Sunday, September 28, 2014

Power Play

1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6   who, though he was in the form of God, 
          did not regard equality with God 
          as something to be exploited, 
7   but emptied himself, 
          taking the form of a slave, 
          being born in human likeness. 
     And being found in human form, 
8        he humbled himself 
          and became obedient to the point of death — 
          even death on a cross.
9   Therefore God also highly exalted him 
          and gave him the name 
          that is above every name, 
10  so that at the name of Jesus 
          every knee should bend, 
          in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
11  and every tongue should confess 
          that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
          to the glory of God the Father.
12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

A man asked a rabbi why God would reveal himself to many people in the time of the Bible, but today nobody ever sees God.

The rabbi thought for a moment before answering. “Because,” she said, “Today nobody bows low enough to see God.”

This reading from Philippians is one of the earliest hymns written about Jesus. It’s sometimes called the Kenosis Hymn from the Greek word meaning “he emptied.” This is a song about how much God loves us and the depths that God will go to in order to be with us. 

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s reign. He's our example of how to be. He constantly calls us to repent or turn and see the Kingdom of heaven. When we glimpse it, the Kingdom doesn’t look like we expect. Jesus’ teaching and life both show us the way to have abundant life, the way to the kingdom. It all has to do with our relationship with God and with each other. It’s all about how we handle power.

We are all power brokers in our relationships. How many of us have heard or said that line:

You’re not the boss of me! 

 We like to be the ones with the power. We like to be the ones in control 

When we get married, we negotiate who will take charge of what. Who pays the bills? Who keeps the family calendar? Who gives the kids permission for what? In our old age, we want the power to say how long we can live in our homes. We tell the doctors and hospitals how much care we want in our living wills. We take on power and we give up power all the time in our lives. Sometimes willingly. Sometimes unwillingly.

Paul is telling us that how we use our power is key to living a life of faith. We can overpower people so that we get to be the ones to set the agenda. We do this with our kids all the time. We tell them to go here and do this. When they don’t comply they go to time out. My oldest daughter wasn’t very good at time out. She’d refuse to go to the time out chair. So I’d have to over power her and sit there with my arms wrapped around her squirming preschool body while she writhed in fury. Trust me, I was determined to show her who was more powerful. It ended with a ludicrous power play on both of our parts.

When we overpower someone, we use our power to force them into something that they don’t want to do because we want it--sometimes this is a good thing to keep someone safe. But sometimes when this happens we are acting from what Paul calls selfish ambition and conceit. We think that we know better and our interests are more important than other people’s.

But, Paul says overpowering others is the opposite of living a life in Christ. Instead he writes that we should: do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. He says, Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

I saw this demonstrated when I went to Scotland over the summer. As many of you know the church
I am peeking into the windows trying to decide if this is a
 church or a house! It was a house.

 in Europe has been laid low. Membership decline started there decades before it started here. The church that was once synonymous with stability, education and empire has been humbled. The church that was once a symbol of power has been emptied. As we drove around the countryside, small stone churches dotted the hills, wee kirks, they were called. But most of them were no longer churches, they were houses that you could rent for a holiday—a long weekend or a vacation.

But there are still churches that hold service and serve the community.

My family and I attended a lovely worship service in the coastal town of Tobermory. We walked into the Church of Scotland and found what we find here in the United States-- a congregation of older people who were gathered in love and humility to worship God. People who remembered their glory days and wished they were bigger, more vibrant, more influential.

The pastor , Rev. Johnny Paton, reminded us that even though the Church may not be the political or cultural center that it once was in the western world, the heart of Christ is still in our churches. Our churches are places of spirit, sanctuary and significance. They are testament that there is more to this world than meets they eye. Our churches, full or not, point to a different reality. One where humbleness and emptiness are holy. Despite the changes, churches are still places spirit, sanctuary and significance.

We, as the church, are witnesses to a counter culture reality of the spirit. The church says there is more to life than how hard you work and how much money you make. To use Paul’s words, the Christ’s church is a place of love, sharing, compassion, sympathy and joy. It is a place where despite our economic or political differences we are united in Christ. We put aside self-interest for the sake of God. Churches will always be places of spirit.

Churches are also a sanctuary when life is painful. Our media culture creates fear and longing, ads tell us we aren’t rich enough or popular enough or beautiful enough. But walk into a church and you will hear that you are enough. I pray that you walk out of a church with "Jesus loves me this I know" in your head. We live by a gospel of hope and this is a place where we can feel loved and valued in the best and worst of times. The church is a place where we matter—to God and to each other. Churches are a sanctuary from the suffering, despair and hopelessness that we sometimes face in our lives.

Finally, whether there are three people in the pews or three hundred, our churches are places of significance. Strangers walk in because they know that the church feeds their spirit. Christ’s church still plays a role in many of life’s greatest moments – birth, marriage and death. Churches are witnesses to the mysteries of creation, they are the place where we reflect upon ourselves and face death. Christ’s church is a standing testament to fragility, resiliency of life and the eternity of God.  

