Why not??

Philippians 4:1-9

OK, it is true confession time:

How many of you have something that Steve Jobs created? … How many of you have something that Steve Jobs created?  iTunes? An iPod? An iPhone? An iMac? A MacBook? An iPad?

Isn’t it amazing how ubiquitous those little things are?

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the company that he had co-founded with Steve Wozniak, the company that had fired him, and within a few years of his return, our world was a different place.

First he gave us the iPod, that magical little device that carried thousands of our songs.

Two years after that, he gave us iTunes, the fastest, cheapest way and most legal way to buy those songs.

Then he gave us the iMac, the first personal computer that was not steel gray. Then he gave us the iBook. And then the MacBook. And then iPhone. And then MacBook Air. And then the iPad.

In 10 years, one decade, Steve Jobs changed the world.

You know how he did it? He managed to change the world by refusing to settle. He would not settle for seeing things as they were and asking, “Why?” Steve Jobs dreamed of the way things could be and he asked, “Why not?”[1]

“Why not?”

Now whether you are a Mac person or not – and here is my true confession: I am – you have to admit that Steve Jobs, who died last Wednesday, changed the world. He did so because he always, always, was striving for the “Why not?” He was always striving for the pure, for the pleasing, and for the commendable, and whatever he dreamed, he made happen.

In many ways, Steve Jobs emulated what the Apostle Paul charges us with this morning in his love letter to the Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

                   Now, I know that when we are listening to Paul’s instructions, they can be somewhat Pollyanish, they can seem like they are some over-the-moon optimism that completely, completely divorces us from the reality that is our lives.

Because when we take a good hard look at our lives right now, when we take an honest look at our lives right now, we know that life is not all that great.

To quote Jim Wallis from his God’s Politics blog on Friday:

“Tomorrow, almost 14 million Americans will still be unemployed.

“Tomorrow, the homes of more than 2,500 new U.S. families will enter foreclosure.

“Tomorrow, one in seven U.S. households still will not know where their next meal is coming from.

“Tomorrow, one in four American children under the age of six will still be living below the poverty line.

“Tomorrow, three billion people around the globe will still be living on less than $2.50 a day.

“Tomorrow, 400 million children will still lack access to clean water.

“Tomorrow, 300 children under the age of five will die in the Horn of Africa because of famine.”[2]

When you paint a portrait of the world with those numbers, the situation seems bleak.

And it seems very nearly impossible to find, much less name, that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable. It seems even more impossible to find any excellence.

Quite frankly, when we use those numbers to paint the portrait of the world, most of us think that the world has already gone to hell in a handbasket. And that there’s not much that we can do about it.

And yet …

And yet … there is Paul, writing to us from prison, from a Roman prison, in chains, facing death and still demanding that we look for that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and excellent.

Paul writes these instructions because Paul knew that all things come of God, and therefore, all things are good. Paul knew that each and every one of us comes from God, and therefore, each and every one of us is a beloved child of God.

Paul was looking at the world with God’s eyes, not with human eyes. He was not trying to advocate the “power of positive thinking.” He was not trying to get us to go with a “technique and persuasion”[3] that was Pollyanish. Instead, what he was doing was trying to show us how to fill ourselves with God so that we could go out into the world and take God’s life with us into that world. He didn’t want us to be a bunch of Pollyanas paying no attention to the truth! He was not trying to get us to turn a blind eye to the needs of the world! Or to make us pretend that there’s really nothing wrong, because “I’ve got mine and I don’t really care if other people got theirs.”

Paul is trying to get us up off our duffs and get us to go out into the world with God’s life in us and share God’s life with the world.[4]

Paul wants us to change the world.

To stop looking at things as they are and crying out, “Why, Lord, why???” and to start dreaming of things as they can be and saying, “Why not?!”

Why not?!

Why not focus on the good things and the holy things, the things that come from God and are blessed by God?

Why not build on God’s holy foundations, so that we can make the world a better place – not the guy up the street, us, so that we can make the world a better place!

Why not make the “why not’s” of our dreams and make them come to fruition?!

