29 May Limping to the Finish Line
Limping to the Finish Line
May 30, 2021
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Our live, hybrid service will be broadcast from our YouTube channel at 10:00 a.m. and can be accessed here.
This week we are launching a summer reading program which has the theme of “running the race.” As I wrote in the e-letter last week, I’m going to preach a sermon series with the same theme over the next several weeks, using one of the texts from our reading list. If you didn’t see the e-letter, there are copies of the summer reading plan on the table in the hallway. The point of this is to have some fun while we read scripture and yet, at the end of just 26 readings—one for each mile of a marathon—you’ll have read 5 books of the Bible! And we’re going to throw ourselves a party at the end of June to celebrate crossing the finish line of our “reading race.” Our race is a lot easier than the one Major Phil Packer ran.
Phil Packer was serving with the British Armed Forces in Iraq when he was struck by a rocket blast. He suffered heart and spinal injuries so severe that medics said he would never walk again. But they were wrong—wrong by a whopping 26.2 miles.
Against overwhelming odds, Major Packer completed the Flora London Marathon — on crutches — only one month after a year of rehab allowed him to finally take his first step on them. Starting the marathon with the main race group, he finished it 13 days later, covering roughly two miles a day, and the whole journey took him 52,400 steps.
When you’re told you’ll never walk again, every step is worth counting. And when each race day consists of 4,000 painful steps, you probably count each limp and remember every one of them. For the now-paraplegic soldier, limping in was actually all in. He may have been limping physically, but his heart was fully open and engaged.
Packer’s herculean efforts were more than an amazing story of human will and overcoming the odds. His marathon was a fundraising movement to donate more than £1million (about $1.5 million) to Help for Heroes which is a charity that rebuilds the torn-up lives of people injured in military service.
As Major Packer successfully limped toward his funding goal, he was joined each day along the road by scores of tear-drenched supporters. Families of lost soldiers. Entire schools of inspired children. Cops. Firefighters. Politicians. Onlookers caught up in the seemingly transcendent journey.
Packer’s marathon was neither his first nor his last fundraising challenge. Before his wheelchair-bound legs would work, he recognized the one-year anniversary of his war injury by rowing across the English Channel. After the marathon, Packer took on Yosemite’s El Capitan, one of America’s hardest mountains to scale. He accomplished a four-day summit almost entirely by upper-body strength developed through his training regimen of 4,000 pull-ups.
Maimed by a rocket blast. A year later rowing the Channel. Two months later taking his first step. One month later limping a marathon. One month after that scaling El Capitan. We could call that 17-month run inhuman. But it’s actually superhuman.
Few can resonate with the apostle Paul the way Maj. Phil Packer can. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” “[F]orgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal.”
Packer’s journey from past to future was a physical striving. Paul’s was spiritual, and he puts in front of us a challenge. Are we “all in” with God, or are we going to limp in?
As with our summer reading plan, the dominant metaphor in Paul’s text is a marathon, or a race. And as every good runner knows, to be successful, you’ll need to shed what you don’t need in order to run more efficiently. You’ll press toward the goal, and you’ll expect to achieve the prize. It’s all there.
You start by shedding the useless stuff so your running can be light and without unnecessary impediments. That’s why Paul argues that we need to forget what’s in the past.
Paul is fending off false theologians who are diluting his message of salvation apart from works (vv. 2-3). These false teachers want to insist on being bound to the law and Paul calls it “rubbish” which is a gentle English rendering of the word skubala. Paul was basically looking for an attention-grabbing and crass way of making a point. When it comes to salvation, anything we insist on bringing to the table is a big, fat pile of … theological rubbish.
Paul’s past, with its impressive religious résumé and its equally impressive failures, was, well, past. It was now useless information. It was of no value to him as he endeavored to know Christ more fully.
Like Paul, everyone in the church has a past. For some people, the years have engendered a sense of spiritual merit. Long-time church attendance. Learning self-control and discipline. Growth in theological knowledge. Practicing the fruits of the Spirit. Giving faithfully.
