September 22, 2002
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16


"No Way to Lose"
Philippians 1:21-30

In spite of the fact that he was constantly in danger, often in prison and lived with a price on his head, he was able to say:

"No matter what happens to me - even if they take my life, there is no way I can lose!"

What do you suppose would possess a person to say such a thing? What is it that could so powerfully dominate someone's life that nothing in life and not even death could shake the most meaningful thing in their lives.

Our first reaction to this questions might be that a person who could make this statement would be a person of great faith. And indeed this is probably very obvious. But if we dig a little deeper... what would be the characteristics and qualities that would make for this kind of amazing peace or  "okayness" with life no matter what the circumstances? Beyond this is the incredible sense of serenity even if death should come.

As we explore the fullness of the reading from Philippians we discover a priceless treasure, namely the peace of God in all things. It was the Apostle Paul who made the statement we paraphrased above. He said it this way:

"...to me, living is Christ and dying is gain."

As we think about these simple words, we do not want to let the absolute power of the meaning behind the words escape us. There are two very strong clues here to the peace of God for our lives - and even for our mortality. [1] Living is not about me. [2] Dying is not a loss.

[1] Living is not about me

How would you complete a sentence that begins with the words, "Living is....."

I remember a beer commercial from years ago where a few men were sitting around a campfire at night somewhere in the Rockies drinking beer. One of them says something like, "Now this is living."

Before I get to hard on others, I have to confess that some time ago when I was taking a Florida vacation in March - (I'm a northerner - in fact from Northern Ontario) . It had been a horrendous winter at the church and this break was much needed.  I was sitting on a sandy beach looking out over the ocean on an unusually warm March afternoon for Northern Florida. Clouds drifted overhead, a sea gull cried out here and there and a gentle breeze caressed my weary frame. "This is living," I heard myself say.

My son says, "This is the life," as he roars across the lake in his "go fast" boat.

I was driving to see a wealthy parishioner one afternoon and happened to have a seminary student I was supervising with me. As we drove through the posh neighborhood, we passed an incredibly large home with a four (that's right not two and not three, but four) car garage. There was a BMW and a Jaguar in front of two of the doors, a first class motor home in front of a third and the fourth door was closed. (They didn't like exposing their classic "Rolls" to public view)

"Now these people know how to live!" the student exclaimed.

So let's see now...

Living is beer.

Living is a beach.

Living is a fast boat.

Living is a Rolls Royce and a humongous house.

What else? You can likely think of all kinds of things that would come to the surface when you consider what makes life worthwhile. Yet something within us knows that this is all so very shallow. A few words from our personal physician with very bad news about our health would change everything in an instant!

Life is not a beer or a boat or a beach or a house. Life is precious, tender, fleeting and amazingly vulnerable. When the reality of our mortality stares us in the face, we think in terms of loss. When a friend or loved one has a close brush with death, someone inevitable says, "We almost lost him..." or  "We almost lost her."

In other words, the view of our culture is, "Living is me and my stuff." and "Dying is loss."  This translates to, "Living is about me."

St. Paul has an absolutely counter cultural view about living. His life isn't about him at all. As a Christian, my life is not about me. As a Christian, your life is not about you. Paul says it best, "...to me... living is Christ!"

It all begins in baptism. In some churches the baptismal liturgy uses the words, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever."  In our culture, the meaning of living is too often marked by our possessions. For the Christian, living is marked by the One who possesses us. By faith we are literally possessed by Christ.

For Paul, living was not about Paul, but about Christ and about the people who made up the dearest relationships of his life.  Even though he said leaving this life would be a gain for him, the fact was it would be for the benefit of others if he could stay on their behalf. He wanted to share in their joy of faith and help them mature in their relationship with Christ.

