And Miles to Go Before I Sleep

June 29, 1997


“And Miles to go Before I Sleep”

It has never been easy for me to imagine this, but when he was not preaching the Apostle Paul made tents. It helped him earn a living, and I’m sure he learned things from it: more patience, perhaps, to deal with his troubled young churches; a little more compassion for their own daily labors. It may have been something the guards let him work at even in the prisons where he spent so many months of his life. When I was the editor of a daily newspaper once, there was always somebody in jail over the weekend in that small town for what was called “disturbing the peace.” It was almost always a euphemism for being drunk, and the person would be let out after a night behind bars. Paul himself was arrested several times on that same charge, disturbing the peace, but it was not drunkenness that got him into trouble. It was religious and political agitation, and it was no harmless weekend offense. We can still read the charges brought against him (Acts 24): “We have found this man to be a perfect pest, a fomenter of discord among the Jews all over the world,. a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, but we arrested him.”
It was on a charge like this that Paul was in jail when he wrote the letter we began to read last Sunday. It was dangerous. If the charge were proved, Paul could be put to death. He understood the gravity of his predicament, but he looked for good in it and found some. Let’s read a little more of his letter, not, I hope, as a piece of dead history, but as a model for our own response to defeat and disappointment. We hear him, still in the preface of his letter, being unusually affectionate: “It is only natural that Ishould feel like this about you….you are very dear to me….God knows how much I long, with the deepest Christian love and affection, for your companionship. My prayer for you (not for himself, notice, but for them — my prayer for you is that your love may grow richer and richer in knowledge and insight of every kind.” Ral love is not just a warm bath of emotion. It has to know things, it has to have insight to stay healthy. I talk to parents who confess their love lacked knowledge, that they failed to have much insight into what each other felt, or what their children felt and thought— they know what a marvelous gift Paul is asking for his Philippian friends — and for us..
But now the warm hello is over and we get down to some of the specific reasons for writing. What will be the effect on Paul’s friends of his being in jail? People have always rather liked to think of religion as a form of insurance: pray a lot, go to church, and God will take care of you. One of my favorite signs was posted at the entrance into an African game reserve, where there were some dangerous animals. It said, ADVANCE AND BE BITTEN. Paul posted a similar warning sign at the entrance to the Christian life: “You wil have the privilege,” he said to the Philippians, not just of believing in Christ, but also of suffering for his sake.”
On American television you can hear an amazing quid pro quo gospel: send $l00 and God will see to it that you get $l000 in its place. Paul knew better than to make such promises, but even so some of his friends were probably thinking: Is this what may happen to us for believing? So, without denying for a moment how close to death he was, he still tried to give them courage by finding something positive in what had happened to him. My being in jail, he tells them, has actually advanced the Christian faith. Some of the people around town have been made much bolder about speaking the Word. Apparently they were saying to each othe, “With Paul in jail, it’s up to us; we have to pick up the slack and work harder than ever.” Whatever else might be bad for him, Paul could rejoice in that.
Is there a word for us in his experience? I think most of us in this room are in some kind of prison: a habit we don’t like but can’t seem to break free of, a job that shackles us, a personality trait that so many times has made life harder. We have said far too often, “I don’t know why I do that. I just keep getting myself into trouble. I hurt people I don’t want to hurt.” But the chains have grown thick over the years and we really do seem sentenced to make some of the same mistakes over and over.
It’s right to regret that, but being the prisoners of our own personalities is not always bad, because it can also mean that we may be in bondage to notions of what is good and decent — taken captive to character a long time ago when we were still children, and under the influence of wise and loving parents. We can be glad for those constraints, especially when we so often act quickly on impulse without having to think about it. Some of us do the right thing in crisis or under temptation simply because we were captured early in life by the notion that we must. So, even determinism is not all bad.
Paul, I’m happy to say, is never a Pollyanna. He doesn’t pretend the world is perfect, and everybody in it is nice. There were some other people in the town where he was imprisoned who were preaching the new faith also, except that they were doing it out of rivalry with him, envious of his success and eager to get ahead of him now that he is in prison. How sad, we think, that this should happen so soon in Christian history, but hardly a surprise. None of us have been completely free of envy, of that sense of pleasure over the failure of somebody else’s program, or the decline of a rival business or team or church. In a culture which insists we think of winners and losers, and determines those categories by head counts, preachers and churches can be guilty of gloating when people defect from other churches to their own.
So how does Paul react to rivals who are taking unfair advantage of his being locked up? He says something that in English has been translated, “What does it matter? What matters is that whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed — and in that I rejoice.” In other words, my rivals may have the wrong motive but they are getting the right word around. I can assure you that those four words, “What does it matter?” will sometimes be the most healing and liberating words you can speak. Some of us never learn to say them when we need to desperately. There are issues, obviously, that matter tremendously, and it would be cowardly and wrong not to confront them, but in a great many other cases the best thing we can say is: “What does it matter?” — words that prove we are gloriously free from conceit and pride. Most of us need a friend or a wife or a husband to make us remember those four words, but Paul seems to have done it without help. Isn’t it true that almost invariably, when someone close says in the very middle of one of our silly eruptions of wounded ego, “What does it matter?” it turns out to be the best medicine in the world? I don’t always like Paul, but I like him very much when he is free in that prison to rise above ego and say, “What does it matter?”
