Forward Thinking

Forward Thinking

beecherPhilippians 3:12-16

by Daniel Harrell

I heard fine reports about David Fisher’s visit last Sunday. Our former Senior Minister, whom I’ve known since our Park Street Church days together in Boston back in the early 90s, enjoyed being back here where he spent so many meaningful years.  Likewise we enjoyed our visit to Brooklyn for my end of our preaching swap. Brooklyn has traded its reputation as a hip-hop borough for a hipster vibe—revealing itself to be the new nexus for the young “eco-conscious, agrarian-seeming, hair-celebrating locavore.” According to one report, a shopper in a Brooklyn boutique fell in love with a pair of leather boots. She asked the salesperson: “Are these locally made?” The salesperson’s reply: “No. They’re made in Manhattan.”

David’s church is not quite all that, but it is remains a fitting place for a Colonial minister to preach. It’s called the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, and while nobody wore buckles on their hats like we do here, Plymouth does have its own piece of the rock: Plymouth Rock, just like ours that sits out on the hearth. Everywhere you turn at Plymouth there’s also tribute to its famous founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, hailed in a recent biography as “the most famous man in America” (antebellum America, that is). Beecher was the first real celebrity preacher, his fiery and flowery sermons filled the broadsheets of his era. Plymouth Church was reportedly the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad; fugitive slaves regularly hid out there on their way to Canada. Beecher regularly held mock slave auctions in church, raising enough money to purchase freedom for enslaved Africans.

Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman all came to hear him, with Mark Twain describing Beecher’s style: as “sawing arms in the air, howling sarcasms this way and that, discharging rockets of poetry and exploding mines of eloquence, halting now and then to stamp his foot three times in succession to emphasize a point.” The vast, ornate sanctuary (by Congregational standards) sits close to 2000 and the pulpit was the same one Beecher used. Statues and portraits adorn the hallways and gardens, and in the sanctuary windows stained glass venerations of Beecher’s deeds were installed after his death, competing with Jesus himself, all contributing to the sense that the church is still haunted by Beecher’s ghost, appropriate, perhaps, to this Holy Ghost Sunday we call Pentecost.

To haunt means to “be persistently and disturbing present,” which aptly depicts the first Pentecost. Technically I should say the first Christian Pentecost since Pentecost itself is an ancient Jewish feast celebrating the spring harvest. Also called the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost (meaning fiftieth) occurs fifty days after Passover (that’s seven weeks plus one day, seven days being the signal for creation and an eighth day being the classic Biblical depiction of heaven). Pentecost, along with Passover and Tabernacles, was one of three Jewish feasts that required traveling to Jerusalem, so crowds from all over the Jewish world were gathered to celebrate.

In the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples were there too, when suddenly the Holy Ghost became “persistently and disturbingly present” first by a mighty wind (wind being a Hebrew synonym for spirit), followed by fire (a symbol of power) shaped like tongues (a symbol of speech). Haunted by the Holy Ghost, the disciples blew out onto the streets, creating a holy disturbance for the gathered Jewish pilgrims. The crowds couldn’t believe what they heard—rube Galilean fishermen speaking in their own native languages. But the crowds did believe what they said—and some 3000 turned to Jesus that day to be harvested. The church was born as the gospel spread to the whole world.

The apostle Paul encountered the Holy Ghost on his way to Damascus. He was on a mission to destroy all these new Christians when Jesus burned him into one too. Paul launch a whole New Testament full of churches, including the one at Philippi, to which he wrote the letter we read from this morning. Philippians contains many memorable verses that define our faith, and I’ve spent these Sundays since Easter focused on those “most likely to be cross-stitched” since so many have. This morning’s notable verses follow after another cross-stitched set we looked at two Sundays ago. I once saw them cross-stitched and appropriately hung over a toilet. Writing of his own vaunted accomplishments and success as a Pharisee, Paul nevertheless concluded that “whatever I gained, I now regard as a load of (literal) crap for the sake of gaining Christ.” On that Damascus Road, Jesus had condemned Paul not for his wickedness as a Pharisee, but for his goodness. Paul’s pretentious reliance on his credentials had paved his road to perdition. “I now count it all garbage,” Paul wrote, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things so that one way or another, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

