Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21/Philippians 2:4b-14
Title: “Rearranging the Price Tags”
You don’t have to have a degree in sociology or social psychology to qualify as a student of human behavior. All that is needed is an inquiring mind.
I count myself a student of human behavior, not necessarily a particular perceptive one, but I can draw not very original conclusions about the things I see as well as the next person. One laboratory, I, the student of human behavior, particularly value as source material for my not very original conclusions about human behavior is the swimming pool at Parkpoint, the fitness center I belong to.
Ever watch people enter a pool? There are three basic approaches I have witnessed. First, there is the “plunger,” the guy or gal who approaches the lip of the pool, and without hesitation, plunges in. There is the “ledge sitter,” this is the person who sits on the edge of the pool, lowers his or her feet and legs into the pool and sits there for a minute or two before slowly, tentatively, lowering his or her body into the water. The third approach falls in between the two I just identified. The person I will refer to as the “tweener” doesn’t hesitate but lowers her body over the edge very slowly, balls of the feet supporting the body until she is ready to lunge forward and take the first stroke.
Those observations on the table, I will move on to my larger point. The plunger in the larger scheme of things is likely to be decisive and quick to a conclusion, is liable to see things as black and white with very little gray. This is a generalization, I know, but one that I think is supportable overall.
He might be regarded as a person inclined to risk, viewing risk as the way to the most generous reward. He is likely to be outspoken, and because he is committed to what he knows, or thinks he knows, he will not equivocate when opportunity presents itself to share what he knows. The plunger is not a person likely to back down in an argument.
The ledge sitter is a different breed. Hesitant to act without good information, I see the ledge sitter as being a person who likes to mull things over, and examine a question from many different angles. The ledge sitter is the kind of person who in a meeting will typically point out the one inconvenient issue everyone else has overlooked. The motto of the ledge sitter is “slow will get me there soon enough.”
OK, the tweener is a hybrid of the two types I just described. Assertive, but not overly so. Deems information important, but is willing to act on less of it than our ledge sitter. The tweener will attempt to reign in the plunger when he advocates speed over caution, but he will be impatient when the ledge sitter enters yet another qualification or consideration to delay a decision.
The plunger, the ledge sitter, and the tweener all come to the pool for the same reason, yet how each approaches the experience varies greatly. Excuse a gross over simplification, but suppose that all the people of the world could be placed in one of the three categories I have identified, into which category do you think the apostle Paul might fall? Consider carefully.
Let’s turn to the evidence our lesson provides us. As the lesson opens Paul lays out his resume, a resume, incidentally, few Jews could match. “Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, he was a Pharisee (a group of Jewish laymen known for their commitment to their faith), a persecutor of the church (a good Jewish credential at that time), and, importantly, righteous under the law. Paul stood tall among his peers, no doubt about it.
However, he places an important consideration on the table when he shares his stellar past with his audience in the church at Philippi, and us. “Yet,” Paul writes, “Whatever gains I had these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ….[continuing] For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as “rubbish,” [a word chosen by the editor’s of my Bible, though the Greek word here entered as “rubbish” is more accurately translated, “dung”]I regard [what I had] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” His was the life to which any seriously observant Jew could aspire, yet he was moving on.
Friends, Paul took the plunge, and it was off the high dive. “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as ‘rubbish,’ in order that I might gain Christ.” When Christ entered his life everything changed. All the gains he had made in his life meant nothing. He was starting over.
Paul took stock of his life and concluded that every bit of it was disposable so long as he had Christ. He took the plunge, out of one life and in to another, just like that. There are people present this morning who might fairly be termed plungers, but there are limits beyond which even the most daring plunger will not go. Paul recognized no such limits. “I want to know Christ [Paul writes] and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”
For Paul the life he was living was merely the introduction to the life he anticipated living with the resurrected Christ. That is not the orientation most of us maintain is it? A life with Christ some day, certainly the hope upon which we, people of faith, base our lives, but I doubt that any of us are as eager for that day to dawn as Paul writing to the Philippians was.
My experience with the people I have met in church has taught me that there are few plungers in our midst, few folk whose lives have been transformed and set on an entirely new course as Paul’s life had. Most of us fall in the category of ledge sitters.
Some of us are ledge sitters and some of us are tweeners, poised somewhere between the ledge and the plunge. From month to month, year to year, probably in many cases, day to day, our posture on the ledge may change, for our experience of God is not some static thing. There are times when God appears in clear focus, other times when the image blurs. Yet clear days or cloudy, to continue the analogy, we keep coming back to the pool.
At our pool, right here in our gathering place, we demonstrate that we value a relationship with God, IN the pool is to be actually in relationship with God. Paul was inviting his brothers and sisters in Philippi to join him in the pool, and he used his own life experience to encourage them to act.
Fact of that matter is, of course, Paul’s experience was Paul’s, and likely did not translate easily into the experience of the folks in Philippi. A plunger might influence a ledge sitter or a tweener to take the plunge, but there is little likelihood that the tweener will adopt the plunger’s mindset.
Paul, a good student of human behavior, wisely acknowledged that his experience of Christ could not be reproduced in other Christians, his experience was just that, his experience. Yet Paul, the dedicated teacher and preacher that he was, continually sought to translate his experience into words and deeds that would convey the grandeur of Christ.