Still writing out of intense emotion, Paul now begins an odd debate with himself. It gets underway after he says he hopes Christ will be honored by his life, whether it continues for a while or ends in prison. In our English translation it says: “I hope I don’t disgrace him, whether they let me live or whether they march me out to die,” but his language, in Greek , becomes very sketchy and broken right here. The grammar is awkward, the sentences are disjointed; it is hard, as he goes on, to be sure of exactly what he means. Rarely is Paul so deeply in the grip of his feelings as when he writes the famous line: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Longer translation: “If I go on living, I will go on telling people about this glorious way of life. If I die, I shall be free of the beatings and insults. And if I die well, then I can honor Christ in my death just as I have tried to honor him in my life.”
We are probably right now inside the secret room of Paul’s strength. He has no doubts at all about the meaning of his life, for as long as he might have it. Not everybody is so lucky. In my church office one day, in St. Louis, the desperate attorney said, “My trouble is that I have no reason to live: family gone, job lost, no close friends, no cause I care about…I have no reason to live.” I wanted to help, but I was being pulled into agreement: he didn’t seem to have any reason to live! Paul’s source of strength in that prison came, I am certain, because he did have a reason and he knew exactly what it was: For me to live is Christ..
I don’t know whether that makes you squirm a little, as good level-headed Congregationalists always nervous about such highflown sentiments, but it needn’t. It mustn’t be read as a kind of syrupy pietism that leaves one feeling slightly nauseated. The last thing in the world Paul means is that he is all wrapped up in the arms of somebody sweet, with a fragrant beard and a halo around his head, who will never let anything bad happen. After all, he’s in jail again! His life, since he met this Christ he talks about, has been a veritable catalog of persecution and suffering. I can bear to hear a man say, “For me to live is Christ,” if the man has lived like Paul. It may be hard to hear those words from some glib television evangelist with an easy life, a wellfed face, and several expensive homes, but not from Paul who has had his back cut open with whips, who has been stoned and shipwrecked and hungry and hauled into prison over and over for his faith. Then I can listen! It isn’t just a pretty little platitude anymore. There is a story of a customer who went into a jewelry store once to buy a necklace with a cross on it. The clerk asked, “Do you want to see a plain one? Or do you want to look at the one with a little man on it?” Paul had chosen the cross with a “little man” on it…and the glory and the suffering that came with it.
He goes on thinking out loud about his dilemma. If I stay alive, that means I go on preaching. If I depart life, I am with Christ in some mystical way. Which I shall choose, I cannot tell. Did you really hear that lat incredible statement? Which I shall choose — as if the decision belonged to him! On one level he knows perfectly well that it doesn’t. The Romans will decide. But on some other level he simply cannot acknowledge that he is helpless. He can, after all, embrace his future, whatever it is; he can be on top rather than beneath what is happening to him — supremely confident, as he says in another letter, that neither life nor death can separate him from the love of Christ. So which shall he “choose,” this amazingly arrogant man who is at the same moment so completely submissive?
He seems to prefer death for a moment, but he is first, last and always a teacher, so he ends with a word of certainty: You still need me. I know I shall stay alive and come to see you.” Martyrdom, he has decided, is a luxury that will have to wait. Is Paul kidding us? Does he really think he has this choice in his own hands and has now settled it? Well, it seems settled, but let me give you a word of caution about how to read such a letter. “Paul will come to see us,” the Philippians tell each other as they read this letter. “He says he knows that he will.” They sighwith relief and happiness. But only a moment later Paul is saying, “Whether I come to see you or am absent….” so he did not know. And later yet, “If I am to be poured out as a kind of sacrifice…..” so he did not know. We have to learn how to read Scripture, with all its changes of mood, its sudden turnings, its wild faith that speaks in absolutes one moment and in the next is quite realistic.
I think what Paul is really doing is playing a serious little game in which he tries to decide what would be best if he were given a choice. Death would be welcome: he is old, he has suffered, he is tired. But then it occurs to him that this is selfish. People still need him. So no matter how welcome the thought of death may be, he puts it behind him. He reminds me in this moment of that poem of Robert Frost’s in which a man pauses one night in his horse-drawn sleigh to watch the woods fill up with snow. It is a moment of almost irresistible beauty. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” — one can almost feel the death-wish. It would be nice in that snowfilled darkness to leave conflict and weariness and life’s betrayals behind and simply fall asleep.
But someone is waiting for him, someone needs him, so he puts the temptation out of mind. He must be moving on, because there is a way to go yet before he can sleep in his own bed, and there is too much still to do in life to surrender to the final sleep, and so he speaks some of the loveliest and most poignant lines in American poetry: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep…..But I have promises to keep….And miles to go before I sleep…..And miles to go before I sleep.” So must Paul have thought as he wondered what lay ahead for him. He had never met in the flesh this Master of his life, but he had learned that person’s strange and beautiful humility: “Not my will, but thine be done.”
On that note we leave him until next week, when you come, I hope, to hear him give his friends — and us — very practical advice about how to meet some of the problems of daily life. As practical as these words he put in his letter, words as useful now as the day they were written “None of you should think only of his own affairs, but each should learn to see things from other people’s point of view.” The man who asked for that unselfish attitude would enjoy this church, where strong-willed people have managed to do that gracefully since the day we first began our life of worship and service together. I would be proud to write Paul a letter….about you!
Most of this lovely day is still before us, Eternal God. Match its
beauty, we ask, in the way we treat each other…and all the
world. Amen.