Sermon for Proper 21 A September 25, 2011 Michael Coffey I have been watching a lot of news
in recent months. I’ve been listening to our political leaders talk and fight and tear each other down. I can tell you without a doubt: I’m really sick of our politics today. I’m really fed up with one more leader getting a hold of some power or some attention and exploiting it all for his or her own gain. The funny thing is, they think we don’t see through it. They think we buy their rhetorical cover-ups. But when we hear a text like the one from Philippians even if we were duped by politicians wrangling for power we can’t stay duped any more. In just a few, concise verses Paul quotes what apparently was one of the earliest Christian hymns and exposes all our misguided trust in those who exalt themselves. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. So here, Paul tells us the powerful story of the one who had all power and all authority and all glory and all honor and all privilege and all wealth and all status and all birthright and all pedigree and all rights and didn’t use any of it for his own gain. He used it all to embody the love of God which is always a love that makes room for others in the circle of one’s concern and love. Paul even points out the great tragic irony that Jesus didn’t just work hard all of his life to love other people and help other people love other people, he did that, of course. But he even emptied himself of self-concern to the point of dying in humility and shame under the one political system that could never get what God was about: the empire. Empires can never get what God is about because God is about self-emptying love that lets go of control and power in order to make room for others in the circle of concern and love. The early church apparently got this to the point that it very quickly turned it into a hymn, or an early creed. That’s what this reading from Philippians is, so very early the church got something that we have to keep getting generation after generation: Even if we can’t fix the political systems of our day, we can still live the love of God in our very real lives. I’m not saying we don’t work for and strive for and hope for and vote for better leaders and a better political life that values care of others more than elevating the self and grasping for power. But the fact that our world doesn’t get it very well has nothing to do with whether we as people bold enough to claim the way of Jesus as our way live with love for others as best we can. But how can we? How can we in the church live something radically different from our common patterns in politics and business and institutions and organizations? I might even say: How can we in the church live something radically different from the church? Since we know the story of the human institution of the church is just one more example of the same old thing. First, we begin at the proper place: The self-emptying love of God in Christ. The message here is powerful and clear: God is love in the way that Jesus is love: Emptying of self, letting go of using power for self, but using it for others. God is best understood, the early church tells us, as one who empties out and makes room for others in God’s self. We are the hearers and the believers and the eaters and the tellers of this radically different God and powerful good news. God isn’t a god who claims all power and authority and pushes us aside in order to protect God’s power and authority. God is power and authority to love and to heal and to forgive and to bless and to renew. The church is the place that celebrates the empty place in God where there is room for us. You know, Augustine, the great early church theologian, famously said: There is a God-shaped hole in each of us that only God can fill. And that’s wonderful and profound and I’ll come back to that in a second. But I think the inverse is also true: There is a you shaped hole in God that only you can fill, and God keeps that space empty out of deep love. This is the great power the church has and it is not to be confused with the political power that is so troubling today. It is the power to free us all to live in the love of God, to live in God, really, in the empty place in God where divine love has made room for you, and keeps room for you. We all have an empty place in us, it is emptiness, it is a dark void that is mysterious even to us. We wrestle with it, we feel the pain of it, we anxiously try to fill it with anything that might make us feel better. We mostly fill it up with our self-interest, our self-preservation, our fear-based hoarding of anything that will keep us safe and in control and in power. We aren’t so different, I guess, from our political and institutional leaders, they just live it out on a grander scale. Jesus is the gift of God to set us free so we can clean house, get rid of all the junk that has filled us up, have a garage sale for the soul, empty ourselves out so that we can be filled up with the one thing that fits: God. Once we have been loved by the one who makes room for us we have room in us for others. Once we have been taken in by the grace of God we have much gracious space to take others in. Once we have been filled by divine love we have divine love to pour out to others. Paul quotes this early Christian hymn to make clear the powerful message of the Gospel: Jesus is God’s self-emptying love for us that is now available to all. And then he says: Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus. Let the same self-emptying love be in you. Let the same pattern of living in God and loving others be yours. Let the same acceptance of the power grabbing empire lead you to live beyond and above the politics of the day. But you say: Pastor Coffey, if we live that way in real life, everyone else will take advantage of us. Everyone will see how vulnerable we are. Everyone will abuse our loving attitude and use us for their own gain. We can’t be that naïve and weak. How could that change anything? What did they say about Jesus, those early Christians who lived in the power corrupted empire? 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Yes, our human political and business and institutional world will not give up power easily or suddenly see how loving Christians are and get all warm and fuzzy like the end of a Hollywood fantasy. So what? That’s the whole point. Somewhere, someone, some people, have to embody the vulnerable, self-emptying love of God in this world, or transformation of this world won’t happen. And the one thing we know, as people who gather around the gifts of self-emptying love in bread broken and wine poured out, the only thing that transforms us or anything is the love of God that makes room for others, and this love is costly, it costs us ourselves, as it cost Jesus himself. We know that in order to truly be ourselves beloved by God we have to find meaningful and purposeful ways to give ourselves away. We are looking today for great reasons to empty ourselves, give ourselves away, instead of filling ourselves, or wasting the gift we have to give, which is the gift of our beloved selves in God. We are needing to keep offering our young people, and our more cynical and worn-out older people, great reasons to love others greatly. Yes, we have to decide here and now, like we do every week when we gather, that we are going to live a higher functioning life than the majority of the world around us. We are going to risk humility in order for divine love to be enacted and shared. We are going to die with Jesus and be exalted with Jesus, which is an exalting we cannot give ourselves, but which we know is God’s endless gift to us.