“Not that I have already attained this,” he quickly adds in our verses this morning. “I haven’t yet reached my goal,” or as other translations put it, “I’m not perfect,” which may come as a relief to us all. Except that unlike most people, Paul doesn’t use imperfection as an excuse. It’s his motivation. “I press on to be perfect,” he writes, working out his salvation “with fear and trembling” as he phrased it back in chapter 2. Is Paul saying that grace still takes effort? Yes, but not to attain. Grace has never been a reward for good deeds. But grace is the fuel of a righteous life. The grace that saves is the grace that motivates us to live lives worthy of it. As fuel, the grace that motivates also empowers. “Work out your salvation” Paul wrote, “understanding that God is doing all the work.” It’s the Holy Ghost inside us making righteousness happen. “I press on to obtain what Jesus has already obtained for me,” Paul explains, “though I do not consider myself to have attained it yet.”

OK, so language is still a little confusing. And analogies are hard to come by. Paul tries a racing analogy. “Forgetting what is behind (both his successes and failures, his pride and his guilt) and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is Paul’s finish line, but he’s the starting gate too. This only adds to the confusion. And I’ll admit I’m not much for racing analogies since the last race I ran had me coming in dead last. How about adding a wedding analogy since Paul uses these elsewhere too. It’s easy for couples in the throes of wedding planning to treat racing down the aisle as finally crossing a finish line. But if you’re already married, you know that by getting married you’re just getting started. That’s OK, because you soon find that loving somebody enough to marry them only makes you want to know them more. And the more you know the more you love. I think that’s what Paul means here. Knowing Christ made Paul want to know Christ more. It kept him running his race—even though he’d already won!

Another illustration that I like to use to explain this passage comes from snow skiing (which is OK since it snowed two weeks ago and Dawn and I still needed long underwear at Target Field on Friday night). I like to use skiing to explain this passage, but not because I’m a better skier than I am a runner (or a husband for that matter). Being a bad skier is actually what makes this analogy work. My favorite part of any ski trip is hanging out in the lodge at the end of a long day on the slopes, sitting by the fire and drinking hot chocolate. The last time I did skied (which was the last time I skied–in New Hampshire some years ago), I’d spent most of the day zipping down intermediate blue trails, succeeding just enough to delude myself into thinking I was ready for black diamond. I reserved the expert trail for the end, fully anticipating a triumphant descent and my fitting reward of hot chocolate by that roaring fire in the ski lodge once I gracefully reached bottom. However, once on that black diamond precipice, my complete lack of skill was totally exposed. I tried to translate my nifty blue trail maneuvers to this much steeper hill, but after a couple of lame efforts, I fell flat on my back, which most times would have meant would have meant simply getting back up, but this time, with the cliff coated in hard New England ice, and I in my slick nylon coated parka and pants, I couldn’t get up because I couldn’t stop. Screaming and swirling and flailing, I spun and slid all the way down the mountain not stopping until I reached the base of the hill, a few yards from the steps of the lodge, after which I got up, went inside and drank my hot chocolate.

This is my point: whether on my feet or my butt, for better or worse, one way or another, I still made it to the lodge. Holy Ghost gravity hauled me home. Pentecost guarantees that even Christians who are bad at being Christians still make it down the mountain.

