Our Stories This Story: The Old

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here, (“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here.

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

Psalm 126: 5-7 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Introduction

“I have enough years under my belt to feel the conflict of knowing what I’m doing and not knowing what I’m doing. Or maybe I should say: I’m old enough to know I once thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I’m not so sure I did. I wish I had done some things differently, maybe thought a bit longer about certain things? I don’t know. Age has its benefits, hindsight is 20/20, and my body really hurts. … Yes, I’ve seen humanity get through war and violence; I’ve seen social unrest sooth; I think I’ve even seen progress made through struggle and fight, but now I don’t know…did I imagine it? Gosh, my heart breaks for the younger generations; I feel their pain so deeply. I wish I could share hope, but I don’t know if they’d listen, or if they even want to hear from me… Sometimes I feel like they just don’t have a use for me or for my stories or my experience and learned wisdom…I just feel pointless, shuffled off to the side, in the way, my fire and flame are gone, I’m burnt out.”[1]

We’ve become a people who passes on utility rather than story.

We do not treat our older generation as well as we should. It seems our society has decided that if you can’t work, you aren’t worth anything. If you can’t participate in productive society, pull your weight, carry your load, bear your burden (physically), then you aren’t worth anything to the group. So, off you go! The voices of experience pushed to the fringe, just like slower drivers get pushed to the side. If you can’t keep up, get off the road! In a fast paced, strong-only, autonomous society, where does our older generation find its place?

In the telling of their stories.

But we’re a society that’s sacrificed our storied nature to unhealthy relationships with toil, to forced isolation of the middle age of parenting, to silencing the youth. We’ve grown so backwards in our relationships that we have forgotten how to allow ourselves the time to sit at the feet of those wiser and more storied than we are. We’re so separated from one another—generationally speaking—that we fight against each other rather than listen, criticize each other rather than see the likeness, blame each other rather than receive.

And yet…the irony. We’re genetically constructed material stories of generations long, long past. The way our face is shaped, the color of our hair, the sway of our walk, the way you kick your leg when it’s crossed over the other one, that look he gives when he’s appalled, the way they say that word…it’s all passed down; potentially decades and centuries of mannerisms and genetics and traits passed down and we—each of us—are that miraculous material story. And here we are disregarding the story-tellers…

In priding ourselves in our strength, ability, productivity, and usefulness we’ve lost sight of the necessity of the guidance and hindsight of those who have walked this earth longer than we have. When we focus so much on the accolades of our utility, we won’t have time for the story-tellers because doing is better than listening; activity is better than passivity; to be able is better than to be unable; to give is better than to receive. But this mindset creates a sick and malnourished people, trapped in the hubris of the façade of our various strengths and autonomy, caught in the hierarchy of doing and abledness that perpetuates the fear that when I can’t any longer, I’m pointless.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone thinks to have another confidence with respect to the flesh, I [have] more. Circumcision on the 8th day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, according to the law, a Pharisee, according to zeal a persecutor of the congregation, according to righteousness which came by the law, blameless. But whatever gain it was to me, these things I consider loss through Christ. But more than that, I consider all things to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, through whom all things I have lost, and I consider refuse so that I might gain Christ and I might be found in him…

Phil. 3:4b-9a

When it comes to a contest of perfection, Paul knows exactly where he’d fall: the top of the heap, lead dog of the pack, the honcho of honchos. Make no mistake, Paul was exactly what he claimed to be: excellent, according to law and status. He had and was all that his society esteemed as excellent, good, right, the “who” of “who’s”. While we may want to cast stones at him for bragging too much; let’s hold off for a moment. Rather, let’s see what he’s saying in this context to this audience, the Philippians.

Paul had everything; this is his confession first and foremost. Hey, Philippians, I was the cream of the crop! But he doesn’t stop there because it doesn’t mean anything to Paul now… But now, he counters, I count it all—every accolade, every achievement, every accomplishment, every status—as dung. In a world where status, strength, doing, and achieving are everything, Paul calls BS (and yes, that word “refuse” or “dung” can also be translated in a more vivid way…). In other words, for Paul, all of that emphasis on doing and achieving, being able and strong, top and best, perfect in the eyes of others and according to human made structures, means absolutely, positively nothing. It’s garbage. It’s refuse. It’s dung. It’s… whatever word you want there.

Paul desires not to be known by what he can do; rather Paul wants to be known by what Christ has done. Paul desires not to be known by his achievements, doing, and abledness, but by this crazy story of God incarnate loving humanity and the cosmos so much that God would not only take on flesh, but would also suffer on the hard wood of the cross—an instrument of death of the state—judged as the least and lowest of society, unworthy of life and liberty…worthy only of death. This is the story Paul wants decorating the hallways and aisles of his mind and body, of his history and future. Paul opts for this story as the thing to pass on; not his accolades and achievements. He desires to pass on his weakness and not his strength.

