Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2016; 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year C
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1
“…their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior…”
This the time of year when the thoughts of a great many high school juniors and seniors turn to one thing: college. The college admissions season is now in full swing. Most seniors, by now, have run the gauntlet of the SAT exams (at least once, if not multiple times). They’ve filled out a whole slew of application forms; solicited letters of reference; painstakingly listed their school and community activities. Now — unless they’ve gone “early decision” — it’s a waiting game. Sit back and relax (if you can). Wait and see which of those applications will bear fruit.
It’s a stressful time. So much seems to be riding on that admissions decision. For all too many young people, the decision of those far-off college admissions committees seems like a judgment — a verdict — on their entire life so far. Some kids buckle and break under the strain.
The competition, of course, is most intense at the nation’s elite colleges, especially the Ivy League schools. That’s why I felt encouraged, yesterday, by an article I saw in the Washington Post. The headline read: “To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving.”
There’s a think tank at Harvard University that studies issues related to higher education. They’ve thought for some time that there’s something broken about the high-stakes college admissions process. It rewards far too many frenetic, driven overachievers. A great many balanced personalities are turned aside.
The article suggests a solution: focus on a character trait that hasn’t played such a large role on admissions applications. That trait is kindness.
Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of admissions at Yale, is a big supporter of the study. Yes, colleges are looking for high achievers, he admits. “But we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good.”
Bottom line: these experts are saying that college admissions decisions need to be more about character than ever before — and less about sheer academic achievement.
It’s here that I see a clear role for the church. What high-school curriculum, what textbook, can teach character? What pedagogical method can instill traits like kindness and concern for the common good?
Here in the church of Jesus Christ, virtue is our stock in trade. If there’s any sort of person we intend to turn out, as a result of Sunday School, confirmation, youth group — and even sitting here praying and listening to sermons week after week — it’s character.
A few years back, I told you all a true story about one of the most important discoveries in the field of anthropology. It’s a story about a Spaniard by the name of Marcelino Sanz de Sautola and his young daughter, Maria.
In the year 1879, the two of them set out on a little adventure: exploring a cave on their property near the town of Altamira. Marcelino had visited the cave many times, hoping to find some prehistoric artifacts he could sell. But on this occasion, little Maria had no interest in such things.
Marcelino held his lantern high. Its flickering light cast their shadows — one large, one small — on the cave walls. He looked down at the floor, as he always did, hoping the lantern-light would reveal some chipped-stone axe-head, some fragment of bone.
The two were making their way towards the back of the cave when Maria called out: “Look, Papa, oxen!”
She was pointing towards the ceiling. Marcelino looked up: and, by the flickering light of his lantern, he beheld a sheer marvel: something he had never seen on his earlier visits. The ceiling was covered with magnificent drawings, in charcoal and red ochre! Little Maria thought she saw oxen, but they weren’t oxen at all. They were bison. There were also drawings of horses, and a doe, and a wild boar.
Little Maria, eight or nine years old, had discovered one of the most important archaeological treasures of all time. The Altamira Cave is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It wasn’t the father — kicking the sand at his feet looking for arrowheads — who found those precious, prehistoric cave paintings. It was his little girl, who knew how to look up.
That story is a kind of parable for us, and for our achievement-driven culture. You and I, too, are meant to pause our pursuit of achievement every once in a while and look up. It’s what our God expects of us.
In Philippians chapter 3, the apostle Paul advises his favorite congregation to avoid looking down at the ground too much. He warns them of people whose “minds are set on earthly things.” His description of these misguided people is vivid: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame…” (3:19).
It’s a warning that’s all too relevant today. Should you have any doubt about that, just consider fore a moment three contemporary proverbs we often hear. Each one corresponds to one of Paul’s three characteristics of those whose minds are set on earthly things: their end is destruction, their god is the belly, their glory is in their shame.
The first one is: “You only live once.” That one’s better known by its acronym: YOLO. “You only live once” is an all-purpose excuse for risky, self-destructive behavior. Not sure you should order that last drink, before getting into the car and driving home? Feeling hesitant about commencing that office flirtation? Eyeing that second piece of death-by-chocolate dessert? You only live once — so go for it!
Exactly. You only live once. While a great many YOLO infractions are minor, they have a cumulative effect. When you and I face our Lord at the final judgment, will it be our single, large violations that do us in? Or will it be the mountain of smaller, easily-rationalized, never-repented-of sins? And what will be the outcome? Maybe we will only live once!
Here’s a second contemporary proverb: “If it feels good, do it!” That’s a tie-dyed t-shirt slogan of the 1960s counterculture. It’s still very much with us. Why fuss about morality, if it feels good in the moment, and no one’s getting hurt (at least not right now)?
