Trash or Treasure

Passage: Philippians 3:4b-14
Date: April 7, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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We’ve spent this Lenten season looking at some bits of the letters of the apostle Paul, and I must commend you all for hanging in there with the apostle. Paul is rarely easy; if anything, his brilliance and his zealousness for Christ are hard to translate into our post-modern days. Paul can be pretty black and white where we are used to multiple shades of gray. He can be so humble that we wonder if he’s well; he can be so dang arrogant that we’re tempted to disregard him all together. The journey through the epistles has felt like a bit of a slog at times, but I think the journey has been worth it. So thanks for sticking with us.

This is our penultimate week with Paul, and we read words from his letter to the beloved congregation in Philippi. Remember that Paul is in prison when he writes this letter, so his perspective on things is affected by that. He is confined; he does not know when or if he will be released, or if he will be tried, found guilty, and killed. There in the confines of a cell he has time and space to contemplate his faith and the faith he has planted across the Mediterranean basin.

He confesses he has much to boast about, in terms of worldly accomplishments, yet after coming to know Christ Jesus, all his achievements are garbage compared to that deep knowledge and love of Christ. He still has so many of those privileges, even in prison – a Roman citizen, a Jewish Pharisee, an educated man – but those privileges mean nothing to him.

We live in an achievement-oriented society and this is a congregation full of people with impressive credentials—PhDs, CEOs, teachers, small business owners, therapists, social workers. As your pastor, I’m proud to serve such a talented congregation. But as I read these words from Philippians, I wonder if my pride is terribly misplaced.

So this is a sermon about what gives our lives meaning, about who we are and who we want to be in light of our knowledge of Christ, in light of our relationship with Jesus and the way he calls us to live.

Let’s start with an idea from Sam Wells, an Anglican priest and rector of St. Martin in the Fields congregation in London. He writes, “Christians are called to be saints, not heroes. Heroes are the center of stories told about them, whereas saints are part of a story in which God is the center.”

Are you a hero or a saint? Do you live for your accomplishments and achievements, or do you live to serve without notice or praise?

As a parent, I think about this all the time, and in working with this scripture passage this week, I started asking myself, “Am I—are we—raising our child to be successful, or are we raising her to be happy?” The two are not mutually exclusive, but there is a different slant to each. What makes us happy?

Does money make us happy? Gregg and I sometimes play “if we won the lottery” game and if we won the lottery, I will tell you we would retire from this place and travel the world or start a charitable foundation. However since we rarely buy a ticket, I think we’re with you for a while.

Last year the results of an interesting study were published. According to an article in Marketwatch, “Money can buy you happiness, but only a certain amount.

“Psychologists from Purdue University and the University of Virginia analyzed World Gallup Poll data from 1.7 million people in 164 countries, and cross-referenced their earnings and life satisfaction. Although the cost and standard of living varies across these countries, researchers came up with a bold conclusion: The ideal income for individuals is $95,000 a year for life satisfaction and $60,000 to $75,000 a year for emotional well-being. Families with children, of course, will need more.

“The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, found that once that threshold was reached, further increases in income were actually associated with reduced happiness.” (

I realize that for many of us, an individual income of $60,000 a year is nothing more than a far-off, impossible dream. But for others, that amount was surpassed a long time ago. And then sometimes we look at what people with money do with their wealth. Think of the recent college admissions bribery scandal, which in some ways exemplifies the worst of our society. But it points to the reason why having money is often equated with having power.

Does power make us happy? Power is the ability to do something or act in a certain way. The apostle Paul had certain power in his culture because he was a free man and because he had privileges as a citizen of Rome. Within his religion, he had power because he was a Pharisee and as such strictly observed the Jewish law. He could move about, he could teach. Until his conversion—once he decided to follow Jesus, things changed completely.

Jeff Bezos has the power to take on the National Enquirer. Donald Trump has the power of nuclear codes. Warren Buffet has the power to influence economic policy. Do these people use their power for what we would consider the good? And are these undeniably powerful men happy? What does make us happy?

