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Christian Excellence: The Alternative to Worldly Success: The Peril Of Traveling First Class

Philippians 4:1-7

A couple of years ago, I was getting ready to go on vacation. Suddenly one day, my friend, Jerry Gay, showed up in my office carrying a large grocery sack full of what I did not know. He plopped the sack down on my desk and he said: “You read too much theology. You need a break from all that deep stuff. So while you’re on vacation, read these.” With that he turned and walked out of the door. I opened the sack. Inside were 25 books, western novels, all written by Louis L’Amour. Well, I did what Jerry told me to do. I read them and I loved them. But what Jerry didn’t know is that I can find theology anywhere—even in a Louis L’Amour novel!

Case in point. Did you know that in the golden days of settling the West, stagecoaches had three different kinds of tickets—first-class, second-class and third-class? A first-class ticket meant that you could sit down and no matter what happened, you could remain seated. If the stagecoach got stuck with mud, or had trouble making it up a hill, or even if a wheel fell off, you remained seated because you had a first-class ticket. A second-class ticket meant that you could sit down until there was a problem, but then you had to get off until the problem was resolved. You stood to the side and watched while somebody else dealt with the problem. After the problem was taken care of, you could take your seat again because you had a second-class ticket. A third-class ticket meant you could sit down until there was a problem, but then you had to get off and push! You had to put your shoulder to it and solve the problem, because you had a third-class ticket. Now what happened was that most of the people killed in stagecoach ambushes were those riding on first-or second-class tickets. Riding a third-class ticket was hard work but it was safer. Why? Simple. Since the stagecoach driver and his partner riding shotgun needed the help of those third-class passengers, they worked harder to protect them in time of attack. You see, while at first glance, it seemed much safer and much easier to ride first-class class, the fact is that it was much more dangerous. I learned that from a Louis L’Amour novel.

Now as I thought about that, it seemed to me that there are some people who think they have a first-class ticket through life—they just sit there and expect to be waited on, catered to, and pampered. Others think they have a second-class ticket—they ride along until there is a problem, then they become detached spectators. But, thank God, there are some folks on third-class tickets. When problems and difficulties arise, they get to work. They roll up their sleeves and get the job done. They aren’t looking for comfort in life; they are looking for challenge. They know that that’s the way to find real joy in living.

It’s like Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand.” I looked up the word “forbearance.” It means “to do without, to hold oneself back, to exercise self-restraint, to practice moderation, to sacrifice for the sake of solving problems.” Paul wants us to understand that a life of Christian excellence is not a life marked by the excess of success but by the forbearance of faithfulness. From that truth, I would like to draw three directives for our lives…

First this: In a world which tempts us to travel through life first-class, we need to remember that we are to be fools for Christ, but for no one else.

Paul writes: “Let your forbearance be known to all. The Lord is at hand.” In other words, don’t be fooled by anything in the world, keep your eyes on the Lord. Don’t be fooled by people who try to sell you things you don’t need, keep your eyes on ultimate truths.

Are you aware that there is more money spent on advertising in America every year than on all the education that goes on in our country? Are you aware that the average person before graduating from high school has seen 35,000 television commercials? Are you aware that one of the key phrases in the marketing of products is that product’s “death date”—that is the time when it begins to fall apart, and the earlier that date the better? And all of it is designed to fool us into buying more and more, to make us think that life means traveling first-class, to trick us into believing that happiness is getting more for ourselves. Instead, a life of Christian excellence is a life which understands that happiness comes through self-offering.

I was jolted by the contrast. Front page. USA Today. There was the picture of the recently-crowned Miss America. Perfectly coiffed hair. Rich lustrous skin. Highlighted eyes. Pasted on smile. She’s smart; she’s talented; she has a perfect figure. She is the ideal. She is Miss America. Under the picture were these words: “This is the standard for American women.” No reference to her convictions, her faith or her God, but you are told her hip size! Four inches to the left was the picture of another woman. Her face is thin. Her skin is wrinkled. No makeup. No blush. No lipstick. There is a faint smile on her lips and a warm glow in her eyes. The caption reads: “Mother Teresa.” The article tells how when she won the Nobel Peace Prize, she gave the $200,000 to the poor. When a businessman gave her a new car, she sold it and used the money to care for the dying. She owns nothing and she owes nothing. Two women: Miss America and Mother Teresa. One strides the boardwalk; the other works the alley. One promises crowns, flowers, and crowds; the other promises service, surrender and joy. One promotes unabashed consumption; the other proclaims unconditional compassion. One reeks success; the other radiates excellence. You tell me: Who’s the fool?

I have always been impressed by John Wesley’s loose grasp on things. It wasn’t that he made little money. He made more than most people in eighteenth century England. But listen to what he said: “Money and I have never been the closest of friends. Truth is, we are scarcely passing acquaintances. I have always made it a practice to make all I can to save all I can to give all I can.” And give he did. His standard of living was never raised so that each increase in salary meant more money for God’s causes. Friends, we are to be fools for Jesus Christ in life, yes, but fools for nobody else, ever.

Next this: in a world which tempts us to travel first-class, we need to remember that we are to look out, not for Number One, but for the next generation.

Paul reminds us here in Philippians that a life of Christian excellence is a life built on giving not getting, a life marked by moderation and self-restraint, a life committed to solving life’s problems for us and for those who come after us. “Let all men know,” Paul says, who and what you are in life.

