I have always been an expert at “supposed to.”
That has always been my lot in life. I grew up as a first-born preacher’s kid, and so I knew pretty early how to do what I was supposed to. I never got sent to the principal’s office as a child. I was never one of those youth who were in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong things. I could tell what my parents and my teachers and the ministers at my church expected of me, and I had a knack for doing what I was “supposed to.”
As I became an adult, that “supposed to” turned into a perfectionism. There was a voice always in the back of my head saying “It’s not okay to make mistakes.” Richard Rohr, who is himself a perfectionist, says that we experts in “supposed to” somehow lost the message that “you are good.” So, we are always trying to earn or achieve or work toward or accomplish that reality. We think we have a personal obligation to fix everything ourselves. I have always had – for good and for bad – a drive toward supposed to.
Perhaps I am not alone. How many of us have one of those voices in our heads? In the back of our minds, we are pushing ourselves to do it right? To achieve a little bit more. To accomplish the next thing. To perfect that which is just a little bit off.
I think that we live in a culture of “supposed to.” There are so many messages telling us how we are to behave, or look, or sound, or shop – what we are to wear or eat or where we are to live. We want to be supported by the right people, have the right educational degrees, have the correct status symbols in our driveway or in our closets. We want to be winners, and will often go to violent and war-like means to accomplish.
But most experts in “supposed to” don’t stop there. Because when there is a voice in the back of our heads saying that we are not doing it right, eventually that voice says, “they aren’t doing it right either.” We start to point out the imperfections in others. The “not quite good enough” in their behavior or their look or their status. Eventually, we have made ourselves self-appointed defenders of “supposed to” for not just ourselves, but our children, our co-workers, our parents, our friends, and just about everyone in our lives.
And we spend our lives doing the exhausting work of supposed to.
The Apostle Paul was an expert at “supposed to.” Rohr says that he is perhaps the greatest example in Scripture of a perfectionist. And Paul would likely agree. In today’s passage, we read this litany of reasons that Paul has to boast. He was, in his words, the “Hebrew’s Hebrew.” Of course, there were a lot of ways to practice the Hebrew faith, but he chose a strain – the Pharisaic order – that majored in the “supposed to.” They believed that the best way to live out the faith was to stick close to a whole host of commands from the Mosaic law. And, just like us, when they heard that voice that they were not doing what they were supposed to, they were driven by guilt until it was perfect. And, of course, it got to the point that they were not only correcting themselves, but everybody else. They started to fix everyone else’s “supposed to.” Eventually, they got a reputation as the morality police, the self-appointed law-keepers of the community.
This was Paul’s life. We read in the passage today that Paul boasted of his role in the Pharisaic order. He was raised from birth in the way of “supposed to.” He was trained by the best Pharisees. He went above and beyond the other self-appointed law-keepers and pursued those who weren’t doing what they were supposed to. Paul boasted in his role as the persecutor of the church, killing the followers of The Way who failed to do in his mind what they were supposed to do. Paul writes in the passage that he might have been the pinnacle of perfection when it came to this Pharisaic method of the faith.
And it didn’t matter.
By the time Paul writes Philippians, he has had a pretty significant change of heart. He has come to the realization that “supposed to” doesn’t cut it anymore. “Supposed to” no longer mattered to him. “Supposed to” had failed him again and again.
In fact, he claims that all of this stuff that he was so good at, the pinnacle of “supposed to” upon which he stood was, in his words, “loss.” Not just less helpful. Not that it was neutral where he thought it was once a positive. No, instead, the pile of accomplishments that he had achieved was “loss” — a detriment to him. The Greek word is tied to the concept of financial loss. It is as if Paul is saying that he has sunk his life savings into a snowplow…in the Amazon rainforest. Like he has spent is last dime on a lottery ticket…with the wrong numbers. Paul says that his life of “supposed to” had failed him.
None of it mattered anymore. Instead, what mattered was not what he achieved, but what he received in the grace of Christ. What mattered was not worldly prestige and power and strength, but about the unmerited favor of grace. What mattered was not his life of morality and perfectionism and “supposed to”, but quite simply, Resurrection. That’s what mattered to him…and the only thing that mattered to him. Everything else is losing lottery tickets compared to the prize that is the promise of new life in the Resurrection in Christ.
Wait, what? Where did the Resurrection come from? I want to take an aside here and talk about the Resurrection for a minute. Remember that we are finishing up our last sermon in the series about doubt. We have talked about doubt when it comes to Biblical interpretation, when it comes to whether or not Jesus is in our heart (and what that even means), when it comes to God’s Will. And now, we come to the final question: the Resurrection.
Perhaps more than any other Christian doctrine, this is a struggle for many Christians. Did Jesus really die for three days and then come back to life? It is illogical. It is unscientific. It is medically impossible. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but my guess is that some in here today at some point in their lives have doubted the Resurrection.
