Text: Philippians 3:4b-14
This morning we continue our look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We’re doing four chapters in four weeks. We are not dwelling on every possible theme – we could spend a few months if we wanted to do that – but looking at a key idea from each chapter. Paul is writing from prison, and in chapter 1, he says, “I am in prison, but I am not the church. Whether I am released or whether I receive a death sentence, either way I am going to be OK. Either way, I have Christ. But it is not about me. We are all the Church, and Christ is with us all. What I want to say to you is, ‘Let the way that you live be worthy of the gospel of Christ.’”
Then In chapter 2, Paul talked about a different way of operating, a way of life that is not about succeeding and winning and achieving and looking out for one’s own self, but a way of humility, of regarding others’ needs and concerns. We are to have the same mind as Christ, who set aside his rightful place of power and became a servant.
So now, we come to the third chapter of this letter. And one of the key ideas of the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is, “Take out the trash.” Seriously. That’s it. Take out the trash.
At our house, taking out the trash is mostly my job. Trash pickup is on Tuesday mornings. So on Monday, sometimes late Monday night because I have put it off or got involved in a football game or maybe just forgotten, I empty the waste baskets, clean out the litter box, and take our trash can out to the curb. It’s a chore, it’s not very glamorous, but it has to be done.
Of course, there are times when cleaning gets ramped up a bit. There are times when the trash can is a little heavier. Zoe moved to Indiana for graduate school in August. She took some of our furniture, we had a garage sale in the middle of all the chaos, and we went through boxes of stuff. We have boxes in our basement that have hardly been open since we moved here. There are clothes that haven’t been worn in some time. There are mementos from college, from high school, that are stored in boxes, and if I am not needing that stuff now I can’t see needing it 10 or 20 years from now. But still, it is hard to throw it out.
I have a box with some cassettes and even a few 8-track tapes, and seeing that I got rid of my last 8-track player 25 years ago, I probably don’t need them. There are board games we haven’t played in years. There are things we hold on to for sentimental reasons, things that belonged to our parents or grandparents. There is stuff we hold on to out of frugalness – we might need it some day and it would be a waste to just throw it away. I might need those scrap 2 x 4’s.
After our garage sale, we took some stuff to Goodwill, we took a lot of stuff to the new thrift store, and I set a couple of desks out by the curb. They were both very usable desks, perfect for students. Nobody wanted to pay $5 or $10 for them at the garage sale but I set them by the curb and they were almost instantly gone.
It felt good to get rid of things, to clear out some of the accumulation. If Susan and Zoe had not been around, I could have got rid of a lot more stuff. And I know that if I had not been around, there are some things of mine that they would not be upset to see disappear.
It is easier for some of us to throw things out than it is for others. We had a work day here at church in the spring and there were differing opinions on what to throw out vs. what to try to give away. But we all have those things that we want to hold on to.
We throw out things that are used up, broken, outdated, unneeded. But there are those times when we willingly throw away things that are valuable. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. A man sees a child drowning and jumps in the water in an expensive suit. He can’t swim with the suit on, so he removes the jacket and tosses it in order to rescue the child. It may be a really nice suit, but compared to the child it’s no contest.
In doing genealogy I found that my great-great-great-great grandfather, John Taylor, is buried in Iowa near Bloomfield, south of our Forest Lake Camp in Ottumwa. This surprised me because everybody in my family for several generations, on both sides, was either born Illinois or landed there. John was born in South Carolina and was one of the earlier settlers in Illinois, but he was buried in Iowa. He and his wife Susannah had 8 children and then she died, still a young woman. He married again, this time to Susan – people in my family apparently are attracted to Susans – and they had 9 more children. Later in life, he and Susan moved with one of his children and their family to southeast Iowa.
I bring this up to mention his grandson, Isaac Taylor. Isaac lived near Springfield, Illinois and was a medical doctor. He was also the clerk of the Christian Church near Springfield where Jacob Donner and his family were members. Isaac wrote letters for the settlers to take with them to recommend them to a church they would join in California. If you are a student of history, you know that the journey of the Donner Party did not go well.
The troubles of the Donner Party were far worse but not unlike those that a lot of pioneers experienced. Your wagon becomes a liability when trying to get through steep mountain passes. Wagon wheels become mired in the mud. Horses and oxen strain to pull the wagons, and they can go no further. And so the leader says, “We’re going to have to unburden the wagons of cargo.” Crying children and women carrying babies have to get out and walk. The piano has to be left behind. Furniture and chests of precious possessions are thrown in the ravine. These are good things, wonderful things, even prized things, but they have to go because there is something more important.
