I Press On
Do you remember Greta Thunberg?
As a 15-year-old girl with Asperger syndrome, living in Sweden, she persuaded her parents to make lifestyle changes. She wanted to reduce their carbon footprint. She was concerned about climate change. Her crusade brought her much attention, In 2018 she was invited to address the United Nations Climate Change Conference. When she was invited to the United States to speak, she sailed a yacht to North America. Her speech took the title “How Dare You!” and was widely quoted and printed. Speaking on behalf of her generation, she challenged the world to act responsibly. By the end of 2019, when she was only 16, she was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine.
During that momentous year, she traveled to Rome. In St. Peter’s Square, on April 16, she met Roman Catholic Pope Francis. He had just published the most widely read and quoted papal encyclical in Christian history. It is known by its first words, in Spanish, which is itself unusual, Laudato Si’. These are the opening words of the famous “Canticle of the Sun” by Francis of Assisi. It means, Praise Be to You. The document by Pope Francis is a strong call to the people of the world to take care of God’s creation.
They met, the pigtail teenager from Sweden and the smiling pontiff from Argentina. The old pope, then 83 years old, said to the young lady, “Go on! Go on! Go on!”
He was quoting, intentionally or not, the great apostle himself, who wrote to Francis, and to Greta, and to us today, Press on! I press on, he wrote to the Philippians.
My message to you today is the same. I press on. You press on. Let us press on.
Providence is here today because a few of you made this pledge: I press on.
Ten years ago, this sanctuary was full to overflowing. Children and babies were everywhere. A choir filled the platform. Money filled the offering plate. And joy filled the souls of all who crowded into these pews.
But then conflict and COVID conspired to collapse this wonderful enterprise called Providence. People left, money dried up, attitudes deteriorated. But some of you said to yourself and to others, “I’m pressing on. I’m not leaving. I will survive the drama and the trauma. God will see us through. I press on.”
Or I can quote the title of another sermon in this series, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”
I am here to speak for all of us new people: Thank you.
Thank you for hanging in there. Thank you for praying your way through the trials and tribulations. Thank you for staying when people were transferred out of town, when people relocated to other places, when people got irritated and looked for greener pastures. Thank you.
Thank you for giving, for singing, for leading, for cleaning, for planning, for showing up. Thank you for saying to one another, I press on!
We are here now, and we pick up this theme, We Press On!
We take our cue from Paul the Apostle, written here in this sweet little letter, to the Philippians. He, of all people, had need of resolve.
He was in jail somewhere. It was not the first time, and it was not the last time. In fact, the last time led to his death, his martyrdom. But as he wrote this letter (actually, dictated this letter to Timothy), he was jailed by Roman authorities. Perhaps some local magistrate; perhaps some provincial governor: both receive the ultimate authority from the Roman emperor. They did not like his type: itinerant purveyors of exotic religious nonsense, so they thought; uprooted disturbers of the peace; quacks and charlatans; irritants of the first order. Even though he was a Roman citizen, he had not the social standing or the network of friends to save him from the trials and tribulations of a local jail.
Paul had people to bring him food and clothes. In this letter, he says (in the words of a future sermon) “I have all I need.” What he meant was that the people of Philippi had sent him what he needed to survive. Jail, then and now, is an unholy place, an unhappy place, an unhealthy place. It was dangerous. But Paul had this resolve, I press on!
But Paul had opposition not only from Roman authorities but also from Jewish leaders. Time and again, his former colleagues were out to get him, out to discredit him, out to contradict his reading of the Torah and his telling of the story of Jesus. Paul took pride in his Jewish heritage, but they did not take pride in him. He had violated the most basic rules of his tribe, his people, his religion. He had gone even further than Jesus in criticizing, condemning, and correcting the tradition of patriarchs and prophets, of rulers and rabbis. He declared Jesus the son of God, risen from the dead, judge of all on the world’s last day.
Paul sang a song his old religionist did not want to hear: “Therefore, God elevated Jesus to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all names; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
Not just the Romans and the Jews: Paul had trouble with his new family of faith. There were plenty of people of The Way, Jesus people, who had no use for Paul. He had many critics inside the church of Jesus Christ. Paul refers to some other Christians as those “who care only for themselves” and “those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved.”
He may even have had these Christ-claiming critics in mind when he described the “enemies of the cross of Christ” who are headed for destruction.
Paul had his enemies: in places of imperial power, in places of religious authority, and even in places of Christian confession. Nevertheless, he took as his mantra, “I press on!”
He did not quit. He did not surrender. He did not give up. He pressed on, and so should we, so should you.
Some of you here today can name the forces arrayed against you. Family and friends, for some of you, telling you to give up, to change directions, to alter your plans; employers and supervisors, for some of you, demanding that you compromise your values, change your schedule, redo your priorities; neighbors and naysayers, for some of you, pushing you to conform to a way of living that violates your conscience. God says to you today, Press on!
