Click here for the video: Rubbish
On her 2001 album Essence, singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams sings about all things she’d do to get right with God. She would risk the serpent’s bite and kiss the diamondback to get into heaven. She would burn the soles of her feet if she could learn and be complete, walk righteously again. She would sleep on a bed of nails ‘til her back was torn and bleeding. She even asks, “if I give up one of my lambs, will you take me as one of your daughters?” That might sound a little extreme, and we might chuckle at the absurdity of it all. But then we know there are people who do handle snakes in the name of their faith. There are people who seek out danger to prove their heroism. There are also people who believe they must suffer for what they have done, or who must sacrifice themselves or something they value in order to make God happy. Some of those people might be us.
After a while it all starts to sound like some kind of contest, that getting right with God is like a reality show where contestants have to prove their value to gain favor with the boss and avoid getting fired, literally. This is the conventional wisdom of most religious traditions, that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. We want that reward, so we’re told to show up early and stay late, to go the extra mile, to plan our work and work our plan. Because we think that’s what it means to be right, it means hard work and the commensurate benefit that comes with it. It means dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s. It means following the rules and doing all the things we think we’re supposed to do, all the things we’ve been told we need to do to get ahead in this world. Until we are sure that all that effort, all our sacrifice, all the pain that we’ve willingly endured to get where we think we’re supposed to go, or be what we think we’re supposed to be, becomes the measure we use for our value. Until we think our importance is measured by the name on the diploma, or the letters that we can place before or after our name. Until we think that how much we can spend, or what we’ve got saved really is an indication of what we are worth and where we rank in the order of things. How can we not when we’re constantly reminded that somebody is the first or second, or ninth richest person in the world, based on their worth- which is estimated at so-many billions of dollars?
When Paul uses the word, “flesh,” this is what he’s talking about. He’s talking about the human need to prove ourselves, the insatiable appetite we have for achievements we can frame, mount on the wall, point to and say, “I did that. I am that. In a world of nobodies, I am somebody.” Confidence in the flesh is the stock we put into these sorts of things, the importance we place on being a member of whatever club we think will make us a big shot. You think you’re a big shot, says Paul, I am a bigger shot. And then he goes on to list his pedigree, his privilege: one of God’s covenant people from the tribe that gave Israel its first king, a strict bible-believer with a passion for protecting his faith from the threat of people who are not of like mind. Back when he went by the name of Saul, he had everything a person could want in order to hold a certain status in his community. He was trusted. He was respected. He was, to use his own word, blameless.
And who could blame him for being proud of those things? Who could blame him for embracing his religious heritage, his family name, and a work ethic that was rewarded by those who held him in such high esteem? Aren’t those good things? Aren’t those the things that we teach our children to value and pursue? Only here’s the problem with our confidence in the flesh, the problem with all the metrics we use and chase after to measure our success. The things of the world that we spend so much of our time worrying about, the pressure not just to get ahead but to simply keep up with the Joneses, the things that Paul uses the word ‘flesh’ to describe. Those things are as transitory and immaterial to the grand scheme of things as so much smoke in the wind.
A little over 40 years ago, NASA launched two spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, to travel beyond the reaches of our solar system. They were outfitted with all the equipment you would expect, to measure and record and send data back to earth. As Voyager passed by the planets of our solar system it would take pictures giving us an unprecedented view of our neighbors. After it passed Neptune they were ready to power down the camera, but before they did it was decided to turn the camera back the way it had come for one last picture, on Valentine's Day of 1990. Down in the corner of that picture, from a distance of some 6 billion kilometers away is a pale blue dot. Upon seeing it, the renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, who had consulted on the recording sent on those craft to represent life, and particularly human life on earth, famously wrote:
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam...Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”
We hear those words and are reminded of just how futile all our striving in the flesh really is. All the things that seem so important, all the things that cause us to lose sleep, or gain weight from stress eating. All that we do to make our name or leave our mark or stake our claim to greatness. All that we think we need to do to get right with God. All of it amounts to nothing in the end, less than nothing, really. Only for Paul it isn’t a picture from space that leads him to that conclusion. It is Christ. The way of Jesus that turned his life upside down.
Why? Because Jesus marks the end of every transaction we think is required, every deal we try to make, in order to get God to like us and not burn us to a crisp. Jesus is the one who tells us, and then shows us that our value in God’s eyes, what makes us worthy of love and belonging has nothing to do with what we have done, can do, or will do. It isn’t ever a question of our being good enough, smart enough, or having anyone else like us. What makes us worthy of love and belonging is the simple fact of who we are as children made in the image of a God who is particularly fond of us for no other reason than because that’s who we belong to, ultimately, in the end. God is our God, and we are God’s people.
But here’s the thing. And it’s an important thing. As long as we are hanging on to whatever status we think is ours because of this or that achievement, as long as we think that we are somehow above, or better than someone else because we have somehow worked harder, done more, and been better in our own eyes. As long as we are dividing the world up into categories that are based on our ideas of who people are based on what they look like, where they live, how they drive, what language they speak, and all the rest we have lost the plot. All those ways we try to keep score are a monumental exercise in missing the point. In fact, says Paul, what seeing Jesus, really looking to Jesus shows us is that all our attempts to win at life through that kind of score-keeping is the surest way of all to lose. If that’s what winning looks like, says Paul, I’d rather be a loser. Because in Jesus winning looks like losing all the things we think are so important in order to see what truly matters, what can’t be won any other way. There’s nothing we can do or need to do to get right with God, because God has already made things right with us in Jesus.
When we trust that that is true, when we stop trying to make it happen and simply accept the gift of our true worth in God’s eyes, then we are saved from the endless death wheel of all our striving. And we are set free to live in a new way, to forget all that stuff- not just our failures, but more importantly all of our so-called success as well. We are set free from having to prove ourselves to those around us, which means we are free from having to compete with them in a contest that does not exist, so that we can love them instead, on this pale blue dot that does. Alleluia, amen.
 Sagan, Carl Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (New York: Ballentine, 1994)