- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Texts: Philippians 3:8-14, Luke 10:38-42, Psalm 28:7-11
We have come to celebrate together again this morning as we have all weekend, people of all ages. We come with memories: the Royal Commencement of 1939; our championship teams; the choir, orchestra and band tours; and the pranks, which in their rediscovery grow larger still. We come with thanks for friends who have been loyal, for teachers and staff who cared, challenged and disciplined, too. And we come with some questions. Questions about what really happened, what we might have missed in Prausnitz’ English class, Nordlie’s history class, Burgess’ psych class, or Noblitt’s political science class. We wonder how our friends are doing now. And there are those “what-might-have-been” questions. Someone said, “If we had our live to live over, we’d make some mistakes sooner.” But wonder we do about our relationships, about our careers, about our faith, and about the future.
Questions of this sort make this morning’s texts especially meaningful. When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he was addressing a strong congregation in a stable, prosperous community on the edge of the Western World. They had questions about their past. They remembered how it had been before Paul had come and their town had been dominated by the religions of the soothsayers and the synagogue. Things had been spirited. Families had been broken up over this new faith. They must have wondered about their former life and there surely were a lot of “what-might-have-beens.” No doubt they were concerned about the present – how they were doing. There were some tensions in the faith community, and rivalries and quarrels. There were some perfectionists among them, while others were inclined toward their former faith with its emphasis on privilege, rights and the keeping of the written law. They were concerned about the future. What was going to happen to their good friend in the faith, Paul? Would the martyrdom that he would experience also become their fate? What should be their priorities?
We are a bit like the Philippians. We live in a reasonably secure and prosperous land. We belong to a community of faith that appears to be strong and vibrant. In our quiet moments we also reflect on issues concerning our past, present, and future. Questions about the past perhaps interest us most on weekends like this. There is the question about how we have invested our lives. Should we have chosen a different career? Did we choose the right friends? Could we have avoided some actions that hurt others or ourselves? Has our faith life been nourished well and faithfully? Could we have tried harder? Did we have our priorities straight?
There is reason enough to raise such issues. There is reason in our lives, reason in the faith tradition. Jesus rebuked the well-meaning Pharisees who thought they were doing the right thing in tithing mint and rue but who neglected justice and love. He scoffed at the religionists who must have had some good intentions, but whose primary concern became having the best seats at the synagogue. The man who prayed so as to be seen was given strong warning. The rich man who may have seemed to be on the right track by faithfully keeping the law came eventually to think his riches were the key to salvation. “Woe to you,” Jesus warned him. Even Martha of our Gospel text, anxious, well-meaning Martha who took time to tend to Jesus’ practical needs, even Martha had trouble with priorities.
Basically, these were the experiences of well-meaning people, people like you and me. Well-meaning people like you and me have similar agendas of self-examination. In a society where the prosperous become more prosperous and the poor become poorer, we may wonder about our own convictions. In an increasingly fragile environment we ponder our stewardship of water, soil, and material. In a world of increasingly relativized values, we may ponder whether or not our values have lost their moorings. In a church increasingly vulnerable to membership flight and membership fancy, we may wonder about the consistency of our own ministries. In a society where home and family are susceptible to the siren song of individualism, we may pause to consider our own faithfulness.
Martha’s experience illustrates an issue that troubles many believers – What’s right? What’s good? What ought I to do? That was a struggle for some of the Philippians. A few thought they had Jesus’ teachings all figured out and they felt they were living a righteous life. Paul could understand that. He had, after all, grown up keeping the Jewish law and keeping it with a vengeance, you might say. So he surely understood. And who among us does not experience the same question as Martha and the Philippians? What’s right? What’s good? How are we to act responsibly?
For others the problem is not about doing the right thing, but about guilt, the awful feeling of loss over missing the mark. Be it failed friendship or failed career, sins of the flesh or sins of the spirit, or a preoccupation with mistakes and shortcomings, the result is the same – gnawing, relentless, destructive guilt. From time to time a pastor, or a dean, or even this president would hear the confession of the graduate who still carries guilt over a wrong thing done or a good thing undone during college years. Countless alums talk with us about opportunities that they think they missed while they were at college or since. And that, I am sure, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Whether you look at your past as a successful exercise in self-improvement or a series of personal failures, there is news for you from Paul. The news is good news, “put it off, put it behind you, forget it.” As Jesus said, sell your property if that vexes you, leave law keeping if it corrupts you, get out of the temple if it’s just for show, put off the old nature and practice, but most important – your guilt over maybes and might-have-beens, over misplays and willful evil – in Paul’s words, put that off too.
