Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September 25, 2011- Proper 21A

Readings for the Day
What if? What if we heard these words from St. Paul in his letter to those in Philippi and heeded them? What if we didn’t act from selfish ambition or conceit? What if, in humility, we regarded others as better than ourselves? What if we looked to the interests of others before our own? What if the same mind of compassion and justice that was in Christ Jesus, was also in us? These  are not rhetorical questions. Think about how the world would be different, how Greensboro would be different, how your workplace and home might be changed, even how your inner thoughts might be transformed? What if indeed.
          Paul is writing this letter from prison because he has heard that there are divisions in the Philippian church. Though Paul wrote his letter nearly 2,000 years ago, to people that lived over 5,000 miles from here, much of the things that he said still need to be heard today. And that’s the beauty of Scripture, through the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote not only to those Philippians, but he was also writing to us in America, and to people all over the world throughout the ages. We too desperately need unity. We have deep divisions in our world, between Democrats and Republicans, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants, between Christians and Muslims, between the United States and China, between the rich and the poor, between races and generations.
          And so Paul’s proposed way forward not only applies to those Philippians, but also to us. Paul urges us all to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Christ is our pattern. And in Christ, Paul points to two specific ways that we can overcome our divisions and be united in God’s love- by placing emphasis on the community and by kenotic humility.
          Paul begins this passage by talking about the importance of community. He urges people to act out humility instead of selfishness, to put others ahead of themselves. Paul realizes that the health of the church is related to the health of the community. If people only look after themselves, there will be no community, no mutual sharing in Christ. When Paul writes “let the same mind be in you,” he uses the plural; this isn’t about individuals. So a better translation might be “let the same mind be in y’all.”
          I am called to have Christ in and on my mind, so are you. And the same goes for the homeless person on the street corner, the Mexican laborer who is undocumented, the gay couple; it goes for President Obama and for Speaker Boehner. Christ dwells within all of us; each of us strives to live a life worthy of being called Christ-like. Now to be fair, some do it better than others; but Paul’s point is that in a community, we need to recognize this in each other. The person you can’t stand at work is a vessel for Christ’s love, the family member you wish you never had to see again is deeply loved by God, that political figure who you think is a moron is also a child of God. Paul urges us to ask, what if? What if we recognized the God in these people? What if politicians in Washington didn’t put political party ahead of what is best for the American people? What if we got more involved in politics and told our representatives to do their job? What if the bickering could stop by putting more emphasis on people instead of political dogma? What if our interactions with others started with us focusing on the Christ in each other?
          And this is not easy, especially in our individualistic and narcissistic culture. I know it’s not easy to go against the grain. When phones and computers have an “i” in front of their name, when commercials are all about you having the nicest things because you deserve it, when then church, mistakenly I might add, says that religion is about a personal relationship with Jesus, it’s easy to get confused. Your life isn’t about you; you didn’t create yourself, God did. This isn’t your world, it’s God’s. Having a happy life or being personally “saved” isn’t your goal, building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven is. What if we looked not to our own interests, but to others? What if God wasn’t a private thing, but was something we did with others, something we talked about openly? What if we realized that God loved everyone else just as much as God loves you? What if our community was stronger?
          Another important part of community and being in the same mind as Christ is being united in that mind. A huge threat to community in our culture is moral relativism and postmodernism. Too many, especially those labeled as “liberals,” have gone off the path by saying things such as “well, this is what I believe, but you have to find what is right for you,” or “religions are like paths to the same mountain top,” or “I think abortion, or gay marriage, or the death penalty is right or wrong, but you can think the opposite and we’ll just agree to disagree.” Let me tell you right now, that is hogwash. If there are no truths out there, then we’re wasting our time and religion is irrelevant.
          Jesus is the Christ; not Moses, not Buddha, not Muhammad. Slavery is immoral, just like the death penalty. These are not matters of gray; some things are black and white. Now that’s not to say that only Christians go to heaven, that’s not to say that slave owners are all evil people, that isn’t to say that proponents of the death penalty aren’t Christian- but it is to say that they are wrong on those issues. Our sense of community has been eroded because there is no longer anything that binds us together; nothing unites us, nothing that we can all agree on.
          And Episcopalians are especially notorious for this sort of indecisiveness. I am staunchly Anglican in my theology. I love Richard Hooker’s concept of the via media, or middle road; suggesting that the truth is not found on the poles, but in the middle. But this concept is too often abused and misunderstood as a tool to say that you’re right, but so am I. Whether they are on the left, the right, or the middle, there are real truths out there.
          So Paul writes “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” And that mind should be the mind of Jesus Christ. We must avoid the temptation to think that peace means giving up what we believe in; interfaith dialogue does not mean saying that we’re all the same, it means testifying to the truth, and being willing to see glimmers of that truth in others. But if we are not willing to stand up and believe in anything, then how can we be in the same mind? How can we be united in Christ if we can’t say that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life? What if we all united under the banner of the Prince of Peace against wars? What if we all stood up together with Christ to champion for the poor and worked to end global hunger? What if we took this great and life changing gift that we think is important enough to come to church about, and shared it with others so that they might also find the love of God and the compassion of God’s church? What if?
