Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 7, 2019
The Screwtape Letters is a Christian apologetics novel written by C. S. Lewis, and first published in book form in 1942. The story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of a British man, known only as “the Patient.” The body of the letters that comprise the book has Screwtape giving Wormwood detailed advice on various methods of undermining faith and promoting sin in his Patient, interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine, and in doing so, the book provides a series of lessons in the importance of taking a deliberate role in living out Christian faith.
One of these letters depicts Screwtape, advising the apprentice devil Wormwood that moderation is one of the keys to avoiding the Christian faith: “Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things.’ If you can get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point,’ you can feel happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all, and more amusing.”
This morning’s text would make Screwtape shudder. This is not a text about moderation.
In today’s reading, Paul, in writing to the church at Philippi, gives a bit of his spiritual pedigree listing some of his exceptional religious bona fides, writing “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
From all accounts, Paul has it all. If anyone could find a strong reference, it would be him. If anyone could matriculate to the most prestigious institution of higher learning, it would be him. Numerous school and community activities, near perfect SAT scores, AP classes, a solid GPA, graduating at the very top of his class, a legacy at every school at which he could ever dream of applying, born into a highly-favored family, blameless, passionate for what is right, well-known, highly respected. All in all, a life filled with all possible privilege and numerous achievements.
And yet, his life has now changed, and he calls it all, all of it, “rubbish,” (or in Greek “excrement).”
Paul had in abundance everything we have been told since we were very young is so very important, so worthy of sacrifice, so necessary for our proper place in this competitive world, and now he has come to realize that it is not enough, or at least that he has perhaps been chasing the wrong things for all his life. It would be one thing to hear this morning’s text if Paul had simply opted out of all this from the get go, if he had dropped out of school, if he had eschewed his family privilege, if he had determined that the brass rings were not as shiny as they seemed and as such were not worth pursuing. Except this is not who Paul was. Like so many people in our congregation of God’s people, Paul participated in everything he could, did all he could, gained all he could, only to now come to the realization that by itself, all of the advantages he had, all of the accomplishments he had to his name were not what he was seeking all along.
Now, if today’s scripture ended there, one could easily draw the obvious conclusion that Paul was clearly in the throes of some sort of mid-life crisis, that he was on the verge of getting a tattoo and purchasing a new, cherry-red, convertible chariot. Yet this is not what happens. Instead Paul reveals to the Philippians and to us that, by the grace of God, he has found the thing above all the other things. While what he now regards as rubbish had in so many ways had heretofore framed, directed, and defined his life, he had finally found the thing for which life was worth living, the thing he would eventually, one day in the city of Rome, die for having.
Paul writes “Whatever gains I had…I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”
Bishop William H. Willimon had been a campus minister at Duke University for over a decade when he wrote, “In that time, I received only one or maybe two phone calls from an anxious parent saying, ‘Help, my daughter is addicted to alcohol,’ or ‘Help, my son is promiscuous.’ However, in that period of time, he probably received a dozen phone calls from anxious parents saying, ‘Help, I sent my child to Duke to become a lawyer and she has become a religious fanatic.’” Willimon writes that ‘Religious fanatic’ is usually defined as someone who wants to go and work in the Catholic nutritional program in Haiti rather than go to the Law School.”
He tells the story of a woman he knows who was raised an atheist: “She had no church background at all. She lived most of her life quite happily with no Jesus, no Christian faith. Then, at age forty-one, in her words, she found Jesus. She began attending church every time the doors opened. But she did not limit her piety to the church. She began a ministry among the poorest of the city’s poor. She began inviting homeless families into her home. Her life was consumed with thoughts of how she might show her love for Jesus. He said, to [those who knew her], it seemed a bit, well, extravagant. She seemed to some, to be out of control.
Or maybe, just maybe, she had it all figured out.”
I find myself wondering sometimes if the reason that the Christian faith can be so difficult, why belief can be so hard, why it takes so much courage to believe is because in this divine-human drama, we really are not wrestling with God as we would have ourselves believe. Instead, we are wrestling with ourselves, with our skewed priorities, with our unwillingness to let go of the old. Like a person with one foot on a dock and another on an unmoored boat, we find ourselves pulled in opposite, competing directions with no middle ground in sight. We even find ourselves torn between how we feel our hearts and minds led by God and our fears of what others might think of us.
The writer Anne Lamott writes of her conversion to Christianity in her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith “After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner…The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
“And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant, hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is anointed at Bethany, and as John tells it “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair,” enough that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” It is a beautiful, sacrificial act; this perfume cost nearly a year’s wages for a common laborer. And Judas is having none of it. It is wasteful, a bad idea. That money could have been put to better use. What is wrong with you? What were you thinking?
Yet that is just it. There will always be those around us, even close to us, who believe that it is the gospel and not all of the other things to which we cling so tightly that is “rubbish.” There will always be those around us who seek that easy, false religion of moderation instead of allowing our faith to be what defines our priorities, our decisions, our loves, and our lives.
The problem, however, is that our lives are claimed by such an amazing, sometimes infuriatingly persistent God, who like a stone in our shoe will keep after us despite our best efforts to ignore it, until we relent, until we acquiesce, surrendering to the life that we know God wills for us to have, until we give ourselves to the thing that redefines all of the other things, until we empty our hands of the old so that they may be filled with the new. This is what Saint Augustine meant when he wrote in his fourth-century Confessions “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Thirty-seven years ago this month, the British rock band Roxy Music released what is probably their best-known song in this country, a song called “More Than This.” They lyrics are beautiful; singer Brian Ferry said they were inspired by time he spent on the western coast of Ireland.
The chorus simply says over and over again “More than this, you know there is nothing/More than this, tell me one thing/More than this, there is nothing.” Two millennia ago, Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi of his thing beyond which there was nothing, saying “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” To those around Paul, it must have seemed like madness. To Paul, it was meaning, the light in which he could see himself, his life, and all he was meant to me. It was the thing that allowed him to let go of the old and to embrace the new. What must have seemed like madness to those who knew him back when was simply God’s cure for his restless heart, until it found its rest in the everlasting arms of God.
At our March meeting, the Reveille United Methodist Church Council adopted a Reaffirmation of Inclusion, which you can see in your bulletin. In so doing, we have stated what is important to us as we move forward as a Christian community of faith in this time and place, and in so doing, we have set a standard for ourselves, that we will always to endeavor to do the very best we can to be a place where all of God’s children can come to know and grow in the grace, love, and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
We have done this because of texts like this morning’s, texts that teach us that knowing Christ surpasses all other things, and we wish for all people to experience this blessed, profound gift that surpasses all others. As such we wish for the congregation to know this, the community to know this, and the world to know this about Reveille United Methodist Church, and for congregation, community, and world to know that your are welcome here, and that we will receive you as we find you in the name of the savior who does the same.
What is the thing in your life that surpasses all other things, the thing that puts everything else in its proper place? To what are you clinging too tightly? What thing or things are we chasing to which we have ascribed far too much meaning? What would it mean to leave those things behind in order to inherit the freedom of the life prepared for us, the life Christ lost his life to give, to bring, to share?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.