This kind of thing does not happen much nowadays. We pay the movers. We rent a storage unit. As college students we may leave old couches out by the curb, but we do not jettison precious treasures. We don’t throw out heirlooms or valuable, much-loved possessions. So while it may never happen to you, I do want to share another story of someone who threw out what was extremely valuable.
And of course, that man is Paul. He wrote to his friends in what is today northern Greece in the town of Philippi. The town was named for King Philip II of Macedonia, a great ruler, father of Alexander the Great.
Paul writes his friends in the church in Philippi and says, Look, I have a tremendous resume. My identity, my family tree, my genealogy, my connections, my standing in the community, my record of religious service, it is all in the 99th percentile. I am from the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest tribe of Israel – but you know, the first King of Israel, King Saul, was a Benjaminite. I am named for him, and I’m proud of that. As far as denomination, I am a Pharisee. What that means is – we believe the Bible and we follow the Bible. We don’t just play around with religion. I know the scriptures backwards and forwards. Ask my family, ask my friends. I have lived by the scriptures and kept true to God’s teachings.
I take this very seriously. When somebody distorts God’s teachings, tries to weaken the faith of our ancestors, I get upset. I have stood up for God’s truth like nobody else. I follow the Law, I love the scriptures, and to be honest, when it comes to all of this – my standing, my family, my character, my achievements - I could beat anybody in a bragging contest.
And yet, Paul says, I count this all as garbage. I have set it out by the curb. I’m throwing it all out.
Paul is clearly not a man who regrets his past, who is racked with guilt over what he has done. This is not like a new Christian who is being asked to give up terrible habits. “If you are going to be a Christian, you’re going to have to give up lying and cheating and stealing and boozing it up. You’re going to have to lay those down and come to Jesus.” That can be true for some people, but with Paul, there is only good stuff. Faithfulness and commitment and doing the right thing.
And yet, Paul says that he is going to take this past of faithfulness and achievement and just throw it out. “I count all of this as rubbish,” he says.
“Rubbish” is an OK way of rendering the Greek word Paul used – OK because “rubbish” is at least family-friendly. The word skubula really means “dung,” only it is a less-polite way of saying that. I bring this up to say that the flowery language we find in the Bible is not necessarily the way the Biblical writers put things – scripture can be very down-to-earth. But I also mention this because it underscores how strongly Paul is trying to make his point.
His past, his achievements, his successes, his pedigree, his education, his record, his good name, his character – all of these pale next to Christ. The basis of his hope, the basis of his faith, was not in himself or anything he had accomplished – it was in Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.
We can sometimes have a hard time prioritizing. Life is busy. We have all kinds of commitments and involvements. We are good multi-taskers. Many of us juggle numerous tasks and roles. We are family members - parents, grandparents, children, spouses. We are students. We have work lives. We have friendships. We are involved in the community. We are church members.
All of these are important facets of who we are, important pieces of our identity. But even if it does not come through quite as strongly in our English translation of the Bible, Paul is saying that all of this is worth nothing compared to knowing Jesus Christ. Paul sets the order of priority pretty clearly: before anything else, he is a child of God, a servant of Jesus Christ. Before he pursues anything else, he attends to his relationship with Christ.
Today is World Communion Sunday, and Christians around the world will share today at God’s table. We have been following the lectionary readings through Philippians and I had planned to continue in Philippians this morning but thought that it really didn’t have much to do with World Communion Sunday. But on reflection, I think it actually does. Our denomination, our nationality, the style of our worship, whether we meet in a colonial style church in Ames, Iowa, a modernist church building in Osaka, Japan, a great cathedral in Strasbourg, France or a tent in rural Nigeria – none of that really matters. What matters is that we come to God’s table as brothers and sisters in Christ. The rest pales in significance.
Now, Paul had the idea that if you are going to be a Christian, then you should be like Jesus. I know, it’s a crazy concept, but that is what he thought. And so, he says, you load up your pride, your agenda, your personal preferences, you load up all of your degrees and diplomas and awards, you load all of this up and take it out with the trash so that you can be like Jesus. All of that is in the past, behind us; he is pressing forward toward what lies ahead.
But then Paul says, “I don’t mean to imply that I have arrived. I don’t want you to think that I have it all figured out, that I have somehow achieved perfection in all of this. I am still pressing on toward the goal. I am still working at it. I am still striving to be like Jesus, who came from glory but set it all aside to be a servant.”
Well, Paul is a little unusual. You may never meet anyone who takes Jesus as seriously as Paul did. If Paul has not arrived, then we for sure have not arrived. But still – there is that goal, that prize – the call of God in Christ Jesus. It stands before us. And maybe we could stand to take out the trash too. Amen.
I drew inspiration for this sermon from Fred Craddock’s sermon, “Throwing Away the Good Stuff.”