Sermon Title “The Biggest Loser” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! This Sunday and next Sunday I will be preaching from the Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It is a letter of thanks and encouragement to the church at Philippi, for the ways that they have supported Paul and his ministry. It was almost certainly written while Paul was in Roman custody. This is an interesting word, because there were different levels of incarceration in the Roman world. Paul had already experienced the “house arrest” of basically being able to move around under Roman supervision. The conditions where he is writing this letter seem to be somewhat more serious, and Paul is beginning to understand the inevitability of his own death for the gospel of Christ. In chapter 3 verses 7 and 8 he writes, “Yet 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 Jesus Christ my Lord.” Paul is remembering what he has lost and all he has gained, and almost certainly thinking of what he may still have to lose.
Being a loser is a shameful thing in 21st C America. By a “loser,” I don’t mean someone who has mis-placed or lost things (maybe they’ll turn up eventually — or not), by “loser” I mean someone who didn’t win. We’ll do a lot to avoid, explain away, or deny being a loser. If you’re a collegiate athlete, you get in the transfer portal , if you’re in business you interpret the numbers to make you look as good as possible, if you’re in politics, you claim that you won and that system was rigged. In the church . . . well, that’s more complicated, especially because of passages like this one from Paul. Are there things we’d be better off if we lost? The answer is Yes.
Some of you may remember a reality show which ran from 2004 to 2016 called The Biggest Loser. I had a friend who loved this show. The show features obese or overweight contestants competing to win a cash prize by losing the highest percentage of body fat relative to their initial weight. They worked with physical trainers and medical personnel to design workout and nutrition plans, but the only way the contestants could lose weight was to take responsibility for implementing those plans themselves. In other words, even the most gifted trainer cannot lose the weight for you.
Although Paul did lose material things, and his freedom, I believe the losses he is talking about are the things he felt were marks of his spiritual excellence and achievement. In verse 6 he writes, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Isreal, the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” A winner in every category. And his next sentence is “Yet, whatever gains I had I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”
So I want to tell you a story about losing ugly spiritual weight. The weight of being blameless, or perfect. It is my story. As many of you know, I was born into a Christian home — a home where both of my parents had Church of the Brethren lineage, convictions and values. I know my parents loved me, and I was pretty sure they loved me a little more when I was respectful and well-behaved, and especially when I excelled at whatever I was doing. I internalized the message early that I needed to be “good,” whether that was getting good grades, getting roles in school plays and musicals, or being a leader in my youth group. I was trying as hard as I could be to be perfect, getting pretty close, and beating myself up when I thought I fell short. I believed in Jesus, was baptized as a teen ager, and tried hard to make Jesus happy, too.
When I was a young adult, I engaged in some bad, sinful, hurtful behavior. I know it was wrong, but I denied that or found ways to justify that to myself. I tried to hold being perfect together with my behavior and I couldn’t. The whole system crumbled. I had to confess my bad behavior, stop what I had been doing, and make amends to the people I had hurt. Through a long process of soul-searching and counseling, I realized that I was a loser: I had lost 40-50 pounds of spiritual fat. Of course, I had to stop the bad behavior, but what I really had to lose, and what was the most painful thing to lose, was the heresy that if I just worked hard enough at it, I could be perfect — or at least close enough to convince most people. Perfectionism was the spiritual weight I had to lose; you may be able to tell that I still carry around a few more pounds than I should, but losing that weight is the healthiest thing I have ever done. No one else could lose that for me — not a husband or a counselor or a pastor. It took a crisis, but I had to decide to let go of that image of myself as a really good person, and live by the grace of love which I didn’t earn. The way that I was saved, by Christ, was being forced to acknowledge and accept that I could not save myself. This is how the grace of Christ works — in my weakness and loss.
For years I ignored or muffled nudges or prompts or calls to ministry because I knew I could never be “good enough” to be a pastor, or to present God to other people. They were sure to find out who I really was and feel betrayed and turn on me. It has taken some time, but it turns out that losing the weight of trying to be perfect has been the most important and the most formative training I have had for pastoral ministry. Everybody wants a good pastor — I don’t know what that means for you, because the possibilities are almost endless — at least, it’s a long list. Sermons which are biblically based, carefully researched, delivered in an energetic and entertaining way with a few good jokes thrown in, someone to be there when I’m ill or in the hospital or need someone to talk to, someone who challenges me, but not my opinions, someone with flawless communication skills, someone who brings a lot of gifts and education, but isn’t too hard on the budget . . . I could go on and on. I actually put intentional effort into many of these things, but they are peripheral to what I see as my task of being a Christian and especially a Christian leader.
What I have learned is the surpassing value of Christ and the absolute necessity of letting go of faith in my own righteousness. I learned this the hard way. There is no easy way. The grace of Christ is free, but we have to lose some significant things in order to get it. What you need to lose may be different than what I had to lose, but no one gets there by doing everything right, and no one gets there without losing something.
So I’m here to tell you that you are entitled to a pastor who does her job, but you don’t need a perfect pastor — like Santa Claus or the Easter bunny that’s an imaginary character. Perfect people are controlling, neurotic, insecure, and spiritually obese — believe me, I know. I want to be a loser, and there are things I work to get rid of every day so that I can connect with other losers. I sympathize with the difficulty and pain of loss, because I have experienced it; I know the joy and freedom of what I gained through the suffering of Christ and the new life of resurrection and another chance, because I have experienced that, too.
I want to end with a hymn text — one you have probably never heard. It was written by a seminary classmate of mine, Adam Tice. Adam was a musician who found, through a class assignment, that he had a gift for writing contemporary lyrics which could be paired with traditional hymns. He has had two collections of those hymn texts published by GIA. This one was is from his first collection Woven into Harmony, which was published in 2009. It includes some concrete contemporary images. The title makes me wince a bit, but the truth we live with. It’s called “Christ is for Losers” The chorus goes:
All my loss I count as gain;
All of my weakness, all of my pain.
And though I die with Christ I will rise,
For life is in Christ, the loser’s prize.
Christ is for losers, the last and the least
Welcoming sinners and saints to his feast,
Turning away those who bring their own bread —
All those who assume they don’t need to be fed.
Christ is for losers, the broken and ill,
Lacking insurance to cover their bill.
Those who don’t know they need healing at all
Will pay no attention to Christ and his call.
Christ is for losers, the homeless, the poor,
Jobless and hopeless who knock at his door.
Christ won’t admit those who bring their own key,
Who lock up the Church that Christ calls to be free.