This is our moment, my friends.

This is our time …

It is our time to stop the negative comments that pass for conversation in our lives and to start enunciating every good, God-blessed thing that we can find in each other.

It is our time to give grace, even when nobody’s giving grace back!

It is our time to work together for the common good, not for our gain, but for the common good!

This is our time to change the way things are, so that we can make them the way they can be.

Right now, when the world seems to be in such desperate straits, when our public conversation is so nasty that we don’t even want to expose our children to it, when our leaders cannot even go one day – one day, one, measly day – without denigrating people on the other side of the aisle, right now, this is our time, this is our opportunity to change the world.

It is not enough for us to simply say, “Well, this is wrong, and this is bad, and this is awful!”

It is not enough to denounce evil, because “denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good.”[5]

What we have to do is dream of the way things can be and say, “Why not?”

And then go make those things happen!

And we can do this. We can focus on even the tiniest of things, that are true, that are honorable, that are just and pure and pleasing and commendable. If we spent more time looking for what is excellent and worthy of any praise, and less time looking for what we can tear down, we could make the world a better place!

This is our call.

And now is our time.

Now, is anybody here going to be the next Steve Jobs?


I know I’m not.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t emulate him. That doesn’t mean that I can’t dream the way that Steve Jobs dreamed. That doesn’t mean that I can’t change the world.

We have an opportunity. We have an opportunity to dare to dream … as Paul dreamed … as Jobs dreamed.

And we have the ability to make those dreams come true.

Right now.

Why not?


Sermon preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Burke, Va., on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A, 9 October 2011.

[1] Paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw, the Serpent to Eve, in Back To Methuselah.

[2] Jim Wallis, “Praying for peace and looking for Jesus at #Occupy Wall Street,” God’s Politics blog, http://blog.sojo.net/2011/10/06/praying-for-peace-and-looking-for-jesus-at-occupywallstreet/.

[3] paraphrase from William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpPentecost17.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good.” ~ Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the story of the Rwandan genocide.

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Define yourself …

Philippians 3:4b-14

Who are you?

Who are you?

How do you define yourself?

When I was a child, back in the ‘60s (and yes, I’m telling you my age now) we used to define ourselves by our ethnicity … who was Irish, who was Italian, who was French, who was English. And while we might have been nice about the terms we used to define ourselves, we certainly were not nice when it came to defining others.

By the time I was 7, I think I knew every derogatory term out there. You name an ethnicity, and I knew the name.

And I used it.

Because that’s what we did in those days.

We used names – horrible names – to define each other.

I am one-half French, one-quarter Irish and one-quarter Russian. I got called names right along with the rest of my friends.

And I thought that was normal. Because that’s the way the world was in those days …

Thankfully, the world has changed somewhat in the last 40 years, to the point where a lot of the youths I know don’t even know what those derogatory names mean, much less use them.

Which is a good thing on every level, I admit, but in the long run, it turns out those names never meant a thing anyway.

Because those names? They don’t define us. Our ethnic heritage, like so many other attributes of our lives, is nothing more than an accident of nature.

What defines us … the only thing that defines us … is that we are beloved children of God, created in God’s image, called into being by God’s love for us … for each of us.

Everything else?

Whether we’re tall or short, black or white or Latino or Asian, blue-eyed or brown-eyed? The countries we come from? The countries our ancestors came from?

They don’t mean a thing.

Because they really are but accidents of nature.

Think about it: You don’t get to choose where you are born. You don’t get to choose the color of your skin or your eyes or your hair. Where your parents came from? You have no say in that. So these things … which so often seem so important to us … really do not define us.

What defines us … what really defines us … is that we are beloved children of God.

This is what Paul is trying to teach us this morning in his letter to the Philippians.

He is writing to a community – a new community – in Philippi, a city filled with people from all over the world, with Roman citizens and slaves, with Greeks and Romans and Jews and Africans and any other nationality you can think of. In that community, you kept to your own, as it were. Sometimes, your own was defined by your faith or ethnicity. More commonly, it was defined by your trade … so stone-layers belonged to an association of stone-builders. Tent-makers hung out with tent-makers. Each form of labor had an association of some kind, and that association was your community.

