Sermons

Sun, Oct 04, 2020

What if?

Series:Sermons
Duration:12 mins 31 secs

Are there times when you wonder, “What if?”

To be honest, I certainly have.

 

What if I hadn’t married at such a young age––

long before I was mature enough…

or before I knew what I wanted or needed?

What if I had been able to afford it…

and I had been able to accept the offer that I received… 

of a place in the PhD programme at the University of Cambridge… 

or at the University of Glasgow…

rather than stay in little old Adelaide?

What if I had held out a bit longer…

and been offered that academic position in America–– 

for which, I discovered later, that I had been short-listed––

rather than going to Melbourne?

What if I had not pursued ordination but had stayed as a full-time academic?

What if I had opted to remain in Melbourne––

and the possibility of a fairly comfortable Uniting Church position––

rather than trying to return to Adelaide…

and banging my head against the dysfunctional local system?

What if, a year ago…

my doctor had ordered follow-up tests…

and the surgeon hadn’t been so quick to dismiss some of my symptoms…

and my thyroid condition had been properly diagnosed—

and properly treated––

rather than my thyroid being removed?

As I get older…

I have to confess…

it’s tempting to look back and to ponder the ‘what ifs’…

and to remember the ‘what was’––

both positively and negatively.

It’s tempting to ponder how things might have been different…

and how my life might have unfolded… 

if circumstances had been a little more favourable;

or if I could go back and change some of the mistakes that I have made.

 

In different ways, and to different degrees, I think that many––

if not all of us––

are haunted by our past.

We’re haunted by the things that we have done––

things that we’re ashamed of;

things that we regret;

things that we wish we could undo or change… 

but with which we simply have to live.

But, in a way, I think that we’re often haunted as well by our achievements and by our successes––

by the things that we have done that we’re proud of,

but which, perhaps, we have spent the rest of our lives trying to repeat or to live up to;

or simply trying to bask in their glory.

We can be haunted by those moments of sheer exhilaration…

when life seemed wonderful and everything was perfect––

a far cry from the more common everyday reality that we experience.

And we can be haunted by our pleasant memories––

especially as we get older;

when the present increasingly becomes a struggle––

with the body wearing out or racked with pain…

the short-term memory fading…

making distant memories more immediate;

when we begin looking back over our lives…

living in our memories…

living in the past.

And subtly, or not so subtly, we can actually stop living in the present––

a present that so often seems fraught and fearful.

But I think that we’re also haunted by our past collectively

as a church.

Facing what may seem to be a fraught and fearful future…

it’s easy to dwell on memories of the past––

memories of glory days…

when Sunday services were packed…

with people hanging from the rafters…

a large choir belting out anthems…

and the Sunday School teeming with children;

a past when the world was a much simpler place;

when, as a church, all you had to do was open your doors…

and people would flock in.

But not now.

As we grow older, wearier, and smaller in number…

we’re increasingly haunted by our past.

 

When Paul wrote to the Philippian Church, he was an old man…

sitting in prison…

facing a fraught and fearful future;

facing what could well turn out to be a painful and shameful death.

And here––

in our reading this morning–– 

it seems like he’s caught up in a sense of nostalgia;

like he’s pausing to reflect on his life…

and examining his past:

the privileges into which he had been born;

his achievements; 

and his mistakes and failings.

But, then, he appears to completely wipe off his past…

describing it–– 

quite literally in the original Greek––

as “crap”:

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…I regard them as rubbish”.

Here, Paul claims that he is not dwelling on the past––

nostalgically or otherwise––

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal”.

Despite his advancing years…

despite his predicament…

despite the uncertainty that he faces…

Paul’s isn’t seeking to escape into the past.

Nor is he trying to escape into dreams of a distant future.

Rather, his focus is on the present.

It’s like Paul is saying…

“Yes, that’s where I have come from––

I was born with certain privileges.

I accomplished some things of which I was proud…

and I also made some mistakes.

But, ultimately, none of that matters.

What matters is how I live now––

in this moment.

I want to keep striving.

I want to continue to grow, to learn, to change.

I want to endure what I face with dignity and honour.

I want to be faithful to God in how I live, and speak, and act.

I want to reach out and make Christ’s love known––

in the way that I face the challenges of the present.

I want to become more Christ-like”.

 

Maybe there’s a sense, here, in which Paul is trying to convince himself.

Maybe there’s a sense in which he’s trying to steel himself for what lies ahead.

Maybe there’s also a touch of rhetoric and bravado.

And yet, clearly, he’s also writing this for the benefit of the Philippians––

who face their own uncertain future…

as they encounter their own difficulties and struggles…

as they seek to live as God’s people in their particular place…

and as they face a future without him.

So, Paul is also trying to encourage them:

whatever you face and whatever you encounter…

don’t dwell on the past.

Rather, keep pressing on.

Keep living out your calling as the people of God in this place.

Keep striving to be more Christ-like––

welcoming…

accepting…

loving…

and pursuing justice, mercy, and peace.

Keep pressing on.

 

Perhaps, like the Philippian Church…

this Church, too, faces an uncertain future.

And it would be very easy for us to dwell on the past––

on past achievements and past glories––

and, in a sense, simply to give up… 

and wait to die.

But, like Paul, I want to encourage you:

live in the present;

keep pressing on;

keep being the sort of intelligent and inclusive…

warm and welcoming community that you are;

be open and honest;

love indiscriminately;

work for justice and peace;

don’t be insular or inwardly-focused;

and don’t be afraid to risk or to change.

Keep living out your calling as God’s people in this place…

and keep striving to be more Christ-like each and every day.

Trust in the God who continually brings new beginnings out of endings…

and life out of death.

And take hold of new, abundant, resurrected life––

now.

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