SJF • Proper 22a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
There was once a very successful Turkish prize-fighter, named Ismail Yousouf. He traveled the world offering to fight anyone who would contest his strength, and he always won. In addition to his physical prowess, he also had a deep distrust of banks and bankers. Because of that, he kept his winnings in the form of gold coins that he carried with him at all times in a money belt around his waist. I suppose he might have re-written the Scriptural saying to read, “Where your treasure is, there will your stomach also be!” This decision, to keep his wealth as close to him as his skin, led to tragedy, however, when he had the misfortune to be sailing on the passenger liner La Bourgogne in the summer of 1898, when it collided with another vessel off the coast of Nova Scotia and sank. A few of the passengers escaped the disaster, but Yousouf was not among them: in spite of his physical strength, his gold money-belt weighed him down, and he sank into the depths like a stone. Perhaps after all the old saying isn’t quite true, and you can take it with you! But is it worth the trip?
Yousouf’s story is not unique — even on that ship on that day, in which fewer than a quarter of the passengers were saved, there must have been others who might have been saved had they resisted the temptation to turn back for some valued item — a necklace or a briefcase or a wallet — and waste valuable time and add to their burden in reaching the lifeboats.
In a similar vein Mark Twain wrote of his visit to the ruins of Pompeii where he saw the remains of a man who was caught in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius just outside a door to a passage that might have protected him — now an ash-coated skeleton with a key to the door in one hand and ten gold coins in the other. Twain reflected, that had he not stopped to gather up the gold, he might have made it to the door.
The reality of someone dying because they won’t let go of some particular thing is so much a part of human culture that it has become what’s called a “trope” — which is a sort of fancy literary word for a cliché. How many movies have you seen where a character perishes for that very reason — failing to let go of some precious item. I’m sure you can think of many, and I won’t even start to list them,
but that word “precious” and the mention of volcanos can hardly pass without acknowledging poor Gollum and his obsession with the Ring of Power that ultimately leads him to his incinerated end at Mount Doom.
The moral of all of this is that some things are best let go of — and your life may depend on letting go. I reminded us last week of Jack Benny’s response to the challenge, “Your money or your life!” — “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” — which is comical precisely because we recognize that tension in our own lives — that tension between what seems to be of value and what really is of ultimate value; and our recognition that some people really do choose money over life, dying because they won’t let go — or maybe living, but not really having much of a life.
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In our reading from Philippians last week we heard about how Jesus Christ let go — let go of everything — not to save his own life but to save the lives of all who would turn to him in faith. Though he was the Son of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped at or held on to, but rather emptied himself, taking on our human nature so as to live and die as one of us — for our sake and for our salvation.
In the continuation of Philippians we heard this morning, Saint Paul does a similar thing. He begins by cataloguing all of the things he could be proud of if he wished: his being an observant Jew, a scholar and a teacher, in zeal and devotion a leader of his people, a man rich in his own acquired righteousness under the law. But then he shows that he is willing to toss that glossy illustrated catalogue onto the rubbish heap. He will not allow all of these inheritances and accomplishments, these native qualities and acquired skills, to hold him back — as indeed they had held him back — from Christ and his resurrection. Ultimately Paul knows that he must let go of the things that were most precious to him in his life before he came to know Christ. For since knowing Christ, all of these things, however valuable and good they might be, are of no comparison to the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
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Think for a moment about your own life — what are the things that might hold you back? Is it pride in your family or your education? Is it consciousness of your skills or satisfaction with the uprightness of your life? None of these are bad things, mind — that’s the point. These are things worth valuing. They only become a problem when we hang on to them instead of letting go in order fully to grasp what is much more valuable than any such earthly good: to grasp our Lord, clinging to the hem of his garment, as if our life depended on it.
Because our life does depend on it. If anything — however good — impedes your ability to grasp Jesus and trust in his goodness in his righteousness; if your hands are full of anything else at all, however good or valuable they might be, trust in God and let go of it. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, toward the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. All else will be added unto you, if you put your whole trust in him who is the source of all good.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you let go of everything for our sake, leaving the Father’s side to be with us as one of us, to save us from our sins. Help us to find the will and the way to strip off the money belt of reputation and rise from the ocean depths of materialism; to scatter the golden coins of pride, and place the key in the lock of the door that opens to salvation; to forsake the ring of power and prestige and accept the yoke of humble service; that we may at the last find our eternal home with you, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit live and reign for ever and ever.