Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: "Imitating Jesus"

A Meditation on Philippians 2:1-13
The Fifth Sunday in Lent 2018


This morning I want to trace two arcs across the six weeks of our Lenten journey.  In the first, Yael has asked us to consider what it is that makes us come alive.  I hope you’ve had a chance to do this, and that you’ll continue doing it.  What makes you come alive?  You know, Jesus goes out to the desert, for forty long days, to work this out for himself.  What makes him come alive.  He meets the Hinderer there, the Satan, who tests and tempts him, tempts him to choose an easier way, a quicker fix, even a power trip.  But Jesus looks to God and chooses life and love and deep joy.  His own unique vision and his own precious ministry.

So Yael asked you and me, you remember; she asked you and me to do the same.  To spend this Lenten season discerning joy in our lives, and creativity in our hearts.  And there’s a bright and glorious poster in the narthex this morning, a poster bearing witness to all the ways you’ve responded.  All the pursuits, all the ministry, all the practices that make you come alive.  As human, connected, spiritual beings.  Later this week, by the way, a stunning art show will take over this very space, this same sanctuary: and next week, next Sunday, you’ll catch a glimpse of the wildly diverse energies that stir in our many hearts.  We come alive in a thousand different ways!  So that’s the first arc we trace, this arc of discernment and temptation and joyful practice.

The second begins on Ash Wednesday, in the humility of prayer and the ashes we trace on one another’s foreheads.  “Child of God,” we say on Ash Wednesday, “you come from the good earth, and to the good earth you shall one day return.”  And this second arc extends across the Lenten season, day by day, week to week, all the way to Maundy Thursday.  Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday.  As disciples of Jesus, we turn to his own example, to his humanity, to what Walter Brueggeman calls the “pattern and sequence of Jesus’ own life.”  He too was a child of God, a frail and hopeful, broken and joyful child of God.  He too came from the good earth and returned, in the end, to that same good Palestinian earth. 

On Maundy Thursday, then, eleven days from today, we trace this second arc all the way to an Upper Room in Jerusalem: where Jesus ties a towel around his waist and kneels by a basin of water; where he washes the feet of his friends—much to their surprise and even frustration.  “If I’ve washed your feet,” he says that night, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”  We make meaning in our lives, we find purpose in our faith, by kneeling in kindness before our friends, by humbling ourselves as servants and lovers and prophets. 

Again, it’s Walter Brueggeman who says that “Lent is a time to face the reality that there is no easy or ‘convenient’ passage from our previous life to a new, joyous life in the gospel.”  No easy or convenient passage.  So from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday, we look deliberately, intently, prayerfully at the “pattern and sequence of Jesus’ own life.”  Preparing ourselves for the moment we too might fall to our knees and wash one another’s tired, dusty, human feet.  The second arc.              


Obelisks, Meteora, Greece
As I think about these two arcs—the one about joy and creativity, the other, humility and human connection—I’m reminded of the moment four years ago when I fell in love with Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  I was sitting on a huge boulder outside a quirky Orthodox monastery in the steep hills of Central Greece.  Not far from Corinth and Athens and Philippi, cities Paul himself had visited and served.  I had my writing pad with me that day, and a new book about Paul and his legacy to read.  It was a sweet, shimmering, sunny day in the hills, and ancient obelisks rose up from the Greek plain, in every direction, forming a kind of holy cathedral of rock and cliff and light and shadow.  From deep within the monastery itself, I heard monks chanting an old Greek liturgy.  “Kyrie eleison.  Kyrie eleison.  Kyrie eleison.”  That’s the day I fell in love with Paul and his Letter to the Philippians. 

It’s important to note that Paul wrote this letter, and the passage we’ve read this morning, from a Roman prison cell, somewhere in the Mediterranean basin.  Maybe Ephesus.  He wrote it to friends in Philippi to encourage them in a difficult time, a conflicted time, to urge them to build a community of mutual care and common purpose and collaborative spirit.  He’d spent time in Philippi sometime previously, preaching Jesus’ gospel, creating a new church, growing leaders.  And now, from prison, he recalled an old hymn, maybe one they’d learned together, to offer Jesus’ example to his friends.  It may be the oldest hymn in Christian memory.  It’s set apart in verse form in your bulletin:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus, Paul wrote.

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
         But he emptied himself
                  by taking the form of a servant
                  and by becoming like human beings.
         When he found himself in the form of a human,
                  he humbled himself by becoming obedient
                  to the point of death, even death on a cross.

         Therefore, God highly honored him
                  and gave him a name above all names,
                  so that at the name of Jesus everyone
                  in heaven, on earth, and under the earth
                  might bend at the knee
                  and every tongue confess that
                  Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God.

Remember this.  Paul, writing this, remembering this, singing this hymn perhaps, was in a Roman prison cell.  He wrote to the Philippians from that cell.  I can’t imagine Roman prison cells were anything but miserable, dark and scary.  There was no doubt, on the inside, who was in control, and who wasn’t.  So Paul had firsthand experience, grim, personal experience of Roman power and pride.  And he knew that any resistance to Roman authority, any critique of Roman theology was met with quick and crippling force.  Paul did both: he resisted authority and he critiqued the empire’s oppressive theology.  And for this, he paid a price.  Rome said that empire was the ultimate force in the world and Caesar the bearer of the only meaningful salvation.  Paul said, Foolishness!  There’s a better way.  There’s a holy way.  There’s a life-affirming, justice-honoring, community-building way.  And it’s the way of Jesus the Christ.   Paul’s preaching is clear.  The kingdom of God stands against the kingdom of Caesar. 

