Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Trinity Church gathers at 7:45 a.m and 10:30 a.m
Today I'm back on "tour" - this time trying to keep up with the Rev. Dr. John Stubbs, who serves two congregations: Trinity Church in Whitinsville and St. John's in Millville. The readings for the day can be found here; the sermon is focused on today's epistle reading. 

The scholars tell us that Paul (or whoever wrote the words we heard today addressed to the first-century Church in Philippi) is quoting a hymn in chapter two. It’d be like writing a letter to someone and then breaking into song:
St. John's worships at 9 a.m. 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ praise Him all creatures here below…
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me / I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see…
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world / be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world.
                   Silent night, holy night – all is calm, all is bright.

You can kind of hear those songs in your head, right – even if I choose not to sing them to you. They tap into something more than our intellect. They connect your head and your heart, your body and soul.

The altar at St. John's
Music does that. And we hear it differently, because we already know it at a deep level. And since it’s something we share as a community, it binds us together. We aren’t thinking it in the left hemisphere of our own left brains; we are praying it at some deep level together as members of a mystical Body.

Liturgical language can function in the same way too, even if we don’t sing it. Phrases ring bells that are cumulative. People who don’t resonate with liturgical traditions like the Episcopal Church sometimes say that written prayers can become rote, that we can say them without meaning them. And sometimes that is a fair critique. We can become mindless, rather than mindful, in our praying.

But for me, the solution to that challenge isn’t to make everything off-the-cuff and spontaneous, but rather to be present to it. Those of us drawn to liturgical prayer like it that we can go deeper and hear new things each time, with fresh ears. Such language binds us together – which is, after all, the root meaning of the word “religion.”

So back to this epistle reading from the second chapter of Philippians: we need to be aware that this is what the writer is up to – that what he says about Jesus is not original to him but is liturgical language – poetic language. A hymn:

…though he was in the form of God,
He did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
        And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
         Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
          so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
          and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Purgatory Chasm - just up the road from Trinity
He’s tapping into the collective psyche of the Philippians by reflecting on a hymn that everyone knows.  Toward what end? What does it mean to have the mind of Christ, and for us to have that same mind?

It seems clear to me, at least, that Paul does not mean that having the mind of Christ will mean that everyone will agree. In fact the only thing all those congregations that Paul writes to seem to have in common—be they in Rome or Philippi or Corinth or Galatia or Millville or Whitinsville—is that they do not agree. Maybe he’s frustrated and he’s saying, why can’t you all agree? Just do a Vulcan mind-meld with Jesus and you’ll all be on the same page?

Now Paul may have had days when he felt that way, but I’m fairly certain that is not what he’s saying here. Diverse opinions can be a challenge, but they are also a gift. What Paul is saying is to be humble. To not Lord it over one another. To not sound like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal but to be patient and kind and gentle with each other because the life of faith is about faith, hope and love – but especially love. He’s saying to be like Jesus or as the theologians put it, to imitate Christ.

The mind of Christ is not unanimity. The mind of Christ is about practicing humility. The hymn that Paul quotes claims that Jesus emptied himself into the form of a servant takes our minds back to that last night of his life when he wraps a towel around his waist and starts washing feet. The Lord of Lords comes into the world to serve. The big $10,000 theological Greek vocabulary word is kenosis. Literally “to empty.”

In Christian communities like this one that mean to follow Jesus, this means letting go of our own agendas, in order to seek God’s will.  

I’m re-learning about this in my work on the bishop’s staff. Anyone who has ever done serious work with congregations learns this lesson to greater and lesser extents. Most of us come to the table with some preconceived notions of what we want, what we think a congregation or diocese ought to look like. But we are not the Church alone – we are only the Church when two or three gather together. And as soon as we do that we need humility, and patience. We need to learn how to empty ourselves in order to be open to what God is up to.  

We celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism at Trinity
For me this comes down primarily to learning how to relinquish control, as we seek first the Kingdom of God rather than our own ego needs. Our home lives, too, require this same kind of kenotic love—this self-emptying love. Marriage requires it and so do the bonds between parent and child, especially as our children grow up and we need to let go and re-learn how to relate to them as adults. My two “little boys” are now twenty-four and twenty. Yet in my own mind I can see still see them as they looked on the day we brought them home from the hospital. The process of moving from that day to this one is about learning to let go – about kenosis – about relinquishing control so that each might continue to become the adult God means for them to be, not who I want them to be.

I want to suggest that this old hymn is about real life in the church and that it still holds true for clergy and congregations, for bishops and dioceses. Kenotic love is about letting go of our need to control and serving – which requires that we trust the Holy Spirit. This is how the love of Christ is made manifest in our very midst. 

What we proclaim with our lips, then, may we live in our lives. Always with God's help. 

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