Paula Northwood September 1, 2019
Scripture Philippians 2:12–18
“The Lanyard,” by Billy Collins, is one of my favorite poems because it reminds me that I, too, can get self-congratulatory and remind God, the creator of the universe, of my good work, and, as with that little lanyard, I think that makes us even. It’s wrong on so many levels. First, a mother’s love, as in God’s love, does not require that one tries to do things to earn that love. And second, because the sacrifices of love cannot be paid back, all our heartfelt gestures will be fall short. But the paradox is that the only way we can show our gratitude is by our actions and behaviors.
Last Sunday, Karl Jones invited us to think about the balance between all the needs of the world and our response to it. As he said, it’s complicated. A person can literally work oneself to death and not have made much impact on all the needs of the world.
It reminds me of those moments when I reflect on the end of life and wonder: How will I be remembered? There were three friends from the local congregation who were asked, “When you’re in your casket, and friends and congregation members are mourning over you, what would you like them to say?” One said, “I would like them to say I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader and a great family man.” Another said, “I would like them to say I was a wonderful teacher and a hard worker who made a huge difference in people’s lives.” The last one said, “I’d like them to say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”
Today we find ourselves in the middle of a weekend when we celebrate Labor. I think it is a good thing to celebrate the work that we do by taking a holiday. It’s good to remember those who have gone before us who worked for labor laws and the rights of workers. It is good for us to be reminded of wage inequalities and be encouraged to work for equality.
But this is a worship service, a moment in our week when we listen, pay attention to the sacred, to the mystery of all that is God. This morning I invite us to think about the work that we are called to do—not in a vocational sense but in a spiritual sense. In our Philippians text, we have the invitation to work out our salvation. What does that mean?
Salvation in modern, evangelical terms is often described as being saved from our sins by the death of Jesus. Sometimes it is closely associated with “going to heaven.” That is not how we would define salvation. In the Bible, salvation is more often defined as liberation. In our Hebrew scriptures, it is liberation from economic, political and religious bondage. In our Christian scriptures, it is liberation from fear, sickness and injustice. Marcus Borg writes about salvation as twofold: the transforming of ourselves and of the world through liberation.
The spiritual work we are called to do is this kind of transformation. It’s liberation from all that keeps us in bondage. It’s a liberation from that which keeps us from wholeness and from healing the wounds of our existence. For white people, it can be liberation from the forms of racism we perpetuate. For others, it can take the form of liberation from oppression. For others, liberation from addictions. For many of us, it is the liberation from our own egos that otherwise keep us stuck and fragmented.
In the scriptures, we find people making excuses for not doing this kind of transformational work: like the rich young lawyer who turned from Jesus because he was not willing to give up his attachment to wealth . . . or the Pharisee and Sadducees who turned from Jesus because of their obsession to the law . . . or the Priest and Levite from the Good Samaritan parable who walk on by and leave the wounded Samaritan in the ditch. They all have their reasons, their excuses. But Jesus doesn’t respond to their reasons, because their reasons don’t ultimately matter. All that matters in these stories is what they do or, often, don’t do. In the Good Samaritan, they see the wounded and pass by; they see the need and do not respond. Whatever else they think, say, or believe, this is what they actually do, and it falls short. Excuses do not transform the soul. Changing behavior is what counts.
The next few verses in our text encourage us to refrain from grumbling, complaining and bickering. You may have heard the story about the man who entered a monastery, and the head monk said, “Brother, this is a silent monastery, you are welcome here as long as you like, but you may not speak until I direct you to do so.” So the man lived in the monastery for a full year before the head monk said to him: “Brother you have been here a year now, you may speak two words.” The Brother said: “Hard bed.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” the head Monk said. “We will get you a better bed.”
The next year, the Brother was called by the head monk. “You may say another two words.”
“Cold food,” said the Brother, and the head monk assured him that the food would be better in the future. On his third anniversary at the monastery, the head monk again called the Brother into his office. “Today you may say another two words.” “I quit.” said the Brother. “Well, it is probably best,” said the head monk. “All you have done since you got here is complain.”
In our text, we don’t know what was going on with the new church in Philippi, but there was some conflict; they were struggling and complaining about it. Paul writes to encourage them, “Be energetic in working out your salvation, your spiritual life, your liberation from whatever is holding you back! That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God is working in you, and it gives God pleasure.”
You know the right answer to what work God has called you to do! Go out into the world pure and uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Shine like stars in the universe as you hold up the light-giving message.
The Benedictine monk Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. . . . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely . . . I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”
The work we are called to do: Shine like a billion points of light!
If you want to shine, tap into that inner light . . . fast, pray, study sacred texts, put aside your ego, give to all who ask of you, and work for justice and peace. Go out into the world—near enough to see and be seen, near enough to feel, near enough to recognize a neighbor in someone who needs a neighbor—near enough to get your hands dirty. Do this and you will live, Jesus says. Throw your body into it and you may even find that your question about your life’s work is not such a burning question for you anymore—because the minute God’s word becomes flesh in you, heaven is where you are.
Theologian Karen Armstrong writes that compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves and impelling us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others, to dethrone ourselves from the center of the world and put another there, to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody—without exception—with absolute justice, equity and respect. She adds that it is about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you hints of mystery and the sacred. It’s not about overworking but behaving in a way that changes you. We often put a negative spin on the word “behaving” and think “misbehaving.” How have you been behaving lately? Are you behaving in ways that give life or suck the life out of you?
As God presents us with opportunities to work out our salvation, as God works in us, we will no longer be able just to see and walk on by or think kind thoughts or send prayers from a distance. We will know the work we are called to do as spiritual work. We will have to stop, set aside our egos, come near, and find ourselves filled with love and compassion for the least of these. And when that happens, God’s word will become flesh in us, and we will become liberated people of God. May it be so. Amen.