I talked with Rev. Paton one evening at a ceilidh (a church social with what seemed like square dancing). He explained to me that the Church of Scotland has parishes. He saw himself as the pastor of everyone in the parish. "Not everyone in the church," he said, raising his eyebrows just a bit. "I’m the pastor for everyone here who is not a member of another church."

And so here we sit, across the ocean, but in a position that is not all that different. We are in a Church that cannot exploit the political and cultural power we once had. We have pews that have been emptied. We have been humbled, some churches to the point of death.

We are similar to that church in Scotland. We are also similar to the the church in Philippi. Paul wasn’t writing this letter from a pulpit in a lofty cathedral, but from jail. It may be that Paul was feeling like we sometimes do, empty and powerless.. He was writing to a group of Christians no bigger than this one. Paul was laid low.

But maybe that’s where we have to be in order to really see God. Maybe we have to bow low enough to see the empty, humble and obedient Christ.  Maybe in some weird, mysterious way this is when we can truly see how resurrection works.

The hymn ends with Christ’s exultation, with images of knees bending and tongues confessing. 

We can look at this from the top down or from the bottom up. 

From the top down view, God in Christ overpowers all other evil in the world and triumphs. Knees bend and people confess because we the church dominate. We Christians have a long history of trying this approach using tactics of fear and intimidation.

But the other way to look at it is from the bottom up. The reign of Christ doesn’t come by overpowering others but by imitating Christ in his life and in his ministry. By being a humble and obedient church with and for the people around us. And this is what Paul is telling us in this hymn and with his life.

Paul shows us that Jesus is a study in opposites. Jesus was a servant-leader. He dies so that we live. He’s human and divine. We triumph when we regard others as better than ourselves. We are most powerful when we are humble. We fall to our knees in gratitude, not out of fear, and are lifted up. We confess that Jesus is Lord even though he didn’t use his power to rule or dominate, even though his kingdom is not of this world

This is Paul’s story, the lesson he learned in his life. He was educated, successful and powerful. He was full of righteous indignation and was using his power to keep the faith pure—to kill those Jews who were following The Way of Jesus. He thought he could overpower the growing church. But he couldn’t. Paul encountered the risen Christ and everything changed. Paul suddenly understood what God wanted of him.  He understood that confessing Jesus is Lord means rethinking what it means to be powerful in the world. He came to a new understanding of what it means to serve God.

This Jesus Way of living is our call in our churches today as well. We no longer are dominant and powerful in the way of the world. But this is not reason for despair. We are the body of Christ described in this hymn. We are emptied. We are low, but maybe that’s where we need to be in order to really understand Christ and serve God in the world. Maybe that's where we need to be to understand true power.

So we go forth with fear and trembling. It's not an easy place to be. The angels and prophets knew this. Their first words were always: Do not fear. God is with you. God is at work in you, in your emptiness, in your service and in your humility. God is with you enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  God came to you, to us, as a needy baby.

Christ 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.

God in Christ went to these depths for you and for me. Can we bow low enough to see him?

Making a Living

Have you ever noticed that the Protestant work ethic makes life hard. It means all of those shortcuts and life hacks feel like cheating. Hard work is morally superior to the easy way in our history and in much of our culture.

I felt this lesson acutely when Matt and I moved into his parent’s old house in what used to be a farming community. Along with a basement and barn full of other people’s frugality (read junk), I was also inheriting a way of life that was very different than the small town life I grew up in. It’s the work ethic on steroids. The rule seemed to be the harder you worked at something, the better it was.

For example, homemade ALWAYS trumps store bought.  A grocery store cake for a birthday is an abomination. If you truly love your child, you bake the cake from scratch. To me that meant a box, but no, baking from scratch means really baking from scratch with things like flour, sugar and cocoa. If you can find a way to mention how you were able grow and grind the wheat for flour yourself that was even better. (Hipster cooks take note, you are not the first).

Home repairs are done by homeowners, not contractors. Digging up water lines, replacing the roof, building an addition are to be done by the homeowner. One neighbor jackhammered the concrete floor in his basement and carried it out the door, two buckets at a time.

Any household cleaning done with a toothbrush is exalted behavior.

The idea of working hard and earning our keep is ingrained in our American experience.  I think all of us know what I’m talking about. We call it making a living.

And so when we read the gospel story about all of those workers and their payment we can totally understand what’s going on when those who worked the longest cry, “That’s not fair” when the idle Johnny Come Latelys get paid the same amount.  But, Jesus is reminding us that God’s generosity doesn’t always comply with our expectations. It is entirely God’s to give.

Jesus begins this parable with the phrase: The Kingdom of Heaven is like…and then proceeds to describe something very unlike our ideas of heaven. In our idea of heaven, we think that if we cling to the old rugged cross, we will exchange it someday for a crown. A life of faith earns us streets paved with gold. One of the things that our common idea of salvation gets wrong is the order of things. We see it as an if…then…statement.

If we work hard and do the right things, God will grant us grace.
If we proclaim we are saved, then we go to heaven.
If we go to church and follow the rules, we inherit eternal life.

