Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Hallelujah! Praise God, O my soul! I will praise the Holy One as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in people who hold power, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob and Rachel, whose hope is in the Most High,
God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; the One who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry;
and sets the prisoners free.
God opens the eyes of those who cannot see, lifts up those who are bowed down; and loves the righteous. God watches over the strangers; and upholds the orphan and the widow, but brings the way of the wicked to ruin.
God will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Hallelujah!
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Beloved friends, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.
What a week it has been since we last gathered here in Meeting for Worship. For all who care about the national election it has been a time of intense uncertainty, with many ups and downs as the votes have continued to be counted and the electoral map adjusted, then readjusted, time and again. Hope rose and fell as one watched the progression of events. The amount of sleep lost over the past several days alone is a sign of the seriousness with which so many of us take this election and the investment we have in its outcome.
The author of Psalm 146, which Nancy read near the beginning of Meeting, speaks to us from across the centuries, urging us to know who and what is worthy of our trust. The psalmist wrote, “Do not put your trust in people who hold power, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” In this season of the election we have heard innumerable claims about and from candidates for various offices who have been seeking our vote. While we need to gain clarity about which candidates we believe are best to give our vote we also need to be careful not to become overly invested in them or in the political process beyond the weight that they or it can bear. Voting is important and the persons who win office matter very much; like others of you I have spent a sizable amount of time this week looking at the electoral map and refreshing it in the hope of change in the direction I am convinced is best. And at the same time as we care deeply about these important matters we need to avoid seeing our candidate or party as the focus of our hope and meaning.
Similar to the composer of Psalm 146, the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich urged people to distinguish between that which is worthy of our ultimate concern – which can bear the weight of our trust, faith, and hope — and those things which, while worthy of care and attention, are not substantial enough to receive our faith and devotion. We need to avoid putting more trust in something than it deserves. And the political process, while deeply important and worthy of our care and effort, is not sufficiently substantial to be the object of our fullest trust.
The psalmist points to God alone as worthy of our full trust. And in the passage from Philippians the apostle Paul writes with passion and intensity of his own journey of discovering that which was worthy of his trust and commitment. In the verses preceding the passage Liz read, Paul had listed his impressive set of qualifications as a leader among the Jewish people. But he then contrasted these with the changes in him that occurred from an encounter with Jesus and becoming a follower of Christ. Paul replaced his valuing of the religious credentials which he had formerly cherished with his faith in Jesus and the goal of becoming like Christ.
In our passage Paul writes about his pursuit of this aim - “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal” (parts of verses 13 and 14.) You can picture someone in a race running as hard as their body will allow, putting forth every possible effort to cross the finish line. Paul urges the people of the church at Philippi to be similarly engaged in pursuit of the goal of becoming like Christ and to support one another in this.
There are three aspects to the case Paul made – pursuing a worthy goal, pushing forward steadfastly, and coming together to support and accompany one another.
In preparation for today I have been pondering these in light of our context of a fraught national campaign season and election that have further clarified many conflicting values and commitments of voters. What goal is worthy of our pursuit? How do we move toward it with steadfastness? In what ways do we accompany and support one another?
(Understanding a goal worthy of our pursuit) Paul’s articulation of his goal was based on his focus on the person of Jesus; as Friends we, too, are called to be followers of Jesus, but we are more focused on the message of Jesus. In his life and ministry Jesus was a teacher, healer, and prophet in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures calling people into a life of love, peace, and right relationships. Jesus drew people into a new community based on the liberative work of God, described in the Psalm Nancy read – such characteristics as bringing about justice for those who are oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting free those who are in prison. Jesus called people to shalom, a way of being and acting which includes and goes beyond peace.
Old Testament scholar and minister Howard Macy wrote eloquently about the meaning of shalom:
At its heart, the biblical idea of shalom has to do with wholeness,
harmony, with balance. It speaks of health and healing, of debts
paid, promises kept and vows fulfilled. When in the Old Testament
shalom refers to political peace, it does not point to the stand-off
of mutual terror, but to reconciliation, to a harmony under God’s rule