But the community to which Paul was writing was breaking those boundaries. Tent-makers and stone-layers and everyone else was all mixed together in this new community of Christ followers, this community that broke all the boundaries that normally fenced the people in in those days: boundaries of race and religion and work and citizenship.

Paul is telling the Philippians that it was OK to cross those boundaries, because they didn’t define the people any more. What defined them, Paul says, is their faith in Christ Jesus, which taught them, as they had never been taught before, that each of them was a beloved child of God.

To make sure that the Philippians understand this idea of radically realigning their lives, of radically and dangerously going against the grain that Roman society demanded, Paul lays out his own credentials first. He was, he says:

• “Circumcised on the eighth day” – meaning according to the Law, meaning, he came from a Law-abiding family.

• “A member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin” – meaning that he was descended from Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, meaning that Paul’s parents were not some Johnny-come-lately Jews, but were descended from a long and faithful line of Jews.

• “A Hebrew born of Hebrews” – again, Paul was not a convert. He was born into the faith.

• “A Pharisee” – meaning that not only had he studied the Law with the very best teachers, but he could interpret the Law and then tell you how it applied to you.

• “A persecutor of the church” – remember, this is Paul, who once was Saul, who stood by and held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen, the first deacon to be martyred. This is Paul, who once was Saul, who was on that road to Damascus precisely so he could arrest these Christians and haul them back to Jerusalem to be tried, found guilty and stoned to death just like Stephen.

• “As to righteousness under the law, blameless” – This is Paul at  his arrogant best: I knew I was in right relationship with God.

Paul is explaining that he knew exactly who he was, defining himself through worldly standards (and yes, even the Law was, in Paul’s estimation, a worldly standard). And he was darned proud of who he was in the world.

But now, he says, now … all those definitions are gone. They no longer matter.

Because now, he says, he defines himself solely as belonging to Christ, he names himself a beloved child of God, saved through Christ, obedient to Christ, following Christ, every moment of every day.

Those old definitions? he asks.

They are nothing but rubbish. Garbage. Basura.

Because Paul knows, to the core of his being, that he belongs to God, and he defines his belonging through Jesus Christ.

The truth is, we are just like Paul.

Like him, we have been asked to give up our past – glorious or desperate, it matters not – asked to give up our worldly identities so that we can find, so that Christ can define us.

Everything in the past? Not important.

Because our future lies in the future, with God.

Now imagine what our world would look like if we took this definition to heart, if we really defined ourselves in this way.

How would we treat ourselves? What would it feel like to know that the single most important part of our identity is being the beloved?

Defining ourselves in God means that we accept people for who they are – beloved children of God – and then we act as though everyone – everyone – actually is a beloved child of God.

Imagine what the world would look like if we actually lived this way. If we actually dared to be as bold as Paul, to define ourselves not by the world’s standards, but by God’s standards, and then acted that way?

I can tell you what happens: The world looks at us and says, “You can’t do this. You’re a dreamer. You’re a fool.”

But what the world has to say about this is not important, because the world doesn’t get to make those decisions. God does!

And God, who created us all in God’s image, declares that all of us belong, that all of us are equal, that all of us are beloved.

So let’s do this:

Let’s be radical go out into the world today – and every day after today – and let’s live as the people we truly are: God’s.

And let’s treat everyone else as the people they truly are: God’s.

This is the greatest gift we can give to the world: To stop defining ourselves by accidents of nature and start defining ourselves by the only thing that matters:

We are beloved children of God.

Full stop.


Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bailey’s Crossroads, Va., Proper 22, Year A, 2 October 2011.

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Philippians 1:21-30

                   The House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church is meeting in Quito, Ecuador, this week. One hundred and sixteen bishops from the 109 dioceses spread out over 16 nations have gathered to pray, to learn … and to think …

One thing they were asked to think about came from Don Compier, a liberation theologian who recounted to the bishops a recent conversation he had had.