Boris Kornfeld is a name which will mean nothing to you. He was a Russian Jew, trained as a doctor during the Stalin years in the Soviet Union. He was so successful in his practice of medicine that the communist authorities embraced him and showered him with privileges. Kornfeld hated Christianity so he easily fit with the atheistic communist hierarchy. Then he was ordered to visit prisoners who had been arrested for their political or religious views. He was to sign false medical documents authorizing those prisoners to be used in torturous medical experiments. As time passed, Kornfeld became more and more repulsed and disillusioned by what he was doing. It was then that one of the prisoners told him about a Jewish Messiah named Jesus. As Kornfeld listened, he found himself feeling warmed and changed. His hatred began to melt. His despair turned to hope. He knew he had to change the way he was living. Aware of the dire consequences, he began refusing to sign the false medical documents. Not long thereafter, Kornfeld was making his rounds at the prison hospital. He came upon a man who had just had an operation for intestinal cancer. Though the patient was foggy from the anesthetic, Kornfeld began to tell this prisoner about the change which had come over him since someone shared with him the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in his anesthetic fog, the patient clung to Dr. Kornfeld’s words. Hours later, when the patient awoke, the man in the next bed told him the news that was being whispered all over the hospital: Dr. Kornfeld was dead. During the night, someone had crushed his skull with a mallet while he lay sleeping. The patient was grief-stricken but he was convinced that somehow the faith of Dr. Kornfeld had been transferred into his own being. The doctor had died, but the patient lived. The patient’s name was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. You see, Boris Kornfeld had performed a beautiful act of “heart to heart resuscitation,” pouring the last remaining drops of his life into Solzhenitsyn. Kornfeld never knew the powerful effect his witness had not only on Solzhenitsyn, but through him, upon the whole world.

You see, to live a life of Christian excellence means to be willing to pour our lives into others, or even, if necessary, to pour out our lives for others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this: “A righteous person is one who lives for the next generation.” So ignore our society’s call to “look out for Number One.” Instead invest yourself in those who will come after you, beginning with the children or young people God is bringing into your life.

Now this: in a world which tempts us to travel first-class, we need to remember that upward mobility has a down-side.

Success, as the world defines it, is always connected with upward mobility. It is having arrived at a desired position of material well-being and social acceptance. It is more often associated with “how much we have” than with “who we are.” But the tragedy in that is that so many people have more than enough to live with but don’t have a clue as to why they are living or for what purpose. And because that’s true, sooner or later they discover that upward mobility has a down-side. As one wag put it: “There is no such thing as the ladder of success—it’s a greased pole!” I deal with that all the time—people who reach the top, according to worldly standards, but who then cannot stand the view or cannot live with themselves because of the way they made the trip or cannot share the moment with loved ones because the climb cost them spouse, children, friends and self-esteem. It’s like that bleak little verse:

He used his health
To store up wealth
To get and scrimp and save,
Then spent his wealth
To get back health
And only got a grave.

That’s why Paul’s word to the Philippians and to us is so important. The person who lives in Christian excellence is not the person who scrambles hard to make the top but the person who stoops down to lift the fallen and mend the broken and help the hurting. In that sense, Christian excellence is downward mobility.

Down in the worst slums of Santiago, Chile, living and ministering there is a Roman Catholic priest named Father Marrero. He is a graduate of Oxford University in England and the Sorbonne in France. He speaks seven languages. Yet he is devoting his life to the service of the people living in that slum. A missionary went to see first-hand the work of Father Marrero. On that day, Marrero had to be away so he asked a young communist from that area to escort the missionary around, thinking it might be interesting for the missionary to see the slums through the eyes of a communist. They hadn’t gone very far when they were accosted by a seven-year-old boy who wanted to shine the missionary’s shoes. The missionary at first resisted, but the young communist said: “Let him shine your shoes.” The missionary then said: “How much should I pay him?” The communist told him. The missionary then gave the money to the boy. The boy then ran across the street and into a bakery. He came out with a huge loaf of bread. He called out and children materialized out of nowhere. They surrounded this little boy and he proceeded to break the bread into bits and gave it to the children until it was all gone. The missionary then turned to this young communist escort and said: “How do you get your children to be so generous and caring. How do you get them to share like that?” The communist looked at him and said: “Our communist children aren’t like that. That boy is a little strange. He spends too much time with Father Marrero.” Too much time with that Franciscan priest who has an Oxford Degree and speaks seven languages yet out of love for Jesus Christ is stooping down to lift up those who have fallen in the slums of Santiago? Too much time indeed!


I would like to finish today with a little poem which I treasure in my heart. It’s called “The Parson’s Prayer.” It goes like this:

I do not ask that crowds may throng the temple,
That standing room be prized;
I only ask that as I voice the message
They may see the Christ.

I do not ask for churchly pomp or pageant,
Or music such as wealth alone can buy;
I only ask that as I voice the message
The Lord shall be drawn nigh.

I do not ask that men may sound my praises
Or headlines spread my name abroad;
I only pray that as I voice the message,
Hearts may find our God.

I do not ask for worldly place or laurel,
Or of this world’s distinction any part;
I only ask that when I have voiced the message,
I may find my Saviour’s heart.

Today, I have tried my best to voice the message…

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