Good teachers and spiritual guides are known by their solidarity with their students and congregants. They see their oneness in joy and sorrow and don’t hold themselves apart, despite their expertise and experience. As the saying goes, they don’t care about what you know until they know that you care. And caring comes from recognizing that we are all in the same boat, doing our best to be faithful, sometimes succeeding, other times failing, but taking everything – good and bad – to God in prayer.
One noted spiritual guide, a person of deep faith but also plagued by the challenges of alcoholism, asserted that the spiritual life is a constant process of falling down and getting back up again, trusting God’s amazing grace and love to bring us all home. That’s true for all of us, me included, gathered here.
Paul is just such a teacher. He could have lorded it over the Philippians, cited his resume as a sign of unquestioned authority, noted how far they would have to go to achieve his spiritual stature. Instead, he tells them the unvarnished truth of his life – he was at the top of his class, he was a noted speaker and teacher, he was faithful and true to his religious tradition, and his persecution of the first followers of Jesus was based on his belief that he was doing the right thing to preserve the purity of his faith tradition. But, then he met Jesus, a blinding light on the road to Damascus, a challenge to everything he once held dear and began a new path, not as sage, but as a beginner again, weighed down by guilt but buoyed up by grace.
Despite the past, he received a new name and vocation. He could now experience first hand the words God spoke to Jeremiah, “I have plans for you. For good and not for evil. For a future with hope.”
Paul sees his life in terms of what God has done for him and where God is leading him. Like a runner, he is sprinting toward the goal not looking back any longer, but aiming at one thing alone – eyes on the prize of God’s call in his life and God’s faithfulness unto eternity.
Paul has a lot to live down, and so do most of us. We have fallen short, sometimes hurt others, broken promises, been complicit in injustice, knew what was right and chose otherwise. Sometimes, as I’ve discovered, trying to do the right thing can cause as much pain and alienation as being a selfish cad who throws all caution to the wind. We do the right thing, as President Kennedy said of the race for space, not because it is easy – and guaranteed – but because it is hard and we might fail.
But, Paul says, remember the prize. God is not out to get you. God is out to love you. God is not interested in your failures or your sins but in how you can grow beyond them, making amends, saying you’re sorry, and then living faithfully once day at a time.
Yes, even the best of us is constantly falling down and getting up again. And frankly that’s good, because recognizing our fallibilities – as saints always do – keeps us together, reminds us that we are family, and prevents us from trusting our efforts alone and not the constancy of God’s grace.
This is a time of repentance. Our nation is in deep trouble and much of it is our doing. We know where we’ve gone astray – and are going astray – if we make regular moral inventories. We have focused on rights and not responsibilities, freedom without compassion, individuality without community. We have defined some people as lesser humans, and turned our backs on the vulnerable. But, things can change, we can be healed, our nation can be transformed and renewed, if we keep our eyes on the prize and let God’s guiding vision lure us forward one day at a time.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your eyes on Jesus. Keep asking what is God’s will in this situation? How can I can be more faithful and loving? How can help my nation find justice, equality, and healing? With eyes on the prize each day is a holy adventure filled with excitement, possibility, and growth for you are now being your true self -doing what only you can do and what only this church can do, being God’s hands, feet, and voice – in healing the world.