Gain the World, Losing?
A Lenten Sermon by Brent J. Eelman
Preached at Wyoming Valley Presbyterian Church (Wilkes Barre, PA)
February 18, 2018
Philippians 3: 4b-16If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised 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; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,* the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ* and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;* but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved,* I do not consider that I have made it my own;* but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly* call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ The word of the Lord…..
One of the tasks that I undertook, as I prepared to retire, was divesting myself of a rather large professional library. I realized that I could not be hauling a few thousand books around the country with me, and they would not fit in the smaller home we currently live in. Consequently, I made the decision that over a period of two years, I would half my books twice, leaving me with about a ¼ of my library, (the “necessary” volumes needed for preaching). The task was not easy, but it was a very satisfying one, because I made sure that my library went to newly ordained pastors, (many who I ordained when I served as the moderator of Philadelphia Presbytery). The remainder went to seminaries and libraries.
As I was sorting the books, I paged through them and read some of the notes that I made in the margins. Some of the books had papers and parts of sermons folded into them. One book had a most intriguing paper folded into it. It was from the 4th or 5th year of my ministry. It was hand typed, (there were no word processors then). It was done for a young pastor’s workshop of some type.
The paper contained a list of accomplishments that I hoped to attain in my future ministry. I was almost thirty years old. I was newly married and our daughter was not yet on the scene. The list contained professional as well as personal accomplishments that I hoped to realize during my career. I listed the types of churches I wanted to serve. I described the home that I wanted to live in with my wife. I wrote about the type of dog I wanted. I even mentioned the car I thought I should drive. But most of it was professional, focusing on accomplishments that I hoped for in my career as a pastor. It was interesting to read this list over 30 years after the fact. Why?
Because as I went down the list, I realized I had accomplished most of those things. One would think that there would be a great sense of satisfaction from reading my list, but there wasn’t. Instead, there was a kind of inner pathos that came over me. The list seemed so meaningless and superficial as I held it in my hands. In the twilight of my career it occurred to me that yes, I had a pretty good resume….
But a verse from scripture haunted me as I held that paper:
“For what will it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
This was not a harsh self-judgment, but rather a realization that all those things that I thought were so important; those accomplishments into which I put a great deal of time, energy, sweat and tears; all those things were ultimately superfluous.
The words of Isaac Watts’ hymn echoed in my soul:
All the vain things that charm me most….
A lot of luck and a bit of hard work had given me a wonderful career. I had indeed “gained the world” that I wanted. But was this the most important thing or mere vanity?
One of the messages of the Bible, indeed of Jesus, is that we often spend our lives, our time and our energy devoted to things that ultimately do not matter. It is an equal opportunity sin, and clergy, too, are seduced by it. In the words of Jesus to Peter, “we tend to set our minds on human things and not God.”
It is also a temptation for churches too. We go to workshops and learn about “effective churches.” We tend to measure our congregations by the number of members, the size of our programs, the attendance, the buildings, and the reputation that congregations enjoy. Congregations, too, seek to gain the whole world… wanting respect, honor, and presence in a community.
This phenomenon is not without irony. A few years ago, I read about a congregation that decided to remove the cross from its sanctuary and its buildings. Why? The minister explained that it was a “turnoff”. From focus groups he discovered that people did not want to hear about sacrifice and crosses. The cross was an impediment to church growth. Ironically, they put a large globe, the world, where the cross once stood. They had the world…. And lost their soul.
“What profits (a church) to gain the whole world, and lose its soul.”
The soul of a congregation, indeed the soul of the individual Christian is the cross.
We are in the business of “soul-making” not church development.
How do we gain our soul in a world that glorifies that which is ultimately empty and meaningless? We gain our soul by taking up the cross! This is the message of Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We are not about winning and accomplishing.
We are all about losing…. Losing our lives and gaining our souls.
How do we find our own cross? How do we carry it and follow Christ? Congregations I have served have taught me a great deal about this. I am reminded of a woman who at one time had the world by the tail…. Her husband owned a high-tech manufacturing company. They lived in a spacious home in the right neighborhood. They had everything one could want in life… and then lost it all. The high-tech bubble burst, and her husband embezzled funds to keep his company going. He ended up in federal prison. They lost their home, and she had to move to an apartment with her children. She went back to work as a nurse.
At that time our congregation was involved with a health care facility in Guatemala. This woman went on one of our work trips there, serving as a health care screener with some of the physicians from our congregation. Something happened on that trip. She went back again on her own, at her own expense, (which she really did not have.) She went back again, and again. 2 and 3 times a year. In an email to me she remarked, “I have never been happier. I have found peace.”
She lost the world… and yet by giving of herself… she gained her soul. She discovered her cross, and the peace of Christ which passes all understanding.
What is your cross? What is the cross that Christ is calling you to take up? Christ is concerned about your soul and mine… and so he calls us to a life of sacrifice. A life where we give all… and paradoxically discover more.
Christ is also calling Wyoming Valley Presbyterian Church to discover its true cross… The soul of this congregation is found, not in its numbers, its wealth, its beautiful building, nor its influence. No. It is found in its willingness to sacrifice, to help, to minister to others in the name of Christ.
Let me conclude with a final story about my experience sorting books. On the day when I was going through my books, sorting and reminiscing, I came across another book with something that I tucked inside of it. It was a card containing a letter. A member sent this card to me following my departure from my first congregation. The letter recalled an evening when I came to the house of the family.
I was right out of seminary, 25 years old, and serving as an associate pastor. It was a Sunday evening and I was with the youth group when I received a call that an elderly woman in the congregation died. I went to the home to be with the family. This was my first encounter with raw grief. The body was still present. The family was gathered around the table, hurt, bewildered, in sorrow and pain. I joined them at the table… and just sat there. I was hoping for the right words to say… but they didn’t come. And so I sat there in silence for what seemed to be hours. I concluded my visit there with a mumbled prayer, and departed feeling like I had done nothing.. and perhaps this was not my calling. Empty. A failure. A loser.
The thank-you note in the good-bye card recalled that evening with the family, and the daughter wrote, how important and meaningful my presence was that night. Being there was enough. Honest to goodness, I cried when I got the card… and cried again when I read it. Because that is what the cross is all about.
The cross is about giving when you feel you have nothing to give.
The cross is about being with those who are in pain, and feeling the pain and shortcomings of your own humanity.
The cross is about silence… being still when you have nothing to say… and when nothing needs to be said because “the comforter” the spirit Christ promised is present.
I have a nice resume. I accomplished what I wanted in ministry, but in the words of Paul, ”All these things are loss.” But my soul grew in moments like that evening when I entered into the pain of others… It grew when I struggled not knowing the answers nor the words to say. It grew in the silence that allowed the Spirit to speak.
The good news that Jesus proclaims is that these moments, these times, when we are intimate with the cross, are the moments when we are closest to him.
They are the times when our souls are formed and re-formed.
They are times when we experience eternity, but for a moment….
They are the times when the paradox of losing life and gaining it make sense and become the foundation of wisdom.
It is the wisdom of the cross. It is the Good News. Amen.