by Rev. Joe Connolly
“I was above reproach when it came to justice based on the Law— blameless.” — Philippians 3:6b.
I’m afraid need to start my comments today with something I said in a sermon last month: I have to begin with a disclaimer. Rumor has it I’m a preacher and preachers tell stories. Rumor has it I’ve been known to tell a story or two and not just from the pulpit, but anytime to nearly anyone.
My problem this morning is I don’t know if I’ve told the story I am about to offer to various people— probably a hundred times— or if I’ve told it from the pulpit. I can’t remember.
I don’t think I’ve told this story from this pulpit, but if I have I apologize. My prayer is, if you’ve heard it before— and again, I’ve told it to hundreds of people probably— it won’t be too boring for you to hear it again.
On to the story— I can name the year this happened: 1961. I was twelve. I know it was 1961 because my family had just moved from a house in Brooklyn, New York where they had lived from September of 1929 through January of 1961— two generations of us— to a house in Queens, New York. For us, this house was new.
When this incident happened I was home alone in the house. I know my mother was not home because she had gone to a doctor’s appointment. I do have a brother and sister, but they were not home. I presume they were in school which makes sense because they went to a different school than I did.
Of course, it’s possible I was home because I was I sick. Did my mother keep me home from school because I was sick? I do not know. Sick or not the point is I was home— alone.
Now, that we were in a new house is a pertinent fact. My Mom had to travel 50 minutes by Subway to the old neighborhood for that doctor’s appointment.
All that having been said, if I was sick I think it is unlikely I was very sick. Why? I decided I would be productive. I decided I was going to help my mother out.
I decided that, while I was home alone and while she was out, I would surprise her. I would clean the bathroom, stem to stern— floors, tub, toilet.
And so, I got to work. When the floors and tub were done, I turned my attention to the toilet. For reasons now beyond me, I took the tank cover off the back top of the toilet and washed it in the tub.
Once I was satisfied it was clean, I lifted it out of the tub and moved it back toward the toilet. You, of course, do realize I was carrying a wet, slippery, heavy piece of porcelain with wet slippery hands.
I think my twelve year old brain did not quite grasp that. Just as I got near the toilet, not quite having made it, this rectangular chunk of white ceramic slipped from my grasp and shattered into hundreds of pieces on the floor.
Needless to say, when I felt the thing begin to slip, I gave up trying to hold on and let go. Therefore, both my hands were now stretched out parallel to the floor, palms down, facing the floor.
Well, there was one oddity about how that tank top shattered. My palms, as I said, faced downward. A single large shard of porcelain— which looked like a dagger about three inches long— logged itself dead center in the palm of my left hand.
I distinctly remember looking at it, amazed it was hanging there, sticking down from my palm, not falling out, just dangling. So, I did what any self confident twelve year old would do. I pulled the shard out. The wound, of course, began to bleed.
I ran to a closet, got a face cloth and pressed it very hard against my palm. Much to my surprise, the bleeding stopped. I think the piece of porcelain really was like a dagger. Had it been jagged, pulling it out would have done more damage. But it was a thin piece, narrow and smooth. So, when I extracted it, no additional damage was done.
Then, knowing my mother was at the doctor’s office, I called there. I got her on the line and explained what had happened. She handed the phone over to Doctor Gabriel Kirshenbaum— the family doctor for two generations.
With his soothing, deep resonant bass voice he calmly walked me through what had happened, what I had done in response, then assured me I would be fine. He did promise my mother would be home soon. He, in fact, gave her money for a cab so she would not have to take the Subway back home.
It was not until she walked through the door that my emotions exploded. I ran to her. I hugged her. She hugged me. And I cried and I cried and I cried.
“Why,” I asked, “why did this happen when I was trying to be helpful, when I trying to do everything right?” (Slight pause.)
We hear these words in the Letter commonly called Philippians: “I was above reproach when it came to justice based on the Law— blameless.” (Slight pause.)
There are those who say Paul was riddled with guilt over an inability to live as the law demanded. However, when this passage is examined carefully Paul obviously is claiming and is proud of the Hebrew heritage. Paul has defended tradition and is deeply involved in it.
Further and to be clear about what should be obvious, Paul is not renouncing doing things right. Paul does not see doing things right as a negative. So, where’s the guilt? Not here, or at least I don’t think so.
But that does pose the question ‘why is Paul not riddled with guilt?’ (Slight pause.) I think the answer is also obvious.
Paul explains that lack of guilt with testimony. Paul’s testimony, Paul’s claim is about an old understanding, a Hebrew understanding, of the relationship of God with humanity.
And Paul’s testimony, Paul’s claim, is also about a new understanding, a new understanding for Paul at least. And the new understanding says the Apostle to the Gentiles, this Apostle has come to better understand of that old relationship with God because of the reality of the Christ.
Why is it significant that Paul has both reclaimed an old understanding and come upon a new one? I personally think what makes this significant is that, in a real sense, these two understandings are one.
And that understanding is both simple and seems to constantly escape us: God loves humanity. Yes, there is no question based on Paul’s testimony that we, humanity, need to strive to do things right. However, and I think this is where Paul is coming from, we need to strive to do things not just right but well.
This is what I mean by doing things well: our doing, our action, is not what’s primary. It is the love God has for humanity which is primary.
That the love of God comes first is a hard thought for many of us. After all, we like to be and we even want to be in control. But we are not.
On the other hand, these words also present us with a paradox. The paradox stems from an insistence that the heritage of the Hebrews is not to be forsaken. After all, when it comes to justice based on the Law Paul is blameless. The paradox? If God is the prime mover, if God takes the initiative, how are we to move forward? Ignore the Law? (Slight pause.)
Paul’s answer is found in the verse I quoted. It says Paul was blameless when it came to justice based on the Law. What it says I think, and therefore, is true justice, God’s justice is not based on the law. Justice is not based on rules.
And that is a very hard concept for us to grasp. Let me phrase that the way it is more commonly said. Justice is not based on our works. We are not justified by works.
And that very basic idea, that justice is not based on our works, should lead to us to ask ‘what is the basis of justice?’ Or, more to the point, ‘what is the basis of God’s justice?’ (Slight pause.)
The basis of God’s justice is relationship. And that is precisely what Paul is driving at. You see, that God takes the initiative is a primary tenet of the Hebrew Scriptures. That God takes the initiative is a primary tenet of the reality of the Christ.
Should we have a response? Yes, we should. But any response on our part pales compared to God’s embrace of humanity, the love of God for humanity.
And that brings me back to the day I mentioned in 1961 I found a shard of porcelain hanging out of my left hand. Should I have not tried to help my mother? My answer is the same as Paul’s answer. Be blameless. Help as much as you can.
But perhaps more to the point, I think in trying to help my mother I was really trying to be about relationship. And yes, sometimes the best laid plans of twelve year old boys do go astray. And yes, there are times our work has no impact on justice or on relationship.
But as Paul insists, what will never go astray is the love God has for humanity. What we should never forget is God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. And that, my friends, is Paul’s basic testimony. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with 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 Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “My late Mother always downplayed Mother’s Day. She always said, ‘Don’t try to give me a present and be nice to me one day a year and forget to deal with the other 364 days.’ A point well taken. Relationship is constant. Love is constant. The law of love, in fact, needs to be our guidelines, our law.”
BENEDICTION: Let us never fear to seek the truth God reveals. Let us live as a resurrection people. Let us understand every day as a new adventure in faith as the Creator draws us into community. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.