So on that brilliant day in Greece four years ago, I considered the old hymn and Paul’s celebration of the hymn in a whole new way.  I confess that I’d often bristled at the notion of all knees bending before Jesus, or the idea that every tongue had to confess his name.  As if the whole point of Christianity was uniformity of thought or conformity of practice or the triumph of one way of life, one idea of divinity, over all others.  I’d heard Philippians used in just this way by evangelical preachers on TV and even the great Billy Graham himself in a college auditorium.  “Let every knee bend before Jesus,” he’d crooned that night, “because bending knees are saved knees.”

But up there among the great monasteries, I heard Paul singing a different song.  Face to face with stony obelisks millions of years in the making, bathed in light and faith and the sweaty thrill of a great hike, I heard him praising a sweeter God.  To begin with, this song’s a song about humility and heart, kindness and compassion.  The bending of knees here is about service and sacrifice.  It’s about thinking of others as better than ourselves.  The incarnation of Jesus is the incarnation of tenderness, humility and love.  In human life. 

Paul was a Jew, after all, in the prophetic spirit of Judaism; he was a Jew through and through, and a radical monotheist.  What does that mean, radical monotheism?  It means Paul believed in one God, one God of all worlds, one God of all creation, one God of all humankind.  As a Jewish monotheist, Paul experienced God as a unifying force in the universe, a gathering energy across cultures and communities, a reconciling spirit in a conflicted world.  That’s monotheism.  So the last thing Paul imagined was Jesus vanquishing other religions or humiliating other gods.  The last thing he anticipated was Jesus beating people up with theology or orthodoxy or flimsy evangelical arguments.     

Icon, Meteoran Monastery
So on my boulder that day, in Greece, I re-read the Letter and I re-introduced myself to Paul.  I breathed deeply, inhaled cool Mediterranean winds and springtime smells and occasional wisps of monastic incense.  I copied Philippians word for word in my journal.  And then I looked all around me—at great winged hawks soaring above and rising angled columns of rock—and I scribbled down a few poems.  You’ll see one in your bulletin this morning.  Ask me about it if you’re interested. 

It occurred to me then, and it occurs to me now, that the nature of the universe is Love.  That’s the message Paul preaches to his friends in Philippi, even from his prison cell.  That’s the whole point, and the reason for communities and churches.  The nature of the universe is Love.  It is not exploitation.  It is not humiliation.  The nature of the universe is not cutthroat competition and crude repression and trickle-down economics.  The nature of the universe is not some people win and most people lose and you better get your prayers right or you die forever.  It can’t be.  It just can’t be.  Because the nature of the universe is Love.  And once Jesus’ light touches your eye, once Jesus’ hand touches your flesh, you see that Love wherever you look.  Wherever you look.  I saw it then, that wonderful day, in the knobby obelisks on the plain.  I read about it in the generous response of communities to refugees arriving from the Middle East.  I felt it in my love for family, friends, church and indeed for the whole, wide world.  Jesus did not exploit.  Jesus took the form of a servant.  Jesus knelt before his friends.  Jesus washed their feet.  Because the nature of the universe is Love. 


So back to our two arcs, our two Lenten paths.

Follow the first to the place where you come to life, where your spirit finds purpose and passion and pizzazz, and you will almost certainly discover the path to Maundy Thursday in all its complexity and all its richness and all its power.  I have a hunch that you know this already, in your heart of hearts.  You know that your passion is God’s precious gift, that your passion is cherished by God and needed by God in the blessing and healing of the world.

Vocation, says Frederick Buechner, is found at that intersection: where our own deep gladness meets the deep needs of the world.  So follow your gladness.  See where it leads you.  And trust that your gladness will take you where God needs you to go: to a place of delightful creativity, to relationships of profound and mutual affirmation, to service that truly heals the world.

I want to put in a final pitch for our Maundy Thursday practice, for the washing of feet we practice together right here eleven evenings from tonight.  I make this pitch every year—because I know that washing the feet of strangers makes us blush or maybe even buckle a bit.  But think about it.  An opportunity to see and touch Jesus and everything he meant in his life.  Think about coming that night.  Maybe you’ll grab a towel and kneel before a friend and wash her feet.  Maybe you’ll choose to sit in your seat and simply pray for the church and the spirit of humility we cultivate together.  But come, if you can, and explore with us the intersection: where deep gladness meets deep hunger, where passion dances with purpose.

Paul says, in effect, that the point of our faith isn’t so much believing in Jesus as it is imitating Jesus.  We need one another for this.  We need one another’s encouragement and we need one another’s forgiveness and we need one another’s laughter and love.  The point isn’t so much believing in the miraculous things Jesus did as it is imitating the tender, human, humble way he lived.  This is the heart and soul of our Lenten journey.  Let’s walk together.  Let’s wash one another’s feet.  Let’s sing Jesus’ hymn on the way to new and everlasting life.

And let it be.  And let it be.  And Great God in heaven, let it be so.