Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Alternative Voice - Philippians 2:5-11

Epistle Lesson: Philippians 2:5-11
Gospel Lesson: Mark 14:3-9

The alternative voice of Jesus: the path of Kenosis, the path of self emptying.  
[The following is Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault’s, “Encountering the Wisdom Jesus,” CD, Disc 3.]

Madison Presbyterian Church, GA
June 29, 2014 
Let us pray.   
Open our ears, O Lord...Speak to us that we may hear your word, and follow in your way.  Amen.

By being here in church this morning you are making a statement. In one way or another:
- You are saying you are on a spiritual path.
- You are seeking transformation.
- You desire to be closer to God.

If we look across history, we can see all of the great spiritual paths aim toward transformation;
They possess a vision to have a profound and deep encounter, even union, with the divine; even unity with all of creation.

But, not all paths who seek closer communion with God,
will have the same way of getting there. They vary, they differ.

What was the way Jesus taught?
What was the path Jesus took to get closer to God?

Was his path of transformation and experiencing deep communion with God similar to that of peers of his time, or to that of other great spiritual teachers before him?

Actually, scholars have suggested his path is quite different from anything that had ever been seen on the planet, certainly in the middle east during his time,
and his vision is still very radical for us today.

What is this alternative path Jesus took? That he taught?
The Apostle Paul gives us language in this passage I’m going to read from Philippians that may best capture what this path of Jesus is.
Here in this marvelous hymn, Paul uses a greek word: Kenosis- meaning self emptying.
Paul describes the path of radical Kenosis - the path of letting go..and of course since I have two little girls, anytime I say anything about letting go, choruses spring up from the movie Frozen...
If all you do for the rest of the day is sing “Let it Go,” I’ll have preached an effective sermon this morning :).

Kenosis - emptying oneself, letting go.  
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
who, though he - he being Jesus- was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God  as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, - and that word translated emptied is Kenosis.  
   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.
This beautiful hymn outlines the alternative path by which Jesus lived his life.
He was already emptied to enter into this world;
and yet, he humbled--emptied himself--even further to death on the cross.
Every decision he made, every step he took, everything he did, he did by self emptying; by descent; by going the lower road, not the higher road..self-emptying...kenosis.

Now, what makes this alternative is that this path of Jesus is rather counter-intuitive to the way most of us naturally feel and what our larger culture makes us sense about how to deepen our connection with God.
For the vast majority of spiritual seekers, and deeply embedded in our religious spiritual tradition is a kind of compass that tells us that the way to God is... up.
The journey is an ascent, not a descent.
In the Bible, this goes all the way back to Jacob and his ladder going up to heaven.... a very powerful metaphor….
which Christians have looked to again and again;
the ladder of spiritual ascent...

And ascent mysticism, or asceticism as we might call it, was very present in time of Jesus, most notably in the Essene community. At the heart of the Essene practice was the image of the chariot of Elijah on which Elijah rose to communion with God in the heavens.
In the prayer of the ascetic you begin to learn how to purify and concentrate your being.
through meditation through fasting through learning to keep your mind in a single pointed stillness.

And to take this notion a bit further, let’s think about what it means to rise in a physical sense. To go up, in an airplane, or even to rise from our couch to cheer on team USA in the World rise requires energy.
And this is true in the spiritual life as well as in the physical life.
To ascend requires the infusion of energy.
And because of this, great ancient spiritual practices have taught if we can conserve energy and collect it, develop it, make it more intentional, more powerful;
you learn how to avoid squandering your energy in emotional lust, petty reactions, ego gratifications.
Then this concentrated energy can allow us to go up that ladder of ascent, can allow us to rise to union with God.

There’s a good reason why the path of the ascent, the path of the ascetic has been so powerful and pervasive among the spiritual paths of the world for so much of human history.
It works. It works.

As self mastery is attained through physical and moral purification, the spiritual energy concentrated within a person becomes strong enough and clear enough to
sustain contact with those increasingly higher and more intense frequencies of the divine life,
until at last you converge upon that point of union.
It’s a powerful vision and coherent path of inner transformation.

It is also, the more ancient by far, but it’s not only path.

Are yall with me so far? Alternative enough yet?

There’s another path of inner transformation, a more reckless path maybe, a more extravagant path which is attained not through storing up energy, but through throwing it all away.
Deep communion with God is reached not through the concentration of being, but through the free squandering of it.
Not through acquisition or attainment, but through giving it all away.
This is the path of kenosis.
This is the revolutionary alternative path Jesus brought to the world.

And to get at what this kenotic path looks like, I’m going to share a few stories.

