Thirty years ago a friend who is a skillful calligrapher offered to write a favorite verse or passage from Scripture for me. Because it would take him a lot of time and effort and because it would probably be a keepsake, I thought long and hard about my choice. Finally I decided upon the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard read this morning.
In it Paul examines his life and context in light of his encounter with Jesus. He has a lot going for him. He’s had a great upbringing as part of a notable family. He has a wonderful education where he has been a star student. He’s part of an elite group of religious practitioners who take their faith seriously and work hard to do everything according to what is required. He’s been righteous and blessed and successful in his career as a star persecutor of those who are a threat to the stability and strength of his religious system.
But when he meets the risen Christ in his encounter on the road to Damascus, everything pales in comparison. All that he has previously valued, all that gives him status and meaning and a sense of purpose is suddenly worthless in comparison with this heavenly call, this radical relationship with the one he calls “Lord.”
At the time I chose this passage, I had counted as loss some things that had previously provided me with value. I had just left my career at the hospital to become a missionary with college students. My good salary, condominium on Puget Sound and single life in the city had been traded in for poverty wages, a tiny apartment and life in a small college town in Oregon. I was probably feeling a little sorry for myself at this point. I was certainly feeling at least a little self-righteous about my “sacrifice.” I confess that I was probably just a little proud to display my beautiful calligraphy. It drew attention to all that I had given up. It made me seem more holy.
Two funny things happened along the way. First, I had the time of my life in campus ministry. It was rewarding and challenging and life-giving and an absolute blast. The sacrifice paled in comparison with the delight of ministering to and with bright, questioning, sincere, searching students. The joys far outweighed the difficulties and God provided for me more than I could ask or imagine.
The second funny thing that happened is that my framed calligraphy disappeared from my wall. It ended up in a box, moving with me from place to place and job to job. Because it was in storage, it wasn’t destroyed in the fire that burned down my office. Because it was in an already packed box, it was one of the last things left unpacked here in our new home in Seattle after everything had gone up on the walls.
Which is how it came to be one of the few pieces of art available to decorate the walls of my office here at St. Luke’s. I put it up a year ago and even though it’s a little faded, it still has the power to move and convict me.
This week I was being interviewed by a wonderful young man who is a member of our sister church, Pangea, and a first-year Master of Divinity student at Seattle Pacific University. He has a project due next week on how the minister’s Christology (their theology of who Jesus is) and their denomination affect their understanding of God and humanity. Of course he procrastinated and needed to get 5 interviews done in two days so I agreed to meet him early one morning in my office.
He asked me about my cultural context. And of course I’m privileged. I’m a white American. I grew up in a middle class home. I’ve had a good education and good employment. As far as a career in the church goes, I’ve done fairly well. Then he asked me how that context relates to my current ministry here. I looked up at the wall and noticed the calligraphy. And I was once more convicted.
Nothing I have achieved or has been given to me is enough. This context is not the best and truest definition of who I am. This is not what gives me or anyone else value. What really matters is that Jesus has called you and me by name and that each one of us is the beloved child of God. Everything else will pass away but by the power of Christ’s resurrection, we are all united in God.
Like Paul I really do “count it all as loss and rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Please hear me, this is not really about me but about every one of us. We can all find some reason for boasting. We can all just as easily find some reason for self-denigration, for self-hatred and insecurity and self-doubt. On my best days I may not struggle with envy and selfish ambition and competition and comparison but most of the time, like everyone else, I measure myself by my accomplishments and status. And on my worst days when there is true suffering involved in following Jesus, when it’s difficult to turn the other cheek or to give generously or to forgive others then I certainly have no desire to join Paul in the “sharing of Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”
These verses are not candy-coated. They point to suffering, loss and death. They bring us directly to the Passion of Christ as we near the experience of Holy Week. They are alive with struggle and strain and a pressing desire to experience more of Christ, more of new life, more of the depth of what is really real and truly true. This is not religious righteousness that we can somehow obtain by being good and obedient. It is not a happy state of prosperity conferred on those who pray right or believe right or think right.
It is not a relationship with God where anyone has any advantage of any kind whether it be birth or righteousness or status or a clear conscience. We are all at the feet of Jesus, dependent alone on his grace and mercy and carried forward by the power of his Spirit.
As we come to Holy Week and Easter we are given the example of Mary who knelt at his feet and poured out all that was of value on him. She gives her most precious gift of oil, but also her devotion, her love, her very self. She gives no thought to status or propriety or even the cost of the oil she anoints him with. She counts all that as rubbish compared with the value of knowing Jesus and of being in relationship with Him.
She foreshadows too Jesus’ act of love and humble service when he washes his disciples feet in the coming week. It’s crazy. It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. Few of us want to be on the receiving end of such over the top love and devotion. Many of us would rather earn our way, stay strong, and demonstrate that we can do it on our own. We can’t face the shame of our own poverty or the chance that we might really be seen for who we are. Mary’s strength is in her vulnerability and Jesus praises and loves her for it.
Some of you remember Mr. Rogers and his TV show for children. I didn’t see most of it since we never had a TV so I was interested to hear an interview with a recurring character on the show, Officer Clemmons. It turns out that he was the first regular African American character on the show. Fred Rogers wanted him to be a policeman but he argued that choice. Francois Clemmons grew up in a neighborhood where the police were not to be trusted and had used fire hoses and dogs to counteract the civil rights protests of the day.
But Mr. Rogers thought it would be a good idea and they began to work together. It was a time of racial tension (when has there not been?). On one show Mr. Rogers is cooling his feet in a kiddie pool of water. He invites Officer Clemmons to join him and the camera focuses on their four feet, two black and two white in a common pool. You have to remember that some public pools were still segregated at the time.
They converse and sing a little song about the many ways to show love and then it’s time for Officer Clemmons to get back to work. He starts to lift his foot out of the water and Mr. Rogers reaches for a towel. Instead of drying his own feet, Mr. Rogers begins to dry the feet of Officer Clemmons. Francois is still talking about that moment decades later. It was a small but profound moment on public television and a big moment in Francois’ life.
Remember that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. He was also a true Christian. He knew exactly what he was doing when he participated in a joint foot washing with his African American colleague and friend.
Two things I’ve learned along the way. Counting as loss all the things that seem to give us value may be foolish in the world, but it’s deep wisdom. In God’s economy there is so much more to gain – new life, new companions on the journey, a deeper sense of the intrinsic worth and dignity of every person and hope that holds us through all the changes and chances of life.
And letting go of all those external things which define and categorize us leaves us free to fully embrace all the joy and wonder God has for us. You never know what might happen. You never know who God will put in your life. You never know how you will be called to love and serve for the joy set before you. As Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers sang together, “There are many ways to say I love you.”
I love you!