“Pressing On” / Philippians 3:7-14 / 8 October 2017
“I press on.” Paul says it twice in this segment of his Letter to the Philippians. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on.” I actually want to kick back against old Paul here, maybe just a little. Isn’t it part of this world’s trouble that we’re always pressing on, pushing forward, forgetting what lies behind? Isn’t it a great portion of our sorrow that we allow the past with its wisdom and its learnings to slip too readily from our grasp? All the tech wizards, and the smart phone makers, and the driverless car engineers, and the Apostle Paul himself! What’s their great hurry? It’s dizzying how fast things change. And still, the Apostle presses on, for to him, the past is a thing he’s ashamed of. “I press on, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on.” And you, whatever you face when you leave this place today, whatever habits have you stuck, whatever tired old thoughts keep haunting you with their painful half-truths and outright lies, whatever sadness, or worry, or fear for those you love or for the world! “Christ Jesus has made us his own.” Let us find strength in this hour…to press on.
Honestly, I don’t know why the 1990s couldn’t last forever. The grungy pop music of that day had a sense of humor that it never had before or since. I mean, you would hear lines in songs like, “Can I help it if I think you’re funny when you’re mad? Please tell me why…my car is in the front yard.” You don’t find playful lyrics like that on the radio anymore. Maybe it’s because I was in my 20s, but it seems to me that the whole world had a lilt in its step, a humorous edge. We were America, the world’s only superpower. The USSR had dissolved, and Russia looked like it was going to sink quietly back into sleepy obscurity on the furthest edges of Europe. We fixed the hole in the ozone layer. We were invincible. Thousands of us Generation-Xers flocked overseas to colonize the world, leading the glamorous expat life—like Hemingway in Paris, or so we liked to imagine. It was a grand old time. But time just had to keep pressing on.
Oh, of course, I get it. Pressing on can be good; some things just need to be over, like the party food of the 1950s. When Michelle and I got engaged, we were seminary students working at Eastminster Church. We didn’t have any family here in Pittsburgh, and so a wonderful elderly lady in the congregation threw Michelle a bridal shower. She was a great lady: spirited, lively, gruff, talkative. But she was a lady of another age, too. She sent Michelle home with all the leftovers from the shower, and they were things that neither of us had ever seen. There were cream cheese sandwiches, all cut into tiny triangles. There were Jell-O salads that weren’t even sweet. And these Jell-O salads, they had things standing up in them, suspended in the gelatin, things like asparagus spears and little bits of boneless chicken. There was a thing that looked like a cake on the outside, with some kind of frosting on the top. But on the inside! On the inside, there were crushed walnuts…and cottage cheese, I think. We were grateful for the immense amount of work that went into all these elaborate dishes. They must have cost our dear old friend two full days in the kitchen. But I understood why there were so many leftovers, too. This was the formal party food of the 1950s. Creative. Artistic. Visually appealing. But to two kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s, back when taco salad still seemed like a foreign food and people dipped their potato chips in onion dip, and Rice-a-Roni, and Hamburger Helper were weekly staples, that 50s retro-food was all too much. Tastes had pressed on since then.
Just for fun, a few weeks ago when Michelle was out of town, I got a packet of unflavored gelatin and made an aspic salad. I tried to get some vegetables and olives to stand up in it, but they all sank to the bottom. For some reason, it didn’t come out clear like the ones I remembered. Whereas the aspic salads from the bridal shower, fourteen years ago, were edible—if not exactly to our liking—this one was not. Times change. Tastes change. You’ve got fashion trends in food and clothing, but also stylish ideas in science, and technology, and government. We are even susceptible to the ever-changing winds of philosophy and theology. All the chic religious thinkers of the day hate hierarchy and anything that suggests it, so they tell us to come down out of our pulpits and preach from the center aisle—in street clothes, with no notes! And I can’t do it. I’m already too old to make the shift. I stand helpless before the same powerful currents that took from us skinny neckties and white blazers, worn over T-shirts in the style of Miami Vice. Time is forever pressing on, and we press on with it. We forget what lies behind, sometimes quite happily. And we press on to what lies ahead, sometimes cluelessly. The bellbottoms, the beehive hairdos, the pomades for men’s hair, the hair itself. We press on. It’s the way of the world to always be hurtling forward into darkness, into light. Oh, but in these troubled times of widespread injustice and scary apathy, let us press on to all that is good and right, all the while keeping hold of those things that give us strength. Christ Jesus has made us his own.
Poor old Paul was in prison when he wrote these words about pressing on. It’s ironic, isn’t it? He was old, his life hung in the balance. And here he is talking about pressing on, straining forward to the future that God holds for him. He wants to leave behind him the shame and the sadness of his misspent past. He has a lot to feel guilty about, having been an enemy of the Christian faith, even putting Christians to death. No wonder he wants to forget the past. He needs to forget it and move forward. If he lingers in it, he’ll drive himself crazy with remorse and self-loathing.