Does love make us happy? While the occasional broken heart might say otherwise, generally it’s assumed that love makes us happy. This week I read a beautiful blog post by John Buchanan, a retired Presbyterian minister who served as pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, one of the great cathedral churches in our denomination, and who also served as moderator of the General Assembly in the 1990s. You could say that in his day, Dr. Buchanan had a lot of power—he preached to thousands of people, and he had the ear of Chicago politicians. For those wishing to climb the ladder of Presbyterian-minister success, Buchanan’s example would be a good one to follow.

But retirement does interesting things to people. In this blog post, Dr. Buchanan talks about sitting with his granddaughter Rachel during worship. Rachel is 24 and has Down syndrome. Here is this man, who has known true power in the church and in the city, sitting with one whom our society would say is powerless, or worse. And yet, as he writes, 

“Rachel greets me with more enthusiasm than anyone else, throws her arms around me as if we haven’t seen each other for months, and a few minutes later, does it again. It is no exaggeration and certainly not a sentimental euphemism to say that Rachel is a precious gift to me, her family and anyone privileged to know her. She has truly made us all bigger, better people.

“I’ve been thinking about worshipping with Rachel all week. When it comes to worshipping in her church, Rachel, to say the very least, is all in. She reads the prayers and responses just a beat behind and punctuates the prayers with an enthusiastic, un-Presbyterian, loud ‘Amen.’ She finds the pages in our heavy hymnal, declines my assistance, sings the hymns robustly, full volume, recites the Creed and Lord’s Prayer precisely and urgently.”

And he finds himself experiencing a new joy that he had never had during those years of pastoral privileges—it is the treasure of knowing his beloved granddaughter, and the joy she brings, along with the hope that there still exists, at least for an hour on Sunday morning, a place where she, in all her worldly powerlessness, is all the treasure anyone could want.(

I think sometimes to know what our treasure is, we have to let go of some things that have really been just fool’s gold. Anne Lamott offers a challenge about this. She writes, “Your problem is how you’re going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to live it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it, and find out the truth about who you are.” (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

I think this week’s lesson invites us to keep a ledger of sorts, to consider our achievements and our treasure and to see if we consider them the same thing or very different things. We may, indeed, learn something about ourselves in the process. You might think about how you spend your time or what you spend your money on. You might think about what makes your heart race and what swells your ego. And as you take note of all of that, notice if faith works its way in. Is Jesus there? Is a sense of gratitude for God the Creator there? Is there a hope in something bigger than all of us there?

We’ll answer those questions differently, especially in light of how old we are. A ninety year old might consider their treasure as more of a legacy—what good will follow me after I die? Parents in the midst of raising their kids might think more about the values they’re passing on to their children. A twenty year old might wonder about work that is meaningful and adds good to the world. The empty nester or new retiree might look back and say, the achievement period of my life is done—what can I do that makes my community better? The fifty year old with a last decade or two of career ahead of them might wonder if they can do their work differently so that more people benefit from it.

However old we are, however we answer that question, we are encouraged by Paul to weave our faith into all of this. What does it mean to you when Paul writes, “…whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord”? Are there gains, achievements, successes that you have had that are now meaningless to you? And if so, why is that? What has taken their place? Is knowing Christ Jesus of value to you, however you interpret that phrase, “knowing Christ Jesus”? Do these words encourage you to discover other kinds of treasure that have nothing to do with worldly success?

This week I invite you to write a letter to God about these things. Maybe you’ll want to present God with a ledger of accounts—what you count as treasure and what you count as trash. Maybe it will be a letter in which you express your gratitude to God for those things in your life that are profoundly meaningful. Maybe it will be a letter full of questions, like how can I know Christ Jesus more fully, or what do you want from my life?

And then—if you’d like—I invite you to find a partner or small group with whom you can share your letter. Sometimes God appears to us not in a cloud or in a blaze of light, but in the words and deeds of other people. There is wisdom in this room, and it’s good to share that wisdom.

Few of us have the kind of life Paul did—a sudden and dramatic conversation experience, and the confinement in prison that allows for deep personal and theological reflection. We have our sunny seasons and our times of crisis, and it is particularly those crises that invite us to look at how we’re living. It’s the nagging something in the middle of the night, that growing suspicion that maybe there is more to living than we’ve thought. When you get that feeling, when you face that crisis, remember these words of Paul. And remember these words of Jesus: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.