text : Philippians 3:4b - 14
theme verse : "Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." (Phil 3:13)
Do you ever find yourself living a life of "what could have been"? It is easy to get caught up in the one that got away: the promotion, the relationship, the house, the sale, the game. It is hard to give your best to the life in front of you if you're always looking back at what could have been. Sitting in a jail cell, Paul had every reason to wonder what could have been. Some twenty years earlier, he left a life of success to pursue the work of the Way of Jesus. That current work was under attack by competitors and after two decade of hard traveling in the service of Jesus, he was tired and surely would have welcomed some relief. And yet, in what many consider to be his happiest letter, Paul says, "I strain forward to what lies ahead" for that's where the prize is he seeks. That prize? Simply stated: the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. For what are you willing to strain forward?
anthem : 'The Spirit Sings' (M.Hayes) :: Chancel Choir - Kelly Ford, director; Susie Monger Daugherty & Billie Kaye Sawyer, duo piano
reader : Giselle Chebny
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
closing : 'A Little More' (J.Knapp) :: The Rising Band - Andi Gross & Katie Herbert, vocals
VIDEO : children's quartet, Traditional Worship Offetory : 'Instruments of Your Peace' (K.Dearman) :: Morgan Briley, Macy Gerkin, Regan Nixon, Quinn Daniel
Fred Craddock was as unassuming as they come. A curious boy from rural Tennessee who simply loved Jesus and the church. He never grew very tall but he became a giant homiletician. Newsweek touted Fred as one of the world’s greatest preachers. Upon his death in 2015, the national news coverage named him a ‘preaching genius’. He was one of our own, ordained Disciples of Christ minister and one-time professor at Phillips Theological Seminary. My dad sat under his tutelage and I’m certain others of you were blessed to know him in some way. He loved to tell a story about his uncle who made a practice of adopting greyhound racing dogs. Dog racing was big business but when a dog aged-out, there became a practice of many of the dogs being put-down in retirement. Fred’s uncle was appalled by the practice so he adopted as many as he could over the years. Fred made a trip up to visit his uncle and family shortly after his uncle had adopted his first abandoned greyhound. It was a beautiful scene – a playful dog bouncing around, licking the kids, eager to simply enjoy retirement. As the initial welcome calmed, Fred found himself sitting next to the greyhound. What’s a guy to do when you’re at a family gathering and you end up sitting next to the new person in the house – like the first time someone brings the boyfriend home from college – you strike up a conversation to avoid the awkward silence. Fred makes the first move. “Dog?” “Yes, sir?” “Did you stop racing because you were too old?” “No, sir. I had some good years left.” “Could you no longer win the races?” “No, sir. I could go back out there today and bring home some more victories.” “Huh. Say, Dog, did you not make enough money for your master?” “Not at all. I made plenty of money for my master.” “Well, Dog, then why did you quit?” “Why?” the dog says as he leaned in close to Fred. “I figured out that the rabbit wasn’t real.”
Chasing the rabbit all those years only to discover that the rabbit wasn’t real. What are you chasing? We’re all chasing something. We’re going after something. When we’re honest with ourselves, we can name it pretty quickly. Whatever image comes to your mind when I ask you “What are you chasing?” … hold it… visualize whatever “it” is and ask yourself: “Is it something that’s real?” Is it something that can boost my soul? Or is it something temporary; something like a rabbit on the race track that isn’t real at all. What are you chasing? Is it your past? How often do we long for a do-over? How often do we look back wondering, “What might have been if…”? What if she would have said, “Yes.” What if the company said, “You’re right. You get the promotion.” What might have been if you turned left instead of right?
One of life’s hard truths is that we cannot press forward in our lives if we’re living a life of “what could have been.” We can’t give our best to the future if we’re always looking back at what might have been if… One pastor used to say it this way: “You have got to get over yourself if you’re going to find yourself.” That quote may have been one that hung on the home office wall of one Paul of Tarsus. He certainly understood what that quote required. He tells us so in our focal text for today which we find in his letter to the church at Philippi. This letter is probably Paul’s happiest letter which is ironic when you consider he’s sitting in a jail cell, broke and abused. He’s twenty years into his pursuit of Jesus after plenty of prior years spent executing people just like he had become. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? But it’s true. And Paul must be laughing in that cell to the dismay of his captors.
