The Bits and Pieces of a Life: Sermon for October 8, 2023

When the time comes … when the story of your life is complete and your family wants to erect a stone monument on your grave, what do you want written on your tombstone?

At the age of 22 while serving as a printer, Benjamin Franklin gave serious thought to his young life and what he wanted to be known about him after his death and so, in an idle moment in a Philadelphia print shop, he scribbled down his own epitaph:

The body of B. Franklin, Printer

(like the cover of an old Book,

its contents torn out

and stripped of its lettering and gilding)

lies here, food for worms.

but the work shall not be lost,

for it will (as he believed) appear once more

in a new and more elegant Edition,

revised and corrected

by the Author.[1]


What is it about your life you wish could be told? What part of your life is so compelling you wish you could write it down and share it with others? Everybody, I suppose, has a secret desire to write his or her life story with the thought that someone will one day read it and think your life was significant. Maybe it’s too much to hope others will think you were important, but more than anything I think we have a need to at least be interesting. Maybe you would only want it to be read posthumously or even anonymously, but wouldn’t you want to have the gift of writing to make your life seem worthwhile?

This letter to the church in Philippi has within it a brief, but very telling bit of autobiography. In order to make this impassioned appeal to his friends in Philippi, Paul takes the accomplishments of his life and lays them on the altar of his faith in order to help his readers understand that to follow Christ completely they must give up what they cannot keep in order to gain what they cannot lose. Paul opens up his life to his friends and helps them understand he himself has let go of everything that had previously defined his life as a respecting Jew. He tells them he has let all of that go so Christ could shine through.

Paul is worried the Judaizers, a group of fervent teachers from Jerusalem, would persuade the Philippian believers to trade in the one essential truth about the faith for another convoluted version of ritualistic religion.

The Judaizers were a group of fervent right-wing Jewish believers coming from the central church in Jerusalem. In particular, ehy defended the Jewish pieties in their Christian faith. They considered Paul a “Johnny-come-lately” because he didn’t emerge out of the earliest days of the Jerusalem church like them. They couldn’t accept him for the simple fact he had never personally known Jesus as they had. The Apostle Paul wasn’t one of the “insiders” and they discounted him by refusing to recognize his claim to be an apostle. In short, they refused to see him as someone with something worthwhile to say.

The Judaizers went about the various Roman cities teaching that salvation only came to the children of Abraham, their Jewish ancestor. Gentile converts could be accepted as the “adopted” children of Abraham by submitting themselves to the full practice of Judaism by being circumcised. Consequently, these new believers were coerced to conform to the fullest expression of Judaism with all its laws and ceremonial rituals before they could be admitted to the church as believers.

These false teachers stirred up Paul’s holy anger and he warned the Philippians to not get caught up in their false teachings. “Beware of the dogs,” he wrote, “beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh,” he warned. He was so angry he resorted to a play on words to get their attention. Instead of the circumcision called for by keeping the Jewish laws, Paul called the Judaizers “mutilators of the flesh.”

“Beware of the dogs,” he told them. The righteous Jews referred to Gentiles as “dogs.” Paul turned the phrase around and warned the Gentiles to be aware that the Judaizers are the “dogs.” He wanted them to be alert and to not trade the essence of the Christian faith for another form of ritualistic religion that did not help them connect their lives to God through faith in Christ.

Paul asked the Philippians to look upon his own life as an example of how to think about their lives before God. Paul utilized the fragments of his own life’s story to teach and to point. Do you see what he was doing? Essentially, he was using the power of autobiography (his story) to support theology (his faith).

Paul was willing to take the bits and pieces of his own life to point to something beyond. He was recognizing all of us could do the same. We can think about the stories of our lives to look for the evidence of the work and presence of God.

And we can do the same thing by taking a long look at the experiences of our lives and ask, “Where is God in this moment?” We look long and hard because if we are attentive, if we look closely, we can detect that God was truly with us, attending to us, calling to us, in all those moments.

Looking for God in those moments can be like looking for Waldo in one of those complicated, busy drawings that’s filled with hundreds of other cartoon figures.

Frederick Buechner wrote about the power of telling our stories to one another in his book, Now and Then, where he wrote, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”[2]

© Keith D. Herron 2023

[1] Despite his wish at such an early age, this is not what actually appears on his headstone

[2] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982