This morning as we baptized Emma, we affirmed that she is beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold–as are each one of us. The watermark is on her and our foreheads–or all over us, if we were baptized by immersion–and this is who we are, signed and sealed by God.

The problem is that much of the time, like any other child of a parent, we do a lot of complaining and rebelling against this God by whom we are beloved and of whom we are precious children. The reading from Exodus last week told the story of the Israelites’ complaining against God that they didn’t have any food to eat in the wilderness, and Bruce’s sermon was entitled “The Joy of Complaining?”

In this morning’s reading, there’s still a whole lotta complaining going on, this time about the lack of water. This God, it seems, by whom we are beloved and of whom we are precious children, just doesn’t seem to provide what we want when we want it. Life is so much harder than we think it should be, especially if, as we hear, “God is in charge.” Even a quick glance through the newspaper or one cycle of tv news is enough to make us question the truth of that statement. If this is what happens when “God is in charge,” maybe it’s time for new management.

And lest we think it’s just the God of the Old Testament that we have a problem with, remember where being the beloved son of God got Jesus–crucified on a cross. Someone has observed that we may be anxious for the Second Coming of Christ because, honestly, we aren’t that crazy about his first coming. Look where it got him–and most of his early followers. You call that success? If we really are to follow him, can we expect any better treatment?

Episcopal priest and scholar Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “My hunch is that a good many of the difficulties we sometimes run into trying to make our Christianity work stem from the fact that right from the start people missed how different Jesus’ approach really was.” (Wisdom Jesus, p. 63) When people began to call Jesus “the Son of God,” it was a direct contradiction of what the Empire was telling everyone–that Caesar was the Son of God. Caesar ruled by fear and domination. People bowed to Caesar in order to escape punishment and death. That is the nature of power as the world recognizes it. That is what the gods are like, the Empire taught. How many of us still think of God that way–with fear of punishment? Who was–who is–this God that Jesus is the Son of?

There was a hymn, however, in early Christianity, that talked about a different kind of power, a different image of God, which Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians–

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God [or, had equal status with God], did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but 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. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This power is not unilateral, not top down, but rather relational, flowing into the other. “He emptied himself, becoming human…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is a whole different kind of power than Caesar’s power, than the world recognized. “Jesus rules by relationship and empathy,” Bruce Epperly writes. Rather than being jealous and competitive, he “wants us to grow in creativity, freedom, and agency…The more creative agency we embody, the greater opportunity for God’s vision to be achieved in the world..[This is] the obedience of love, not fear,” (Adventurous Lectionary, 9/28/14) so “every knee shall bend” in love, not fear.

This passage from Philippians makes some profound affirmations about God, Christ, and us. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote. We can have the mind of Christ, Paul says! Remember that “mind” was not thought of as something that simply goes on in the brain, but rather was a whole body perception and will and decision-making. In fact, Jesus often talked about metanoia, transformation, literally meaning “going into the larger mind.” Jesus’ teaching and personal style were all about abundance, generosity, extravagance. He taught about a God who had a spacious vision for the world. Jesus’ followers–mostly peasants, folks at the margins, people who had to struggle just to stay alive–saw only scarcity, as do many of us. And yet, in his presence, they experienced abundance. Who is this one preaching abundance, generosity, extravagance? If Jesus is the Son of God–if we are the sons and daughters of God– what kind of God is this?

Further, Paul said, when we are “open to and guided by the mind of Christ, we experience solidarity with all creation and have a sense of unity with our brothers and sisters in faith.”(Epperly, op cit.)–”Be of one mind.” — Instead of separating ourselves from “the other,” we see that we are actually one. We’re all in this together, more alike than we are different.

“Therefore, my beloved, [Paul writes,] work out your salvation with fear and trembling…” The word “your” is plural–our salvation is for all of us, and instead of the words “fear and trembling,” think “awe and energy.” [Epperly] Our collective salvation that we are to work together on with awe and energy is for here and now, not just some later time after we die.

And not only are we in this with each other, God is in this with us. When we are able to “have the mind of Christ,” we discover “the divine-human synergy” [Bruce Epperly, op cit.]–God working alongside and within us. This is the God we are beloved by. This is the God whose precious children we are. This is not a Santa Claus God who knows when we’ve been naughty or nice, but a God who longs for us all to have the mind of Christ, open to God’s love and abundance, not grasping onto anything, but allowing God’s power to flow through us. We are to become “like God,” as Jesus was, not lording it over others, but rather as clear vessels for divine love and abundance to flow through and into the world, even through our deaths–our final death and all those little deaths and losses we experience in the course of a lifetime, like the end of a relationship, the loss of our health or vitality, the loss of a job or dream. Even through those losses and deaths, God’s love and abundance can flow into us and through us, bringing something new to life.