Compier told them that “he was recently asked by someone in another denomination: ‘If you care about the poor, why are you an Episcopalian? Aren’t you just interested in liturgy?’ Compier reminded the bishops that “our tradition of witness to the concerns for the poor is not well known, even by us.”[1]

What Compier was asking the bishops to think about was, in essence, the same thing St. Paul asks, in a variety of ways, throughout his letters: How then shall we live?

Shall we live as people who are in love with liturgy?

Or shall we live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, as Paul exhorts us this morning?

And what, pray tell, does that even mean, to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel?

For Paul (and implicitly, for the person who asked Compier that question), Gospel-worthy lives begin and end in community.

Gospel-worthy lives are never about us … They are never about getting ahead or getting more, never about adopting the attitude of “I’ve-got-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-get-yours,” never about leaving others behind.

Gospel-worthy lives are about love.

Gospel-worthy lives are love.

Paul makes this clear in what is known as his “love letter to his friends in the church at Philippi.”[2] Everything he writes them is about how we are to live in love and in community because this is what God desires for us.

As Walter Brueggemann, one of the most respected theologians of our times, preached not long ago:

Paul says to his beloved church, imagine your life caught up in the great divine drama in order that you may not imagine your life as a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, in order that you may not imagine your life as an endless rat race that no one can win, in order that you will not imagine your life as an endless series of accidents that amount to very little. Christians (he says) are people who imagine and receive their lives differently, bracketed and ordered by God’s goodness and God’s resolve for us.[3]


Our lives will have meaning, our lives will fulfill God’s desires for us, if we bracket and order our lives in God’s goodness, in God’s resolve, if we live focused not on ourselves but on God’s beloved community.

                  That’s what Paul is talking about when he says “living is Christ,” that living is “fruitful labor” for him, that it is “more necessary for you.”

Paul is talking about community, which can only be lived in love.

Even the word Paul uses to instruct his beloved friends in Philippi underscores this. The Greek word for “live your life” is politeusthe – which comes from the Greek word for “city” – polis – which according to one commentator “has the sense of ‘live as a free citizen,’ [or] ‘conduct your public life.’”[4]

So Paul is crystal clear that our lives are never to be about “me-me-me, mine-mine-mine.” Not only are they are always to be focused on others, but, Paul insists, we are to bring our focus as a community.

Because we are the Body of Christ, Paul teaches, we are to act as the Body of Christ.

If all of us were to focus our lives and our love together, there wouldn’t be 52 million Americans living in poverty right now. There wouldn’t be 48 million Americans living right now without health insurance.

If we focused our lives and love together, there wouldn’t be 14 million unemployed people in our own country, there wouldn’t be millions of our children going to school hungry every morning, there wouldn’t be a wealth disparity in this country and in this world that more closely models medieval times than modern times.

If we brought our Gospel-worthy lives to bear on the problems of the world, do you really think there would be 650,000 Somalis about to starve to death in the Horn of Africa right now, because no one will give them food?

Would there really be children who die of easily cured diseases – diseases we can cure for less than one dollar per child – because no one will give them medicine?

If we lived Gospel-worthy lives – and we can easily choose to do so – each person, each beloved child of God in this world – would have enough – not too much, not an over-abundance of things, but enough ­– enough food and water, enough shelter, enough education, enough money to not just survive but thrive.

Paul “is speaking (to us) about how a community whose common life is founded and sustained by the crucified and risen Christ should live together.” [5] And, he’s telling us, this is our choice to make.

Now, I need to warn you:

Being Gospel-worthy – living Gospel-worthy lives – is dangerous. It gets us in trouble. It upsets the status quo. And sometimes, when we focus our lives in this way … sometimes … we end up in jail … like Paul. Sometimes, we end up dying … like Jesus and Paul.

You don’t think Paul was hauled off to prison – which is where he was when he wrote this love letter to the Philippians – just because he didn’t pay his taxes, do you?

As Paul himself would say, Me genito! By no means!

Paul ended up in jail – Paul ended up being executed – because he upset the Roman apple cart!

