If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Shall We Press On? Philippians 3:4b-14

This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite, Canby, OR on World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2011. The service included international music, my udu drum for the prelude, an illustrated sermon (with my cartoons), communion with Hebrew blessings, Bob Dylan's song "Pressing On" and Mavis Staples rockin' with "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me today, but when I was in seminary I used to run four miles every day! The seminary campus where I ran was located in Mill Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. Morning fog poured over the mountains like soup. Sunshine sparkled on the water with bobbing sailboats. I could see San Francisco from the hill where I went to daily classes. My jog took me along the shores of the bay along a stretch of road with some hills and dips in the road.

Since I was never very athletic, jogging was a real discipline for me. I had to work hard to get up to four miles. By the second mile I could feel the burn in my legs. Sweat began to drip. I was looking forward to getting this run over. My goal was to get back to my apartment and the prize of rest. But, near the end of my four miles I had to jog over a very steep hill. Jogging on flat ground was hard enough. At the point I was most tired, I had to muster every ounce of strength I had left in me to make it up and over that hill. There was no way around that hill. I had to literally strain forward and press on toward my goal. Then, I was home free! Hallelujah!

The apostle Paul uses running as an image for encouraging the Philippian Christians to continued faithfulness. Running a race is one of Paul’s favorite metaphors for living the Christian life in community. Paul draws his images from the Greek games. It is a rich metaphor for our personal and congregational life, though like any metaphor it has its limits. Paul uses various elements of running to encourage Christians. Running involves rigorous training, exercise, and mental preparation. Weights are used in training, and then discarded for the race. Runners compete against each other and run to win. Their goal is the finish line. The winner of the race receives a prize of a wreath or crown of leaves.

In our text for today Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Since the Christian life is like a race it is forward looking, and future oriented. The goal is always ahead of us, not behind us. We have not yet reached our destination. There may be a steep hill ahead that will require every last ounce of our energy. So, press on!

What a powerful message for the church! But, it may catch us in the second mile of a four mile run. God may be calling is into the future, but we may be in the midst of feeling the pain from sore legs. Our race may have enough hills and valleys already to make us weary. The finish line looks too far away. We may just want to sit down and rest or even turn back.

We may be like Charlie Chainedtothepast. Charlie lives in the past among his dusty memories and rusted accomplishments. Charlie remembers how the church used to be and wishes it would return to those good old days, which were probably not all that good. Charlie’s theme song is sung with a longing sigh “If only….” He learned all those Bible stories in Sunday School when he was kid, so he doesn’t need to attend anymore. He can stay home or sit in the church building during Sunday School while his children get their own inoculation against any further growth in the knowledge of Christ. And Charlie has a hard time letting go of old hurts and bad experiences. They cling to him like static socks right out of the dryer. Charlie will bring up about how so-and-so did such-and-such five years ago. He can’t seem to let go of the past. Sorry, Charlie, the past is long gone! Forget what lies behind! Press on!

Could it be that some of us are like Granny Glancingbackwards? She’s trying to press on, but most of her life is behind her. Granny wants to press on, but there’s not much track left in front of her to run! Most of her reference points are in the past; old ways of doing church, traditional music, the way things have always been. She has a hard time welcoming all this new stuff that attracts young people; technology, e-mail, cell phones, videos, contemporary music, multicultural ministry. “Can’t things just be like they used to be?,” says Granny. And Granny’s seen about everything new that’s come down the pike. So, why try something new? We already did that a long time ago. Sorry Granny, as Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a changin’” Forget what lies behind! Press on!

For some of us the problem is not so much the past as it is the present, like Sally Stuckinthepresent. This young mom is so wrapped up in frenetic activity of what’s going on in her life, she has no time to rehash the past, let alone think about the future. There’s the three kids, a part-time job, soccer practice, baseball games, cleaning the house, camping, hunting, gardening, and on and on the list goes. And where, pray tell is your husband, Sally? Watching sports and eating chips! We’re lucky if Sally shows up at church on Sunday. There’s no time for quiet, meditation, nurturing her inner spirit. Press on toward the high mark of our calling? Oh, that reminds me that I need to make several calls before I run off to the grocery store and drop off….Sorry, Sally, there’s more to life than running on that hamster wheel! Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Strain forward! Press on!

Sam Steponoverem is a future-oriented, goal-oriented person. He’s the envy of every company executive. He will try new things, change things around, take some real risks. His focus is on the future, not the past or the present. Sam will do whatever it takes to move things forward, project out into the future. “Enough of the pettiness, short-sightedness, and navel gazing. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work on building something new,” says Sam. Sam would just as soon leave all the turtles, stick-in-the-muds, and stragglers behind in leading the church forward. “Like the pastor says, press on, people!” Sam affirms. Except, Sam tends to avoid getting people onboard before the train leaves the station and sometimes walks over people’s feelings as he strains toward the future. Strain forward, Sam. But, bring others along with you. Then, press on!

Enough about us. The goal is far enough ahead for all of us to change, lay aside every weight and sin that drags us down, turn our minds and hearts around, get back on track, use our gifts, and grow into the likeness of Christ. So, shall we press on? We have been called to “press on toward the mark for the prize of our high calling in Jesus.”

Our goal is not just pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye. Breaking the ribbon at the finish line isn’t just about dying and going to heaven. Our goal is to live out the high calling of Christ in this life as in the next, on earth as in heaven. Our high and heavenly calling to live in the here and now as if the reign of God has already arrived, as if heaven has kissed the earth, as if the lion has laid down with the lamb, as if Christ were already present among us, as if we have already been reconciled to one another and God, as if there is good news for the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed. That’s what our high calling looks like. That is our goal. That is our prize. So, press on people! Press on!

If any people and movement models for us running the race and pressing on toward the prize, even against all odds, it’s the story of African-Americans and the Southern Freedom movement. What a fitting title to the PBS series on the Southern Freedom movement; Eyes on the Prize, an image drawn from the pages of the Bible.

My wife, Iris, and I have had the privilege of knowing Dr. Vincent Harding, a neighbor and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his Riverside speech against the Vietnam War. He was a church historian, a former Mennonite pastor of Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago, and founded the interracial Mennonite House in Atlanta in 1961, ahead of his time in race relations in the church. Dr. Harding was a senior academic advisor for Eyes on the prize. He was part of the Southern Freedom movement and had to press on, even when he got resistance to his work from within the Mennonite church.

Dr. Harding has written eloquently about his own people chained in slavery as servants to whites. And yet…they pressed on toward a higher calling of freedom. Bearing the heavy weight of Jim Crow laws, segregated lunch counters, separate fountains, separate neighborhoods, discrimination and disdain. And yet….they pressed on toward a higher calling of equality. Feet weary marching in the streets. Facing snarling dogs and firehoses. And yet….they pressed on…they pressed on, keeping their eyes on the prize!

The title of the PBS series was drawn from the song, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” At the end of the service you will hear a bit of Mavis Staples singing these words:

Well, the only chains that we can stand
Are the chains of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Got my hand on the freedom plow
Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
Hold on, (hold on), hold on, (hold on)
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

Brothers and sisters in Christ, now is not the time to give up. Now is not the time for turning back. Though the race has been long and there is a steep hill ahead of us to climb, we must press on! No time for rubbernecking over all the mistakes we have made in the past. Forget what lies behind. Don’t let it weigh you down, brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes on the prize. Press on! Press on!

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

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