Taking the Kingdom of God away

Proper 22 (27) - October 4, 2020
- Isaiah 5:1-7
- Psalm 80:7-15
- Philippians 3:4b-14
- Matthew 21:33-46

Taking the Kingdom of God away

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

When we first got married, I wanted to buy a house so badly.  I kept finding places that I thought we could afford.  I was saving everything little bit of money that I could for a downpayment.  I wanted this because this was what I was told, from my childhood, was my destiny as an successful person.  Successful people buy houses.  Really successful people buy bigger houses.  Successful people go to college.  Really successful people go to grad school. Successful people take out car loans.  Successful people get the platinum credit cards that have that mirror finish.  Successful people go on lavish trips in order to treat themselves for all their hard work.  When I was 27 years old, I had just spent the last 8 years of my life working my butt off to get through school and I was determined do the next successful thing—buy a house.  But we just didn’t have the money and my wife wasn’t ready.  So begrudgingly, I  waited a year to see what might happen with Diane’s call and see if she could find another part-time call.  Once she did get another part time call, we were ready.  I was excited.  I called a real estate agent and we set out to find the perfect property.  This beautiful, little farmette right off 134.  Beautiful piece of land with a barn, cool old house.  We looked at a bunch of other houses before this one, but we knew this was the one.  It was at the very top of our budget, but we could afford it on paper.  Eventually, after spending 1,000 dollars, we learned that the house was caving in on itself and we backed out of the deal.  But, we were undeterred (mostly).  We eventually found a beautiful house in downtown Bonneauville, PA—where the Hardware store also doubled as a grocery story.  Finally, I could cross off that next thing on my list that successful people do—we bought our first house.

And we loved that house, and that house was fairly new.  But homeownership was not what we expected.  It was, quite frankly, annoying most days.  Every weekend, I was doing a project around the house.  The people at Ace Hardware knew my name because I was there so much—and I had a newer house.  It was at that moment that started to realize this list of things successful people do that I had been taught by society was not really true.  

You know, I have met a lot of really successful people who never stepped foot onto a university campus.  You have met them too.  Think about all those electricians, plumbers, carpenters, builders,  who we depend on to make the stuff we depend on to work.  I was told by my high school teachers that the only way I could make it in life was to go to a four year college.  “Don’t worry about the price tag, just take out the loans.  They are worth it.” That was horrible, horrible advice. And it has taken me a long time to learn that what society tells you is a mark of success is really not.  

What is a true mark of success?  Paul had a similar experience.  Paul rambles off, yet again, things he use to find pride in claiming: “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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” This was where he found his success.  Yet, he says in the very next verse, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” “We see here that Paul considers himself to be living in a state of in-between-ness. He is trapped or suspended in the middle of a journey. The longing for arrival is strong, but what he has in front of him is the journey. He can only press on, stay the course.”

Now, we must be careful in how we read and understand these words from Paul. “To be clear, it is not his Jewishness that he considers as “rubbish” (verse 8), but the “gains” that he mentions in verse 7. The idea that he is blameless, that he has achieved his goal, that he has arrived, is rubbish.”  The idea is that Paul abandons his particularistic Jewish background and consider it as “rubbish” for the sake of a universalist Christian identity is deeply problematic for being supersessionist—the idea that the New Covenant Jesus made with his disciples replaces the covenant God made with Abraham. And for anyone who thinks that is the case, that is a scary and terrifying proposition—you are saying then, that God breaks promises.  Does that mean if we don’t act in a way or believe in a way that God wants us, will God break our covenant made between us and Jesus, and find another group of people more worthy?

That is not what Paul is saying at all.  In reality, Paul seems to understand himself and his life as an ongoing process. His existence is in between “what lies behind” and “what lies ahead” (verse 13). Think of Paul standing in the middle of a staircase.  He is neither at the top of the stair case (the next floor) or at the bottom.  He is simply in between.  He is neither up nor down.  “In other words, every identity (religious identity, ethnic identity, racial identity, gender identity, and whatnot) is a play, a dance, in between this binary of beginning and end/goal.”  Paul finds success in the fact that his work is never done—he is successful because he keeps climbing the stairs. Stopping, for Paul, is a dangerous thought because Paul remembers what happened years before when he did stop?  “The moment someone declares that they have arrived at an end, such rhetoric can turn into a violent negation. That is precisely what Paul did. He was “a persecutor of the church” because he thought that he was “blameless” (verse 6). Again, retrospectively, he looks back and says that this behavior, this way of thinking, is rubbish.”

If we are to know Christ, as Paul came to know Christ, then we must live in way that prevents us from settling down think we have made it.  We need get out of the habit of saying, “there is nothing more for me to learn as a Christian, I learned it all when I was confirmed.” Or “I don’t need to pray, someone else will take care of praying for me and my needs.” When we allow our past successes to define our future, we suddenly get off the staircase, the stairway, and will never get back on.  We will fall back into our old ways, our old misunderstandings, and we will be like Paul use to be—the guy who was always right and everyone who disagreed with him must be destroyed.  

We need to stop listening to what the world says is the marking of of success and look to our Lord for success.  To know Christ is to live on a staircase—constantly climbing and never there just yet. It is to realize that no one has arrived yet—that settling down as a Christian is either a sign of premature death. And while death might be the end goal so that we can live and be with Christ, Paul reminded us in the first chapter “While dying is far better, living is “more necessary” because the community, this community, depends on you and your presence.  Just as the church in Philippi depended on Paul living as long as possible, we also depend on you to do the same—each and everyone one you.

So, do not stop climbing the stairs this day.  Keep taking one step at time and if you find yourself stuck, if you find yourself feeling and looking a lot like Paul did before his experience on the road to Damascus, know there is healing and forgiveness here in this community.  The church forgave Paul, a persecutor of the church.  We can forgive you as well.  

Keep climbing.  Keep taking that next step. Everyone is on a journey, in the process of making.  You are not alone.  You will never be alone.  We got you. Our Lord has you and until that day you are called to be with the Lord, (END) never stop climbing up those stairs 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

 

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