The Young couple is madly in love, but desperately poor. Christmas is coming, each wants to give something wonderful to the other, but neither has any money.
But, “there were two possessions of the Young couple in which they both took a mighty pride.”
The woman had “rippling and shining” long hair.
The man a gold watch that had been “his father’s and his grandfather’s.”
And what do they do?
Unbeknownst to her, he pons his gold watch so that he can buy her beautiful jeweled combs for her hair.
Unbeknownst to him, she has her hair cut and sells it so that she can buy him a platinum fob chain for his watch
On christmas eve, they are together in their home.
In their possession are two completely useless presents.
A woman with “close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy” staring at her new combs; and a watchless man staring at his new watch chain.  
It’s a pointless sacrifice…
“Pointless that is unless love is what is made manifest.
In this free squandering, in the giving away of that which they held dear, they reveal what love really looks like, they make real the bond of this love that holds them together so all can see it.
A love which finally has nothing to do with possession,
but with their willingness to give all unto the other.
To be completely kenotic, to self empty.” [Bourgeault]

Another story which gives us an idea of what the kenotic path, the self emptying path of Jesus looks like, is found in the wonderful movie, Babbette’s Feast.
Babette is one of the great gourmet cooks in france.
But political turmoil in France takes away everything she has--her husband, her son, her restaurant;
she flees for her life to Denmark, and is taken in by two aging sisters who are doing religious work; trying to hold together a small community their very charismatic father founded.

Babbette serves this small community of religious seekers for years; and still, over time, they grow old and dispirited.
They become lost in petty bickering and grumblings.  
One day a letter arrives for Babbette…
she’s won the lottery back in france! She will be rich!
She can return to France!

But, surprisingly, she decides she’s going the spend the entire prize giving a banquet to honor the small religious community’s founder….and really to honor the people themselves.
She’s going to give these peasants poor Danish peasants who are used to eating this disgusting Danish Rye Porridge day after day  a proper French gourmet meal.
And that she does.
At first they resist it, they’re frightened, they hold back;
“Not a word about the food!” they solemnly vow.
Seated before proper cutlery, proper tablecloths, a different crystal glass for each course, and after amazing gourmet dishes, courses of wines, champagnes, extraordinary presentation.
little by little they begin to mellow;
they begin blinkingly to accept what is happening, and to relax into joy and to love into forgiveness.

Until finally they all stumble out and gather around the center fountain in the middle of their village laughing and dancing... Their hearts are full of joy.
“Hallelujah,” one old man exclaims!   

When it is all done, the sisters say to Babette,
“Well, I guess you’ll be leaving us now that you're a rich woman.”
Babette says, “Rich, I’m not rich, I’ve spent every penny I had on that banquet.”  
There’s an extravagant generosity which in one sense is wasted because these poor peasants can’t really even comprehend what’s going on….
But it’s done anyway.

And in this act, Babbette mirrors to these broken dispirited souls what God is like. What love is like.
She does it by throwing it all away....
...That’s the kenotic path. [Bourgeault]

And we hear of people on this kenotic path even in our day in sometimes strange places through risky acts of love.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of three young civil rights workers who participated in Freedom Summer, the historic campaign to register African-American voters.
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, who was African American, and Andy Goodman and Michael Schwerner who were white, went missing after they visited a church in Mississippi, which the Ku Klux Klan had bombed earlier because it was going to be used as a Freedom School.

The sister of James Chaney, the Rev. Julia Chaney Moss in an interview this week was asked: “Why did your brother risk his life? He knew the incredible danger, even more so than the white activists, of course, because he was African-American.”
REV. CHANEY-MOSS replied, “My brother, at 17, was at a crossroad….He made a very conscious choice, becoming involved with the NAACP. He wore a paper NAACP button to school, and he was expelled by the principal.
[But,] He did not stop.
[When] he had decided to become further involved [in the movement], he had a conversation with my mother.
He began to share with her...the work he was about to begin.
And my mother, in her formidable wisdom, also shared with him. I heard her say, "Boy, do you know what you’re about to do?"
He said, "Yes, ma’am, I know what I’m about to do."
She said, "You know you’re putting your life on the line, and you can get killed for this?"
He says, "Yes, ma’am, I know that I can."
My mother did not forbid him.
She did not, in any way, try to impede him.
She was not delighted by his choice, but she certainly supported his choice.”

The path of Kenosis, the path of self-emptying, of giving it all away; James Chaney gave away his life for the dignity and rights of others...and his mother, gave away the most precious gift of her boy in the same effort.  

