Isaiah 43: 16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
As a father of three boys, I have heard numerous colorful and creative ways to describe the act of…pooping. It’s hard to say that with a straight face on Sunday morning. As a toddler, one of my boys created a new term for poop, he called it “dope.” If I had reason to suspect that he needed a diaper change, I wouldn’t ask him if there was poop in his diaper, but instead ask if there was any “dope.” He would usually offer two responses: “dope, dad” which I am still unclear about if it was intended as an insult or meant he needed a new diaper. If he said, “no dope” that meant, “we’re good.
This is a strange way to begin a sermon, I admit. The reason I do so, is because in today’s reading from Philippians, dope, poop, excrement, or whatever you may call it is mentioned. Although, you would be hard pressed to find the word, because another word is used in its place. Why? I will answer that question, but first a very short introduction on Philippians.
The Apostle Paul likely wrote Philippians as a letter to Christians living in Philippi, a Roman province in modern day Greece. Scholars believe that Paul wrote this letter while doing time in a Roman jail. Roman jails were not known for their hospitality. Paul is in jail because of publicly supporting a Jewish insurrectionist named Jesus of Nazareth.
In today’s excerpt from this letter, Paul presents all his qualifications - his resume – everything that qualifies him to be an apostle. There seems to be a ton of bravado here, and at first glance Paul’s arrogance seems really of putting. Paul says “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more, circumcised on the eighth day (that was the day to be circumcised according to Leviticus 12:3) a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (really good tribe that included Jerusalem), a Hebrew born of Hebrews (he’s basically saying that he is the best Hebrew, ever) as to the law, a Pharisee (the Pharisees were the in-group in Jerusalem) as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. You hear Paul’s self-description and at least I think “what a pompous, arrogant, jerk.”
But then Paul does something unexpected. All that self-praising he says about himself, all the “I’m so great,” stuff he calls rubbish. At least that’s the word we hear today, but that is not the word Paul wrote. The word “rubbish” is unfortunately a very polite translation of the Greek word skybala, which means human excrement.
Now, in my very experience, a person doesn’t just decide one day that the external qualifiers that they once were defined by and once valued (like money, like a job, like status, like the kind of home you live in or the kind of car your drive). A person doesn’t just go to bed one night loving all those things, and the next morning wake up and say that they skybala. I think something big must happen to change your perspective. And that something for Paul, I believe, was meeting Jesus for the first time. I think that Paul’s encounter with Jesus must have been so powerful for Paul, that it literally changed his perspective on everything. All the stuff he thought was so valuable – status, prestige, respect – he now calls crap, and he and seems more content without all of it, residing in a filthy Roman prison cell because he met Christ. Author Richard Rohr would perhaps call Paul’s story a Falling Upwardmoment.
Not too long ago, I listened to a retired local sports celebrity speak about their life. Like Paul, this person has checked all the boxes that would indicate a life defined by success. Respected career, notoriety, tens of thousands of athletic jerseys sold with this person’s name on the back of them, big fancy house. All those things, which were once so valuable, I heard this person, like Paul, call all of it rubbish. Like today’s reading from Philippians, that’s not the actual phrase this person used to describe those things. But you get the idea.
Here again, what changes in a person’s life that causes them to see highly sought after and valued things now as rubbish? For this athlete, it is the story of a recovery from a demoralizing and crippling substance addiction. Now clean, this person says that what is most important to them is not all the stuff – the trophies, the records, the recognition. What matters most to this athlete today is that they came to rely and trust that God would lead them to sobriety. And it is that relationship with God and the peace of mind that comes from that rather than a chemical, that today this athlete would gladly trade in every trophy, record, and jersey sold. The relationship with God is that precious.
What do you value most in your life? Easter is coming. Our Lenten pilgrimage is drawing to a close. It is time to clean house, get rid of the rubbish in your life, and make room for resurrection. AMEN.