boast in Christ Jesus. We don’t put our confidence in rituals performed on the body, 4though I have good reason to have this kind of confidence. If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. 6With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.10The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.
I need to begin this morning with a word of gratitude. First, my thanks to Mark for this invitation to be among you today. I’m just sorry I missed thanking him in person. He and Annette are dear friends, and we have missed them down in Chattanooga these last few months. But I also want to thank each of you for welcoming and receiving me into your presence this morning. It truly is an immense joy to be here, at “home.” This is most certainly a homecoming for me. Through the years, I have been involved in the life of ten different churches, but First-Oak Ridge has been and always will be my “home” church.
I keep this Bible on a shelf in my office with some of my other Bibles. My grandparents gave me this to me when I was confirmed in this church on May 23, 1993. I keep inside of it lots of memories from my time as a youth in this church, so just for fun I pulled it off the shelf this week and opened it up. In the very front was the Certificate Church Membership that was presented me on the day I was confirmed. There were notes from my parents, and Scott, and other folks here. I found my “Blooper of the Day Award” from the 1995 Youth Choir Tour. I didn’t realize it so much when I was living in it here in this place, but my time growing up in this church had a profound impact on everything that has followed. I was baptized in this church in May of 1980. As I mentioned, I was confirmed here. I grew up in the youth group and singing in the youth choir. I wish I could’ve been here for the youth choir reunion a couple of weeks ago. More recently, Ken and I were married in the chapel here at First-Oak Ridge. We will celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary tomorrow.
I have told the story of this church and my time here in almost every church I have served. It is a critical part of my testimony, if that’s what you want to call it; a key “waypoint” on my journey of faith. You know, when a person is baptized, the congregation vows that they will nurture that person in the Christian faith. We say that we will “live according to the example of Christ,” that we “will surround one another with a community of love and forgiveness, that the person being baptized may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.” We vow to pray for one another, that we all “may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” I don’t know if any of you remember this or not, but back in August of 2001, my Mom stood before this congregation to say a few words. I was headed out for my senior year of college, and my sister was about to begin her freshman year, and my Mom wanted the opportunity to thank this congregation for upholding the vows you took at the baptism of both me and my sister. I tell that story almost every time I talk about baptism because that’s what you all did. You nurtured me in the faith. You surrounded me with a community of love and forgiveness. You helped me grow in my trust of God and faithful service to others. You set me on the path of discipleship and the way that leads to life. (I hope…)
Now, to use the words of Paul as he writes to the Philippians, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for this church. This church wouldn’t be what it is today if not for a 75-year legacy of laity and clergy who have faithfully followed the “upward call in Christ Jesus.” But that’s the whole point of Paul’s words here. This call is “upward,” it’s moving, it’s not stagnant, it beckons ever further the people of faith.
You know, one of the things I commonly hear in churches, especially when I’m new there, or when we are working on visioning for new ministries is: “This church was so great back when ________________.” How many of you have ever thought that or said that? You could fill in the blank in any number of ways. This church was so great back when So-And-So was the pastor. Or this church was so great when our nursery was full. Or this church was so great before the Little Leagues started having their games on Sundays. I could go on and on and on. I’ve honestly just about heard them all. I think this church is pretty great. I’m kind of partial to Wesley Memorial in Chattanooga, too. But the question that Paul’s words demand of us, is what really makes a church great? What really defines a great disciple of Jesus Christ?
To begin with, we have to understand that our greatness is not in the past. It’s not even in the present. If we are to believe and embrace what Paul is saying to us this morning, then we don’t look backwards, we look forwards. Things in the past may be great, and they may provide a stepping stone to something greater still. But what I hear Paul saying to us as individuals and as a church is that our best days are ahead of us. What I hear Paul saying to us this morning is that as good as the past may be, the future will be so much more. And that’s all because of Christ Jesus, who calls us and claims us, and beckons us always to something greater.
Now, following the “upward call in Christ Jesus” does not mean that we have to renounce the past. Paul did not renounce his past, nor did he ask the Philippians to do so. Nor do I think this church or any other must renounce the past. Truly, my story is richer because of this church’s past. In so many ways, it is the past, the good and the bad, that enables us to move into the future in meaningful and fruitful ways. So instead of telling us that we must completely discard the past, Paul is rather say that we should set the past aside as a defining marker of who we are. And the truth of the matter is, this is something we all have to do in every facet of our lives. If we get stuck in the past, or even the present, we miss the opportunities of the future, and as Paul points out, we miss the greater goal.
When I was in seminary, I worked very part time as a youth director at a church in Alexandria, Virginia. The summer after Katrina hit, we took the youth on a mission trip to Pascagoula, Mississippi, to help with rebuilding. On the first day we were there, one team went out to mow the lawns of some elderly and disabled. At one woman’s home, the grass was particularly tall and thick, and we were having trouble cutting through it with the push mower we had. As we all struggled and fought to get the lawn mowed, storm clouds started rolling in. The adults were urging the youth to work faster, but there was really no going any faster. The woman in the home heard us pleading over and over again with the youth to go faster, and at one point, she stepped to the back porch and as she offered some ice water to the crew, she joined the chorus of pleading. “Don’t be in the behind!” she said. “Come on, don’t be in the behind!” Now, I had never heard anyone say that ever before in my entire life. And aside from our group mimicking her as we rushed the youth around the rest of the week, I have never heard anyone say that since. But I knew what she meant from the moment the words left her mouth. “Don’t get behind!” “Stay at it!” “Get this done!” “Don’t miss your chance!”
And that’s Paul’s word for us this morning as well. We can’t get caught standing still! We can’t get stuck in what is behind us. We have to press forward! We can’t miss the opportunities that Christ places before us! First United Methodist Church has an amazing legacy in this community. But there is still more important work to be done. Isn’t that an amazing thing to imagine?!? It honestly blows my mind; to know the thousands of lives that have been touched and changed because of the ministries of this congregation, and to think that the best is yet to come! God is still working with each of us; molding us, shaping us, calling us to this greater righteousness in Jesus Christ our Lord!
Martin Luther, the great reformer, once put it this way. He said, “the nature of a Christian does not lie in what he or she has become, but in what that person is becoming.” And the same could be said of the church. There is no higher calling than for Christ’s disciples to become like Christ himself. But we must know that in this life, the goal always remains beyond us, beckoning us forward. If we lose sight of this purpose, if we miss “God’s upward call in Christ Jesus,” if we forget what is ahead and instead strive for what is past, then we will find ourselves behind. Friends, we can’t afford to make that mistake! There is so much important work to be done to nurture Christ’s disciples and make God’s kingdom real here!
I think Paul’s words in this letter beg the question, “When others look at us, do they think, ‘In that person, or in that church, I can see something of what it means to be like Christ.’?” This is what it means to be claimed by God and to follow Christ’s call. And as we follow that call, Christ will be reflected more and more in our lives, and in the life of Christ’s church.
I want to leave you this morning with the wonderful words of Saint Teresa of Avila. She famously said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people now.”
Whatever you do, don’t look back. Whatever you do, keep striving ahead. And in all things, keep your eyes on Christ Jesus! If you can do that, if the church will do that, then the promise of Christ is that the best days are yet to come!