Some of you have no enemies but you face a rising tide of circumstances, a convergence of factors conspiring against your dreams. You sit sometimes with your head in your hands and mutter to yourself, “I need to quit this foolishness, this unrealistic dream of mine…to own my own business, to finish this college degree, to write his book that has been bubbling in my soul for years. I just need to give it all up.”
Here is the word of the Lord for you today: Press on! Press on!! Press on!!! Join the great chorus on never-say-die dreamers and say to yourself, to others, to God, “I press on!”
When Paul wrote, “I press on,” I hear a word our nation needs to hear.
Press on, the great apostle is writing to the Christian community in the United States. Press on toward the fuller experience of our faith; press on to the more complete freedom we envision for our people; press on to possess that for which Christ Jesus first possessed us!
For seventy years, we have been working hard to fulfill the promise of freedom and opportunity for all people.
The Civil Rights Movement, led by a brilliant and talented Baptist preacher, focused on the rights of black people in the United States. Our leaders in Washington pushed for equality, integration, and unity in education, housing, employment, and law. I applaud this, even as I am disheartened by the murders of people in buffalo. Worse, I am dismayed, even despondent at the ideology that perpetrated that crime, what they call “replacement theory”—the notion that too many people of color are pushing white people out of their space, their place of power and privilege, their position of wealth and opportunity.
I denounce this evil idea and all the wickedness that flows out of it.
We need to press on toward liberty and justice for all. White people have controlled everything in this country since 1492 and look at the mess we are in. Too many guns, too many people in jail, too much poverty, too much anger, too much hatred, too many people marginalized and stigmatized, and too many people gunned down.
White people need to join hands and hearts with people of all colors to create a more perfect union, to demonstrate that our ideals as one nation under God is not merely a slogan or a pledge but the goal toward which we labor. I press on, I say with the ancient apostle.
The Women’s Rights Movement, led by the great justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others, has labored long and hard for the expanded rights of women: to marry or not to marry, to conceive or not to conceive, to deliver or not to deliver, to study or not to study, to work or not to work, the lead or not to lead, to preach or not to preach, to judge or not to judge.
I am glad my own daughter was born into a world different than my mother. My mother was the first female president of the Baptist Student Union in the Commonwealth of Kentucky; she was the first female chaplain at the Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah; she was among the first to be educated and credentialed as a pastoral counselor. But she was never recognized by the churches or their minsters; she was never ordained by the brethren; she was told to keep her thoughts to herself.
I honor her. Many here today have followed in her footsteps, have walked in the trail others have hacked through the wilderness of prejudice and preference. In some churches today, women cannot even stand in the pulpit. And in many, many churches women cannot proclaim the gospel or serve the Lord’s Supper.
I say to all of us. Let’s press on!
There are forces at work in our nation: in the legislature, on the courts, in the houses of power—religious power and political power. They want to take us back to the world of my mother. I say to all of you, I am not going back. I am going to press on.
After the civil rights and women’s rights came the gay rights movement.
Our nation and our church repented of our sin, changed our mind, our attitude, and our policy, and welcomed the queer community to the table of God. We moved from hostility to hospitality, from judgment to grace, from curse to blessing, from outcast to honored guest.
We who are followers of Jesus came to imagine that famous painting of Jesus at the last supper, the one by Leonardo of Vinci, redone, with Jesus at the center and the table full of people of all colors, genders, and orientations, young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor, each serving their neighbor. It is the kingdom of God we have longed to see.
These three changes in American society and the Christian church are the result of a movement that is democratic, and secular, and spiritual. It is seeking to grant all people the rights and responsibilities of American life, pledging to give to all people the faith, love, and hope of the Christian gospel. We got here because some people took to heart this gospel testimony: “I press on …!”
But as this was happening, a reaction set it. Some people were not happy. They did not like integration and equal rights; they did not like women out of the family house and into the state house; they did not like queer neighbors out of the closet and into the limelight. They launched a movement to undo these kingdom advances.
They first captured Christian churches and denominations. Then they captured the Republican Party. They moved on to the capitals and legislatures of state after state. Finally, they seized the White House and the Supreme Court…. all in the name of Jesus, of course.
They are not done, these crusaders for the way things used to be. They resist Black Lives Matter. They denounced the right of privacy to women and also the right of public ministry. They are determined to push our brothers and sisters back into the dark closet of condemnation. They are not done. Their numbers are growing, and their intentions are audacious. They marched in Charlottesville. Their people murdered praying people in Charleston and Pittsburgh. One of them walked into the grocery store in Buffalo and murdered ten people. They store up guns and prepare to use them in defense of the way things used to be.
But I am reading the gospel of God today. I am hearing the word of the Lord today. I am speaking a good word to you today. The words of the Bible in the letter to the Philippians are my words, “I press on ….”
I want to say today, I am not going back. I am not going back to Egypt. I am not going back to segregation, to subjugation, to silence. I am not going back to the world into which I was born. I am pressing on. I am pressing on to receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Let’s go together, Providence, let’s press on!