Philippians 2. 1-13
The church loves like god loves …in the best interests of others.
A couple, three weeks ago, we first heard of something that happened on Memorial Day, three years ago. It seems – according to reporting – two men were visiting Arlington National Cemetery. And they were standing beside the grave of a Marine who had been killed in Afghanistan. One said – to no one in particular – said, “I don’t get it. What’s in it for them?” I don’t get it. What’s in it for them? Now, it doesn’t matter who it was who said it. Whether he was red or blue. It was a man. Just a man. Who said, simply, what was on his mind. The truth is, he didn’t get it. He just couldn’t understand. For the next week, a firestorm raged through the media. Honor. Courage. Commitment. Those were the values of the Corps. And they were widely discussed. And the guy? They seemed to be beyond his comprehension. “I don’t get it. What’s in it for them?” We heard the words and we were surprised. Shocked. Aghast. We were the ones who couldn’t get it. How anyone could say something like that.
But over the days, as I thought more about it, I couldn’t understand, either. Understand how we couldn’t understand! Why we reacted the way we did! If there’s one thing we should understand completely, one thing we should really “get,” it’s self-interest! But bottom-line, we didn’t! We don’t! What’s in it for them … giving that last full measure of devotion. Sure, we “kinda” understand. We thank them for their service. We honor them when we can. We respect them. But understand? Maybe that’s something we’re trying to atone for every Memorial Day, each Veterans Day. We just don’t get it, either.
You see, what was said that day beside that grave, is all about self-interest. And self-interest is the heart and soul of everything we do. It’s the guiding principle of our politics! The guiding principle of our economy! The guiding principle of, even, our religion! It’s the reason for each and every transaction we complete. From the purchase of a car to making a child eat her dinner. What’s in it for me? Now that, we can understand.
Now the defenders of self-interest will caution us that it isn’t the same thing as being selfish. That it shouldn’t be confused with being greedy. But I’m not all that sure. “Pursuing, personal advantage,” is how the dictionary defines it. “Pursuing personal advantage without regard for others.” Pot-ay-to, pot-ah-to! Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to! Self-interest is why we get out of bed, in the morning. Self-interest is why we go to work. Why we go to school. Self-interest is the rhyme and reason for buying and selling. Self-interest is the nuts and bolts of supply and demand. And well … at those moments when self-interest droops, there’s always advertising! Looking out for number one … that’s what makes the system work! At least, that’s what we’ve been told! Anything else … anything less … is heresy! Sacrilege!
That’s who we are! And then, we do our best, we try our hardest, to make god in our image! So that just like I, god operates according to self-interest … just like us! We believe in god so we don’t go to hell. That’s self-interest. God loves us so that we love god in return. That’s self-interest. Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – it doesn’t work that way! God doesn’t function according to the basis of self-interest. That’s what makes god god. God’s starting point is always – what the writer of the letter to the Philippians might call – other interest …
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
And other-interest is the complete opposite of, a total contradiction to, self-interest! That’s why the world tries so hard to undo us! To subvert us! We’re a threat to everything the world holds holy! Ivory tower that’s what they call it. Pie in the sky. Too good to be true. Truth is, god has our best interests at heart! OUR best interests, not god’s! That’s looking to the interests of others! Of course, we call it love! Charity! Grace! What’s important, what matters, isn’t what we get out of it! It’s what they get out of it! It’s sacrifice of self for the sake – in the interest – of others!
God don’t do what god has done … god doesn’t do what god is doing … simply for what god gets out of it! To be thanked! Worshiped! Praised! But god didn’t – doesn’t – do it, so we fall down and throw our crowns at god’s feet! God did what god did, god does what god does, because god loves us! And we – the church – do the same! Driven not by self-interest, but motivated by the needs of our neighbors! And the world stands by, looking on, shaking its head. “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.” And truth be told, most of us … most denominations and most congregations – don’t get it, either. We’ve been “converted” by what we already believe in. “Saved” by what we already know. And life goes on. And on. And on. Pretty much like it’s always gone on. Rooted, anchored, in self-interests. We say our prayers. We sing our songs. We build our temples. There’s only one question in our hearts, in our minds … What do we get out of it?
That’s who we are. Who we’ve been. Who we’ll be. We can’t change any of it. Captive. Bound. We confess we haven’t loved our neighbors like we love ourselves. It’s all about self-interests. We can’t choose it out. We can’t scrub it off. We can’t tear it out by its roots. You can’t tempt one self-interest with another more seductive one. Self-interest remains self-interest. If you want to change it, you proclaim, administer, the gospel. Over and over. Again and again. Sunday morning after Sunday morning. The message? God loves! Period! God loves! No strings attached! You want to change someone … transform someone … you give them something to eat when they’re hungry! Something to drink when they’re thirsty! You give them something to wear when they’re naked! Somewhere to go when they’re lost! Somewhere to belong when they’re alone! When they’re abandoned, you claim them as your own! When they’re thrown away, you make them new! And that’s not self-interest. It’s other-interest! And god’s been doing it all along! Right from the start!
God did it in Eden! God did it in Egypt! God did it every step of the way, across the wilderness! God did it, that night, in the upper room! God did it, afterward, there in the garden! God did it, the next day, on that dusty hilltop outside the city! And god’s doing it still … right here … right now … Inspiring us! Impassioning us! To go and do the same! To go and BE the same!
But we’ll be hearing that question. You can bet on it. Hear it more than once. “I don’t get it. I just don’t understand. What’s in it for them? What’s in it for them?” And they won’t. They can’t. We’ll be reminded of the honor … of the courage … of the commitment … But when the time comes, I hope we remember Christ, as well! Christ and the cross!
let each of you look not to your own interests
but to the interests of others.