Jesus emptied himself to join in the human struggle;
he gave his life away to show a more perfect way;
Jesus called disciples to let go of their nets and follow.
And, he taught disciples they must die to self if they want to live.
His idea of dying to self was not through inner renunciation or guarding the purity of his being, but through radically squandering everything that he had and was.
His kenotic path shocked and confronted and affronted more people than anything else.
John the Baptist’s disciples were horrified with him because he didn’t seem to practice what they could recognize as an ascetic path.   
he drank wine, he danced, he hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, with people who were clearly not on a spiritual path.
He was down in the marketplace mingling, loving, welcoming children. [Bourgeault]

Jesus told stories about extravagant people as exemplary role models!
Like, The lord of the vineyard who pays all his laborers--whether they started working at the break of dawn or arrived an hour before quittin time--the exact same!
Like, The father of the prodigal who honors his son who’s fallen from grace with a wonderful banquet.
Even his closest disciples looked upon some of his extravagant actions with disapproval.
One night shortly before his crucifixion, he was having dinner with Simon, and in the midst of that dinner there appeared a woman with a jar full of very precious oil; she breaks the jar open and anoints the feet of Jesus.  An act of apparently pointless extravagant sacrifice.
Some of the disciples object: this precious ointment could have been sold and given to the poor! What waste!  

He kept breaking out of the box of the law by doing forbidden things such as healing on the sabbath....
He broke the letter of the law over and over and over again in this sort of free wheeling loyalty and allegiance to the spirit of the law, which led the religious leaders of the time to seek the ultimate punishment for him. [Bourgeault]

When surrounded in the garden of gethsemane with those who would betray him, and those who would march him off to his trail and finally to his execution.
he struggled yes, it was anguish because the kenotic path is anguish, it’s counter intuitive;
but, he was finally able to say: “Not my will by thine will Lord.”
He humbled himself to even death on a cross.

“Over and over, Jesus lays the alternative kenotic path before us.
There is nothing to be renounced or resisted.
Everything can be be embraced, but the catch is, you cling to nothing.” [Bourgeault]

You let it go…frozen...

“You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake.
Picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing.
And with that fundamental [concept,]
you can then pour yourself out,
You can give it all back, even giving back life itself….”
and in this way you experience deepest communion with God.

“That’s the kenotic path [of Jesus] in a nutshell.  
Very very simple and yet totally difficult.
It only costs everything.” [Bourgeault]

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Summer Rest and Stillness - Gen 2, Luke 10

Commerce Presbyterian Church, Commerce, GA
June 22, 2014  

Summer Rest and Stillness
I have selected two Biblical passages which speak of rest and stillness:
The passage from Genesis, the creation story, in which on day 7, God Rested.
And the passage from Luke which paints the scene of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet.  

We begin with Genesis (a play on words):
God was busy about creating all that is in six days, and on the seventh..God rested.

Does it surprise you that God rested?
What do you envision when you think of God resting?
What did God do that day?  
Go to the golf course?
Spend a morning in church?
Walk in the majestic sanctuary of the great outdoors perhaps?  
Stroll along any of the recently created pristine beach shores…ahhh
On Day 7, God rested.  
Maybe God did nothing...for an entire day…
I wonder if God rested just on that one day, as it was God’s last chance.
It would only be a matter of time before the troubled human creatures would begin to bombard God with never ending petitions and problems.  

So, after passionately creating days 1-6, On Day 7 God rested.   

One of my teachers, Church of Scotland Minister, J. Philip Newell suggests God resting reflects a notion that stillness is part of ongoing creativity.  (All Newell references are from his book, The Book of Creation, Chapter 7)

Creativity is linked to rest.  

In the story of Creation we find a pattern of activity and rest:
“there was evening and there was morning...the third day...”
“The energy and creativity of the daytime emerge from the dark stillness and restfulness of the night”. (102)

The Celtic tradition seeks to find meaning and understanding by listening to and following the rhythms and patterns of nature:
We know these patterns....
Night is followed by day
sleeping by waking
Winter’s stillness, followed by spring’s energy and blossom.
A still seed when planted, followed by an emerging tomato plant, that eventually produces large juicy tomatoes, we hope.

Plants and creatures seem to understand the patterns of rest and vitality...seem bound by them in some ways
How well do we 21st century humans--created on Day 6, along with cattle--
How well do we sync with nature’s patterns of rest and stillness?  
What is our attitude toward rest as a society?  
In many ways we seem to resist it:
- We have access to energy and light 24/7.  
- Interestingly, as a global society we consume over 2.25 billion cups of coffee every day;
not to mention any variety of the latest and greatest energy drink.  
Is rest encouraged?

I certainly try to encourage my two year old to rest during the day. It’s getting more and more difficult these days as she’s discovering how much she might miss out on if she takes a nap!

With the five year old...forget it, days of napping are long gone!

As an adult, I find it unusual to be encouraged to get some rest….

Some time ago I visited a Monastery near where we lived in New Mexico; and upon my arrival in the morning, the guest master asked if I cared for a room in order to lie down and rest...

Taken aback by the suggestion, I quickly declined the offer....
I had things I had to do....I didn’t have time to rest…

On Day 7, God rested..