Those of us who have children know what it is like to have our life's priorities turned upside down. I will never forget leaving the hospital with our newborn first child. Boy, was I scared!  I almost had the sense that these people didn't know what they were doing letting me take this tiny, fragile brand new human being home with me! Bringing home stuff was one thing. Even very expensive stuff. But this very first experience of bringing home of a new life was a spine-chilling. Even if it had been prior to this - there was no way life could be about me any more.

That's how Paul felt about the people of the church at Philippi. He was possessed by Christ and fully given to the people God had given to him to care for.

***

You know the wonderful story of the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick. What you may not know is that Patrick was not born in Ireland. He was taken captive from English soil and taken to Ireland as a slave.

Here's where the story becomes amazing. Patrick was increasingly filled with a passion to bring the good news of Christ to the people who had once held him in slavery. He went back to Ireland and the Emerald Island owes its Christian heritage to his amazing ministry. History is filled with legends about St. Patrick. One of the most compelling is the story that Patrick suspected an ambush while he was on the way to meet King Laoghaire. He said the prayer, known today as St. Patrick's Breastplate, the Lorica, or the Deer's Cry, and as the soldiers lay in wait Patrick and his companions passed by but all the soldiers saw were deer!  Although the prayer was most likely composed well after St. Patrick's death, the words are very much a part of his character.

A part of that prayer is memorized by countless Christians and we could do worse than have these words on our lips and in our hearts daily:

Christ ever with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ to my right side, Christ to my left side
Christ in his breadth, Christ in his length, Christ in depth
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me
Christ in every eye that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me. ¹

These words nudge us closer to the heart of what it means to say, "...to me, living is Christ."  But... if we are not living... have we lost?

[2] Dying is not a loss

I want you to think about something with me here. St. Paul's words about dying may be the most significant words on the subject of death you will ever hear. They are words that go very much against the values of our contemporary culture.

"Dying is gain."

Gain? How can dying be gain?

I can remember my brothers and sisters talking about the day we, "Lost our father."  We didn't think of dad's death as a gain. Well... maybe for him, but not for those of us who found this world a strange place to be without "Dad."

In our culture, "It ain't over 'till it's over!" But when death comes it's over. Mortality means just what it says. We are mortal beings and by nature, mortal beings are limited beings and when they die there is a loss of life. That's the "buzz on the street" -- the view of the world.

But there is another view. A view that springs from faith. In the most ancient literature in scripture - the book of Job - there is a powerful question. "If mortals die, will they live again?" [Job 14:14]

Jesus answered that question for those who listen for his voice and follow his lead, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life..." [John 10:27-28] 

When St. Paul said, "Dying is gain," he spoke from a heart that was locked into the promise of Christ and set against the culture of his day. Death is not the bottom line.

Henry Van Dyke has a verse that expresses the hope of faith for Christian persons who share the vision of St. Paul that death is not a wall, but a doorway.

I am standing on the seashore. 
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to
the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. 
She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch until  at last she hangs like
a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky
come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says, “There she goes!”
“Gone where?”  Gone from my sight . . . that is all. 
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as
she was when she left my side and just as able to bear
her load of living freight to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. 
And just at that moment when someone at my side says,
“There she goes!” there are other eyes - watching her
coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout,
“Here she comes!”

“A parable of Immortality”
      by Henry Van Dyke

May God give us the joy of knowing that, "Living is Christ and dying is gain."

Amen.

 


¹ The "Breastplate of St. Patrick" is a well known Celtic prayer attributed to St. Patrick. Although it was likely written some time after St. Patrick it is characteristic of his life and ministry.  There are several variations in the wording and the complete prayer is available at the Christian History web site. 


Connections in the Texts

A theme that runs through all of our texts is actually a question.  "How am I to treat others?"  In Matthew it is:  "I am to forgive as I have been forgiven."   Paul says to the Romans, "Whatever religious scruples you may have -- don't judge your fellow Christians based on your practices -- let everything we do be directed at pleasing God, not each other."  With the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers, it is the issue of forgiveness.  Joseph's brothers (who have treated him abominably) come with a made-up story of how it was that Jacob had this dying wish that Joseph would forgive his brothers.  Wonderfully, Joseph acts out of his inner spiritual core and has no desire for retribution.  He models forgiveness.

