Some parents tell their children to eat their vegetables. Some parents tell their children to do their homework. Some parents tell their children to play nice. My mother told me to write thank you notes. Every gift at every holiday, birthday, or random occasion demanded a thank you note. Even if the sweater didn’t fit, even if I hated the toy, I had to be courteous, and write a thank you note.
Eventually, my sister and I became accomplished thank you note authors. But the problem was, I hate writing things by hand. If you any of you have seen my handwriting, you will know why. It looks terrible. I simply don’t have the patience to write by hand. So, being a clever young boy, I devised a system that should be the envy of most any man. One day I sat down at the computer and made a template for thank you notes that I could fill out quickly. It went something like this:
“Dear blank. Thank you so much for blank. That was very thoughtful of you. I look forward to seeing you at insert next holiday. Thanks again, Jimmy.”
I would insert the proper names and gifts, and then print out those little notes on nice paper, lick a couple of stamps and bang! I was done with my thank you notes. I could get back to playing with those toys that they gave me.
Now, was I thankful? Technically, sure. I wrote the note. I said “thank you.” I went through the motions and I could expect a gift from that relative at the next holiday. But was I really grateful? Did I really show gratitude, thanksgiving? Well, when you hold me up to what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I wasn’t even close.
Paul speaks of his thankfulness with some radical language. Listen to what he says: “Whatever gains I had, I regard as loss because of Christ.” “But more than that, I regard everything as loss because of the value of knowing Christ.” “But even more than that, I think that everything can literally be flushed down the toilet, in comparison to knowing Christ.” This is radical language, for a radical faith.
What Paul is speaking of here is not an accidental loss. He didn’t have some killer 401(k) that disappeared overnight. Paul is describing a concerted effort at downward mobility. He wants to lose. He wants to lose.
We can’t mark this up to a cultural difference. The culture of Paul’s world was actually not so distant from our culture, especially the emphasis on athletics. In this passage, Paul uses an athletic metaphor, a sprinter who strains ahead for the final goal. And just like today, in the world of sports, nobody likes to lose.
My senior year at UT, I flew up to Manhattan, Kansas to watch the Longhorns play Kansas State. The game was tight, but in the end, the Horns lost. In a great purple tidal wave, the Kansas State fans and students rushed the field and tore down the goal posts. They had won, they were victorious. But I stood there and watched that happen, and I realized that winners don’t know how good it feels to win. Because I had been on the other side, I had watched the Horns win plenty of games. But losing, losing made me remember how good it feels to win. And you know what, I became a lot more thankful for every game that the Horns have won since then.
This phenomenon is exactly what Paul is describing. Paul knew what it was like to be successful. But he has now lost everything for Christ. He regards everything as worthless in comparison to knowing Jesus. But with Christ, he sees others “succeeding” in life, while he is intentionally losing. With Paul, when we reach the bottom, we actually gain quite a bit.
First of all, we gain a little perspective. In losing our lives for Christ’s sake, we sees that all that other stuff in our lives is just that, stuff. The true value in life is knowing Jesus Christ, the “stuff” is simply rubbish.
But more importantly, as losers, we find that we have a new goal. Losers know that winning only leaves you thirsting for more. When we receive one pay raise, we won’t be happy until we get another, and then another. If we get one “atta boy” from our boss, then we won’t be happy until we get another, and another. But these goals make us cutthroat. We strain ahead for more prestige, for more power. But for followers of Jesus, the goal of life is to lose.
Jesus, of course, is the one who perfected this practice of downward mobility. Jesus knew how to lose. Our Lord didn’t come to this earth to be successful, to win any grand prize – our Lord came to lose his life. And to lose it for our sake. He totally emptied himself. He lost everything.
But at that point of complete loss, winners and losers are reversed. When Jesus is on the cross, he sees just how powerless his executioners, the perceived winners, really are. Sure, they’ve nailed him to a cross, they’ve stormed the field, they tore down the goal posts, but that’s about all they can do. From the cross, when Jesus has lost everything, he sees just how silly it is trying to win. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Losers have a different goal. Followers of Jesus are not out for prestige. We strain ahead, we push downward, we practice our losing, in order to imitate Jesus. When we imitate Jesus, sure, we die with him. We lose with him. But there is a shift. We have a new goal, a new hope – even as we die with Christ, we hope that we will be raised with him. Paul puts it most beautifully: “We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I know, it sounds backwards, but we reach heaven by going down. By losing. Heaven is not for the winners who rise above the rest, heaven is for the losers, who empty themselves.
So strangely enough, only when we have lost everything, when we find ourselves empty, do we figure out how to really say “thank you.” Thank you Lord, for helping me lose my life, because I have a new life in you. Thank you Lord, for helping me lose my greed, and giving me love instead. Thank you Lord, for helping me lose all that stuff in my life that got in the way of following you.
Losing and giving thanks go hand in hand. This is made perfect in our worship. The Eucharist, literally “the great thanksgiving,” is our way to practice losing, and to practice thanksgiving. In the Eucharist, we practice losing by saying that we are not the most important thing in the world; God is. We empty ourselves by praising God. And because we are empty, God fills us. God fills us with the body and blood of Jesus. God fills us with the Holy Spirit. God fills us with love and peace. Therefore, it is right, and a good joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth.
As we celebrate this Gratitude Sunday, we need to ask – are we out to win, or are we out to lose? Jesus lost it all for us. That’s the greatest gift we could ever receive. In response, we can write a quick, formulaic thank you note. “Dear God, thank you for the blank. I’ll see you at insert next holiday.” Or in response to this gift, we can make our whole lives a thank you. This lifelong thank you note is a true losing of ourselves, it’s a way to clear out the stuff in our lives. We lose what gets in the way, so that with clear eyes we can see the prize; the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.