James S. Stewart taught Preaching at Edinburg University in Edinburg, Scotland and often lectured at Yale Divinity School, here in America. Stewart was one of the best known preachers of the 20th century. He was born in 1896. In 1980, when he was 84 years old, I wrote him to thank him for a book that he wrote about the life and theology of St. Paul, entitled, “A Man in Christ”, more than 20 years before. Much to my surprise, Stewart wrote me back, saying that my letter, coming in as it did, when he was more than a decade deep in retirement, was like “a bright light in the gloaming to a weary traveler nearing home.” I treasured those words, and for the next 38 years, I kept that letter on display in my study. I treasure something Stewart said in one of his Yale Lectures on Preaching even more. In his lecture, “A Faith to Proclaim,” Stewart wrote:
The central business of preaching today is to tell men and women (and boys and girls) that the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to them right now, not just in the hour of death, but in the midst of life.
St. Paul would have agreed. In Philippians 3 he writes that the goal of his life is “to know Christ,” and “the Power of his resurrection.” Then in verses, 13 and 14 , he lays down what he believes to be a three step process to achieving that goal. It occurs to me that the same process may help us, define and achieve our own goals, both personally and as a congregation.
First, Paul says that we must focus all of efforts on one thing. In verse 13, he writes, “This one thing I do.” One thing!
One of my favorite movies is the 1991 movie, “City Slickers,” staring Billy Crystal as Mitch Robbins—a City Slicker, having a midlife crisis, and Jack Palance, as Curley, one of the last of the old time cowboys, who, in all of his long life, had never faced a crisis he could not handle. In a key scene, Curley and Mitch, are ridding along, pushing a heard of cattle; and Curley criticizes Mitch and his friends saying:
“You city slickers are all alike. You spend fifty weeks a year, in the city, getting knots in your rope, then you come up here for two weeks, and hope to straighten them out.”
Then Curley says, “You know what the secret of life is?”
And Mitch says, “No, what?”
Curley holds up a single-finger.
And Mitch says, “Your finger?”
And Curley says, “One thing, just one thing. You stick to that and the rest is just, “refuse in the street.” You know what “refuse in the street” is…it is a four letter word that begins with S.
And Mitch says, “That ’s great, but what’s the one thing?”
And Curley says, “That’s what you got to figure out.”
I don’t know about you, but I like variety. I pride myself that my knowledge runs broad rather than deep. I am fond of saying that I am a jack of all trades, and a master of none. Paul advised the opposite approach, he says that if we are to really know Christ and the power of his resurrection, we have got to concentrate on one thing. This means that we cannot be like the gentle rain that falls hither and yon across the landscape, we have got to be like a powerful jet of water, stream of water under high-pressure, that cuts through the soil and rock of a mountainside to reveal the gold beneath.
Along these same lines, popular author, Malcolm Gladwell, says that the only way to become world class in any field is to practice “one thing” for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.
I think if you and I are going to achieve the success we want as individuals, and if Fries Memorial Moravian Church is going to achieve the kind of success that you want for it as a church, we have got to find the one thing that God has called us to do an do that one thing. We may be still discovering what our one thing is, but discover it we must.
Secondly, Paul says that in order to gain union with Christ and lay hold of the power of his resurrection he is willing to “forget what lies behind.”
1. Now, in saying that we should forget what lies behind, Paul does not mean that we should try to be something we are not. We can never not be what we have become. If we start a journey, we must start from where we are. If we are to build a future, we must start from where we are, not from where we would like to be. For instance, Paul was a persecutor of the church. After he became an apostle of the risen Christ he made use of this fact because it added to the evidentiary value of his testimony. Thus, In 1st Corinthians 15, he list a variety of appearances of the Risen Christ: to Peter and the twelve, to the 500 at one time, to James the brother of the Lord, and to all the apostles. Then he writes:
“And last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he appeared also unto me, for I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God, but by the grace of God, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I but the grace of God which is with me.”
