A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 5, 2014
Preached by the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When was the last time you worked on your resume? That may seem a strange and irrelevant question to those of you not actively seeking employment. That may seem a perfectly ridiculous question to those of you who are retired.
But I’d like you to think for a moment of what working on a resume means. Think of that process of distilling the important stuff of your life down to one or two measly pages. Think of the struggle to give a sense for your passion and purpose through a dull litany of old jobs. Think of that effort to prove your present worth and show forth your future values through a mere list of past accomplishments. Most daunting of all: think of that nervous drive to make an argument for your employment–to offer a witness to your worthiness–to set forth a case for your acceptance.
Now resume writing is fresh in my mind because I’m still quite new at this job. Not many months ago, I was busy preparing my application materials, and facing the great challenge of updating my own resume. But the reality is that the anxiety, the worrying, and most of all the yearning for acceptance so central to the resume writing process–these things are not limited to job-seekers only. The truth is that we are people constantly at work on our resumes: constantly engaged in efforts to hone and craft our images–constantly and unceasingly striving for affirmation and acceptance.
Consider our carefully curated online personae on Facebook and Twitter and any of the other dozens of social media resources where modern men and women digitally interact.
Consider the image of family life that we work so hard to present to friends at church and school, or the facade of wealth and worldliness that we struggle to display before business associates and professional colleagues.
Consider what we strive to communicate through our homes and our vehicles, through our wardrobes and our pastimes.
Beloved, we craft our lives like resumes. We build them (or try to) with our wit and with our learning. We build them with our success and with our spouses. We build them with our golf handicaps and our tennis trophies.
We do it before the world, and we do it deep in our own hearts. For all the furious business of resume building that I engage in before other people, I know that the real work of self-justification comes, for me, in the still hours and the silent watches–the late nights of troubled thinking and the early mornings of wakeful worrying: How can I prove that I am good enough? How can I know that I am worthy? How can I ensure that I will be accepted?
Our Epistle this morning reminds us that, while it may be accelerated and enhanced by modern technologies and ways of living, this work of resume building is not unique to our time and place. Today, St Paul sets before the Philippians his own impressive resume. “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”
Paul’s resume begins on a solid foundation. You see, Paul comes from the right kind of family and was brought up in the right kind of social circles. Not only was he born into the chosen people of God, he was registered and initiated as a member of the people of Israel through just the right means–circumcision–accomplished at precisely the right time–on the eighth day of his young life. Before he even had a choice in the matter, Paul was set on the path to the success.
From this impressive pedigree, Paul’s resume just keeps on getting better. He went to the right schools, joined the right clubs, and started out on a promising career. He tells the Philippians that, “As to the Law, [I was] a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church; as to righteousness under the Law, blameless.” This statement requires a little unpacking. We know the Pharisees from their constant antagonism towards Jesus in the Gospels. Indeed, that’s the role they play in our Gospel lesson today.
But when Paul mentions his association with the Pharisees, it’s important to remember their positive attributes. The Pharisees were the very cream of ancient Jewish society. They were wealthy and well educated. They held positions of power and prominence. They were faithful to the traditions of their forebears. They were fastidious in keeping the Law of Moses and doing what was right. They were a religious people, an upstanding people–a people to be admired, a people to be respected. Beloved, the Pharisees were the Episcopalians of their day! Training as a Pharisee meant that Paul was embracing the esteemed patrimony that was his birthright.
But Paul was much more than a passive beneficiary of the advantages furnished by his privileged background. Indeed, Paul was still working hard to build up his already stellar resume. For he was showing his zeal, his passion, his commitment, his devotion to the proud heritage of the Hebrews by taking on a difficult and dangerous job–a job into which he was pouring himself heart and soul. That he might set the certainty of his acceptance beyond any doubt, Paul set about busily persecuting the proponents of a pernicious perversion of the faith of his people. Followers of “The Way” were a small but noisy band of preachers who dared to proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth–a man who had been crucified; who had been executed in the shameful method reserved for the lowest criminals–was the Messiah: the promised, long-awaited, God-anointed savior of the Jews. Paul considered it his special task to destroy them.