How different from the “winner takes all” god our culture holds up to be worshipped, the kind of god who annihilates and crushes all opponents, the god for whom being #1 is the only goal worth pursuing!

Not grasping, emptying, receiving all that comes to us in life, being present to it, and allowing it to flow through us is a very different practice from the usual response in our culture to things that are painful. Most people in our culture do whatever they can to avoid feeling the pain–by numbing their emotions with substances or exercise or work or shopping or eating. They avoid their underlying fear by expressing anger, often inappropriately. Putting on the mind of Christ means allowing all experiences, all emotions, to come but not clinging to any of them. Rather, releasing them. Obviously, easier said than done, and not without a lot of practice. But it is not only for saints and holy people. It is available to and possible for all of us.

Jan Richardson is an artist and retreat leader whose husband Gary died last year at the beginning of Lent. I’m guessing Gary was in his 40’s or 50’s. A year and a half later, Jan was able to write–

The hollowing began the moment Gary died. In the weeks that followed, it came as a physical sensation: in the center of my chest, an emptying nearly tangible, a hollowing out of the heart and of the life I had known.

Last week I visited with a friend of mine whose husband died a year and a half before Gary. We spoke of the hollowing. We talked about how there is nothing that will fix the emptiness. And we spoke, too, of how the emptiness can become a space that, in one of the mysteries of grief, leaves us more and more open to the receiving of joy. The hollowing happens. Life will empty us out, whether we will it or not. Yet Paul reminds us…that we belong to the Christ who freely chose to empty himself: who gave himself completely in a way that, paradoxically, did not diminish him but helped to reveal the fullness of who he was, and is. Encompassed by the Christ who enfolds our emptiness in his own, we become free to choose how we will respond to the emptying. In [that] emptying…how will we allow the hollowing to open our hearts to the world we are called to serve in joy and in love? [Painted Prayerbook, 9/28/14]

This baptism into the Body of Christ, this claiming of our identity as beloved, precious children of the God of Christ Jesus, is more radical than we usually acknowledge. This God of emptying, this God whose love and abundance and generosity overflow and dance in that trinitarian dance between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, this is the God who claims us and flows within us–not the dominating, fear-mongering god of Caesar or Empire or terrorists or plague. “Nothing in all creation [Paul writes to another church]–neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, –nothing can separate us from the love of God whom we know in Christ Jesus.” Nothing can separate us from the God we need, even if it may not be the God we want.

Ellen and Todd–and we all–have made promises to teach Emma about this God and to live our lives, as best as we are able, so that she and all children might grow up in a world of justice and peace and, we might add, on a planet that can still sustain life as we know it. At its best, the church is where we learn to trust in that God. “We need places,” Stephanie Paulsen writes, “to pray as if someone were listening, to study as if we might learn something worth writing on our hearts, to join with others in service as if the world might be transformed. Churches are places to learn to practice, with others, a continual conversion of life, a permanent openness to change.” (The Christian Century, Oct. 1, 2014, p. 2)

Emptiness, being hollowed out, allowing, welcoming, letting go, opening to God, these deepen that watermark on our brows. Unless we become empty, we can’t be filled with God. It’s the only way we will be able to move into this time of profound change on our planet, as we let go of “business as usual” which will only lead to the end of life on this planet as we know it. This is the world Emma will grow up in. Emptiness, being hollowed out, not grasping, not ac-cumulating, not using up. As Jan Richardson writes, “As you attend to the empty spaces–in your life and in the world–may those spaces open wide to the joy that comes.” So here, finally, a blessing–

Blessing That Becomes Empty As It Goes

This blessing
keeps nothing
for itself.
You can find it
by following the path
of what it has let go,
of what it has learned
it can live without.

Say this blessing out loud
a few times
and you will hear
the hollow places
within it,
how it echoes
in a way
that gives your voice
back to you
as if you had never
heard it before.

Yet this blessing
would not be mistaken
for any other,
as if,
in its emptying,
it had lost
what makes it
most itself.

It simply desires
to have room enough
to welcome
what comes.

Today,
it’s you.

So come and sit
in this place
made holy
by its hollows.
You think you have
too much to do,
too little time,
too great a weight
of responsibility
that none but you
can carry.

I tell you,
lay it down.
Just for a moment,
if that’s what you
can manage at first.
Five minutes.
Lift up your voice—
in laughter,
in weeping,
it does not matter—
and let it ring against
these spacious walls.

Do this
until you can hear
the spaces within
your own breathing.
Do this
until you can feel
the hollow in your heart
where something
is letting go,
where something
is making way. [Jan Richardson, op cit.]

So may we be blessed. Amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

 

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