He had every reason to play the ‘what could have been’ game. Prison provides the kind of time to get lost in that sort of thinking. Paul had it all. If anybody had room to talk (and I’m not talking humble brag but all out arrogant self-puffery), it was Paul of Tarsus. He was tight with God from day one. Born into the right tribe. Circumcised on the 8th day as prescribed. He was the Hebrew of Hebrews. He knew the law and practiced it better than everyone else. He not only knew the depths of Judaism and practiced it as the best surgeon prides in her utmost precision, but he called out the imposters and penalized his opponents. He was Exhibit A; star among stars. Why chuckle about this in prison? Because that life he recalls; that resume he recites, was far greater a prison than the bars that held him captive now. Nothing could be clearer. Some twenty years prior he realized the rabbit he was chasing wasn’t real.
He had it all. He climbed the ladder. He didn’t have a falling out with the local synagogue or engage in some personal scandal that forced his career in a new direction. He simply found himself totally transformed by an encounter with Christ. That’s it. And he left everything else behind. Can you imagine? What would it take for you… for me? Recounting all of those accomplishments and status and privilege he says, “I count all of that stuff ‘skubala.’” In the common Greek, skubala meant garbage. Used in the field of medicine, it meant dung – everyone’s favorite emoji. Awaiting his execution in that prison cell, Paul had never felt more free.
Now… this is sort of a sensational account, isn’t it? One could argue, “Hey, Paul had a platform of influence unlike any other. Did he have to throw it all away in order to know Christ? Couldn’t he have maintained that life and simply added Christ on?” Of course, I wish I could say, “Sure!” We can have it all and a little Jesus on the side too. But… I know what Paul would say. He would say, “I feel you. But something happens when you really meet Jesus. Suddenly you want to be more like him than anyone else in the world.” And… things that once seemed to be critical to your existence become among the pile of trivial pursuits.
A week ago, I spent time with the Bethany Fellows in Atlanta, Georgia. The Bethany Fellows are a group of young ordained, Disciples clergy who share in this four-year program designed to encourage them into a life of prayer, self-care, and strong church leadership. It formed out of the research that suggested some 40-50% of clergy were leaving congregational ministry within the first four years of ministry in the church following ordination. Church leadership can be hard. I was a Fellow myself coming out of seminary and have served on the Leadership Team for the last four years. I still believe it to be among the most important ministries for the future of the church. So – we were in Atlanta. 42 pastors. Following a week of conversations, education, silence, and spiritual direction, we spent an afternoon at The King Center downtown, honoring the life, work, and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his family. From the home in which he was born to the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church where his grandfather, his father, and much of his family pastored for the better part of a century… this was all part of a National Parks system. Forty-two of us sat in the restored Ebenezer Baptist Church sanctuary fully equipped with the hymn numbers on the hymn board of the last service Dr. King preached before his assassination. It was the same sanctuary where King’s mother was murdered in the middle of a worship service – right at the organ bench where she was playing for the service. We sat in silence as a portion of King’s sermon was played over the speakers. Do you remember what he said? This was part of it…
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy tell him not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want him to say. Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize–that isn’t important. Tell him not to mention that I have 300 or 400 other awards–that’s not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
King’s widow had that recording play as the conclusion to the eulogy in Ebenezer Baptist Church before all gathered made a completely silent three mile walk from the church to Morehouse College where a larger service was held to honor King’s life. It was incredibly powerful to sit in that space and hear him preach. I sat near one of our African American pastors who sat directly in front of that pulpit videoing the nearly seven-minute recording with his smart phone. I wish I could say things are different today but we have much work yet to do. King’s words, however, echo Paul’s words from prison. The awards. The recognition. The achievements. I count it all rubbish compared to the love we are called to live in Christ.
If we are going to be transformed by Christ, to invite him to dwell in our souls and guide our steps, we’ve got to make some room. Even though he said he didn’t, Paul kind of had this figured out. I struggle with it. I worry about my life far more than I should – my mobility, my kid’s college education, the possibility of retirement someday… status, image, job security, keeping my hair as I age. I want all of that and Jesus too. It’s hard to have my heart and hands free to serve when I’m carrying all of that stuff too. And so, we start the someday list. Someday I’ll get to that Jesus-life. Someday I’ll make some changes. I’ll get more disciplined with my prayer life and my stewardship. I’ll forgive that thing that is keeping us unnecessarily separated. Someday I’ll ask that colleague at the office how her chemo treatments are going. Someday I’ll take that mission trip or volunteer for the Middle School lock-in. Whew… that’s really giving it all to Jesus. Paul didn’t have time for a someday list. He knows if you’re living in someday land, you’re always living in the red.
