Some weeks ago I met a member of our church for breakfast. We hadn’t seen each since the start of the pandemic. He said, “Remember that sermon series you did in January on 2020 vision? Man, you really missed that one didn’t you?” I said, “Well, perhaps I was a little off.” He said, “No, I mean it wasn’t even close!” I thought, “Well, maybe a few things were.” He was like, “No way. You weren’t even in the ballpark!”
We had a good laugh, but it did remind me of the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh just tell God your plans!” I don’t know that God laughs at our plans but a lot of us can relate to the way this year radically altered our plans.
Who would have thought back in January that we would become familiar with acronyms and phrases like Covid, PPE, social distancing, contact tracing, and super-spreader! A year ago I would have thought a super-spreader was describing some kind of farm equipment!
Someone sent me this meme some time back. As you can tell it’s a row of porta-toilets on fire and the caption reads, “If 2020 were a scented candle.” I don’t even know what to say to that. Its funny because for a lot of people that is what this year smells like. There’s been a lot of loss. People have lost jobs. Lost their income. Lost savings. Some have lost loved ones. This has been a year in which people have let go of a lot.
But letting go is part of the spiritual life. Jesus said unless a kernel of wheat dies and falls into the earth, it can’t produce new seeds. The writer of Ecclesiastes said cast your bread upon the water and it will come back to you. The symbol of our faith is the cross teaching that sacrifice leads to resurrection. Letting go becomes an opportunity to receive.
That is why we are starting a new series today called “Letting Go.” This is a stewardship series, and I know, stewardship is a churchy word we think is code for giving money. And in full disclosure that is part of it, but that’s not all of it. Stewardship is about everything in our lives. You don’t have to be a spiritual person to understand stewardship. Everyone understands that life is about having to let go of things along the way. It is a reality. At some point we all let go of everything. We don’t get to keep anything tangible in this life. But the spiritual attuned realize that letting go is not the final reality. With God’s help we trust that everything let go of leads to finding something new.
Each week in this series we will consider some of the most important and perhaps challenging things we have to let go of in life and what, through God’s help we can find. And we are going to spend all five weeks in the same book of the New Testament, Philippians. This is one of the letters of the Apostle Paul. He wrote to the church he founded when he traveled to Philippi, (pic) a city in the far north of Greece just a few miles from the Aegean Sea. You can still see the ruins today with the mountains of Macedonia in the distance. Philippi was located on the Via Egnatia, (map) a major east-west highway in the Roman Empire. It would be like I-70, only there was no I-40 or I-80. Imagine the traffic on I-70 if there was no other east-west highway! That was the Via Egnatia.
In Paul’s day Phillipi was about ten thousand in population which was fairly small even then. It had an interesting political background. It got it’s name from Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. He named it after Alexander’s sister. Later the Romans made it an official city of the empire. Its where Mark Anthony and Octavius, who became Emperor Augustus, tracked down and killed Brutus and Cassius the assassins of Julius Caesar.
When Paul visited Philippi he got to know a woman named Lydia who became a Christian and the leader of a church there. Some years later Paul wrote to them. The letter is fairly short, only 4 chapters, so I hope you will read all of it. Read it in one sitting, perhaps as a spiritual practice each week. The theme of the letter is joy, but not joy that is in denial of harsh realities. No, Paul reminds them that he is writing from prison, probably in Caesarea. He’s not even sure how long he has to live. He also knows their hardships, but he writes about joy, because even when you have to let go of things in life there can still be joy.
So we begin today with a warning. Now that seems like a contradictory tone to talk about joy, but Paul understands if you want to maintain joy in your life you have to take serious the threats to joy, and joy isn’t threatened nearly as much by enemies who announce they’re coming as they are by the ones who sneak in the back door. The enemies we know. The ones who make sense and seem friendly.
So Paul says, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” Who on earth is Paul talking about? Who is he calling “dogs?” He’s not talking about drug dealers or gang members. He’s talking about the religious leaders of his own faith. He’s talking about the people who enforce their understanding of God on others, people who followed a strict obedience to keeping religious laws and practices because they believed that and that alone is what honors God.
Paul writes to the Philippians to say, “Watch out for these folks. They’ll sneak in your kitchen and eat your leftover cake. They’ll rob all your joy if you let them. I know. I used to be one of them!” says Paul. In fact, if anyone had a right to brag I could put these people to shame.” And then he lists his credentials: circumcised on the eighth day according to the law; member of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of Hebrews; a Pharisee who followed the law to the perfection. And I’ve come to see those things don’t matter a hill of beans.” “Those things were important to me,” he says, “but now I think they are worth nothing because of Christ…” In fact, he goes on to say this: “I regard them as rubbish.” Now that word rubbish in Greek is skubala. It’s not a polite term. It’s more like a street word. It describes waste. Human waste. Are you with me? Paul is using foul language to tell the people, “All these things that gave me certainty in my faith I consider it a bunch of…burning porta-toilets!”
Why? Why is Paul so indignant? It’s not because he regretted his background. There are too many other places where he writes gratefully about his religious heritage. It’s not that Paul despised it, but what he knew you can turn it into if you aren’t careful: a certainty. A certainty that you have a handle on God. A certainty that you have to be right and everyone else is wrong. A certainty that God is going to always come through for you because of your obedience as if God owes you a favor. Paul realized that certainty didn’t give him what he was seeking. He needed something more.