You and me? We have a slightly more nuanced relationship with our pasts, don’t we? There are regrets, to be sure. Perhaps many. But there are good things, too, that we don’t want to let go of. The past, in all its mottled glory, with all the things we didn’t know and the poor choices…it made us who we are. The bad was not without the good. Maybe Paul wants to forget his past, but I don’t, not entirely. You don’t either. Most of us do a little too much pressing on. Our lives move so quickly that we rarely get time to reflect on our experiences. We move from one flickering image to the next flickering image, from computer screen the first thing in the morning, to the screens of our iPhones, to TV screens in the evening. And when we’re not in front of a screen, we’re staring out our windshields. Our lives are endless motion. We’ve get so many pictures and words thrown at us each day that we are not afforded the luxury of assimilating past experiences into our present lives, just mulling over where we’ve been. Imagine the books that could be written, the symphonies, the plays, the poems, the paintings that could be created, the sculptures, the trees planted, the swing sets built, the cures to diseases that could be concocted while we sit glassy-eyed watching Netflix! If the Catholic Church has so many saints in its pantheon, surely it’s because nearly all of them lived prior to cable TV and the Internet. Who can sit still enough for sainthood now? And ironically, we try to relax in front of yet more screens in an attempt to cope with the constant motion of our lives. Isn’t pressing on the problem? We hear news like what happened a week ago today in Las Vegas, and we sit a little astonished for a time. Then? Then we press on as if nothing happened. Then we go back to our routines, and we never insist on change.
It’s hard to know when to press on and when to hang on. We’ve all got things we hang onto. Societies and individuals often cling to those things that make them feel safe, in control—like guns. But we let go of those things that do not—like aspic salads. I got my grandfather’s old 12-gauge shotgun when he died. He was a hunter—with guns and bows. And so, I’m a gun owner. Grandpa’s arsenal would look primitive today. But it would have been sophisticated to the Founding Fathers who penned the 2nd Amendment. In 1791, when they established the right to bear arms, a gun was a muzzleloader, the Pennsylvania long rifle—though Kentucky later stole its name, just as they stole our rye whiskey. (And if I cared about guns or whiskey, I might pursue that train of thought.) These 18th century guns shot one lonesome metal ball at a time. Then you had to stuff the gunpowder and another little ball back down the barrel and tamp it with a ramrod in order to shoot it again. The 2nd Amendment was not created in order to allow senseless massacres like the one we saw a week ago, the one that’s already fading from our overstimulated minds. It’s already being replaced by other images, other words.
And here’s the ironic thing! It was a country music festival. You know some of the folks who got shot were packing heat. And that’s an argument used in favor of allowing easy access to guns: the notion that armed citizens can respond to threats. But no concealed-carriers stopped that carnage. When a poverty-stricken mother steals a package of diapers at Wal-Mart, flees a security guard, and gets shot dead by a trigger-happy onlooker in the parking lot! Things have gone too far. Is this what we’ve become? We cling to the things that make us feel safe, but no one needs an AK-47 in America today. As a society, it’s time to press on!
A couple made an emergency visit to a dentist while on vacation. The wife said, “I’m in a hurry. I’ve got rounds of golf to play, waves to frolic in, margaritas to drink. Just pull the tooth and don’t bother with any Novocain.” The dentist said, “That’s very courageous. Which tooth is it?” The woman said, “Show him the tooth, dear.” It is possible to be so busy pressing on that we let go of things we ought to hold fast—like Novocain at the dentist. But here’s a good rule of thumb for knowing which things to jettison and which things to hold fast. If it’s a security blanket, if it serves mainly to make you feel safe, if it served its purpose at one time, but ends up doing more harm now than good—press on! Make like the Apostle and press on. This rut is not what God has in mind for you, or us. Those who would be what they ought to be, must stop being what they are. Or, as Aldous Huxley—of all people—once said, “Thy kingdom come entails our kingdom go.” I think that’s a great rule for knowing when to press on and when to hold fast: If it’s keeping you stuck, if it’s holding you back, if it’s making you or those around you suffer, if it’s like Paul’s painful memories of his dark past, nothing but hurtful, kiss it goodbye. Look it full in the face, and tell it, as Paul does, “I press on…because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
In closing, let’s stop pressing on for just a moment. Let’s linger for a moment in this small phrase, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Philippians does not say, “I have made Christ Jesus my own.” It does not say, “I invited Jesus into my heart,” or “I made Jesus my Savior and Lord.” No, it tells a truth which strips us of all illusions of being in control. It simply says, “I press on…because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” How do you wriggle out of that? It has to come from outside of us, doesn’t it? When have you known, if only for a moment, that you have been held and led by a power that is greater, and kinder, and wiser than you? It’s the same power, this power-not-your-own, that enables you to press on when press on you must. Press on! Christ Jesus has made you his own. Amen.