Because he kept getting in the face of those in power, he kept threatening those in power, with the Gospel … with Jesus’ instructions to care for those in need, to feed the hungry, to cure the sick and touch the leper and eat with the tax collectors and worship with the prostitutes and the destitute … to give hope to the hopeless and power to the powerless, to include the excluded, to love the unloved.

And that’s just not where the world – or, I should say, where the powers-that-be in the world – want us to go.

The powers-that-be in no way want us to stand up and say, No more. Nada mas. Bas. Basta.

In no way do the powers-that-be want us – members of the Body of Christ – to upset their apply carts.

But we are the Body of Christ, commanded by none other than Christ, to love God and love our neighbor – to live in love and community every moment of our lives, to make choices – every moment of our lives – that are for the common good, not for our own good only.

• • •

This past summer, I was at Camp McDowell, the Diocese of Alabama’s camp and retreat center, helping to lead a week-long summer camp program for 125 seventh- and eight-graders. Our program was focused on how to live together as the Body of Christ.

We called it, OMG, Y’all! (That stands for … wait for it … wait for it …) On a Mission From God, Y’all. (Not what you thought, eh?)

One part of the camp program was a game called “Survival,” in which we asked each small group of about 10 campers to become a “nation,” to which we then gave red and green beads.

Each red bead, we told the campers, represented 1,000 people.

Each green bead, we said, represented enough food for 1,000 people.

No group – no nation­ ­– started off with an equal amount of beads.

Some nations had lots of red beads – lots of people – and very few green beads – very little food.

Other nations had enough food to feed their people several times over.

The goal of the game, we said, was for each nation to end up with an equal number of red and green beads – with enough food to care for all their people.

Now, what normally happens in this game is that the nations swap food and people with each other – all the while dealing with disasters or blessings, with locusts or emigration, with tornadoes or gentle rainfall, with drought or bumper crops, with whatever disaster or blessing we decided to drop on them, whenever we decided to do so. What normally happens is that at the end, each nation has enough food to feed its people, but some nations are huge, and others are small.

That’s what normally happens.

Not at Camp McDowell, of course.

There, the kids decided first that they would take care of each other. One group,  every time it found itself with a surplus of food,  started going to other groups and simply giving their extra food away for free, asking nothing in return. Others entered covenants: You take care of us, we’ll take care of you. Still others formed coalitions, sharing food and people equally.

And then, in the end, in a completely unexpected turn of events (which I have never seen before), the groups decided they no longer wanted to experience famine or overcrowding. So they joined together.

All 12 groups.

Into one nation.

That way, they reasoned, everyone would have enough to eat. No one would go hungry ever again.

May I remind you that these children were in seventh and eighth grade? That they ranged in age from 11 to 14?

These children understood what it means to live Gospel-worthy lives.

And then they lived them.

Let me tell you: Those children in Alabama? They knew how to answer Paul’s great question of “How then shall we live?” Yes, it was just a game in a week filled with games. But they still did it. For them, it was a no-brainer! (Actually, I believe what they said to me was, “Duh!”)

And if those children can do it, can’t we as well? If they can see this solution as a “Duh!” can’t we do the same? After all, we are the adults here!

The children already know this, and they teach us about our call in life. Their answer Paul’s question:

We are called … as members of the Body of Christ … to live Gospel-worthy lives.

We are called to be Gospel-worthy.



Sermon preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A, 18 September 2011, at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va.

[1] Quoted in “Theology of Liberation” on the blog of The Rt. Rev. Michael Hanley, Bishop of Oregon, http://www.bishop.episcopaldioceseoregon.org/, 15 September 2011. Compier is a professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary,A Love Letter…concerning a Work in Progress,” First Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Mich., 6 December 2009, http://www.fpcbirmingham.org/worship/sermons/a-love-letter/, emphasis added.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Susan Eastman, Assistant Professor of the Practice of the Bible and Christian Formation,

Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., “Reciprocating Glory,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx.

[5] Stephen E. Fowl. Philippians (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary), 79, Kindle Edition.


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