Our newest staff member, Ryan Poe, put a book in my hand the other day, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs. If you come out of a religious environment where you were told what to believe, and any variance was not tolerated, I highly recommend this book to you. The author Peter Enns, tells about how he grew up in a Christian environment that was about believing the right things about God, as if knowing the right things was all we need. But his life experiences taught him otherwise.
He writes: A faith that rests on knowing, where you have to know what you believe in order to have faith, is disaster upon disaster waiting to happen. It values too highly our mental abilities. All it takes to ruin that kind of faith is a better argument. And there’s always a better argument out there somewhere.” (p.22) A few lines later he says,
“The problem is trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God.”
Years ago, I went to a mountain-climbing school in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. I spent a week with a guide and one other couple. At the end of the week, I took two extra days to learn rock climbing with my guide. It was just the two of us. We got into some great conversations about faith, but I blew it. This was a phase when I was trying to lean into a new practice of my faith and that is evangelism. Being willing to share my faith with others. No mind you, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it is the deepest level of concern we can show for someone when we are willing to engage them at a spiritual level. The problem is not the activity but the methodology. I felt I needed to give answers.
This person shared about growing up in church but it didn’t work for him. There just wasn’t much room to question. At that point Buddhism was working best. So I tried to be understanding, but I couldn’t help this urge to convince him that he needed to think about faith differently.
I’ll never forget him his look back at me. I could tell the curtain had gone up. I could see him saying in his eyes, “You people are all alike.” I tried to keep correspondence with him after returning home, but is it any surprise he didn’t respond?
Its one of those moments I wish I had over. I wish I would have just listened. Instead of giving answers, I wish I would have shared my own questions and doubts and where I get frustrated in my faith and commend him for his search. Why didn’t I? Because I believed in the idol of certainty. I believed that if you just have the right thoughts about God that’s all that matters. Now believing, understanding, even knowing are important, but you have to be careful, otherwise the emphasis is on us. How well we understand. What we think. And we aren’t perfect. Once we rely on our certainty, we are on unreliable ground.
And certainty can show up in a lot of places. It can show up in religion. It show up in politics where we are certain the way things ought to be. It can show up in our need for control as if feeling that we’re in charge is all we need.
But Pail says different. I don’t think he was fiery mad when he wrote the Philippians. I think Paul was probably grinning as he wrote about all the things he once treasured and said, “I’ve come to consider it a bunch of burning porta-toilets, because in Christ I found what I really need. It isn’t certainty. It’s trust. I have found a trust that doesn’t take away my doubts, my disappointments, my struggles in life, but provides a connection that lets me know that God doesn’t give up on me and is always with me. That’s what I need.
John Kavanaugh was a Jesuit philosopher who went to work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1975. He was searching for an answer to his spiritual struggle. On the first morning there Mother Teresa asked him, “What can I do for you?” Kavanaugh said, “Pray for me.” So Mother Teresa asked, “What do you want me to pray for?” He said, “Pray that I have clarity.” She said, No, I won’t do that.” He asked why and she explained, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”
He said, “But you always seem to have clarity.” She laughed. “I never have clarity. What I’ve always had is trust. So I will pray you have trust.”
Is that what you need today? Trust? Trust in your faith that when you feel challenged to let go of things you’ve always believed are right, doesn’t mean you’re letting go of God. And it definitely doesn’t mean God is letting of you.
Maybe you need trust in a political season when you want to choke people sometimes and ask, “How can you think that way!” And get all worked up over how bad the world will be if an election doesn’t turn out a certain way. Maybe its time to let go and trust that this is my Father’s world…and though the wrong seems oft so strong God is the ruler yet.
Maybe your life has been battered by the year we’ve had and its shaken your faith. You always believed if you live a good life and work hard, then God will look out for you, but that didn’t turn out to be true this year. Maybe you need to let go of trying to make sense of it all and just trust that you are not alone and God is still at work.
Listen to the Message translation of verses 8 and 9: “Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant…I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.”
Let me close with this picture of a group of rafters. (pic) They are on the Nantahala River in North Carolina. I have probably gone down this river dozens of times. I love it because there are calm places where you can beach your raft and go swimming. But there are places where the rapids make you paddle and give you some excitement. But the best is saved for last.
At the very end of the run is a Class 4 rapid. The river shoots you through a significant drop between large boulders. Right before the rapid is an eddy, a whirlpool, that if you don’t approach it right, you get turned sideways and you don’t want to go through the rapid sideways. If you get thrown from the raft and your foot gets caught under a rock, the current is to strong to stand up, and you can drown. There are drownings from time to time.
(pic)But here’s the key, once you are in the rapid and you’ve done everything to approach it right, all you can do is let go and trust that you will get through it. You hold up your paddles and let the river carry you.
This is where some people get in trouble. Fear takes over, and they try to get control. They put the paddle in the water. They think they can control the situation. They want a sense of certainty that they are going to be fine, and that’s what can cause problems.
(pic) Look at this girl. Is that a look of fear or what! But she’s doing it right. The paddle is up and she’s being carried right through it.
If this is any kind of analogy of faith we probably wonder at times why God allows the river to go crazy. Why doesn’t God prevent that and smooth it out. But I’ve come to see that God is like the water that carries us. Sure there are times when the water is calm, and God delights in our being in control and just enjoying Him. But when it is not, when it turns rough, all we can do is let go and trust God to carry us.
We let go of certainty and we find faith.