All the headlines this week read, “Another mass shooting.” We grieve the lives of the innocent forever gone from this life. The fact that those headlines begin with the word, “Another” broadens the tragedy of ongoing violence in our country. Terribly sad stories of senseless loss. Same weekend this occurs in Vegas, a high school student in Broken Arrow jumps to his death at the Friday night football game. My parents were visiting us for the weekend. That same day, in their hometown, a high school girl took a gun to school and took her own life in front of her peers. Jason Harris, the 38 year old man found dead in his vehicle on the side of 169 this week grew up in a small town ten minutes from my home. We played travel baseball together a couple of years. I haven’t seen him sense middle school but here he was, living in Tulsa, two young children. Gone. Shane Anderson, a Middle School geography teacher in Broken Arrow, murdered this week in his home by a local teenager. Senseless.
Mark Feldmier, a Methodist pastor whose ministry has inspired me in numerous ways, wrote of another tragedy in his own community. He said, “Late one night, I drove past a half dozen cars parked on the side of the road. There were a dozen teenagers huddled around a few lighted candles and a makeshift memorial. Something compelled me to pull to the side of the road and join this huddle of complete strangers. Standing amidst broken glass and broken hearts, I read the white poster board sign in silence. The kid’s name was James. “Tell me about James,” I said, and they told me the story of how James died in a drunken driving accident the night before. They told me that James was eighteen years old, that his friend, who was driving the car, survived the crash. They told me what kind of kid James was, and how they were dealing with it all. Some of them were crying. Some of them were angry. Some of them couldn’t believe that their friend was dead. We talked for quite a while out there on the side of the road. Then, one of the boys looked at me and said, “I wonder if he kissed his mom before he left the house.” Eighteen years old, and he’s pondering the mysteries of what is important in his life and the choices he makes. Eighteen years old, and he’s catching a glimpse of eternity, and how close in time we are to it, but how far away we are from [living like] it.”
In that jail cell, Paul writes from his own experience to say, “We don’t have time not to give Jesus the best part of who we are.” If we claim Jesus as the way of our soul pursuits, then we’ve got to make room for him to dwell in us. And how do we know his way is the real deal? That we’re not just chasing a fake rabbit around the dog track? You begin to see it in undeniable ways. The things that Jesus lives for become the things we live for. The things he gave himself for become the very things we give ourselves for – even when it calls for the very best we have to offer. Have you seen that in someone? It’s an amazing sight… their countenance even through the hard stuff of life. Their compassion expressed when the world is steeped in judgment. Their satisfaction in doing and being the love of God when they could put that same energy into chasing rabbits along with a culture that is more interested in keeping up with the Kardashians than they are in keeping up with Jesus. And I’m not picking on the Kardashians. One of my minister friends posted this the other day: “While I was dictating a message to a friend this morning, autocorrect changed “congregation” to Kardashian.” One is a family that possesses much beauty but can cause major drama… and the other are reality TV stars.” We’ve got enough of our own stuff to sort out than to pick on others for what we perceive their issues to be. This is why Paul says, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not there yet myself. I’m trying. I’m giving it my best shot. I’m running the race. It hurts more than I ever thought it could and there are days when I’m flat out of breath. But I’m straining forward. And as any who ever took ordination vows must claim: With God’s help, I’ll get there. Today is all I have. Today, I’m going to be like Jesus.”
Now we could write Paul off as a radical. I mean, who really gives up everything they’ve worked for to live for what really matters? We’ve got bills to pay, ladders to climb and rabbits to chase after all. I’m guessing, however, there’s not a one of us who doesn’t want to feel the freedom Paul felt sitting in that prison cell. Is your heart that free? Have you gained Christ in such a measure? The good Lord knows I don’t have this all figured out. But this I know. I’ve got kids looking at me wondering what in this life is worth the effort of straining forward. I’ve got the names of the slain who wonder if I’ll make good of the time I have as their time on earth so quickly vanished. I’ve got an old, racing, retired, greyhound dog wondering why I’m still chasing a fake rabbit. Yeah, that Paul. Call him what you will. Arm-chair criticize his theology about this or that issue. But he was free. And, he did live a lot like Jesus.
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 Variations of this story have been told time and time again. Google will reveal more than a few different ways of telling the story. If you’d like to read more from Craddock, I suggest Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock. (Chalice Press, 2001)
 Exegetical commentary utilized from William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible series: ‘The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians’ (Westminster Press, 1975)
 This word is found in countless places. Here is one of them: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=193
 Testimony to the Exiles, Mark Feldmeir (Chalice Press, 2003) Rev. Feldmeir serves as Senior Pastor at St. Andrew United Methodist Church near Denver, Colorado. http://www.gostandrew.com/about/staff/. His work from Testimony to the Exiles entitled ‘Get Over It’ inspired portions of this message.