by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Beloved— sisters and brothers— I do not consider that I have made it my own; I do not think that I have reached the finish line. But this one thing I do: I give no thought to what lies behind; I forget what lies behind. I strain, I push forward on to what lies ahead.” — Philippians 3:13.
As I think and hope you all know, after the service today we will have a soup and bread lunch. Do not worry if you forgot to bring something for that meal or didn’t bring something for that meal. Believe me, there is enough to go around. I’ve looked.
At 12:30 that lunch will be followed by Adventures with Bonnie and Joe. Adventures with Bonnie and Joe is the report from my sabbatical, our trip across country and back, a trip we made between the end of last June and the end of September. And, even if you don’t stay for the lunch, do come back for that. We will start no earlier than 12:30. O.K.? So, if your not staying for lunch just come on back.
Now, last October, at the first service of worship I led after our return, I said when Bonnie and I were first married and going on a trip of some distance we’d get in the car and before Bonnie stepped on the gas— as many of you know when we were first married, since I arrived to the great State of Maine from the caverns of New York City I did not yet drive because Subways are the major mode of transportation in the city and I used them pretty exclusively— so, before Bonnie stepped on the gas we would look at each other and in unison say, ‘Adventures with Bonnie and Joe.’ And off we’d go: another adventure.
And so, On June 27th, last, when we left on our trip, we once again said to one another “Adventures with Bonnie and Joe.” So, if you are here for the presentation, you will hear about some of those adventures from encounters with Bison, to seeing a Major League Baseball game, to visiting the National Monument known as Devils Tower.
Since we are offering a report about the trip today, I want to point out a couple of things. First, I hope it’s evident that what we will offer is, in many ways, testimony. How so? We will talk about how educational, how interesting, how challenging, how enjoyable, how emotional, how engaging it all was— in short it was a great and useful experience.
But I want to also point out something else which should be obvious. The trip happened in the past. And yes, our memories of it are wonderful. They will linger with us until we leave the frail bonds of the time allotted to us.
But we cannot relive what happened. We cannot experience it again. Even if we went on another trip, it could be only similar. It would not be the same.
Hence and by definition, to give testimony means to reflect on experience, to reflect on something which happened. Thereby, testimony does not address the future and only in a peripheral way touches on the present. Testimony deals with the past. That testimony deals with the past does not render the past or the testimony about it invalid or useless.
The past often can and often should be treasured. The past can teach amazing and valuable lessons as we move on. Perhaps the only danger with testimony is when we are insistent about dwelling in the past…. and refusing to relinquish it. Living in the past is not just unhealthy. It is dangerous. (Slight pause.)
And we find these words in the work known as Philippians: “Beloved— sisters and brothers— I do not consider that I have made it my own; I do not think that I have reached the finish line. But this one thing I do: I give no thought to what lies behind; I forget what lies behind. I strain, I push forward on to what lies ahead.” (Slight pause.)
When this reading was introduced it was said the way the little story of Paul’s life becomes meaningful is by its relation to the big story of God’s activity. Unlike many modern autobiographies, Paul’s story does not invite readers to do their own thing or to copy Paul but asks them, asks the readers, to see themselves in the light of the divine story.
To elaborate on that thought, this is an autobiography in three stages. There is a statement of Paul’s heritage, Paul’s religious location. In offering this reflection, the Apostle gives a reevaluation of that aforementioned religious location in light of the reality of the Christ. Then Paul insists the possibilities of the present abound because of the reality of the Christ.
Those two stages together express experience, express testimony. It is that testimony, that history which spurs Paul on and into a life of active anticipation. In fact, it needs to be noted Paul’s present possibilities are valid only if lived out into the future, only if lived in active anticipation.
And the life Paul strives to live out, is lived out in a future created by God, not a future determined by Paul. It is God’s future which beckons. Also and therefore, Paul’s story is unfinished, unsure. The denouement, the outcome, the result of Paul’s story has not yet arrived when Paul writes these words.
On top of that, I think we are also meant hear these with words a sense of our acceptance by God. How is that so? How is that acceptance, our acceptance by God, expressed by Paul? It is expressed in the testimony offered by Paul, his story, his history.
In fact, that is why Paul’s testimony, any testimony, is valid. Paul understands this very basic reality about God. God acts. It is God who reaches out to Paul.
And the point of the testimony offered by Paul is not just that God acts. It is that God has reached out to Paul. The point of the testimony is to proclaim that God reaches out to each of us, all of us. God accepts us, as we are, where we are. If that failed to be true, if God did not reach out to each of us, what would be the point of giving any testimony?
You see, if God did not reach out to each of us, testimony would be reduced to a set of self-centered statements. Testimony would become diminished to mere bragging. And, thereby, since bragging is self-centered, such testimony could not be about God.
Hence, everything which Paul recites as history, everything in this testimony, does not point toward the past, does not point toward self-centeredness, does not point toward individual experience. Rather, everything points toward God and toward the future. Everything points toward a future to which we are invited by God. (Slight pause.)
Sometimes the words I’m about to use are called the Eleventh Commandment of the church. Sometimes the words I’m about to use are called the seven last words of the church. “But we’ve never done it that way.”
I have a colleague who has two framed posters in her office. Once of them has that Eleventh Commandment, those seven last words: “But we’ve never done it that way.” Another has a more sober, more true assessment of reality. “We live in a world of constant change.”
I want to suggest no one, not myself, not you, not Paul can really prognosticate. None of us can predict the future. None of us can predict what the inevitable change— and we all know change will happen— none of us can predict what the inevitable change around us will bring with any certainty.
And, rumor to the contrary, predicting the future is not the point of theology. Predicting the future is not the point of living out one’s faith. Living into the future God has for us, living into the future God has for us and for those around us, for all humanity, Living into the future is the point living out one’s faith. (Slight pause.)
So, if you come to Adventures with Bonnie and Joe later today you will hear testimony. You will hear all about where we’ve been. But all testimony can do is inform us about where we were, where we’ve been.
Indeed, when Bonnie and I left on our trip we knew where we were going, or at least where we intended to go. But we did not know what would happen. We did not really know the future. And unless we use what happened to us to help us live into the future, God’s future, the testimony we offer will be trivial.
So, I think what Paul is getting at is not what I would call not a larger idea, or even a logical idea. But it is a theological idea, God centered logic. That theological idea is that God beckons us into an unknown future. At least it is unknown in terms of the kind of detail we often crave: where, how, why.
But there is one aspect of the future to which God beckons us that is both known and knowable. And that aspect is with Whom the future will happen. We are beckoned to walk toward the future with God.
We are beckoned to walk toward the future knowing God is both holy and good. We are beckoned to walk toward the future knowing that God walks with us, that God cherishes us, that God loves us. In that, our future is both known and assured. God loves us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “So, what is testimony, really? I think often we in the Main Line have an image of an Elmer Gantry preacher out there just giving testimony and it frightens us a little. If truth be told, testimony is simply being friendly. One of my mentors, the Rev. Carol Anderson, used to say we Americans are strange. We read a book, see a movie or TV show we like and what do we do? We share it. We tell a friend about it. In so doing we are simply being friendly. When we have a community of faith we like what do we do? [The pastor puts hand to mouth and makes several muffled sounds.] Doesn’t make a lot of sense does it? Testimony is simply being friendly. That’s all it is.”
BENEDICTION: In Christ, we experience God’s presence together. Where Christ leads, let us follow. Where God calls us to service, let us go. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, the love of Jesus, the Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forevermore. Amen.