Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 8, 2017
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14
How many of you are fans of HGTV’s hit series, “Fixer Upper”? If you are, you may need a little pastoral care since Chip & Joanna Gaines have announced this will be their last year doing the show. My husband, Kinney, is quite sad about the news but for the life of me, I do not know why. I do not know why because he has a litany he goes through with nearly every episode. It goes something like this: “You know what Joanna is about to do—replace the popcorn ceiling, take out a wall, install stainless steel appliances and granite countertops along with a new backsplash. Oh, and pull up the carpet to put down new hardwood floors.” To this litany, I sometimes cannot help but respond, “Then why, exactly, are we watching this show?”
Of course, home restoration reality shows have been around for a while. ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” for example, was a wildly popular TV series that providing home improvements for families facing financial or other hardships. It ran for 9 seasons. One episode featured Kent Morrell, who started his own business while still a student at the University of Tennessee. The “Indoor Oceans Company” specialized in large aquarium installation and maintenance. Kent was in the fast lane—working 60 hours a week. By the age of 31, he had it all—a wife, children, and bucket-loads of cash. But all this changed one night when he was involved in a car accident. In a split second, his reality was transformed—he couldn’t work, he was depressed, he worried about his family and his finances.
Faith is what kept Kent’s family going. About a year after the accident, he was anointed with oil during a prayer service and some of his chronic pain subsided. A later surgery left him feeling nearly normal. Then, two months after returning to work, Kent got a call from the producers of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The request? Install a 600-gallon saltwater aquarium for the upcoming two-hour season premiere. Oh, and do it in 2 weeks. Kent states: “Every step I said, ‘God, I don’t know how I will work this out,’ and it was like God said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Through many providential twists and turns, the aquarium—the first of its size to ever be installed in a private residence—was placed in a home in Clarksville, Tennessee for a wounded soldier who was getting his own Extreme Makeover for the whole nation to see.
And Kent’s makeover? In his words, “My business used to be my life, my sense of self-worth… What’s really important now is my family. I realize now that God doesn’t promise a pain-free life. I have new empathy and respect for people who have gone through pain and life changes. God has always been with me. I’m not saying there haven’t been problems, but he was there and will always be there. God has worked it out, every step of the way.”
God working! God changing! How can we talk seriously about life changes, extreme makeovers—without talking about God? And if anyone was ever “made over” it was the Apostle Paul. Paul, who once persecuted Christians, becomes the leader of the pack proclaiming the gospel story. A makeover, indeed! Paul, transformed by God’s grace, appears in our epistle reading for today with important lessons. In three steps, he shows us how to take stock of our lives. Let’s take a look.
Step one is to consider where we are now. Imperfect? Paul would agree, admitting, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal.” Truly, righteousness comes from God. When we become children of God, we are declared not guilty, and therefore righteous, because of what Christ has done for us. It is not our efforts at law keeping, self-improvement, or discipline that puts us in right standing with God.
Furthermore, ultimately, we know our complete perfection will not be achieved on this side of eternity. Even so, we are responsible for working toward wholeness, toward perfection as long as we live. Eugene Peterson says, “The Christian life consists mostly of what God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is and does. But we also are a part of it. Not the largest part, but still a part.”
Where are we now? Imperfect? A mark of true maturity is to know that one is not yet perfect. So imperfect is a good place to start. It turns out, it is the only place we can start!
In step two of taking stock of our lives, Paul invites us to reflect on where we’ve been! In his letter to the church of Philippi, Paul defends the rights of Gentiles to be Christians. He opposes Judaizers, who are teaching it is necessary to first become a Jew, to first be circumcised. For Paul, circumcision is of no value unless it’s circumcision of the heart. Faith is what is essential. So Paul reviews his credentials: Jewish by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure Hebrew, and in addition to these inherited privileges, he has excelled in everything Jewish. In essence, Paul says, “If you want to play the game of credentials and works righteousness, I can play. In fact, I can beat you at your game.” Then he shows them it’s the wrong game. Paul has found a new reason to boast.
In verse 13, Paul declares, “[T]his one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind…” In other words, forget the past! (Isn’t it interesting that the things that Paul once boasted about separated him from others, while being in Christ unites him with others?)
Finally, we are invited to take stock of our lives by considering where we want to go! Paul writes, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul uses the metaphor of a runner pressing on to win the prize, straining forward to what lies ahead. We can almost feel the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache, the heart pump. Is he contradicting himself and now saying that faith is through works? No! For Paul, faith involves running, wrestling, striving and fighting. No health & wealth, cotton candy Gospel for Paul. Trust in God’s grace does not make Paul less active than the Judaizers, but rather sets him free to run the race without watching his feet.
Yet, Paul does not think he has “made it.” Twice he uses the phrase “I press on.” He is not waiting idly by for perfection to come to him. He urgently pursues his goal while, at the same time, claiming that it will only be through God’s grace that he will ever reach it. Christ himself is the blueprint for Christian behavior, and Paul, modeling himself after Christ, has become a model for the Philippians.
Down through the ages, other models follow. Now, it is our turn. Now it is up to us to demonstrate to the world what Christian behavior looks like. With the privilege of belonging to Christ comes great responsibility. We are now the hands and feet and compassionate heart of Christ for the world. And we will always be in process, which is the way it should be.
In Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes of a Benedictine friend who compared the difficult intimacy of monastic community life to being placed in a rock tumbler. “It’s great if you want to come out nice and polished.” The image speaks of the journey toward perfection. We are tumbled about. We slip, we fall, but we rise again to join the race. We press on, urgently pursuing the goal—but, oh the prize—that glorious time when we will all be polished, shining before Christ our Lord!
Paul had an extreme makeover! Through his transformation, we see the wisdom of assessing our lives and our goals. Step One: Review where we are—imperfect, yes, but loved by God, nonetheless. Step Two: Consider where we’ve been—yes, but leave the past behind. Step Three: Examine where we want to go—the race before us will have its wins and losses but the ultimate prize will be ours if we press on!
As Christians, we have brothers and sisters of the faith down the street, in neighboring states and countries—folks all around the world. But no matter where we are, geographically, when believers gather to worship God, we do a bold thing. We sing. We pray. We confess. We preach. We return a portion to God from the bounty we have been provided. We share the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
Whenever we go forth from our places of worship, we do a bold thing. We dare to announce God’s love for all people. We dare to imagine a world filled with people transformed by God’s grace. We dare to work toward peace and justice for everyone. We dare to claim the power available to us for the race ahead—the Spirit that makes it possible for us to be transformed—for us to experience our very own Extreme Makeover!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
*Cover Art “Saint Paul the Apostle” Icon in the Public Domain