Sermon by Rev. Mary Bea Sullivan, Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL Philippians 2:5-11
Growing up I was greatly influenced by my Irish Catholic great aunts, the Sullivan sisters—Aunt Bea, Audy, and Aunt Katherine. Each of them lived long lives-well into their 90’s; Aunt Katherine actually broke the century mark.
My siblings and I would kid about our great aunt’s secret to longevity which included beginning their days drinking hot water with lemon, and ending their days with a manhattan.
A couple of years before Aunt Katherine died, my mother and I went to visit her. She was in an assisted living facility in Dallas. Aunt Katherine was legally blind, her hearing was impaired, and she spent a good bit of her time alone.
The day we arrived, she was dressed in a lace blouse with a cardigan sweater. Ever the lady, she graciously invited us to sit down. After mom and I filled her in on our lives, and those of my siblings, there was a long period of silence. Aunt Katherine had a distant look as if she had left the room in some way.
Seeming to remember that we were with her, she said, “I’m afraid I’m not a good hostess. I’m used to spending most of my day in prayer and usually it is only the Blessed Mother here with me.”
“Well,” my mother immediately replied, “You keep pretty good company.”
What I remember most about our visit with Aunt Katherine was that in spite of her diminished physical capacities, in the midst of what could have been uncomfortable pregnant pauses, there was a palpable sense of the sacred in that room.
There was something about being in Aunt Katherine’s presence that stilled me, I felt unconditionally loved. She was a better hostess than she knew.
I do not want to romanticize the loneliness that often comes with aging and especially aging alone.
And yet, one of the greatest gifts of being a priest, is the honor I have of visiting people who no longer have the ability, and in some cases, desire, to be out in the world in an active way. They have reached a stage of life, or have been impacted by illness so as to be at home most, if not all, of the time.
All have had to let go of things that they held dear— beloved family members who have died; meaningful careers, and life-giving hobbies.
There can be a suspension of time when we are in the presence of those who have been forced to cease the forward motion most of us experience—God’s presence borne in the pregnant pauses; in the glint of love shining through eyes that speak for mouths that no longer move.
For me, these visits are a reminder that if I live long enough, one day, I too will be sitting in a chair awaiting precious visitors.
In the experience of suffering, we are especially reminded of the vulnerability and fragility of this life, and from this spacious, scary place, oftentimes, God’s love reveals itself.
The Christ hymn we just read from the second chapter of Philippians speaks of putting on the mind of Christ. Within this mind of Christ is the humility Jesus exemplifies in emptying himself to become human, even though he could have been exalted as equal with God.
Central to kenosis, the self-emptying love alluded to in this passage is Jesus’ first self-emptying when he became incarnate, and the second self-emptying, when he chose to endure the humiliation of the cross for the reconciliation of the world.
Edgy Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks of this as the “blessed exchange.” When “God gathers up sin, all our broken …junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life. Jesus takes our (mess), and exchanges it for his blessedness.” (Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, 18)
For the record, I cleaned up Bolz-Weber’s language for this pulpit, but I find her original writing more effective than my sanitized version.
What is the mess that is gathered up and blessed by Jesus? Our physical suffering, our emotional suffering, the pain we inflict on others, our selfishness, our meanness, our putting allegiance to idols, like career, or physical appearance, or political affiliation, or alma mater, ahead of our allegiance to the one for whom every knee shall bend and every tongue shall confess as Lord.
All of our mess is gathered in God and transformed into love and mercy.
Putting on the mind of Christ is a call to live into our birthright as the imago dei, we are the image and likeness of God—every human being individually, and we, collectively as the Church, inheritors of Jesus’ teachings through the power of the Spirit.
Putting on the mind of Christ is a call to humbly empty ourselves to be conduits for Christ’s love.
When I visit our friends who are frail, I am reminded that sometimes the emptying happens to us—we live in a world bound by the rough-edges of fragile human bodies, swinging financial markets, unpredictable weather, and other means of exposure to loss.
We live in a world of impermanence. This would be incredibly fear-inducing without faith in the one thing which is most permanent —-
Hope in Yeshua, Jesus, a name which means “Yahweh, or God, saves.”
God saves us from our pain.
God saves us from our selfishness.
God saves us from …you fill in the blanks.
Yes, sometimes the emptying happens to us, and ALWAYS we are encouraged to humbly empty ourselves of those things which prevent us from putting on the mind of Christ.
It is easy for us to be filled with self-righteousness, but that prevents us from loving or understanding those who are different than us.
It is easy for us to be filled with a desire for accolades and attention, but that prevents us from encouraging the blossoming into fullness of those around us.
It is easy for us to be filled with a desire for safety, but that prevents us from taking risks to make this a more just and merciful world.
It is easy for us to be filled with a desire for power or control, but that prevents us from humbly seeing all persons as God’s beloved, and it inhibits the space for the Spirit to move within us.
Emptying ourselves of self-righteousness, emptying ourselves of desire for attention, emptying ourselves of desire for safety, emptying ourselves of desire for power is a way to humbly claim our greatest allegiance is to Jesus Christ… a suffering God who loves us sacrificially. (Inspired by Contemplative Outreach Welcoming Prayer)
We are to empty ourselves in love as Jesus did. I know it’s not easy, that kind of love is always sacrificial.
That kind of love is always filled with hope.
That kind of love transforms the world.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing from prison to a primarily Gentile community experiencing internal conflict and external persecution.
Yet , There is a drumbeat of hope and joy throughout Paul’s letter.
If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution I encourage to read Philippians in its entirety today. Imagine if we chose to “take on the mind of Christ” as our mission in 2017.
Rev. Rob Fringer summarizes Paul’s call to this kind of mission when he writes,
“The sacrificial love of God seeks to transform us into people who together as the body of Christ reflect the imago dei (image of God) in our world…
We must find our identity, our very being, in the heart of God and live out of this love in tangible ways in the world.” ( Robert Fringer, aplainaccount.org)
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting with one of our Saint Luke’s members who is homebound . At the end of our visit, after conversation, after Communion, I moved to shake his hand good bye, he shot me a glistening spark of love from clear blue eyes.
I felt as if I were seeing the very face of God. I felt beloved.
Like my Aunt Katherine, emptied of many of the temporal things we value during our active phase of life, the light of Christ shone bright through him.
I imagine that moment of grace was preceded by many filled with the painful struggle of one letting go after another.
My time with him has sustained me this week.
Knowing one day it probably will be me in that chair, I aspire to do so with the love and grace afforded me by Aunt Katherine, the gentleman this week, and so many others.
We are all given opportunity to practice the humble path of letting go, of courageously emptying ourselves, trusting the space will be filled with the light of Yeshua, the one who saves. Amen