(Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2011 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14)
My grandfather, Roy Thomas, went into hospice twelve days ago, after several difficult weeks in the hospital. Less than twenty-four hours later, he passed away due to complications from being alive for more than nine decades. I awoke to the phone ringing at quarter to six in the morning, and I knew before answering what the news would be. Now, my grandfather and I were never close. There are no pictures of him teaching me how to fly fish or taking me to the ballgame or riding a tractor with me perched on his lap. There was never a Norman Rockwell moment in our relationship. He sent me a card each birthday, and I saw him every other year, give or take.
So, when I broke down weeping in my office a few hours after I received the call from my father, I was taken completely by surprise. Where were those tears coming from? How could the loss of someone, with whom I had but a passing relationship, hit me so hard in my gut? These were the questions I was asking myself as I wiped the tears away. I felt a bit silly, crying so uncontrollably when I was sure I was just fine, thank you very much. But perhaps, more fitting questions ask exactly the opposite. How could I be surprised that I felt such tear-stained grief over the loss of my own grandfather, no matter the state of our connection? How could I possibly think that the loss of a member of my own family wouldn’t hit me so hard in my gut?
The concept of “loss” is tricky thing. The overriding fact of earthly life is that one day – perhaps not today or tomorrow, but one day – we will lose our earthly lives. Everyone dies. There are no exceptions. We have thousands upon thousands of years of data backing up this reality. And yet, we train ourselves to ignore this overriding fact. We assume that death is something that happens to other people – fuzzy, nebulous people on the news and in the obituaries. Not the people we love. Not the people close to us.
But then a relative develops an aggressive cancer. Or a friend flips his SUV. Or a grandparent goes into hospice. And the illusion that loss only happens to other people shatters. The overriding fact that earthly life always ends sneaks up and surprises us, even though this fact is enmeshed in the very fabric of existence.
And death isn’t the only kind of loss we encounter. We confront loss on a daily basis, and still we have tremendous difficulty dealing. There is the loss of autonomy when others make decisions for us. There is the loss of relationships when we part ways with those who have made impacts on our lives. There is the loss of material possessions, the loss of health, the loss of trust, the loss of baseball games (sorry, fellow Sox fans). There is even the loss of loss, which is the grief that happens in response to you realizing that you are no longer grieving.
With loss surrounding us all the time, you’d think we’d have developed ways to deal that didn’t include various forms of denial and willful ignorance. But more often than not, we ignore the potential for loss until the loss is right in front of us hitting us in the gut.
And this willful ignorance is what made me read today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians over and over again. Paul writes: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”
Somehow, Paul’s relationship with Jesus Christ has allowed Paul to confront the reality of loss head on, well before any sort of loss has a chance to sneak up and surprise him. How does Paul do this? Let’s take a look. Can we do the same? Yes, I think we can.
According to Philippians, Paul values knowing Christ Jesus above all else. Nothing even comes close. The value of being in relationship with Jesus surpasses everything. And because knowing Jesus is so incalculably valuable, everything else in Paul’s life seems utterly insignificant. The gulf between what was important before meeting Christ and what is important now that he has met Christ is so wide that Paul can barely see the stuff of his old life shrinking in the distance.
And, therefore, he regards everything as loss. Based on Paul’s own words and my interpretation of them a moment ago, we might come away with the impression that nothing besides being in relationship with Christ should matter, that we should ignore everything that isn’t Jesus. This is the interpretation favored by hermits and ascetics that got away from everything to focus on God. However, I’m not convinced that that’s what Paul had in mind. We must keep going, because so far we’ve only gotten through the first half of Paul’s discussion.
Because Paul values his relationship with Christ above all else, he no longer attempts to cling to the rest of his life. He lets go of everything – his relationships, his possessions, his fears, his illusions. But all of this that Paul regards as loss is not lost. Paul does not cast everything into the void. Rather, he gives everything away to Christ. He gives everything to Jesus, and in doing so, Paul finds that everything he has regarded as loss was always God’s in the first place. Even Paul himself.
Paul relates this comforting reality to the Philippians: “Not that I have already obtained [the resurrection] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Christ Jesus has made me his own. These words are the crux of Paul’s ability to deal with loss. The surpassing value of knowing Christ compels Paul to give everything up to Jesus and thus find himself at a loss. But in the act of giving away everything to Jesus, Paul discovers that Jesus has taken even more. Jesus has taken Paul. Jesus has made Paul his own, along with all that stuff that Paul gave him.
And Christ has made us his own, as well. When we enter into relationship with Christ, the surpassing value of that relationship makes everything else seem entirely insignificant. This seeming insignificance allows us to release our stranglehold on everything that we have been putting in place of a relationship with Christ. And when we release our grip and give away everything to Christ, we will find that Christ has already obtained us in the bargain.
Because Christ Jesus has made us his own, he has empowered us to give to him everything and everyone that we possibly could lose before the loss sneaks up and surprises us. Does this make grieving un-Christian? Of course not. Rather, our grief is one of the things that Christ invites us to give over, so that God might enfold us in our hour of need.
When my grandfather passed away eleven days ago, I was not prepared for the sense of loss that would hit me. Perhaps, this profound loss of someone I didn’t even realize I was clinging to has opened my eyes to truth that I still have plenty to give away to Christ. I would hazard to bet that we all continue to cling to things that have never really been ours to cling to. The good news is this: Any loss, any gain, any grief, any joy, any challenge, any victory is ours to share with Jesus Christ because Christ has made us his own.