          So the first thing that Paul does is talk about the importance of community, he then moves into what is called the Christ Hymn. Many scholars think that verses 6-11 are an older hymn that was known in the earliest Christian communities and Paul uses it here to advance his point about humility. Being in a community means that you need to make room for the other. So Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, taking on human form. The theological word for this emptying is kenosis.
          If we are to live a life dedicated to God, in a community with others, Paul knows that we can’t be self absorbed. He gives us the example of Christ in doing this. Though Christ was of the same form as God, he did not abuse that power or circumstance. He emptied himself so that he could fill himself with the things of the Kingdom of God. This is a good example for us. Being a Christian, or holding a college degree; having a respected job or position; being athletic or good-looking, these are not things that we should be prideful of- but rather these are things that can fill up our egos and make us unreceptive to the will of God or the cry of our neighbors.
          Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship, wrote that it is not that we are trying to copy Christ to rise through the ranks, but instead we copy his emptying so that Christ can fit in us. As Paul notes in our passage, “it is God who is at work in you.” If you are living a godly life, you shouldn’t go around and beat your chest saying “look at me, I give 15% to charity, I pray every day, I am a leader at my church.” That isn’t humility at all. Instead, God should get the credit, not us. And unless we empty ourselves, we can’t create space for the Holy Spirit to truly take root in our lives.
          There is a great story about the Mullah Narudin, a Middle Eastern folk hero who is known for being a wise fool. As the story goes, Nasrudin was walking home from a trip to another country. Now where he is from, fruit is fruit and is always sweet and tasty. So in this foreign land, he caught a glimpse of a vendor on the side of the road who was selling something that he had never seen before. He walked up to the vendor, took a few coins out of his turban and said, “I’ll take a basket.” Now the vender didn’t say anything, because most people only buy a few, so if Nasrudin was willing to buy a whole basket, who was he to turn down such a large sale? So the vendor packed up for the day and left. Nasrudin sat down and started to eat this new, exotic fruit. He took a bite and within a few seconds, his mouth was on fire. Tears began to roll down his face. But he kept eating. A bit later, a passerby came by and Nasrudin called out “tell me friend, what despicable fruit is this? It must be grown at the very gates of Hell.” The passerby called out “you fool, that is not a fruit, but is a hot chili. Why do you keep eating them?” Nasrudin said, “I’m waiting until I find the sweet one.” So the passerby shrugged and left him. A few hours later, that same passerby came back down the road from the other direction and said “stop at once or you will die, don’t you realize that there are no sweet chilies?” Nasrudin responded, “I cannot stop until I have finished the whole basket. You see, I paid for the whole basket and I am no longer eating chilies; I am eating my money.”
          Paul invites us to follow Christ in his kenotic humility of empting himself. This is our invitation to stop searching for the sweet chili, the chance to stop eating our money, our climbing the corporate ladder, our perfectionism which chokes us, our scars and bruises from the past. This is our chance to be liberated from the chilies which consume and burn us; our chance to be humble, to get out of the rat race; our chance to live simply, to live for other and God, and even yourself, as opposed to being told by society and culture how you should be living. What if you could be free? What if you could not worry so much about money and things that will pass away? What if when you receive your pledge card in the mail in the next few weeks, you made the most honest commitment that you could? What if the church didn’t have to run a flat budget and could expand our offerings to you all and the wider Greensboro community? What if you volunteered more at church and got involved with Sunday School, Outreach, Helping Hands or woke up a bit earlier and came to the forum? What if we focused more on faith, family and the things that really matter?
One spiritual writer said that he tries to frame his decisions in this context- “when I am at the end of my life, looking back, what would I wish that I would have done in this situation?” What if we lived like that? What if we could empty ourselves of all the things that we don’t need in our life, and instead fill ourselves with the mind of Christ? What if we let our egos decrease, so that the love and will of God could increase in us? What would our world look like if we all were little Christs?
          Lots of “what ifs” today. I think you all know the answer to these questions- the world would be a better place, we would be happier, and so would others. Ganhdi, the great Hindu thinker, once said “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” What if we were in the same mind as Christ?
          Our charge today is to consider what camp we’re going to fall into- will we be impersonators of Christ or will we be imitators of Christ? As you know, an impersonator is someone who tries to copy what another does; but they aren’t concerned with actually following them. Will Ferrell impersonated George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live, but he didn’t actually want to be him. And if we try to impersonate Jesus, then we are full of vanity and will certainly fail. Our task is not to walk and talk like Jesus, instead it is to love like Jesus did. Our call, according to Paul, is to imitate Christ.
          What if the world had less Christian impersonators in it? What if more people were like the Son in today’s gospel who did the will of his father? What if when adversity came up in life, we had a spiritual foundation to support us? What if the Peace which we share in our liturgy transferred over to our relationships during the week? What if we saw the presence of Christ in others as they strove to imitate Christ? What if we united together in belief in a stronger sense of community? What if, like Christ, we strove to be humble, strove to empty ourselves so we could live for God? What if we lived for each other instead of ourselves? What if I told that doing these things could transform our world? What if I told you that we have the capability to eliminate extreme poverty, that we could end bullying in schools, that we could give justice to the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant? When we heed Paul’s words and are imitators of Christ, we no longer have to wonder what if, we can live it.