This was the accolade-accruing work to which Paul applied himself with the blessing and authorization of the high priest and the leaders of his nation. This was the jewel in his already outstanding resume. And even as he undertook that work, Paul kept his hands clean. “As to righteousness under the Law, blameless.” He knew the commandments and customs governing the life of his people, and he followed them. Even in the midst of dangerous, violent work, there was nowhere for Paul’s conscience to cry out against him. Nowhere for the voice of doubt and anxiety to trouble his mind. Paul’s resume was burnished by the admiration of his peers, blessed by the approval of his elders, and buoyed by an inner sense of satisfaction and certainty. He had achieved that after which we all struggle and strain. Paul had earned acceptance. He could point to his value. He could take confidence in his own worthiness.
But then, God intervened. The Risen Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus. The Risen Jesus stepped into the middle of Paul’s zealous, righteous, acceptable and accepted life. The Risen Jesus found Paul who was breathing threats and murder against the Church; Paul who was seeking to destroy the followers of Jesus; Paul was persecuting the Lord himself, and Jesus called him. He called Paul not because of his resume, but in spite of it. Jesus called Paul not because he was impressed by his credentials, but because in mercy he was willing to overlook Paul’s credentials. Jesus called him not because Paul had won the approval of his people or because Paul had impressed his elders or even because Paul had been born to the chosen race. Jesus called Paul according to his own purposes, and for the sake of God’s greater glory.
Speaking to the Philippians of his own sterling resume, Paul says, “Whatever gains I had, I have come to consider them as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” “I regard everything as loss.” The pride of his own pedigree became worthless. The zeal of his persecution was turned to the zeal of proclamation. The righteousness that Paul had so carefully and so confidently built up through his own diligent work and his own assiduous effort and his own upstanding behavior–all this, all this Paul cast aside on the rubbish heap of his own pride. And in its place, Paul received as God’s gift a different righteousness–a better righteousness–a righteousness found only “through faith in Christ: the righteousness from God based in faith.”
Finished and done were the weary days of Paul’s resume building. Over and forgotten were the accomplishments he had piled up for the sake of human acceptance. The Risen Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus and announced that Paul was to be called to new and better work–work carried out, not in order to gain approval, but work made possible because God in his mercy had already granted approval. As Paul himself put it, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have obtained this or have already reached this goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
For the truth of the matter, beloved, is that the Risen Jesus is not fooled by our facades. The Risen Jesus is not impressed by our resumes. The Risen Jesus is not interested in the adulation of our friends or the derision of our enemies. The Risen Jesus does not care whether we have found acceptance with our fellow women and men, or whether we have know the long and lonely existence of an outsider.
But as he did to prideful Paul on the dusty road to Damascus, even so does the Risen Jesus call to his people still. The Risen Jesus calls to you now. He calls to you in the words of the Scriptures and, by grace, through the words of this poor preacher. He calls to you in the prayers we offer and the songs we sing. He calls to you in the gifts we present, and he calls to you, at last, in the inestimable love made manifest in the gift of himself at this altar.
The Risen Jesus stands before you in all the bluster and busy-ness of your resume building and says, as he said once to the tempestuous waves and the high-tossed seas: “Peace. Be still.” The Risen Jesus stands before you in all your work and your worrying–in all your self-justifying, self-doubting, self-loathing, self-centeredness–and says, as he said once to a raggle-taggle band of illiterate fishermen, “Come ye after me.” The Risen Jesus stands before you in all your fear of failure and your jealous lusting after the good given to others and says, as he said once to his foolish, faithless Peter, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me.” This Risen Jesus stands before us, dear people, in all our yearning for acceptance and all our anxiety about rejection and says, as he said once to his astonished disciples, “Lo, I am with you always: even unto the end of the world.”
So bring to this altar today your resume. Bring all your arguments for worthiness, all your explanations of acceptability. Bring the accomplishments of which you are justly proud and the failures of which you are deathly afraid. Bring your images and your facades, bring your trophies and your chains, bring all that you wish others might see in you, and all that you are terrified that others might see in you. Bring them all, dear people of God, to this altar.
And here lay them down. Here let them be crushed under the merciful weight of that stone rejected by the builders, which has become the chief cornerstone. The good and the bad, the proud and the shameful, the resumes and the rap sheets alike. Change them here for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. Yield up what you cannot hope to keep for what you cannot stand to lose. And then, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [let us press on] toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”