Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sermon, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Purpose," Philippians 3:12-16

Sermon 1/19/14
Philippians 3:12-16

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Purpose

            Today we are starting a new sermon series called: Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples. Last week we celebrated a renewal of our baptismal covenant, as we were reminded of God’s promises to us in our baptism, and we also reaffirmed our vows – vows perhaps someone else took for us once, on our behalf, before we could even remember, or vows we took for ourselves – maybe when you were a teen or maybe as an adult when you reached some significant point of decision in your faith journey. As we reaffirmed our baptismal covenant, we said these words: As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
            For the next several weeks, we’re going to examine each one of those commitments, Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. But today we begin with a broader question, with the main question in fact: purpose. Then, after we look at each of the commitments individually, we’ll ask ourselves what it means for us, for our congregation, because of our purpose, and because of all those things we’ve considered, and so we’ll talk about commitment, and ask ourselves what commitments we’re ready to make.
            As many of you know I spent this past week working on my Doctor of Ministry research, writing my first chapter in my project. The first chapter is just the Introduction and Rationale. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it sets the tone for the work. In the chapter, explain why I chose my research focus and what I think I will learn from my research both personally and professionally, discuss any biases I bring to the project and define any major terms I plan on using. My research is primarily related to the concepts of charity and justice, for example, so I had to define what I mean by those terms. I also had to define what I mean by mission. Do I mean mission like a mission statement? Like missionaries who work to announce the good news? Like a mission trip where people help build a house? Like our mission committee where we talk about what service projects we want to do? So I explained that in my paper, mission would refer to purpose. When I talk about mission in my project, I’m talking about the purpose of our lives and the purpose of the church. You’ve heard us talk about the denomination’s mission statement, our purpose statement: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And back in October, I shared with you my understanding of that mission: Our mission is to keep announcing the same good news Jesus announced: of God’s kingdom, as we also keep working to change our lives so that our values are God’s values. The mission of the church is working to invite others to come alongside us as together, following Jesus, we reorder our lives so that what’s most important to God is also most important to us.
But the most important part of Chapter 1 is that I have to state my research question and my thesis. What question am I asking, and what is the answer I’m going to try to prove in my paper? Any of you have written a paper will remember being taught that you must have a thesis statement that you can prove. And you have to state your thesis right up front, as soon as possible: what’s your purpose for writing the paper? What’s it all about? In my draft project proposal, my advisor said my proposal read too much like a sermon – occupational hazard – and that I needed to get to my thesis sooner. Right away. As I write each chapter in the weeks ahead, everything I write must point back to my thesis. The instructions for the paper are clear – I must constantly loop back to my thesis, and my chapters have to support that my thesis is on target. Everything else I write, no matter how long, how many words, is just a kind of evidence for what I say on the very first page. Like a mission statement, my paper must have a purpose, a thesis, and everything else hinges on that.
             Today we read a text from Philippians, a letter written by the apostle Paul to Christians living in what was a wealthy city in the northern part of Greece, written while he was imprisoned under house arrest in Rome or Ephesus. In our passage for today, Paul has just explained that he’s seeking to know Christ and the power of his resurrection by sharing in Christ’s suffering and become like Christ in death. Paul reasons that you can’t claim the resurrection of Christ unless you’re also willing to take up the cross with Christ. That’s the goal Paul is talking about when our text begins: he is pressing on toward this goal, and he seeks it because he wants to know Christ, even as Christ knows him. “But this one thing I do,” he says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Listen, I’ll admit to you that sometimes the apostle Paul drives me a little crazy. He tends to be a little arrogant, a little boastful. In fact, earlier in this very chapter, Paul says something like: “I’m not gonna boast about my spiritual pedigree, although if anyone had the right to boast, it would certainly be me with the great background I have – but I’m totally not boasting about it.” That’s the Beth paraphrase right there. Paul gets a little full of himself sometimes, and I find myself rolling my eyes. But Paul, I can’t argue, from the moment he becomes a follower of Jesus, from that moment on Paul is incredibly clear about his life’s purpose, and he was clear about how what he thought was God’s purpose in the world. And then, he was clear about what that meant for how he needed to respond, to act, in light of his purpose. And then, he did it. He carried out his purpose with intense devotion and drive and commitment even when it meant imprisonment and eventual death. He was passionate about making sure as many people as possible knew about Jesus and he worked fervently to remove the barriers that others were trying to put up that would keep people from committing to a life of discipleship. Paul had a thesis statement for his life, and he spent the rest of it supporting that thesis. He knew his purpose, and he lived his live on purpose. I admire that a great deal. I aspire to be so clear and directed.     
            I wonder if we are as clear as Paul. Do we think we understand God’s purpose? Do we know our life’s purpose? What is your purpose in life? And then, if we know our purpose, how are we responding, living our lives, in light of that, and in light of God’s purpose for us? Sometimes we talk about doing things “on purpose” or “on accident.” My mother likes to talk about meeting with her life insurance agent when she was still working as a nurse. The agent talked to her about an “accidental death” policy. She joked, “Well, if I die, it sure won’t be on purpose!” He didn’t seem to think it was very funny! When we do something on purpose, we claim responsibility for it. If we say we did something “on accident,” often we’re trying to let folks know that we aren’t responsible for whatever happened. Sometimes, though, I worry that we live our whole lives in sort of an “on accident” mode, never being intentional enough to claim responsibility for how are lives are turning out. We say we have a direction or purpose or set of beliefs that guide our lives, but we don’t state our thesis very boldly, or our life’s supporting paragraphs never seem to loop back to that these statement, or worse, our supporting paragraphs disprove our thesis, showing that whatever we claimed as our purpose was just empty words. We wander through life a bit accidentally, hoping that we’ll also accidentally end up following Jesus. It doesn’t sound like a very good plan, does it? That model wouldn’t make for a very successful research paper, I’m sure, and it doesn’t really sound like Paul, who says, “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ Jesus.
            What is your goal? What is your purpose? And how can you expect to reach the prize without aiming your life purposefully in that direction? I have homework for you this week – and that’s to think about what your purpose statement is. What’s your mission statement? What’s the reason your life matters? I know – that’s a pretty big assignment, the meaning of life and all, and I don’t expect your final answer. Just think of it like a first draft, that you’ll get to revise and revise. The purpose of Elizabeth Quick is to – what? I encourage you to write down what you come up with and carry it with you through the course of this sermon focus of ours. It will be your thesis statement, of sorts, and like with any good essay, we’ll make sure that the supporting paragraphs of prayer and presence and gifts and service and witness that we write together over the next weeks support our purpose. But we have to start with our thesis. What’s your purpose? Your mission statement? If you’re feeling bold, I’d like you to share it with us – the rest of the congregation. Make a copy on a notecard or send it to me via email or facebook – get it to us somehow. You don’t have to put your name on the copy you share if you don’t want to. But I’d really love it if you’d share it with us. Here’s my working thesis: I’m Elizabeth Quick and my purpose is to help announce, in word and in deed, the good news: God’s reign is here, and God is turning things upside down, so make God’s values your values, and follow in the way of Jesus. That’s my purpose. In the weeks ahead, I want to get very specific about whether the supporting paragraphs of my life really hold up my thesis. Can I prove that my thesis true by the way I’m living life? Can you?
            “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

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