Sunday, February 13, 2000

"All Encompassing Motivation"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, February 13, 2000
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Philippians 1:19-26

I sincerely hope, and indeed I pray that you have never had an experience in your life that is just so embarrassing that you would like to die, because I have. It was one of those moments that I look back on in my life and I think I just don't know how I survived that moment. I was 11 years old and it still haunts me even to this day. I was part of a school team and our team was on a television show in Bermuda that went from one end of the island to the other on ZBM Television.

It was known, and it has been known in other countries as Top of the Form and the idea was that three representatives from each of the schools would be in a panel to test your knowledge and the school which I attended had reached the semi-final. It was exciting. I was one of the members of my team group. On the one side of me was the principal's son, of all people, he was omnipotent and omniscient, he knew everything. And on the other side of me was a young boy whose mathematical ability could confound Pythagoras and Einstein. I was in good company and we had made it to the semi-final and now we were up against the feared school, Harrington Sound, who had three very bright individuals on the team. And so the competition went on and the program went on and we were getting near the end and we were absolutely dead equal. My parents were sitting on the edge of their seats in the audience, my principal was rubbing his hands with glee, you could feel the tension and cut the atmosphere like a knife and there was one last general question that anyone could answer and the one who answered it right would win and go on to the final and immortal glory. So they came to the question and the question was, boys and girls, to win the tournament, what makes bread rise. A rush of blood went to my head, I know that, I know that, I thought internally, I've watched my mother bake, I know the answer, Stirling to win presses the button. Yes, Stirling, what is the answer? Dough. Dough.

It is no exaggeration to say that for the next twelve months, wherever I went in Bermuda, people would come up to me and poke me in the stomach and call me PDB. It took me a while to understand what that really meant until finally I inquired of one of my friends. What does PDB mean? He says, "Andrew, that stands for the Pillsbury Dough Boy." Even to this day I go back and my friends remind me of that immortal moment I wanted to die.

Sometimes, however, wanting to die is far more serious than that. Sometimes it goes right to the heart of our lives. Sometimes, for example, we want to die because we simply cannot bear physical pain. One of my classmates at the University of Capetown who had been an extremely fine life guard on the coast of Natal in the city of Durban, one day went in and actually saved someone's life and just after he had brought the person back to shore, he went in again to pick up his life guarding board and just as he was about to get out of the water, all of a sudden, he felt something grip his leg. It was nothing other than the famed Zambezi shark, one of the most deadly and vicious of all the sharks of the Indian Ocean. It grabbed his leg, it tore it off from the knee down and when he came to give a talk to us at our graduation, for he was an inspirational character, he said, "There was a moment," he said, "when that shark grabbed my leg, that I didn't know whether I should live or die. I was torn," and he says, "Even to this day I have what are called ghost pains or invisible pains," where he still feels that the leg is causing him grief and causing him agony and he says, "I've got to be honest with you, there are days in which that pain is so great I am torn, I don't know whether I would rather live or die." Sometimes we want to die because of sorrow.

My mind goes back to two years ago, two years ago when I was committing a gentleman to the ground. It was a few days after that terrible ice storm that Montreal and Ottawa suffered so greatly and the surrounding areas and if you hadn't experienced it, there was no way we could describe the devastation of that event. It was simply like being on the moon. All the limbs were down, everything was grey or a dirty white, everything was cold and hard and slippery and dangerous and I remember going to this cemetery on a cold day and on the side of the widow who was burying a husband was a son and her nephew and we walked her to the gravesite and for a moment this woman looked many years older than she really was and she turned around and after we'd put his body in the ground, she walked back to the limousine and just as she was about to go into the limousine, I went up to her and tried to give a word of comfort and I said, "If there's anything that I can do for you, just let me know." And her steely grey eyes, the pained eyes, looked at me and said, "Right now," and she looked at the grave, "I don't know if I can live without him." She was escorted into the limo and the door was closed and she drove away. This woman was torn, she was torn between living and having lost the one that she loved so much, she wondered whether living was worthwhile.

And my friends, sometimes we are torn by agonies, we are torn by two terrible forces and at times we just simply don't know which one to opt for. Recently again I was re-reading the great play by Shakespeare, Hamlet, and as you know I like to read Shakespeare's plays once in a while just to inspire myself and to renew myself and there is a famous line, and we all know it, "To be, or not to be, - that is the question," but it is the words that follow there that show just how torn Hamlet was when he was speaking to Ophelia, and I want to read them to you because I want to do justice to Shakespeare and not misquote him for every word is valuable for us this morning.

Here was a man who was torn, I quote from Hamlet, "To be, or not to be, - that is the question: - Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them? - To die, - to sleep, - no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, - 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. To die, - to sleep." Sometimes we are torn by agonies and we do not know which to choose.

The Apostle Paul in our passage this morning, however, has an entirely different approach to the whole issue. He himself also is torn, but rather than being torn between two agonies, he is torn between two loves. The immortal words of Paul, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain." For the Apostle Paul this was not a choice between two agonies for in living he lives with Christ and in dying he dies with Christ and in many cases the one seems better than the other, but both are indeed being torn by the power of love.