There is one line in the Genesis passage that really must be lifted up.  When Joseph's brothers fall down before him in repentance and shame, Joseph says, "Am I in the place of God?"   What a wonderful phrase to keep in mind whenever we are tempted to judge another!

Matthew 18:21-35

The NRSV translates "If my brother sins against me" as -- "If another member of the church..."   Indeed the term is "adelphos" or brother.  "Member of the church" is not a good translation in light of the fact that ["church - ekklessia"] is used only twice in the gospels and only in Matthew.  (See notes from last week for detail)

The issue of seventy seven times is not a numerical formula, but a principle.  Forgiveness is not to be measured at all.  In the same way that God's forgiveness toward us is beyond anything we could ever ask for or deserve -- so also, the forgiveness of Christian folk for each other is to be without limits.  Nothing else is a testimony of the Divine love!  Forgiveness can not be quantified.  It is a river that flowes continuously, not a well that can run dry.

The amount owed by the first servant is overwhelming.  Ten thousand talents of gold is more than King David of Israel donated toward the building of the temple. (Five thousand talents of gold..   over 100 tons -- 1 Chron. 29:4)  There is no possible way this servant could ever pay the debt.)  The idea, of course is that no one could ever live a life worthy of God's everlasting love.  We can hardly get through the day without falling short of everything God would have us be.  The debt would be impossible and nothing but the divine intervention brought about by the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The shock of the story here is that the second servant's debt is absolutely miniscule in contemporary terms.  It would have been maybe 100 days wages for a vineyard worker.  It is as though Bill Gates of Microsoft fame took one of the custodians in his empire to court for a ten dollar debt!

God will look intently at our "forgiveness quotient" if we do not forgive our brother or sister from our heart.  I.E.  we need to mean it.   Problem:  How do we gain such a heart?  Check Romans 5:5:  "...God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Illustration:  If you haven't already used this, it's a great story about lack of forgiveness.

A husband and wife who were seeing a counselor came to a session after the woman said she was going to forgive her husband for his inattentiveness.  During the session when she was scolding her husband for a past insensitivity, the counselor said, "But I thought you forgave him for that."

She replied, "I did forgive him.  But I reserve the right to refer to the matter now and then!"

 

Genesis 50:15-21

This passage contains an absolutely wonderful statement about the providence of God.  It is a great example of the truth of Paul's statement that "all things work together for good..." [Rom. 8:28]

When everything seemed to be coming apart for Joseph's brothers -- (who deserved it) -- Joseph utters these marvelous words, "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good..."  The amazing part of this story is that Joseph had a genuine, authentic love for his brothers and his family that transcended the evil they accomplished toward him.  This is a powerful story!  It may have some redeeming, conciliatory power for some of our contemporary families.  It is a story of trusting God.

This passage is once again an illustration of how the Old Testament has amazing stories of love and grace which can sometimes get lost in the misperception that the O.T. is a book of war and an unloving God.  It begs exposition!


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  

Leader: Come to us even now O Lord of Life,
People: And fill this place with your presence!
Leader: We praise your name and rejoice in your love,
People: We stand in utter amazement of who you are!
Leader: Everyone who calls upon you will find fulfillment,
People: They will rejoice forever, because you are God!
Leader: Rejoice and give thanks!
People: Halleluiah! Amen!

A Prayer of Dedication

Thank You O our God for; sin forgiven, burdens lifted, joy restored and courage given. Yet, of all the gifts You shower upon us, our lives are blessed beyond measure that You should use our gifts to bring the world to You! Amen!

A Prayer of Confession

Give us courage, Lord, that we might search the deepest and darkest corners of our being for anything that offends your holy name. Give us mercy that we might stand in the brilliance of your light. Give us grace that we might go from this assembly cleansed from our sin and refreshed for your service. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.