And soon the people were saying, “Hey, Paul is preaching the very faith he once tried to destroy!” And they glorified God because of Paul’s impeccable witness!
2. In saying that he is “forgetting what lies behind” Paul does not mean that he is forgetting the lessons he has learned. Abraham Lincoln was right. Those who fail to learn and remember the lessons of history are domed to repeat them. The lessons we have learned from personal and family history are just as important as the lessons of our nation or our world. It is rare for anyone to succeed without first passing through a series of failures. And you know the definition of success: Success means getting up one more time than life knocks you down. When we lived in that big white house, my daughter Edyth once said to me, “Daddy, I am never afraid to admit a mistake, because when I admit a mistake, I am also saying that I am smarter today, in admitting my mistake, than I was yesterday, in making my mistake.”
Edyth was right; but only half right. The truth is that it is easier to learn from mistakes and failure than success, but we must also learn to go beyond success. Why? Because there are times when the perfect is the enemy of the good, and times when good is the enemy of the perfect. “Good, better, best; never let it rest, until the good is better and the better is best.” We usually stop at good enough; but Paul did not stop. He was circumcised on the 8th day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, at the Law a Pharisee, as to righteousness under the law Blameless. But he did not stop there. What ever gain he had he “counted as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, my Lord.”
It was Billy Graham who said, “It does no good to give God our failures, without also giving God our successes.”
You know, the hardest think I have to do in life is to turn my back on what has worked for me in the past. Likewise, the hardest thing that you will have to do as a congregation is turn your back on things that have worked for you in the past. Let me give you a series of example that will make some of you mad: Would you be willing to welcome any person on the planet to this congregation, red or yellow, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor? James Stewart used to tell the story of a British Rocker, or Mod, coming into a church back in the 1960’s. The communion service was about to start. The boy had long greasy hair, and he was dressed in filthy denim. He came all the way down to the front, and sat down on the floor in front of the first pew. One of the ushers at the church, an older man, dressed very formerly, and properly, in a morning coat, came down and sat on the floor beside the boy, and together they shared the holy communion.” Or what about this. Henry Fries was once one of the best known men in Winston-Salem. Today, few remember him. Would you be willing to change the name of this church to prepare the way for new success as a congregation? Or, would you be willing to knock down the parsonage and put up a parking lot to prepare the way for your new success as a congregation? Or, would you be willing to sell this building—like your spiritual ancestors once sold the 4th Street location, to prepare the way for your new success as a congregation?
You say, “Worth, you have quit preaching and gone to medlin’.” No, I am not suggesting any of those things. Those things are just examples of things that Paul would consider small potatoes compared to the past that he himself had to forget in order to take the next step to union with Christ and the power of his resurrection.
3. There is a third point I wish to make about Paul, he said he straining forward to what lies ahead, and pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Dod you feel the tension in these words? Paul said he was “straining forward to what lies ahead.” he was “pressing on toward the goal” for “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Like Paul, I know that the future is coming to us in Jesus Christ; I am just not so certain about all the rest. I once asked Bishop Wayne Burkett what he saw for the future of the church, not just this church, and not just the Moravian denomination, but of the whole Church of Jesus Christ. He said, “I don’t know, and anyone who claims to know is either deceiving themselves, or they are lying.”
The future is uncertain; but God is faithful. What does the hymnist say:
I know not what the future hath, of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death, God’s mercy underlies.
Or perhaps you like the way that Alison Kraus says it:
There are things about tomorrow
That I don’t seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.
Finally, Paul says that our goal is “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” That is RSV. The NRSV says, “the heavenly call of God.” I like the “upward call” better than the “heavenly call,” because the journey is just as important as the destination. The late E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary in India. A man of India once asked him, “Mr. Jones, are you a Christian?” And Jones replied, “No, I am not yet made, for I fall far short of Jesus, but I am a Christian in the making, and I am glad that I am, for their is joy in the making.” Following Jesus is not just about the destination it is about the journey. When we live from the future that is coming to us in him, we live before the God who holds the future, and with the one who holds our hand.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.