George Eliot once wrote, "What makes life dreary is want of a motive." And for the Apostle Paul, we find in this great passage from Philippians his ultimate motivation in life, for the Apostle Paul, whether it is life or whether it is death, both indeed appear to be the same because of the grace and the love and the power of his relationship with Jesus Christ and so this morning I want to look then at this motivation that was in Paul's life because I believe that as we look at how Paul was torn between these two loves, you and I might find inspiration for our daily lives and if not just for ourselves but for others that we know, who struggle with the agonies and the toils and the embarrassments and the pains of life.

The first thing that we find in the Apostle Paul more than anything else is that he finds in his encounter with Jesus Christ a meaning for his life, a meaning for his life. We find Paul at this point in prison. He probably, he might, he does not know, die. His fate is unsure. He's looking death in the eye when he speaks these words and he does not know what will befall him, but he has looked at death and he has said, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain."

A few years ago I had the privilege of being on the selection committee for Augustine College in Ottawa and we had a number of students come and apply and we had an interview before they were accepted into the College and there was one question that I asked every one of those students, and it was the following, "What would you be willing to die for?" "What would you be willing to die for?" And the answer that these students gave was both inspirational and also depressing. Some had a great sense of what it was that was important in their life and that question drew out for them all the things that really have meaning and purpose in your life. We need to ask ourselves that question sometimes. What would we be willing to die for? In other words, what's the most important thing, what gives the very meaning and crux of our life?

This past week as I was reading about Pamela Barrett who had this near-death experience and listened to her being interviewed and read the articles, I was fascinated by the transformation that took place in her life. And in one of the newspapers there is an account of what she had to say. Now, we don't know what she experienced and there is some debate as to about whether or not she was actually dead, but the fact of the matter is she herself felt that she had looked death in the eye and had come back to life and her life had been fundamentally changed. I want to quote from her, because I think this is inspirational and instructive. She said, and I quote, "Ten minutes before leaving this planet, I'm bragging about how in the next election I'm going to have the best posters because I have the nicest teeth," she laughed.

Not a particularly religious woman, she describes herself as a non-practising Catholic. She saw the experience as a sign to change her life, which has been beset lately with tragedy and personal loss. Then she says, "I've been without a sense of spirituality virtually since the first day that I walked into public office. You're just so constantly pre-occupied with the job, you go to bed at night and you take your problems with you. I was living in a spiritual void." In other words, her confrontation with death caused her to find the very meaning in life, that in staring death in the eye, she now understands the need to have a purpose to exist. I know how she feels.

A couple of years ago after I had had my final interview with the search committee here at Eaton Memorial Church, I got in my car and I was heading back the very next morning to Ottawa and you can imagine all the things that were going on in my mind, can't you? Did I say something absolutely stupid? Oh my, if I were ever asked that again, I would never say the same thing. They must think I'm a real idiot. Oh my gosh, I don't know how I'll ever live this one down, I'm sure they won't pick me, I just know it, I've blown it, it's all over. Of course they were thinking - I don't know what they were thinking - oh, we know Andrew, we like Andrew, we'll select Andrew. Of course they hadn't really understood me at that point, now they might have a different point of view, but at the time it was a great moment and I really was elated and I was driving down the 401 and I had a great sense of purpose and excitement.

I didn't know what was going to happen, and I was flying along at 7:00 o'clock in the morning and I rounded a turn in Scarborough and low and behold, a huge metal plate flew off the back of a flatbed truck. It was 4 feet by 4 feet by 2 inches thick. And I could see it coming right towards my windshield and I didn't know whether to accelerate and go under it, to brake immediately and come to a complete stop or just - well, really I was paralysed, just keep going and see what happens. And as I kept going to see what happens, all of a sudden the thing pitched right in front of my car, shot up in the air as if it was coming through my windshield, came right back down again right in front of my bumper, blew my right front tire, went under my engine, ripped off my oil filter and came out the back of the car. I was doing an illegal speed limit. And I pulled over to the righthand side and I just sat there paralysed, shaking. 40 litres of oil was on the road behind me. And I thought to myself then, having really for a moment stared death in the eye, for that's what I thought was coming, God, I think you must have spared me for something. I'm sure now that whatever the committee thinks or I think, right now I know I'm going to Eaton Memorial Church. I know it. You've saved me for something and this is what it is.

Sometimes, my friends, you stare death in the eye and it gives life its meaning. The Apostle Paul was convinced of that. Knowing that he might even die, knowing that there might be the most terrible fate before him from the Romans, nevertheless, Paul says, "For me to live is Christ, for me to die is gain." He had found the meaning in his life. But there is more. He had also found the inspiration to live. Paul could not live this life on his own. He knew that. Under his own power he could not, he relied solely on his relationship with God. It was his relationship with God in Christ that gave him the strength to live, the strength to live. For Paul did not embrace a principle, he did not embrace simply a truth that was some disembodied idea, rather Paul embraced the principle and the truth incarnate in the one who had called him Jesus Christ, for Christ he lived. And he says, "Now because I live for Christ, I pray that Christ will live in me, in my body, in my (somer) in the Greek, in this body of mine I pray that Christ will live in me and there alone I will find my strength.