Notice the order is our action followed by God’s reward.

But we have it backwards. God is always first. God’s faith is first. God’s grace is first. God’s generosity is first.  What God gives is not based on what we do, but rather who God is—and who you are.

Let’s do a quick survey of how God acts first in the Bible. Notice that God calls, equips and provides for our Bible heros before they do anything.

  •        Abraham was considered righteous before he was circumcised.
  •       Moses was a stuttering shepherd when God propelled him to leadership.
  •       God provides manna for the Israelites even though they are whining and complaining.
  •       Jesus calls his disciples before they are equipped for ministry.
  •       Paul experiences intimacy with Christ while he was killing members of the church.

God works backwards. God doesn’t call the qualified. God doesn’t pay what we earn. Instead, God calls us when we don’t have enough experience or money. God provides for us when we haven’t done anything. God makes the first move. And this makes us uncomfortable.

When Abby was a young child, she used to give away her toys. Whenever we had a play date, she would be handing her friends toys to take home with them. (One of the things I admire most about her is her generous spirit.) Her friends would be thrilled. They’d go running up to their mom with glee. “Look what Abby gave me! I can take it home. She said I can have it!” The moms, however, were uncomfortable with Abby’s generosity and would take the toy out of their child’s hand and give it back, saying, “We can’t just take other people’s things. It’s not nice.”

We live in a world of give and take. When faced with generosity we feel that we have to give back. We have to return the favor. We can’t be “on the take.” It’s just not nice. We have to work hard, earn our keep and save for a rainy day.

These are great rules for being successful in the world, but Jesus is telling us they don’t reflect the Kingdom of God.

This approach to worldly success is not just an American phenomenon. The Israelites experienced it, too. God provided manna from heaven for the Israelites every day except the Sabbath. Each day they would get as much as they needed and a double portion before the Sabbath. The deal was, they were only to take as much as they needed. An interesting thing happened to the manna when some of them tried to take more or save some overnight. Exodus 16 says:

This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’“ 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.19And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.

It didn’t matter how much they gathered, at the end of the gathering each person had the same amount of manna. No matter how hard they worked to get more, no matter how frugal they tried to be with what they had, everyone ended up with the same amount.

Exodus and Matthew are using two different stories to remind us of God’s provision and abundance. They both highlight that God’s generosity is not linked to our efforts. The Israelites didn’t have to earn the manna, it showed up as they slept. The payment that the workers received was independent of the efforts that they made. Even the idle ones who showed up at the last minute got the same payment.

God asks, Are you envious because I am generous?
The truthful answer for most of us is: Yes.

We are used to making our own living. We are used to being paid by the hour. Our brains are so hardwired into this “earn your keep” lie that we assume that God abides by that rule.

But God plays by different rules. When we get that undeserved payment of love and grace, some of us are moved to tears with gratitude at this amazing grace.

Others of us feel uncomfortable. We want a heavenly reward that is equal to our efforts here on earth, for ourselves, yes. But especially for those people who seem to be doing less.  

We want to have a say in who and how God offers the generous gift of grace. We want to hold tight to our own ideas of what it means to be faithful. We want a God that we can define. We want rules that we can referee the game. We want God to reflect our worldly values.

God’s generosity is not under our control. But God’s grace is so much bigger than we can imagine:

God says, Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? In other words God says, don’t tell me what to do.

The Aster flowers are blooming in my garden. The flowers are purple with yellow centers. When I spend time outside, I can watch as different insects land among them. There are sleek honey bees, and fat, fuzzy bumble bees, a few Monarch butterflies, stink bugs under the leaves and some dark bug that I can’t name. The aster is host to all of these bugs, it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t have a way to test the worthiness of the insects, but rather is open to all of them.

I see God’s church in this way. At the center is Jesus, a powerful attractor. Wave after wave of people have made their way to Christ’s church.  First it was a small community of Jewish believers, then it was the Gentiles who lived in and around them. And God’s grace was available to them all. The church spread to parts of Asia and the Europe in medieval times. And God’s generosity was available to them all. It came to the Americas and Africa. And God’s generosity was available to them all.  People with tattoos and blue jeans and guitars came into church and God’s generosity was available to them.  

It doesn’t matter if they are first or last, if they’ve worked the entire day or for just a few hours, God is generous with love and grace. It means each of us has reason to be thankful that God is generous with grace.

Before you stepped foot in this church, God’s generous grace was at work in your life. Before you were baptized and confirmed and possibly ordained as a church leader, God was already providing for you.

And that is the Good News of the new covenant that we share. Christ Jesus came as the embodiment of God’s grace in the world. Our salvation comes first by grace, not by following laws. We can experience God’s grace here and now.

At the end of the day, God is waiting for us, not to pay us what we earn, but to pay us what God chooses.  We don’t come to church to earn an eternal pension. We come for abundant life. We come to remind ourselves that the kingdom of God is at hand. We come to church because our life in Christ is what makes life worth living, today and every day.