You may remember my sharing with you a story last fall about being considered for an excellent job opportunity in one of my favorite cities (I mean, besides Minneapolis). I was flown in for interviews which I thought went tremendously well, and I left excited and confident about what I was sure would be a fabulous fit. Like Paul, I had proudly relied on my impeccable credentials and accomplishments, which I presumptuously figured made me a shoo-in for this new position. Instead, I soon received my rejection letter with the requisite “so many qualified candidates” blather leaving me both dejected and resentful. Then came a phone call. It was my rejecters calling me again. Had they recognized their error? Had they reconsidered their ill-fated decision? Had my creamy resume risen back to the top? Hardly. No, they just called to ask me to be a reference for their preferred candidate—a good friend of mine whose name (unbeknownst to him and with whom I have chuckled about this during the ensuing years) I had submitted as a personal reference for me.

Of all the nerve! They wanted to know from me if there was any reason they shouldn’t hire my friend for my job. Now was my chance to bring some even distribution to the unfairness of life. While I couldn’t come up with any real reasons not to hire my friend, I probably could make up a few. Since I couldn’t have this job, why should anybody?

What I didn’t tell you last fall was that the job was Senior Minister of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn. When we arrived there last weekend, their Associate Minister who greeted us introduced himself by telling me he had been on the Search Committee that rejected me. “I remember you so vividly,” he announced, which obviously was not a good thing given the outcome. Then to my horror, he went on to say how he had been the one who called me about the reference for David Fisher. And then he told me he’d never forgotten what I said. Well, this was just great. So much for “forgetting what lies behind and pressing on.” How do you forget what’s behind when it gets thrown back in your face ten years later? I braced myself to be scolded for my past pettiness and petulance. Humiliated afresh for my former bitterness. Clearly this guy had known how awkward I felt then. Why did he even let David use me as a reference? And why bring it up now? Must we relive that embarrassing nightmare?! I’m supposed to be your guest preacher this weekend!

“I’ll never forget what you said,” this Associate Minister remarked. I closed my eyes for the shameful impact. “You immediately replied what a great choice we’d made and how you couldn’t imagine anyone more perfect for the position. I thought that was so gracious and honorable of you, given the circumstances. We hired David right afterwards.” Really? I said that? You thought that? About me? Pathetic and petty me? Seriously? Wow, talk about sliding down the hill on my butt: I skidded right into that lodge. I came in last place and still won the race! Holy Ghost gravity pulled me all the way home.

If you recall the Pentecost story, you’ll remember Jesus’ disciples as a pretty pathetic bunch too: betrayers and deniers, cowardly deserters of their Lord at the one moment he could have used their help. Left to die, unjustly executed on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead and came looking for them, only to find them still hiding out in fear of the authorities. Though maybe they were now scared of him. Jesus showed himself risen, and forgave them their sins, but that only eased their fear enough for them to go back to their old fishing jobs. So Jesus showed up yet again, and prodded them on to Jerusalem to start spreading the gospel, but they only made it so far as a hotel room still too scared to say a word to anybody. But with the Holy Ghost gravity, even these disciples who were bad at being Christians still got down the mountain. They got down onto the streets, finally opened their mouths and changed the world.

The Holy Ghost got me through my sermon last Sunday too, despite the ghosts of the past and Henry Ward Beecher haunting me from every corner. One of the many things I like about the Pentecost story is how in the crowds each heard the gospel in their own native language. We tend to attribute this to a miracle of speech, but it was also a miracle of hearing; a miracle that still happens and not only in Pentecostal churches. Often on Sundays after I preach somebody will thank me for saying what they needed to hear. When I ask what it was, they will relay words I never actually spoke. That’s the Holy Ghost gravity, translating one set of words into a language of healing and help. Just like when my words of disappointment and bitterness somehow were heard as enthusiastic endorsement.

I preached my Prodigal Son sermon last Sunday and afterwards a young hipster greeted me at the back of the church. He was wearing lipstick—which may be a Brooklyn thing—but it also made me wonder whether he might be somebody’s own prodigal son. Perhaps he heard me say how the father’s irresponsible love of his son in the parable is the same as God’s love for us, but I don’t know. He didn’t say what he heard. He just stood there in silence with tears in his eyes, and I knew one way or another, for better or worse, Holy Ghost gravity would pull him home too.