Now, my goal today is not to convince. Like I preached in the beginning, doubt is a part of the game. Doubt makes us stronger. Besides that, I will never be able to prove the negative…that Jesus did not not stay dead. So, I am not going to try and convince anyone, but I am going to confess. I am going to share my heart as to why I think that the Resurrection makes sense to me. I am not a doctor or a logic professor, but I happen to know a lot about human nature, and so there are three arguments that convince me:
The first is what I would call the psychological argument. Basically, I believe in the Resurrection has validity because of the record of a whole bunch of people who died because they believed that this actually happened. All of the disciples, and a lot of other followers of Jesus. Psychologically, I wonder why they would all do this if they did not have some profound reason for believing that it happened and that they were so sure that it happened that they were willing to die for it. Now, maybe it was mass groupthink. We know of Jim Jones and others who fell prey to devious and conspiratorial leaders. But so many in so many places? Is seems unlikely.
Which leads me to the second argument: what I call the sociological argument. If so many individuals were willing to die because they believed in the Resurrection, then they must have been seduced by some incredibly devious and conspiratorial early Christians. Now, first of all, I don’t believe in conspiracies as a rule. I think that there are folks who act out of their self-interest, and often keep that self-interest hidden. But I generally don’t think that vast unfound conspiracies happen because of human nature – too many people have to be really good at lying to a lot of people, and all agree to lie together forever and not flinch. If the Resurrection was a conspiracy, it is the best one in history. But even that doesn’t make sense. Why pick Jesus? Crucifixion was an incredibly shame-filled way to die. In a culture that was primarily shame or honor based, why would a group of people choose this symbol of shame as their leader? It seems like they could find a better person to follow. There were plenty of power brokers, rich merchants, or Roman officials who they could choose as their leader. Jesus was a loser. Literally. So if a devious and tricky early Church wanted to create a conspiracy around someone, why would they pick Jesus? Socio-culturally, it doesn’t seem like this is the way that they would go about it. In fact, why would we create an entire religion around this loser?
So, I think there are reasons psychologically and sociologically that convince me of the veracity of the Resurrection. But there is something even bigger than that. I am convinced by the psychology, and by the sociology, but also by the theology.
The Resurrection makes sense to me because it seems to be what God is up to. If the power demonstrated by the Romans and the Jewish authorities in the crucifixion won, if they were able to show that overpowering was successful, then everything we know about Jesus is wrong. But it seems to be that the God of Scripture is a God of life over death. God is a God of strength in the midst of vulnerability. Rowan Williams says that crucifixion happened because of our oppressiveness, but Resurrection happened because of God’s forgiveness. God is a God of forgiveness, of Resurrection as the last word – not Crucifixion as the last word. This is inherent to the nature of the world as God created it. And while our culture, and just about every culture throughout history has chosen to reject that truth of the nature of true power, in favor of overpowering and control and destruction, the fact that God said that those things will not have the last word, is crucial.
I think that part of the reason that so many struggle with the Resurrection – today and when it happened and in the centuries in between, is not just logical and medical. It is theological. The Resurrection doesn’t fit with “supposed to.” It doesn’t fit with this world of “supposed to” that is achievement centered, and accomplishment centered. The powers that be, the forces of “supposed to” are always trying to overcome, or overpower, or kill or destroy. But the way of God is always an explosion of empowerment from within.
So, back to Paul.
Why does Paul talk about the Resurrection in the middle of this passage about how awesome he used to think he was? Because he is laying out this theological duality that suggests that you either have to choose the way of “supposed to” – the way of perfectionism and “you are not good enough” that he followed forever and the way that many of us still follow. Or you choose the way of Resurrection.
Think about it – Paul the perfectionist tried to protect his little world from that which was different and Jesus blew that up. Jesus and his followers changed everything. And every time the forces of “supposed to” killed someone else – Jesus, his disciples, the early church martyrs, the empowering power of God continued to bubble up.
Now, back to us. For how many of us never comprehended this message: “you are good.”
We tried to behave our way into goodness. We tried to earn our way into goodness. We tried to “supposed to” our way into goodness.
But the God of the Resurrection comes along and says quite simply: “you are good.”
You don’t need to do or say anything to prove it to me. Just be.
So, today, that’s the message that I want you to hear. You are good! Let go of your supposed to, and receive the true power of God in the Risen Christ.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of the time when she had to take the drivers test. This was not when she started driving as a teenager, but when she was an adult to renew her license. .All she had to do was pass the test; her score didn’t matter, as long as she passed the test.
But Dr. Remen writes how much she struggled with “supposed to.” She didn’t just want to pass the test – she wanted to ace it. So she studied and she worked and she practiced. And she went in there and she took the test and she got 100%. She ran home to her husband David to show him what she had done.
And, Dr. Remen writes, her husband just looked up at her from his work and said, “My love, why would you want to do that?” In that moment, he reminded her that she didn’t need to be perfect, didn’t need to accomplish to be acceptable, didn’t need “supposed to.” Her last line is that “David did not play by these rules. He did not even know the game.”
Today, may we give up on our rules of “supposed to.” Our rules of earning God’s salvation. Today, may we remember that we are good enough. May we celebrate that the God of Resurrection cares not about our accomplishments, but loves us as children with unmerited grace.