This is a transcript from the June 23, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
This morning, we have a passage that is in front of us. It is out of the Book of Philippians. I'm going to be reading it. Portions of it will be on the screen. At the heart of this is a series and at least an emphasis, a theme that I want to work on this summer. I have been struck by this idea that if you want to make sense of your life, if you want to understand what God is doing in your life, one of the most powerful ways is to begin to see the ways in which your life is much like a story.
There's a story being told and it's your life. You have a story. Most of the time, our problems come when we lose sight of that. Sometimes when we think that we are on our own and that there is no great underlying story that holds us together or maybe because we have sold ourselves too short and believe our story is too small, too insignificant. One of the great powers of the Scriptures is to awaken us to who we are and be invited into a larger story for our life.
When we do, our life makes sense.
There's meaning, there's purpose, there's direction in whole new ways. We started that last week. This week, I want to pick up on that, particularly one aspect of story. If you're going to tell your story, if you're going to understand your story, you have to understand your backstory. You have to understand what is sometimes called your story of origin. It is that thing that we sometimes don't want to lead with.
It is one of those things that we often want to hide and play down, and yet it is part of the greatest gift that we have for this world. The Bible is full of stories. When we get to those places of the stories of the Bible, there's always a backstory. One of the most interesting stories of the Bible is in the New Testament. It has to do with a guy named Paul, whose real name was Saul, but that's a backstory. It is him and telling it.
His life was at one time a place of shame. It was a place of failure. It is one of those things that maybe you would wish that not everybody knew. Paul was able to own his story and find it as the occasion where he knew God's grace best. The best thing he had was this story and he offers it to us.
The argument, of course, is as the argument almost always seems to be in churches, well, who's the real church? Who's the real Christian? Who's the real believer? It's amazing all the different ways that we find to separate ourselves. It's amazing all the different ways that we find to somehow exclude others and put barriers there. Paul has been there and that's part of his story.
He's able to say the real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry filling the air with Christ praises as we do it.
"We couldn't carry this off by our own efforts," he said.
We know it, even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree. A legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day.
An Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin. A strict and devout adherent to God's law. A fiery defender of the purity of my religion. Even to the point of persecuting Christians, a meticulous observer of everything set down in god's law book.
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I'm tearing up and throwing out with the trash along with everything else I used to take credit for.
Why? Because of Christ.
Yes, all the things I once thought were so important
are gone from my life.
Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my master firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant. Dog dung. If you are struck by that phrase and think why is that in there, it's because that's in there. Most of the time in the English versions, we try to soften it. We have called it refuse and things like that because somehow, we think that smooths it over.
The Bible is much earthier than that. Let me just tell you when you're reading that word, it's actually much more vulgar and earthy than that. Have you got it? Good. I don't need to say it. That's what it is. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by Him.
I don't want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ - God's righteousness.
There's a backstory.
We're not going to show any one movie clip today because I want you to think in a series of some of the movie clips that you've seen. All these epic stories, there's always a backstory. Batman has a backstory, right? You know it. When you know it, you know what drives him to be the knight, the Dark Knight, the crusader against all that is wrong in the world.
Frozen. There's a backstory that goes here and between sisters.
If people could just get the backstory right, there would be great resolution and there would be great hope and things would go better. Harry Potter had a backstory, right? If you don't understand him as the wizard, first, you have to understand him as that little kid who's hiding under the stairs as he's having to live with muggles. He doesn't even know what that is, but that's part of the backstory and then something happens.
As the story goes, we find that's just the beginning of the backstory. That scar on his head becomes a part of what drives the entire story. If you want to understand Harry Potter, you better understand his backstory. We are told in the modern telling of Wicked that there is a backstory between Elphaba and Glinda and because they don't get the backstory resolved, one of them becomes an actual villain. This is the power. This is the peril of what happens with backstory.
Citizen Kane and arguably one of the best films ever made as people tell us. The whole thing is about a back story and people don't understand his dying words had to do with Rose but, what does that mean?
We get to go back and do our mining expedition into what that meant and how that affected his world. Here is a person who didn't come to grips with it. It owned him and so he is sometimes the hero and sometimes the villain all wrapped up in one. Then there is Marty McFly. His back story becomes a future story.
When you watch these movies together, you can't tell if it's the backstory that influences the future or the future that influences the backstory, and that's the point. These things that are in our background, these things that we would rather not admit, these things- these points of shame, these points of failure, these are momentous events, the context in which we are brought up in, these are the things that influence us. The reason we are drawn to stories, the reason we got to tell stories like this is because they resonate with our stories.