Easy to say but how in the world do I lay all this aside? I mean, I can’t just will it – I’ve tried that, you say. I can’t just take a self-improvement course even though that might be helpful. I can’t just change my friends, my job, and my values at the snap of a finger. We’re talking about my whole history, my being – I can’t just “put it off.” Well, that’s so, of course. But after all is said and done, and yes, after all of the psychological theories, theological insights, scientific breakthroughs, and artistic creations of humankind have been accounted for – all of which we admire and aspire to – after all of that, these texts tell us that there is only one thing needful. That is Jesus, the Christ. You remember Martha. She worried and worked for Jesus’ comfort. She did good things. But Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. Jesus was the one thing needful. Paul, as he recounted his life, his misplaced efforts at righteousness and even all of the “successes” of his discipleship of the cross, said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” On that basis he could forget what lay behind. In a commentary on this epistle, the late Joseph Sittler noted that Paul spreads out the Gospel and its many implications in this letter but then in these few verses from this morning’s reading he hones in: the essence of faith is knowing Jesus. It is the one thing needful. Everything else fades in comparison. It permits us to put aside everything else – the sin, the misplaced priorities, all of it!
These words speak to our present about our past. One thing is needful – Jesus Christ. The voice of these words is a voice we have always known. It is the voice that spoke to us in our baptism – one thing is needful, Jesus Christ. It is the voice that spoke to us through parents and pastors in church and home – one thing is needful, Jesus Christ. It is the voice that has spoken to generations of Cobbers in the persons of those we call and called our campus pastors: Carl B. Ylvisaker, Sigvald Fauske, J. Melvin Moe, Arthur Grimstad, Otto Bratlie, Carl Lee, Ernie Mancini and Phil Holtan. It is the voice embodied in scores of teachers, deans, janitors, cooks and groundskeepers, people whom you each name in memory and forever and always the voice says – one thing is needful, Jesus Christ.
There is a miracle in these words. There was a miracle at the tomb. There is a miracle in the baptismal water, in the bread and the wine and in the breaking of the word. The miracle of life in Christ catches us. We don’t possess it like a car we buy, but it possesses us. It’s a miracle that takes on flesh. It gives people freedom from the past. In Paul’s words, “we can forget what lies behind” – the failed resolve, the misplaced priorities, the broken relationships, the self-indulgence – and the self-righteousness too. Put it behind.
There is one thing needful – Jesus Christ. And He comes to us, we don’t make the journey, He does – every day.
- His power to forgive is ever greater than our capacity to sin.
- He understands us better than anyone else understands us.
- He forgives us when no one else does.
- He empowers us when every other helper abandons us.
- He stays with us when all the other keepers have fallen asleep.
- And He counsels us when all the sages of the world have failed.
What about tomorrow? What about the future? Well, there is a good word here, too. The word is “press on.” For Paul, knowing Christ dealt with both the past and the future enabled him to put off the past and press on to the future unencumbered by all the old freight of sin and self-consciousness. Paul was a busy one. He accepted a commission to take the Gospel to the whole world. That was a big agenda and so too, was the itinerary. Reaching Philippi on the edge of the Western World was significant, but that wasn’t all of it for Paul. There was precedent for his restlessness. Precedent in the God of Israel, who kept after His chosen people, delivering them from evil, chastising them in their self-indulgence, and offering them a new Kingdom. There was precedent in the ministry of Christ, who, in His own way, pressed on with the news of salvation in spite of stiff-necked listeners, conceited religious leaders, jealous politicians, and disloyal followers.
None of this should surprise us, of course. The God who created us is still busy with creation. God is not static, nor is God’s world. Nor is our discipleship. Like Paul we are a restless people constantly putting off the old and pressing on to the new in obedience to the call, in response to the promise. As St. Augustine put it, “Thou has formed us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless ‘til they rest in Thee.”
- So we are restless about people who are ill clad and ill housed and ill-fed.
- We are restless about people in bondage.
- We are restless about those who have not heard the good news or who are indifferent to it.
- We are restless about efforts to know truth about the world without looking at the one who is truth.
- We are restless about a church that sometimes seems more concerned about politics than proclamation.
- We are restless to maintain church colleges as places where faith and learning sustain and support each other.
As people restless for the Gospel, we too live with tension between conviction and reality. We debate about how God’s affirmation for life should shape both private decisions and public policy about abortion and the rationing of increasingly scarce medical care. We are appalled by the problems, but there is not agreement among us on how to respond. We want to halt the degradation of the global environment and the misdistribution of life-sustaining resources, but we don’t know how that can best be achieved. We want the evangelism effort of our church to be front and center, but we are not clear about how best to embody that priority. We also live with the knowledge that we may, with Christ and Paul, have to pay a price for our discipleship. The price may be unpopularity when your convictions leave you alone, the price may be poverty of body when your calling is to a dry and fallow place in the Kingdom, the price may be death itself when discipleship places a cross in our way.
Paul could press on and Cobbers of every generation can press on, and Concordia can press on because of what Christ has already done and what has been promised to us. In the words of the Psalmist:
“The Lord is our strength and our shield; in Him our hearts trust; we are helped, and our hearts exalt and with song we give thanks to Him. For the Lord is the strength of His people, He is the saving refuge of His anointed.”
So choose the one thing needful, put off the past and press on to the call of God in Christ. Amen.