A survivor of the Holocaust, who later became a theologian, was once asked to identify the worst sin a person could commit. His response was a bit surprising. You might think he would list genocide, or racism, or hatred. But instead the great Jewish theologian said,
“The worst of all sins that humans can commit is despair. It is that moment when the present circumstances seem so overwhelming and hopeless to a person that they give up on the future, on the possibilities of a better world. Such a person twists their memory into chains, and becomes imprisoned in the past. And without a future, that person ceases to become fully alive, fully human. And more than this, such despair is a way of saying to God, or about God, that the best days are all behind, that even God Himself is as trapped in the past as they are. Despair is our way of saying that God has petered out. It is a grievous sin, not because it angers God but because it marks the end of our lives, of our usefulness. All that is left is for the brain to die, for the soul has already quit.”
My brothers and sisters, our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians illustrates this same truth. Paul too was in prison, even as he wrote this brief letter. And yet his eye was on the future, and with such hope his optimism could not be stripped from him, even if his captors stripped him of his possessions or his freedom. And because Paul kept his hope, even in those desperate circumstances, he maintained an irrepressible joy that almost jumps off the pages of his epistle to the Philippians. Here we are, two thousand years later, deep into the weeks of Lent, and some of us lack that same joy Paul knew. Some of us are focused on what we have given up, or on how long it has been since the excessive days of Mardi Gras. But Lent is not a season of sorrow, it is a time to shift focus, to clarify vision, to remember the real path to joy is not found by avoiding suffering, but by moving with faith through suffering. Maybe Paul’s word from prison is a word for us too. How could his sufferings, or ours, purify joy and strengthen hope, instead of leading toward the precipice of despair?
First, lasting joy comes from focusing on the surpassing gain of knowing Christ, rather than on the temporal gains or losses on this world.
Ok, ok, I know this all sounds a bit too otherworldly to be of any earthly good, but hear me out. In the previous verses of his letter, Paul had just been listing for the Philippians a set of his worldly accomplishments—his pedigree, his resume of accomplishments, his reputation. And we each have such a list, don’t we? We each have a set of degrees framed on walls, or a list of social organizations in which we hold memberships, or a list of property holdings and bank accounts. But Paul is saying that all of these things, noble in their own way, have only temporary ability to provide joy. Eventually we will be separated from each of these treasures, by time, by our own mistakes, by shifts in global economies, or just by our own death. And what then?
Paul urges his readers to keep invested in the only relationship that will transcend all of life’s ups and downs, and will even transcend death itself. And that is our relationship with God, through Christ. When Paul thinks about that relationship, his heart swells with joy and gratitude, for he knows that it is pure grace from God that makes that relationship possible in the first place. We do not find Christ. He finds us. Our Christian faith is not our accomplishment. It is God’s accomplishment. And therefore, Paul considers that relationship his greatest gain in life, so great that all else in his life seems by comparison to be mere rubbish. He uses a strong word for this comparison to emphasize his point, he compares even his greatest accomplishments and resume strengths to a word that is best translated “street rubbish, excrement.” Strong image, to be sure. But Paul does not hesitate to drive home his point. The path to joy is only found on keeping a very loose grasp on that which the world grips so hard, and instead focusing one’s grasp on the surpassing value of knowing Christ, and being known by Him. Nothing else in life can replace that joy. Nothing.
The second message from Paul in this reading is the importance of keeping one’s focus on the future, rather than on the past.
Paul borrows an image from the Roman games, and an image every athlete here understands fully. He compares himself to a runner whose eye is on the finish line. Athletes learn early to endure the pain of practice and training in order to be in condition to compete, to win the game. How do they do it? They keep their mind trained on the goal rather than on the temporary muscle pain or boring routine of training. And during the contest, that same athlete keeps his or her eye on the final goal, the finish line. Let past hurts and past accomplishments stay there, in the past. The only way to win is to press forward, not dwell in the past.
In 2002, two women lined up to run in the New York City Marathon. One of them, Kenya’s Margaret Okayo, made headlines by setting a new record winning pace of 2 hours, 22 minutes, 31 seconds. But the other woman, Zoe Koplowitz, ran the entire twenty-six mile race too. Her notice in the papers was not on the front page, but it is no less dramatic. You see, Zoe Koplowitz has diabetes and multiple sclerosis. She completed the grueling race in 29 hours, 45 minutes. She was the last competitor to cross the finish line, more than a full day after the world-class athletes. But if you compare the pictures of both women as they crossed the tape, you see the same inexpressible joy. It is not winning the race; it is finishing that matters. And the only way to finish, at whatever pace, is to keep an eye, not on the clock, but on the finish.
And this is Paul’s point exactly, when he thinks about the human race. “Just one thing; forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” Now there’s a good word for all of us, especially during Lent. So, lace up your spiritual shoes. On your mark, get set, go…