We tell these stories as a way of making sense of our own life. That's why we find these stories so compelling. That's why we keep telling them. Is because something is in here and in order to talk about it, we have to put it out there. The mark of a great story is not so much whether it adheres to facts or whether it adheres to a larger truth that sometimes goes beneath the facts and beyond the words. You have a back story. You have a story of origin, so do I? While we may not want to admit it, we might want to hype parts of it.
We might want to soften parts of it. Part of living our story is owning it. Part of our story is being able to see that this is who we are and because if we don't, these stories that can empower us, these stories that can inform our lives why we do what we do, they can also imprison us. If you don't understand why you are constantly triggered by certain anger, certain kinds of fear, certain conditions, if you don't understand why your heart breaks at certain times in this world, it is probably because you haven't dealt with the part that's triggering it.
It is something to do with who you are and you may be imprisoned by it. That's one of the reasons the Bible talks in stories because it's all about stories. There is always a backstory. You want to understand who you are Nation of Israel, then let me tell you the story about Abraham and where the trusting of God and taking a big step started. Let me take where you got your name Israel. You used to be called Jacob. Israel means, the one who wrestled with God. You need to understand that if you're going to understand your story your identity.
You want to understand your history, then you better understood the story and the backstory of Moses or you'll never get what that was about. You better understand your own backstory as a people who used to be slaves walking through an Exodus through the desert once you were no people and a slave people and now you have taken on a whole new identity. There is a backstory you'd better understand. If you want to understand what got you in trouble, you better understand the backstory of David, of Saul, of Solomon, of Samuel, of the prophets. That's the power of a backstory.
New church, do you want to understand who you are and why we wrestle with- what we wrestle with? Then you better understand Paul and his backstory. You better understand that this was a person who was not Paul but his name was Saul to begin with. He was a Pharisee. The word Pharisee by the way means, separated. We are separate from other people. We are separate. We have divided ourselves off because, we're just a little more special. Long before there were church ladies, there were Pharisees. It's the same impact. It's the same impetus.
We have to separate ourselves because, we have sold out to purity. We're going to be the pure people. So much so that in the Pharisees world, the real enemies of the faith were not the Romans, it wasn't the Greeks, it wasn't the Egyptians, the real enemies were fellow Jews who didn't believe enough for the right way. In today's political atmosphere, we have rhinos, Republicans in name only.
Before that, we had DINOs, Democrats in name only. In Paul's time, it would have been JINOs, Jews in name only because they called themselves Jews. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, they didn't believe the right things, they didn't do the right things. They were the problem and if only we could reform and get them to come up to speed, if only we could get them to become like us, then everything would be good. So much so that when this fledgling new resurgence renewal movement within Judaism, which later became called Christianity, at first it was just called the way.
This way of living, this way of embracing God's grace was so offensive and so threatening that Saul took it upon himself to arrest people, arrest these Christians. It was Saul who was at the first martyrdom of Stephen because, this was the right thing. This is what it took some time to get people to line up and understand how serious it was. It was Saul who got a letter to go on and start arresting people, rounding them up in other cities. It was Saul who in the midst of that road was confronted by God and then, that flash in that moment, he is brought to his knees and hears these words, "Saul, why are you persecuting me?"
In that moment, everything that had led up to his life caved in. Rather than being the hero of God and the hero of faith, he was the villain. He was the one who was the biggest obstruction to what God-- his whole life had been given because he wanted to be the person who was championing what God wanted. What he heard in that moment and in that experience, everything he believed and everything he had done was flat out wrong.
Have you ever had that experience where I thought I was doing the right thing and now I'm finding I'm doing the wrong thing and if it has the right effect, there is humility? What do we do with that experience? Instead of judgment that Paul- that Saul would have given to somebody else what he received was Grace. It was too much, he was blinded and little by little, he got his vision back, in a metaphor, beginning to see.
Most of us, if we read the book of Acts, it looks like the next day or the next month or next week, suddenly now he's doing ministry. If you go back through some of his letters, you'll find it was almost two decades of him being in isolation, of him going off by himself, of him returning home, of him being in seclusion partly because no one trusted him. He was the laughing stock. He had given his life and now, somehow, crazy Saul just talked about something completely different. Christians didn't trust him because they thought it was just a trap.
His old friends and colleagues didn't trust him because now he was a traitor. He was the laughing stock. He was the most excluded person around. It was only after decades of living with that, that that event became not the thing that separated him, but became the invitation for a different way of understanding God instead of being disqualified. The message came, "Now you are ready. Now you are actually ready or something far greater," years later after he talked about who he was and the things that made him who he was. He was able to say,
"I've become absolutely convinced that nothing
can separate us from the love of God."
