Friday, September 13, 2013

Sermon: "No, you can't."

This is something like the sermon I gave last night at the Thursday night healing service at American University. The text is Philippians 4:10-20. I had a hard time landing the plane on this one, but these things happen:

I suck at to-do lists.

I’m seriously the worst at them. First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever actually completed a to-do list in my life. I write them, and then I add to them, and most of the time I add something just to cross it off so that I feel like I’m doing something. But the list keeps getting longer.

Then, I forget to even look at my to-do lists. And then I lose them, so I have to start new ones.

Needless to say, to-do lists do not actually help me organize my life very much.

Now this is a shame, because like most of us—if not all of us—I sort of have a lot to do. And since I’m not good at to-do lists, and I sort of suck at calendars too, it’s pretty common for me to forget to do something. To forget a homework assignment, or a church gig, or a birthday. Oh gosh. Is it any of your birthdays? I’m so sorry. I’m happy you were born.

Anyway, this is all very troubling, because I—and my guess is, many of you—grew up learning that it was very important for me to Do Things. My identity is wrapped up in the things I accomplish. When people ask me about myself—this is, by the way, particularly true in DC—I tell them where I’m a student, where I work—what I do. I don’t necessarily share with them what I believe. I don’t tell them that I believe that love runs the world despite all evidence to the contrary, that Jesus is someone worth following, or even that I like cheese. I think people would just look at me sort of funny. I give them some pertinent points from my resume.

What’s more, I—and, I guess again, many of you—have grown up being taught that I can do anything that I set my mind to. We’re Millennials—sorry Mark—and so the world is at our fingertips. No Generation X cynicism for us. We can be President. Run an NGO. Start an innovative new company. And we’re going to get around to doing all that as soon as we graduate with our high GPA and our monumental list of extracurricular activities and internships.

Well, I have good news for all of us who are living with huge to-do lists. We can get everything done! We can accomplish it all! I know this to be the truth because the Bible says it, in a verse that gets posted on Facebook walls and printed on coffee mugs and bumper stickers. Right there, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it says it—a verse that’s familiar to anyone who has a bit of immersion experience in Christian culture. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

That’s a relief, right? With Christ on your side, you can do all things. You can accomplish everything.

Here’s the thing. I’m saying this to Paul, and to you: No you can’t.

You can’t do everything.

I’m really sorry. It’s just not possible.

My to-do list is too damn long for me to get to everything and still take care of myself. If I go at this thing like I can do it all, I’m destined for a big crash. And I’ve already some of those. I don’t want another one.
So I want to take a look at this commonly quoted verse, and the passage around it, and see if we can glean some sort of truth about it that isn’t just an affirmation that our stressed-out, anxiety-packed, to-do list driven lives are the way things are supposed to be.

It’s first of all worth noting that Paul is not saying that we can do everything on our own steam. We need God in our lives—the God who empowers us and makes us whole. But we’re not so good at figuring out the practical implications of that. Does that mean that if I pray over my to-do list it will all happen? Does that mean that as a Christian I can accomplish more stuff than my non-Christian friends? The problem, of course, is that I look at my life and know that it’s just not true. My prayer or my faith doesn’t necessarily make me more productive. In fact, I hope that by the end of this sermon, you might agree with me that faith might make me less productive, at least in the sense that we usually understand it.

So, back to square one. I’m a good seminarian, so when I get stuck in a corner with a verse I head to different translations to see if I can squirrel my way out. And in fact, there’s some interesting stuff going on here in the Greek. We heard this passage tonight from the New Revised Standard Version, which is the translation we like to use over at Wesley Seminary. But the Common English Bible, the translation that we use here at Kay on Sunday nights, says this: “I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.” In Greek the key word here is is-khoo-o. It means, “to be strong,” or, “to have power.”
Now that’s something different from being able to DO all things. That’s not about getting my to-do list finally accomplished or adding another line to my resume. Enduring or having strength or power, that’s about making it through, surviving, knowing that the Spirit of Christ is with me, accompanying me, standing in solidarity with my struggles. That’s certainly a comforting thought.

But it doesn’t actually get me out of this bind I’m in with this popular verse, because the idea that we can endure all things if we have Jesus is a bit of a problem in itself. If you’ve been around in this community for a while you might remember the sermon that Mark gave last year, challenging that popular piece of Christian advice, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I understand this sermon achieved recent Reddit fame. The problem with “I can endure all things” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” is, of course, that we know people who are not enduring all things, who in fact seem to have more than they—than we—can handle. I learned recently that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. That more than 1,000 students kill themselves annually, and that something like 1 in 10 college students have had a plan for suicide at one time or another during their time in college. Those stats keep me up at night. What do we, as a Christian community, have to offer to people who are hurting and alone, who feel like they’re drowning?

Surely something different than telling them to just lean on Christ and they can endure anything. Surely that’s not the Christian response. What about all the people who seem not to be able to endure? What do we say to them, to their families? Surely this verse from Philippians isn’t enough.

And it isn’t. It isn’t enough. Not on its own. Which is why I had us read a larger chunk of this passage, not just the verse that we like to put on coffee mugs. See, what Paul is doing here is thanking the community in Philippi for their support in a time of violence and persecution—their prayer support, yes, but also their literal material support, their financial gifts and their companionship. Paul says that he’s not thanking them because he really needs anything, but you know what, Paul? I think you’re wrong. I know, I know. We’ve had this conversation before. But you’re not always right, Paul, and I’m calling you out on this one. You did need the support that the Philippians gave you. You don’t actually think we can do this Christian journey thing on our own. I know that to be true, because the only times you write to individuals instead of communities, you are writing to the leaders of communities. All of your writing, all of your theology, happens in deeply communal contexts. I know that we need each other, that we can’t do things, that we can’t endure things, on our own. I know this from experience, but I also know because you’ve taught me that, Paul.

But even as a community, we can’t do everything. Part of coming to understand the good news about grace, about God’s gratuitous love for us, is realizing that we are limited. That this life is not about what we can accomplish, but rather about what God accomplishes in us and in the midst of our community.

This is Methodist Heritage Week, so I can’t finish this sermon without putting a little bit of Methodist founder John Wesley in here. One of the distinctive characteristics of Wesleyan theology is an idea called total sanctification, or Christian perfection. Wesley didn’t come up with this idea, but he emphasized it in his preaching and teaching. The idea is that if salvation is about more than getting to heaven when we die, if it is actually about the healing and redemption of our whole lives; if God’s grace is active in our lives, transforming us; then we can reach a state where we have been healed, transformed, freed from the brokenness and alienation of the human mess.

Now, when I first heard this idea, I hated it. It seemed to counter to everything I believed about grace. We are all a bit of a mess. We all have hurting and broken parts. None of us is perfect, and, contrary to how I have often acted, I don’t think we should try to be. So I pretty much rejected this idea of Christian perfection.

But I had the chance to take a class on United Methodist theology this summer, and I got to explore this idea more. I really have come to love it. First of all, it really shouldn’t be called “perfection.” The concept is more like “maturity” or “wholeness.” Wesley taught that we would always make mistakes, we could always get sick or fall down. But what he was talking about was growth in love. That tomorrow, by the grace of God, I can wake up and love a bit better than I did today. That God’s grace can have a real effect on me and the community that I am part of, growing us together in love.

And I love this idea. Because I think “Christian Perfection” can actually save us from the worldy perfection that so many of us are striving for. The idea that we can do it all and we can do it all correctly and that we can excel at everything that we do. That that’s the goal of our lives, to achieve and to accomplish and to do it all perfectly.

Wesley would reject that, and I think Paul would, too. I think they’d argue that growth in love trumps a growing resume. Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruits of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.”

Richer in love. Aware of what really matters. Sincere. Filled with the fruits of justice, which come from God. Able to give glory and praise. And all this by the grace of God. There’s a to-do list, and one that we will not accomplish on our own.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in you all. I think God is going to do incredible things through you. I think the world will be a better place because of the amazing work that you will do. But you can’t do it all, and you shouldn’t try, and at the end of the day it’s love, not achievement, that matters.

So this semester, I’m quitting a few things. I’m dropping a class, and doing this a bit slower than I had intended. I’m backing out of a campus leadership position that a lot of people asked me to take, because it’s just not helping me grow in love to overload my schedule.  

Friends, the good news is not that you can do everything. The good news is that you don’t have to do everything. That God’s grace, not our frenzied activity, is central. That we are not alone, not isolated atomized units trying to accomplish the world, but a community bound together by God’s love.

Soon, we will gather together around this table. And we will do something so remarkably simple that it, if we think about it, sounds quite silly. We will take a small piece of bread and dip it in a bit of juice and call it a feast. And, in so doing, we will again experience what it is like to be part of a body, a community that shares life with one another. We will experience what it is like to not have to do everything, because that which is most important is being done in us and through us by a gracious God. And that, I think, is very good news indeed. 

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