There's a wonderful story of Sir Richard Stopford, who was a commander in Nelson's navy, and as he was sailing through the West Indies they were greatly outnumbered were his men and he was worried and he was concerned that his fleet would not survive and yet he wrote back to England saying, "We are hungry, we are outnumbered, we have been out of port for a long time." Then he concluded with the words "But we have Nelson." But we have Nelson.

For the Apostle Paul, even facing the most terribly dangerous life ahead of him, he didn't believe in a principle, he believed in a principle in a person. For me to live as Christ, there was his strength. But not only did he live for Christ, he also had a sense in living for service for others. For the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, "It is for you that I must live. It is to share the Gospel, to enjoy life, to give you support and nourishment, it is for you that I must live this life." He had a sense then of the purpose of life, is a sense of service for others.

One of the most moving things that I ever encountered in my life was when I was invited to belong to a rather unusual group. It was a ground of young teenagers, all of whom had attempted suicide, and the idea was that each of those who had attempted suicide would pick a mentor to go with them to meet with a psychologist and talk about why they are alive. One young girl who I knew, gave me the privilege of asking me to be that mentor and I went and I sat in this group and listened to these teenagers talk about the agonies in their lives but there was one girl who moved me greatly. She was a young girl who had been brought up in a family that had been abusive, she'd been brought up in a family that had been broken, she'd been abandoned by her father and she was unloved by her mother and so seeking some refuge in life, something to replace her parents, she would cleave to a boyfriend and she would cleave so strongly that it was almost obsessive and this young girl had reached the point where this boy to whom she'd been cleaving, left her and wanted nothing more to do with her.

And so she tells the story that she goes into her bedroom and she goes into the medicine cabinet of her mother and picks out the Demerol that her mother had used to kill the pain and she sits on the windowsill so everyone would see what she was doing and she took the pills in one hand and the water in another and she really felt that she had no reason to live any more and all of a sudden the door bursts open into her bedroom and she looks around and she doesn't see anybody coming in until finally she looks down on the floor and there walking into her room is her pet labrador retriever and the dog walks up to her and sits right at her feet and you know what labrador retrievers are, their tail just went back and forward, slap bang, slap bang, slap bang and she looked down at this dog with the pills in her hand and the water in her other hand and she says, "Even to this day this might sound crazy, but I thought the dog was talking to me and saying live for me, I need you."

My friends, sometimes that is motivation enough to live, to live for others, to live not just for ourselves even thought the pain might be deep, but to live in the knowledge that there are others who need you and who love you and who want you, that is what the Apostle Paul is saying to the Philippians. In many ways he said, "I would rather die, but I am going to live for you, I am going to live for you." But the Apostle Paul had also understood the inspiration to die. He had given up everything had Paul. He had given up wealth and honour and prestige, even his friends and religious respectability, everything had pretty well gone and now his life might go and there were even some who were questioning him on whether or not he was an authentic leader and he says, "Look at my body, look at the stripes, look at the situation I'm in, do you think that I would be in this position if I wasn't sincere, if I didn't believe what I was doing?" But he was willing to go, as Christ was willing to go to the cross for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of those whom Christ loved, but he was free. He was free. He did not fear that. For me he said, "To die is gain."

This past week I watched the most wonderful interview with Roger Neilson, the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. Now I don't like the Philadelphia Flyers and after this week, I actually despise the Philadelphia Flyers. Be that as it may, and I don't want that to go public, because I'm going to get letters, I know, from Philadelphia Flyer fans all over this city, I hope you're going to be converted, but that's another issue. So the Maple Leafs as well as Christ, I just want to get that clear. But I was listening to Roger Neilson, and I don't know if any of you heard the interview, but I was inspired. I mean here is a man who has cancer, a man who doesn't know whether he's going to live or die, a man who thinks he might live and beat this, but he does not know and he was asked what really his goals are in life and how does he feel about this. He says, "You know, I'm really not worried, I'm free." He says, "If I live and I'm well enough, then I will take the Philadelphia Flyers as far as we can go and we can win the Stanley Cup and it would be wonderful, and I'm willing to live for that, I'm willing to struggle for that, I'm willing to fight for that and do what I can as the coach, but if I die, I do not worry about that either, for I know who I will be with, I am free either way."

Is that not what Paul said? Is that not the faith in action. Is that not both the power and the inspiration to live and the freedom to let go and to die? For Neilson, like Paul, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

There is a wonderful poem by Victor Hugo and in it there is a stanza that I have thought of many times in my life and I cannot help but share it with you at a moment like this. "Like the bird who paused in her flight, awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, yet sings, knowing that she hath wings." My friends, even if the bough breaks, we have the wings of faith. "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain," what a letter of love to the Philippians and to us. Amen.