You will recognize that perhaps from Romans 8. Romans 8 didn't come from a library. Romans 8 didn't come from a Bible study across the table. Romans 8 came out of the gut-wrenching experiences of his own life, the decades of isolation and seclusion, and underneath finding out that what he thought was going to disqualify him was the very thing now that was the strength upon which God was going to work. I've become absolutely convinced, nothing can separate us from the love of God. It's his backstory, this is who Saul is, it was so much that he changed his name to Paul, he has a new identity now. "This is me," he says, more to the point, this is God. This is what God does.
It's a story that is just as relevant and as needed today as it is then. We just did a baptism. There are schools of thought because this is hard to get our head around. We keep trying to take the grace of God. We keep trying to put worthiness around it, that somehow that by bringing our children to baptism, that somehow this makes them more worthy, more acceptable. Then, we put rules around it, that in which who can bring their children for baptism, and in some churches, there's rules about who's worthy enough to bring their child to baptism. It all has to do with power and control, which is really when religion goes wrong, really that the tools that are used. We reject that.
It's not a matter of having the right beliefs. It's not a matter of having the right kind of water or how much of it. All of that gets into that worthiness part of how we are separated, how we find ourselves acceptable to God. All of them are ways to exclude and separate, when in fact, what that is about is that this is an occasion, our children are occasions to remind yourselves that
you are beloved, and you belong.
When someone brings their child to be baptized in this church, it is not an interview process, it's an invitation. It is not a way of trying to exclude. It is a way the congregation gets to awaken to and remind itself, this is who we are, we're going to be that kind of a group. We're going to be one of those places where our kids hear it again and again, in a thousand different ways, you are loved. You belong. I don't know of a single child that doesn't need to hear that message constantly, do you? I don't know any adults who don't need to hear that, either.
That's part of why we come to worship. That's part of why we come with our backstories. That's part of why we sing hymns like, "Just as I am." That's part of why we sing songs like "Amazing Grace, I once was lost, but now I'm found." It is that reminder that we are beloved and we belong and there is nothing that separates us from the love of God. That is more than a catchphrase. That is the heart of the good news of the gospel itself. Today's a reminder of that.
We use various parts of worship to remind us of that when we sing, when we pray, when we hear scripture. We're going to have an abiding prayer right now that before we move on, because it's so easy just to move on and go, "Okay, what's next?" No, stay right there. Let's remind ourselves today. You are beloved. When we offer ourselves to God, amazing things happen. Let me finish this with just one last point.
When Paul says, "I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God." When Paul talks about how that works so that now he's able to say, "I've dumped it all in the trash, all the stuff that I thought was going to work, all the stuff that were my strengths, I have dumped it, so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him." Here's the thing, if we are hanging on to what we thought made us worthy, what we thought made us acceptable. That is the arm's distance that keeps Christ from being able to embrace us. It is the gospel that it is not what we have done or not done. It's what Christ continues to do that embraces us, and that is the good news.
We are embraced by Christ, and therefore, we can take that stuff and now it just becomes the raw material for what God can do with it. Have you been divorced, have you had an affair? Have you lost a job? Do you have an addiction? Are you wrestling with anger? Are you wrestling with depression?
All of that stuff that we would like to hide, God somehow gets to use if we offer it back and let it be part of what God is doing, not only in our life but then becomes part of the way the gospel is working through us. People who have gone through an incredible amount of pain and trauma, and sometimes, people loaded upon them as if it was their failing. It's the part that makes us ashamed. The parts that we don't want to talk about. That's the very part that God gets to use, if we will own that backstory and offer it. It is taking that unique blend of gifts and grief, of victories and defeats, of hopes and hurts and doubts, pain.
This is who I am. This is what I have to offer. This becomes the meeting place between God and us, and as such, it becomes the place that we have to offer others, it will bless others. There is a part in your story that you probably don't want to tell in polite company, and that's okay. You probably shouldn't tell it everywhere, but somewhere, that story is going to inform and help and bless somebody else because, we don't need people who just come with all the right answers. What the world needs is real people who God has met because, if God has met somebody in that same place, then maybe God can meet me. Then maybe there is hope.
Who are the real Christians, the real believers? They're the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ's praises. What is your backstory? What makes you, you? What are those promises that you made? What are those events? What are those interactions? What are those pains? What are those victories? What is the background that has made you uniquely you? If you're going to understand your story, if your story is going to be part of God's great story, you own it, and then you offer it back. Then, the air gets filled with the praises of Christ.