For others, the past is what makes them feel unworthy of Christ. The failed relationships. The debt. The secret habit. The choices that engender shame and regret. They feel unlovely and unlovable.
But here’s the point Paul wants us to get: the checkered past and the sterling past have the same thing in common—they’re skubala, rubbish.
The scandal of grace is that we are meritless. We can’t bring anything good enough to get God to love us. Nor can we do anything vile enough to sever God’s love. That is so hard for most of us to believe—and feel—because grace is the opposite of how most human relationships operate. Yes, we talk unconditional love, but rarely is it true.
Employers offer performance bonuses, not unconditional bonuses. We’re closer to certain family members than others for reasons we can’t articulate. Our friends are usually people who share affinities with us— hobbies, education, kids’ activities, income, a similar sense of humor, intelligence. The truth is that few, if any, human relationships teach us what our relationship with God is supposed to look like: loved because of God, not because of us.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says: “God does not love us because we are good. He loves us because God is good. Why can’t we surrender to that? Because it initially feels like a loss of power and importance!”
Whether we’re pretty good or not good enough, we have to let go of our sense of self-importance. Who we’ve been does not impress or change God. Imagine, if you will, a single parent who makes the same mistakes over and over again, stringing together train-wreck relationships. Now imagine a successful and generous businessperson who serves passionately and faithfully as a church leader.
A few questions need honest answers: who does God love more? Who do we think God should love more? Who is more responsible for their righteousness? Who is more worthy of forgiveness? Who brings more to the table for God?
Despite what our sense of fairness might imply, God has no favorites. God doesn’t see people as we tend to see them. That truth should never de-motivate our pursuit of holiness. But that pursuit is a response to the reality of God’s already ever-present love, not an attempt to earn God’s favor.
Paul is clear: we have no merit before God. And so, like Paul, we must let go of the idea that our good or bad past performances pre-condition God to love us any more or any less.
Having shed that unnecessary, weighty baggage, Paul, the runner, now says that we press and strain forward with our eyes on the prize. If we can follow his example, regardless of who we’ve been, we are set completely free to pursue God’s future for us. Paul’s hope for Philippi, and now us, is that we strain forward to what lies ahead (v. 13) and press on toward the goal (v. 14).
Paul’s motivation, the goal he is running toward, is fulling sharing Christ’s resurrection one day. In the meantime, there’s a kingdom to help expand. We have a life to live as people who have been made Christ’s own. And when we belong to Christ, the future is big. It’s risky. It’s creative. It’s fulfilling.
So what lies ahead for us? What goal are we supposed to press toward?
Businesses create marketplace goals. Schools set classroom-performance standards. And some churches are gifted at organizationally discerning, casting, and implementing vision. It’s a valid question to ask whether we as individuals have a vision of our own future with God? Do we consider, even set goals, for our role in God’s kingdom?
Paul’s doxology in another letter, the one to the Ephesians, reminds us that God can do immeasurably more than what we ask or imagine. So as Christ-followers, let’s develop a little holy imagination. Let’s pursue hope at all costs. Let’s ask God what the future could look like and then shed the fears that hold us back from pursuing and embracing it.
Phil Packer had two options about how to approach life. He could collect a disability check and a whole lot of sympathy because of his past. It’s a fair approach any of us might have taken in his situation. But that was limping in.
The other option was to call the past irrelevant as it pertained to the future. To risk failing on big charitable dreams. To endure insufferable pain so he could change the experience of others such as him. That is all in.
Paul had a similar choice. We have the same today. Limp in or all in?
To be sure, like Major Packer, some days and even in some seasons of life, our “all in” has a limp to it. Sometimes limping is the best we’ve got, but as long as we show up and stay in the race, that’s good enough. God’s unconditional love covers all the rest. The goal is not to run a perfect race; just to give it everything we’ve got by letting go of the past and beginning to dream with God about what lies ahead. What might next month or next week look like with God and what can we begin to do about it today?
Thanks be to God. Amen.