Keep in mind that Paul didn’t presume to know all the answers, didn’t presume that he was more than a fellow traveler with the Christians with whom he communicated. While Paul possessed extraordinary confidence in his relationship with the risen Christ, he writes, “I do not consider that I have made it my own [“it” being complete union with Christ]; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul the plunger readily acknowledged that he had not reached his goal, his prize, but was in the pool and was on the way. And that is precisely what God wants for us. And that is why during this Lenten season we take steps to identify and remove those personal obstacles that might be preventing us from getting in the swim.
Paul’s autobiography reveals that he had goals and expectations in his life with Christ. He was given a vision of what his life might become, and he was dedicated in pursuing it, in his case, relinquishing all other ambitions, he plunged in. Now such a move might not be in us, but that doesn’t prevent us, wherever we may happen to be on our faith journey, from setting goals and expectations for ourselves.
The plunger, the ledge sitter, and tweener, all come to the Parkpoint pool with goals and expectations in place. The goal might be as simple as getting fifteen minutes of exercise or it may fit into some training plan of the serious athlete. Goals and expectations from a pool workout may vary greatly, but each person who comes to the pool comes with a purpose.
Life devoid of those goals and personal expectations is stagnation. Such stagnation imperils our personal faith. That is why it is so important to acquire a regular discipline of faith that will help us keep awake and alert to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives.
Paul felt himself summoned by the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That summons is sounding for us. Oh, but there are so many distractions that prevent us from hearing it. That is why Paul, and all serious spokespersons for the faith, have consistently reminded us to cultivate a life of awareness using the resources of prayer, Bible study and strong Christian community.
Paul found a dramatic way to live the message. Declaring that his former status, his credentials as a Jew righteous under the law, amounted to nothing, rubbish, he “[pressed] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul took the plunge and embraced a whole new value system.
How ready are we to take the plunge? That is a question best left to each of us individually. You may be poised to make the plunge. Or you may be holding back waiting for some sign that is safe to go forward.
The Reverend Peter Gomes, long time Harvard teacher and preacher, was asked to speak at a gathering of some of America’s most celebrated business leaders. The auditorium was filled with CEOs, board chairmen, and other business elite. As he mingled with those women and men he said his thoughts turned to the price tag those high status positions carried, the huge investment of time and energy required to get to the top wrung they had achieved.
There is a price tag on everything we do, the price tag climbing higher and higher with time and energy invested. There is a price tag attached to everything we do. What if we risked rearranging some of those price tags? What if we risked reassessing and re-valuing how we invest our time, energy and treasure?
To what things in your life are high price tags attached? You will certainly find, as I have, that it is to the high price tag items that I dedicate the majority of my time, energy, and treasure. Or are we willing to ask ourselves if that allotment of resources is providing us the satisfaction we are hoping for in life.
“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Wow! Paul took the plunge to rectify things, and did it in an extraordinary way. You may be sitting on the ledge, you may be struggling between the ledge and the plunge, but whatever your status, Christ is just as available to you as he was to Paul. A change in approach is possible, but it may well require rearranging some price tags. I urge you to find a place to start. Who knows where any of that might lead? AMEN.
Good and gracious God, our hearts true home, may those who have entered this house of worship today feel at home. Though unseen, you are a living presence in our lives. Free us from this world’s distractions that our eyes may see and ears may hear your counsel.
May the words spoken here, and the hymns sung here, be worthy offerings to bring to you today. Where concerns outside this sanctuary beg for attention and our minds drift, bring us back to you who created the mind and each aptitude we call our own.
O Christ, our brother, as our Lenten journey nears its end, we see rugged terrain ahead as we make our way to Jerusalem. We will soon reach the all too familiar surroundings, identifying familiar obstacles, betrayal, trial, execution just up ahead. The script never changes, the players, Judas, Herod, and Pilate never change. All so familiar, yet we revisit familiar places and meet those familiar actors, as people who in the space of a year have changed.
We enter familiar space on our way to Jerusalem more experienced in living, a people who have celebrated achievements, disappointments, been wounded, been healed. O Lord, we are more experienced in living. We pray that experience might offer us clarity about what your last days on this earth achieved for us and the world you gave your life to save.
With gratitude we acknowledge graces dispensed this past week, O God; the success of a project we completed, an email or phone call from a child or grandchild living in another state, a spontaneous act of kindness that reminded us that we share this world with some very special people.
With gratitude we acknowledge the common graces of life; food on the table, books, music, the pleasures of conversation, and the daily routines of life and their predictability.
With regret we mourn the meaningless sacrifice of lives in the wars being waged. Man’s inhumanity to man sickens us, and we feel helpless to do anything about it. Hasten the day when the forces of death and destruction are at last put down, but until that day continue to encourage the efforts of peacemakers who are doing what can be done to limit the destructive reach of war and deprivation.
O Lord, abide with those who represent our nation to the world that they their actions may be consistent with the values which the founders of our nation espoused, and which women and men have made great sacrifices to defend. A nation boasting vast natural resources, may the good stewardship of those resources acquire higher priority status, and may the efforts of those seeking to limit our nation’s carbon emissions prevail against those who refuse to concede the necessity for action. Heavenly father, grant us wisdom that in all we do we make seek your counsel first, particularly when to act, or not to act, has great consequences.
We lift these prayers in Jesus’ name, praying the prayer he taught us.