Conclusion

We need to do better by our story tellers. As Christians, we’ve no excuse in giving preference to the capable able-bodied, the strong doers, the decorated achievers. I’m not saying that we now treat those who can poorly; rather, we must treat all of us with the same dignity and equality, the same love and reverence, the same importance and need as we treat those who are able to carry their own.

Dr. Dorothee Sölle in her book, Suffering, argues for an understanding of Christianity highlighting this errant dichotomy between those who can and those who cannot. She articulates that Christianity isn’t for the abled, but for the unabled.

“Christianity exists for slaves. It is the religion of the oppressed, of those marked by affliction. It concerns itself with needs. People are pronounced blessed not because of their achievements or their behavior, but with regard to their needs. Blessed are the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the hungry…I am not referring to the religion of slavery which perpetuates slavery, but rather to the religion of those unfortunate for a time to time to whom life is promised. Their suffering, their rights, their truth are expressed.”[2]

Dorothee Sölle “Suffering” 159-160

Blessed are the weak, blessed are those who receive, blessed are those who can’t any longerBlessed are those whose bodies hurt, whose eyes have seen, whose hands have done, and whose stories hold deep and profound truth, wisdom, and hope.  

No life is more valuable than another based on placement in time; no body is more valuable than another based on what it can and cannot do; no one is more valuable than another based on strength and accolades. If we want a human society worthy of the declaration “truly human” we must make more room for our story-tellers; we are nothing without them. They, holding hands with the youth, form the basis of hope and possibility for those of us caught in the middle. 

The story we have been given, the one we are walking through right now affirms the nobility, dignity, and beauty of bodies and lives and people, of flora and fauna, of creation and cosmos. Christ came to give life to those who were deprived of it. Christ came to liberate the captives. Christ came to unburden the burdened. Christ came to give humanity a better story than the one they’d written for themselves and deemed good. Christ came to give them a story that is very good. Christ came to give us—all of us—a story that brings each of us, no matter where we are on our journey, life…life abundant.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Sölle Suffering 159-160; see also pages 161-162, specifically, “It is in fact the religion of those who have been disinherited and condemned by life. Contrary to all vitalism and all worship of the healthy and strong, Christianity sees life better preserved by those who have already died once. God ‘will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick’ (Isa. 42:3, NEB)—contrary to all principles of selection.” See also Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text, Our God Loves Justice, p. 176, quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a full unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by privileged minority so that only the modest remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

The Big Engine Who Thought She Could Not

There was once a big engine that could, so she thought.

Until, one day, she decided she definitely could not.

Her eyes traveled along the track up the great, big hill.

The daunting task engulfed her; steam puffs went still.

She grit her teeth and tried to gather from inside,

But the biggest problem was that her fire had died.

All alone on her track and without support to be found,

Her momentum slowed, then her wheels made no sound.

They stopped rolling forward; they went completely dead on the track.

All the work and the fight had worn her thin; she felt her morale slack.

An incredible exhaustion seized upon her tired frame fast

Until she started rolling backward, her forward-part last.

Anxious panic set in. What should I do? Where should even I start?

The bend was nearing, so she gripped the track with all her heart.

She caught herself in time before hitting the deadly, sharp turn;

But, man, did that friction between wheel and rail begin to burn.

She held still and began to regain her steely, metal composure,

When something caught her eye down below the steep shoulder.

Up the steep climb a small engine came huffing,

Wheels slowly turning and steam clouds puffing.

The small engine stopped to take a quick needed breather,

And the bigger engine turned so she could clearly see her.

Then their eyes met and locked together in knowing;

The smaller was following where the bigger was going.

“You shouldn’t proceed…” the big one said. “This path is quite frightful.”

The smaller smiled and replied, “But I hear the view is quite delightful.”

“Plus,” the small train started then stopped and then continued to speak,

“I never knew an engine built like us could even consider going to the peak;

Then I watched you start climbing higher and higher!”

Silence fell; the big engine felt something stir inside her.

The little one to the big spoke again, words fast embolding;

The big one leaned in toward the little she was beholding.

“And it’s not just me who has been inspired by your acts…”

Just then more chugging was heard below on the tracks.

More engines were weaving and wending up the treacherous mountainside.

She watched these little trains climb, inspired by how they worked and tried.

“I’ve been at this all wrong….” The thought began to grow in her mind.

“I’ve been looking for help from the side and ahead and not from behind.”

Her gaze returned to the tracks she was desperately clinging upon,

“Maybe…” she thought to herself. “Maybe for them I can climb on?

Even if it’s only an inch or two farther that I can offer,

It’ll be one less inch or two they will have to fight for.

She closed her eyes and gathered up her remaining bits of strength.

“For them…” She grit her teeth, bore down, and powered a length.

“For her…” and she went forward…covering more distance!

What had begun to stir was a full-fledged fire in an instance!

And on the train chugged and huffed,

Engine strong and steam clouds puffed.

There once was a big engine that gave into thinking that she could not;

Until one day a smaller engine reminded her she could, so she fought.