March 13 Sermon

Date: 13 March 2016 – Fifth Sunday of Lent                                                                        
Text: Philippians 3:8-14                                                                                                         
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS

As many of you know I love to walk. And I walk fast. But I can only walk when I have a destination in mind for my travel. I simply cannot go to a track and walk in circles. I cannot go out and walk here and there and then return, with nothing to show for the experience. I need a goal, a reason, something to get, to do, a place to be. The Apostle Paul is writing to the Philippians, a people who knew about sport and training and competition. Paul is comparing a life of discipleship with athletic training, that the goal of this training and competition is faith-filled living, or to put it another way as Eric Liddell said in the movie Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure.”

In my pastoral work, and occasionally in my work with churches who are looking to hit the “reset” button and hire me to be a consultant, I hear about the challenge of an interrupted journey of faith, where we find ourselves either stuck looking over our shoulders, at the past, or can’t see where “all of this” is leading. Have you ever felt like that? I know I have. And likewise churches get there, especially today when more senior members can recall “glory days gone by” of full congregations and more recent members wonder what all this busy work is for?

The Apostle Paul is writing to the Philippians on his journey of faith with enough baggage in his past to warrant not just a glance over the shoulder but a full scale turnabout. Paul, then Saul, tortured Christians, imprisoned them, ordered the death of many believers. But Paul reminds his readers that he is fixed on one goal and that is to walk with Christ and in Christ. Further, Paul writes from prison. His physical movements are severely limited. Yet he chooses to inspire the Philippians to press on. It is an athletic, physical, and forward-moving metaphor, "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 is not suggesting this race is to some celestial realm, like heaven is the prize. “Living in heaven is not the goal we are aiming at, rather, it’s living in God’s new world…it means living in the present in the light of that future.” David Williams in his book Paul's Metaphors talks about Paul’s obsession with striving to push forward, not looking behind, “Paul knew the dangers of looking back. He knew that dwelling on past achievements could bring complacency and that dwelling on past failures could make one despondent. For Paul, both are best forgotten in the interest of pressing on toward the objective.” An ancient proverb declares, "The snail climbs the tree carefully and slowly." This statement is typical of a whole body of wisdom praising the virtues of making steady progress toward a goal.

N.T. (Tom) Wright says of this passage that, “Paul is using his own path of discipleship as an example for the Philippians to follow, he wants to head off any idea that once you have become a mature Christian you have arrived, in the sense that there is no more traveling to do.” What I want to lift to you about Wright’s analysis is the idea of using someone else’s discipleship as an example to motivate and clarify the way forward. Faith is not lived out in a vacuum, we need living examples of faith to inspire us to “feel God’s pleasure” as we walk with Christ and in Christ.

So I have been here at Bethany now for 13 weeks. That’s not very long. But already I have witnessed a lot of discipleship and heard about the journey of faith that Bethany has undertaken over the last several decades. I think it is fair to say that this journey has been filled with some challenging moments and issues. So in the midst of these challenges I am sure people sitting in your pews would wonder how to strive to be Jesus’ people, to be faithful to their call. What I have heard in my 50+ pastoral visits is that at the centre of this community, with all kinds of challenges swirling about the spirit of community has been alive and well, in large part due to the efforts of one aging, graying, maturing, disciple, Shawn Whynot.

Shawn arrived at Bethany in 1996, 20 years ago. He looked young then, in fact he looked like a teenager then. We all know Shawn is blessed as a musician. The proof of this assertion can be found in all of the community choirs that seek Shawn out for his participation. Shawn has put Bethany on the Halifax cultural map; his concerts, his youth choirs, the hand bell choir, and who can forget Shawn’s original soundtrack composition for a silent horror classic film?                                                    Shawn has one of the largest church choirs in the city. Like Paul’s metaphor of a race every singer wants to train with Shawn. He brings out the best in them. When they sing the choir feels God’s pleasure.

Shawn sets an example beyond his time at the piano and the organ. He directs and produces our Bethany Players and he is behind a lot of the outreach we have done, like organizing a trip to a Habitat for Humanity build here in metro.

And we all know Shawn is very modest and humble. He does not assume he knows it all. Here I quote Paul again, I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. Indeed Shawn does not “have it all together”. Have you seen his office? I will remind Shawn of other words written by the Apostle Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:7) “For God has not called us into uncleanness, but unto holiness.” There is nothing holy about Shawn’s ofice. I would suggest to you that in that space you might well find that bulletin from Christmas Eve 1999 that you’ve been searching for all these years…

And then there is pastoral care. Randy need not worry that Shawn is going to take his job. After all, when you are sad, emotional, weepy, what is it that you expect someone to offer you? If you imagined a box of Kleenex you clearly don’t know Shawn. You see for Shawn nothing beats toilet paper. After all when your eyes are red and puffy, when your tears are running down your face, nothing says comfort like a good roll of recycled toilet paper!

In seriousness I do believe we need witnesses to show us the way, we need disciples in community, as Lydia was for the Book of Acts, to demonstrate that living with and in Christ is possible, even life-giving. I thank God for someone like Shawn who lives out his faith, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize. Shawn, this community of faith is that prize and you have set the pace.

Please join me in wishing this aging musician, this runner of faith, this messy and eccentric disciple, this leader in our faith-filled community, a happy 50th birthday…