But not so fast. Paul’s equivalent is: “their god is the belly.” It’s a saying that evokes vivid associations for anyone who’s ever struggled to maintain a healthy diet. But its implications go much further than that pair of jeans that suddenly feels too tight. The Bible’s saying, here, that there are spiritual consequences to living a life defined only by self-gratification. In a subtle way, such a lifestyle reveals who it is we truly worship. (Hint: It’s not God with a capital “G.”)
The final proverb of the three — and this one likewise dates from the 60s, but it’s still popular today. It’s “Let it all hang out.” We’ve got to leave it to the imagination what, exactly, “it” could be, but even so, “Let it all hang out” is an all-purpose justification for doing whatever on earth we feel like doing, without any concern for how it may affect others — or ourselves.
It is, in other words, the sort behavior Paul flags with the phrase, “their glory is in their shame.” Think of the drunk — bubbly and happy after crashing her car — being led off in handcuffs by the police officer. Her glory is in her shame. Think of the up-and-coming entrepreneur, dumping his old wife and parading around with a so-called trophy wife, half his age. His glory is in his shame. Think of the corporate PR director, writing a gushing press release touting her company’s contributions to the community: as damage-control for polluting its river. Her glory is in her shame. The apostle’s right about that: all of us have an endless capacity for self-justification, even in the face of obvious moral failings.
So, what’s the solution? The answer is like a piece of advice given by a scuba-diving instructor. Somebody asked him how he could find his way back up to the surface during a deep dive, after feelings of disorientation had come upon him in the murky depths. Scuba divers say that sort of disorientation can be a dangerous problem — especially at night. No light from above penetrates to those depths. The ocean floor is still far below. The oxygen in the tank is running low — but which way is up? Some divers have drowned, as a result of this kind of spatial disorientation.
The diving instructor offered a simple, practical solution: follow the bubbles. Feel with your hand for the place where the air-bubbles emerge from your diving gear, and note which way the bubbles move. Without fail, they will make their way to the surface. You have only to follow them to life and freedom.
Our hopes, our highest Christian aspirations, are like that. None of us succeed, all the time, in living righteous lives. Sin is part of the human condition, even for those who earnestly wish to do better. Even Paul himself knew what that feels like. He vents his frustration, in Romans 7:15, at “doing the very thing he hates.” No one knows what behavior he’s talking about, specifically, but we don’t need to know. We’ve all been there.
I remember, years ago, going to Boy Scout camp, and spending some time on the archery range. We all wanted to hit the bulls-eye, but despite taking careful aim, each of us novice archers sent a great many of our arrows directly into the dirt. That’s because we didn’t yet know a cardinal principle of archery: you’ve got to aim high.
The force of gravity exerts itself on the arrow. You’ve got to take that into account. It seems counter-intuitive. It seems wrong: you want to hit the bulls-eye, so why not aim directly at it?
But you can’t — or, at least, you shouldn’t, if you want to hit the target. You’ve got to fix your eye on the center of the target, then raise your arrow-point up just a little. If you practice hard enough, you’ll gain a sense of just how much you have to raise it.
Human sin — to which we are all subject — is like the force of gravity. Deny its existence, or put it out of your mind, and it will pull you down, every time. Instead, the solution is to keep aiming high.
A little further on in Philippians 3, Paul provides a hint of how to do this — a thought, a guiding principle, you and I can hold in our minds. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” he teaches.
Now, we all know citizenship is a big topic of discussion these days, in the presidential debates. As the candidates tussle over immigration reform, a common theme is the value of U.S. citizenship. It’s the golden prize sought by so many who cross our southern border.
Yet, in Paul’s estimation, it’s not citizenship in any country that’s important — not even the Roman citizenship that he enjoyed. There’s a far more important citizenship: being a citizen of heaven.
As C.S. Lewis writes, in his famous book, Mere Christianity:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…. Probably earthly pleasures were never made to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing…. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”
What he’s saying, in other words, is to aim high. It’s not true that we only live once. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean we need to do it. And letting it all hang out can be downright embarrassing.
The Ivy League colleges may only now be coming to the belated realization that character traits like kindness and good citizenship are worth seeking after. Here in the church, we’ve known it all along.
So wherever you go, this coming week, wherever you go, aim high. Don’t set your mind on earthly things. Contemplate the beauty of that far country: the land that is our true home.
Live into hope of captives freed
from chains of fear or want or greed.
God now proclaims our full release
to faith and hope and joy and peace.
Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.