A homily by Megan Westmoreland on Philippians 3:12-21 from Sunday, July 29.
This evening we get to talk about leaving things behind and straining forward to things ahead. I suppose that’s important as we start something new and leave something we’ve known.
And it seems to me that God asks this of us a lot: “Hey you, leave this thing you know really well and that you are very comfortable with, and go to this other thing that is unknown and likely highly uncomfortable.” Great. Thanks.
I really don’t like leaving things and have a very hard time with things ending. Some things are easier to leave than others. But I can have so much emotional weight wrapped up in the idea of something ending. And I suddenly find myself getting really nostalgic for things that I barely noticed when I wasn’t in the process of leaving.
I moved from a house in DC to Arlington last year, out of a house I rented for only a few years—it was a fine little house, but nothing particularly special—and on the day I had to turn in the keys, I found myself walking through the empty rooms thinking, “this is the last time I will ever be in this room.”
That was a house. Never mind leaving people—that can be a disaster. Plus there’s sometimes an added layer that the leaving itself will be disappointing somehow. So my usual inclination is to ghost. It seems easier to me to leave without saying goodbye or really acknowledge that an ending is happening at all.
Well here we are, starting something new, which is very exciting and fun. But it also means leaving something, maybe several somethings. That part can be bad news for someone like me.
I’ve been at Restoration since even before day 1. That's nearly 10 years for me with a church—and 10 formative years, for both the church and for me. So there are a few things I’m going to miss. Like the building we spent so long planning and working for. And people who I’ve gotten used to seeing most every Sunday. I mean, Phil and Marla alone! But don’t think I’m going to process all of this by myself; we are in this together. So I invite you to think about what things are you leaving behind in order to come to Incarnation, things that you will miss. Maybe at Restoration, or maybe other things?
All these things make it harder for me to entertain the idea of “forgetting what lies behind,” like Paul says. I don’t want to forget people or how special the years at Restoration have been for me. Does Paul really mean forgetting everything in the past? But he remembers things from his past all the time. So I don’t think he’s exactly advocating for amnesia here—that just doesn’t make much sense to me.
So then what do we do with the things we must leave but are sad to? Thankfulness seems like a good place to start. And telling stories. Because we remember what we talk about, and how we talk about it affects how we remember it – so let’s tell thankful stories! The psalm we read earlier has quite a few mentions of both forgetting and remembering, but it starts with giving thanks and recounting wonderful deeds.
On the other hand, perhaps there are some things we should forget in order to move ahead unhindered, to follow this upward call. I wonder, what am I inclined to keep track of? Maybe I’m remembering stuff I’ve done, accomplished, or how far I’ve come. And perhaps that’s a good thing if done with thankfulness and humility. But then maybe I begin to think I’ve come far enough for now and maybe even doing better than some other people. Now I’m on dangerous ground.
I recall the story Jesus tells of the people hired to work in the field at different hours in the day and were paid the same whether they started work early in the day or late. We don’t get ahead of other people in the kingdom of God in the way we’re used to getting ahead—and it’s harmful to keep track of our efforts as though we could.
So then, about this straining forward part. I think there’s some forgetting that’s necessary here too. Things rarely go as planned. That’s important to remember especially as we start a new church, but in so many other things too. Can I forget my expectations? Can I accept what actually comes? Can I let go, without bitterness, of my plans for the things I had been working for? Even those thoughts and expectations that I was not fully aware of, or maybe not aware until they were frustrated or disappointed. Maybe God wants to draw me out of restrictions I have unconsciously chosen.
And maybe some forgetfulness is required to see familiar things in a new way and get something more out of them. I heard a challenge recently to try to hear the 23rd psalm anew. Seems that requires a sort of forgetting of some ways I have always heard it.
But honestly, constantly moving and straining forward makes me feel really tired. Maybe it energizes some of you, and I’m energized by it sometimes too. But, man, the idea that it’s a constant reaching—uphill the whole way—I’m exhausted just thinking about that! Kind of makes me want to take a nap or watch TV instead and get back to that “upward call” later. Maybe on Tuesday.
I can reconcile my brain to the value of fighting inertia and even giving up needing to be comfortable. But knowing this doesn’t really motivate me. So if you’re anything like me, how do we “press on?” Where do we get the energy? Because I don’t feel it much of the time.
One translation of v. 12, instead of “I press on,” reads, “I continue my pursuit in hope.” There’s energy in hope, I think, that can carry us forward when things both outside us and within us are working to pull us back down. The opposite of hopelessness. I heard it said once of hope in prayer: “Body and soul may feel we are wasting our time. Hope smiles and ignores them.”
But hope of what? It’s hope of something specific for Paul. What is it that he’s reaching for—that ends this group of verses and the verses that Connor discussed last week? Resurrection. This is like what we say in the Nicene creed, “I look for the resurrection.” I look for; I await; I hope.
I’ll admit that I can have such a hard time with Paul sometimes. But I credit him that he knows where to keep his attention. In these ten verses, he mentions Christ four times. That’s what he’s holding on to—what he’s looking for, writing from prison with a future that probably seemed much murkier than ours. But he knows Jesus. Jesus who came to Paul out of the unknown of what is to come. And comes to us too. And invites us to come along as he continues building this new thing that begins and ends with resurrection.
There was a priest of a Romanian church on Little River Turnpike who passed away some years ago. He came to Virginia from Romania after spending a couple of decades in prison under the Romanian communist regime. I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, so I’m just going to call him Fr. George. Fr. George gave some talks in Romania to people starting underground churches. “Let us build churches,” he said to people in a country at a time where churches were torn down regularly. “Let us build churches from the depths of our hearts ablaze with the light of the Sun of Righteousness, who is Christ Himself, who has told us that by faith we are free.” In the face of destruction and really long odds, he’s undeterred. Even defiant.
What could hope in resurrection really mean for us? That we’re not just going from one thing to the next thing until one day we shuffle off this mortal coil. That there’s something God is building and bringing life to in me, in you, in us as a community, in the world. At Restoration and now at Incarnation too. That nothing that goes into this new thing is lost or left behind, even if there are things we ourselves have to leave from time to time for now. That God is building a world where all things are subject not to destruction and decay, but to life itself. And so let’s press on, in hope, because we know God is making all things new and has invited to join Him.