The text for this sermon is Philippians 2:1-13.
Preparing for the sermon this week I read this story in an article written by Dick Underdahl-Pierce in Lectionary Homiletics. Retired archbishop Dom Helda Camara of Brazil gathered with Mother Teresa waiting to appear on national TV in America. As they waited for their turn on the show, they talked about their shared worries about the fame they were achieving. So together they prayed a prayer of Cardinal Newman that includes these words: “Lord Jesus…Don’t extinguish the light of your presence within me. O Lord, look through my eyes, listen through my ears, speak through my lips, walk with my feet….For, to the degree that others notice me, it is a sign that I am, unfortunately, still opaque and not transparent. Take away whatever is opaque in us, O Lord, and help us become transparent.”
Mother Theresa is arguably the most famous Christian in the 20th century. She is known not because of scandal, scholarly studies or building a huge mega church in the cornfields of the Midwest, but because of her life dedicated to the poor. If any one of us looks like Jesus, it is Mother Theresa. Yet, here she is, praying to be emptied of all that clouds the image of Jesus she longs to cast. They were praying that their identities, what they are known for, be emptied so that Christ may be poured in. Make me disappear Lord so Jesus alone can be seen. Wow.
The prayer of these faithful people is a crazy role reversal of what Paul describes in the letter to the Philippians. Jesus empties himself, too, but of the divine and pours in all of our human brokenness. Talk about getting the bad end of the stick. Like a flagon of wine, Jesus receives what Mother Theresa is working so hard to pour out.
6Our Lord, 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.
If we believe Jesus is God, I mean really get our walnut size brains around such a mind blowing concept, can we imagine what Paul is describing? God removed all that makes God, God and put on all that makes us, us. And the us he put on was not something in an extra large Caesar, the guy running the whole show from a palace, but a first century peasant? Humbled himself. Emptied himself. These words fall short in describing the leap that happened in Jesus from divine to human.
Paul shares this to encourage us to make our own journey of faith, emptying to receiving. If we want to become like Christ we have to hear first how Christ became like us. We empty ourselves of all that gets in the way of our relationship with God to be filled completely with Christ’s spirit. O Lord, look through my eyes, listen through my ears, speak through my lips, walk with my feet….
To empty ourselves and make room for Christ, we need to clear out more than the small immoralities that mark our day. What is demanded is a deep cleansing of those insecurities that are the most difficult to let go. It is how we fervently even secretly wish to be known by others that cloud the identity of Christ we hope to cast.
For the famous Mother Theresa, Cardinal Newman and Archbishop Camara, it was their love of fame, their desire to be noticed, their appreciation of being appreciated. This doesn’t sound evil, yet these impulses were hindrances in their quest. Assuming Paul is like most preachers and usually has himself in mind when he writes, Paul tells us in this reading from Philippians that he would like to empty himself of selfish ambition and conceit.
A way for us to determine what inward identity is standing in the way of Christ being poured into your life, is to consider the last conversation we had at a party. When we meet someone for the first time, the thing we most want them to remember about us is shared in that initial conversation. We might mention our jobs, a new toy in the parking lot, a disease or ailment we are battling, our son or daughter’s success; we never bring up their failures, or a hobby or passion we love.
For me, I can turn any party conversation into my passion for running. “What do you think about the weather?” “Great especially for running, you know I run, did I mention that. Oh yeah, I have been running for years.” “This food is great.” “Yeah, but it will affect my running tomorrow. You know I run, did I mention that.” I don’t know what insecurities make me do this and frankly this is not a therapist’s couch so we don’t have to dwell on this, although there was that incident in the eighth grade when I was cut from the football team because I was deemed physically inept, they had 60 kids on that team, and I was so bad they said they couldn’t keep 61, it was horrible, but I am over it now…I run. Did I tell you I run? Oh, yeah, I have been running for years.
To empty ourselves and become transparent so people see Christ when they see us, we start with what we clutch hardest. I don’t need to stop running. I just need to let go of it being the source of my identity, because it is hiding who I want as my identity, Jesus. This doesn’t mean you need to stop being proud of your child’s accomplishments, just let go of staking your life on your son’s success and let the victory of Jesus define your life instead.
Emptying ourselves is much more difficult than our Lenten promises to give up chocolate or television. It means radically letting go to what defines us. Jesus emptied himself of what was treasured most in the universe, his divinity, to become like us. We are called to do the same to become like Jesus.
This sounds difficult because it is difficult. If Mother Theresa has problems emptying herself to be filled with Christ, we can bet it is tough. However, there is one place we can be that we are promised God will fill us, no matter how cloudy of vessels we still are. Worship. In the gathering of the saints, the movement of living water, the serving of bread and wine, God will be present. I think of it like this, if we put a little sediment in a test tube of water it might make the whole thing look muddy. If we put that same amount of sediment in a pool, it is hardly noticed. When we gather as the people of God, the individual cloudiness of our lives is made insignificant by the space made for Christ together.
In worship make God known. We glorify God. We cast an image of Christ for the world to behold and delight upon. We empty ourselves corporately so God can fill each one of us individually. I read in that same article by Mr. Underdahl-Pierce that if you crawl under the pews of Gothic Cathedrals in Europe, look carefully at the stained glass windows on the wall, or climb up to inspect the gargoyles perched on the roof, you might find carved the letters AMDG. This is a Latin acronym that translates to the honor and Glory of God. Artists in these great cathedrals did not sign their work with their name, but these four letters. They wanted their identity to disappear into the greater of glory of God they hoped their work illuminated. Our choirs recently asked me to ask the congregation not to clap for them any longer. They want their work to point to God, not to them. They want to empty themselves of what stands in their way of seeing Jesus, their pride, just like the builders of our great cathedrals.
Paul at the end of this passage tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This seems like an odd thing to say, unless we take the Christ Hymn in Philippians seriously. God emptied himself to be like us, so that we could empty ourselves to be filled with God. Water filled with God that changes our lives in baptism. Bread and wine filled with God to nourish us in love for a week. Words of a broken, bald, 47 year old man, who likes to run, did I mention I run, yeah, a little, I run, filled with God to give us pause in thought for the week. Sweet chords of music filled with God to bring us close to the joy of heaven for the week. God’s powerful presence is promised here today, alleluia. May we all become transparent in this place, in this hour, in this moment, so that the only one who is seen is the one who saves, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen