Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Losing Yourself

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday, June 1, 2014. The texts for the sermon are Philippians 2:1-13 and Luke 6:27-31.

Before you get too comfortable, I want you to grab a pencil and your bulletins, and jot down some things that make up your definition of “you.”  The parts of you that are foundational to your identity.  Go ahead, write them down -- because we’re going to come back to this, but it’ll take us a few minutes to get there.

As you’re thinking and writing, I want to share this parable from Peter Rollins with you that I came across while preparing for this week’s sermon:

IN THE CENTER OF A ONCE-GREAT CITY THERE STOOD A MAGNIFICENT CATHEDRAL that was cared for by a kindly old priest who spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of the priest’s tireless work, the cathedral was known throughout the land as a true sanctuary. The priest welcomed all who came to his door and gave completely without prejudice or restraint. Each stranger was, to the priest, a neighbor in need and thus the incoming of Christ. His hospitality was famous and his heart was known to be pure. No one could steal from this old man, for he considered no possession his own, and while thieves sometimes left that place with items pillaged from the sanctuary, the priest never grew concerned: he had given everything to God and knew that these people needed such items more than the church did. Early one evening in the middle of winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a loud and ominous knock on the cathedral door. The priest quickly got to his feet and went to the entrance, as he knew it was a terrible night and reasoned that his visitor might be in need of shelter. Upon opening the door he was surprised to find a terrifying demon towering over him with large dead eyes and rotting flesh. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid this hideous demon welcome and beckoned him into the church. The evil demon stooped down and stepped across the threshold, spitting venom onto the tiled floor as he went. In full view of the priest, the demon proceeded to tear down the various icons that adorned the walls and rip the fine linens that hung around the sanctuary, while screaming blasphemy and curses. During this time the priest knelt silently on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the night. “Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going now?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you?” spat the demon. “I too am tired and in need of a place to lay my head.” “Why, of course,” replied the priest. “Come, and I will prepare a meal.” On returning to his house, the priest prepared some food while the evil demon mocked the priest and broke the various religious artifacts that adorned his humble dwelling. The demon then ate the meal that was provided and afterward turned his attention to the priest, “Old man, you welcomed me first into your church and then into your house. I have one more request for you: will you now welcome me into your heart?” “Why, of course,” said the priest, “what I have is yours and what I am is yours.” This heartfelt response brought the demon to a standstill, for by giving everything the priest had retained the very thing that the demon sought to take. For the demon was unable to rob him of his kindness and his hospitality, his love and his compassion. And so the great demon left in defeat, never to return. What happened to that demon after this meeting with the elderly priest is anyone’s guess. Some say that although he left that place empty-handed he received more than he could ever have imagined. And the priest? He simply ascended his stairs, got into bed and drifted off to sleep, all the time wondering what guise his Christ would take next. - Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic

And as I was reading this parable, and reading this text, I wondered if I would be able to live as this priest lived.  To be open and willing to serve all that came to my door that even in the midst of being taken advantage of, being abused, and even at the risk of letting evil into my heart.  Would I be as kind and hospitable as the priest in this story?  Would I be able to empty myself of the things that I hold near and dear to my identity and allow Christ’s love and grace to flow through me?  

And then I wondered what are those things that I hold near and dear to my identity?  Is it my name?  My job?  My gender?  My relationships?  What were those things that you hold near and dear to your identity -- what did you put on your list?

Does your list read something along the lines of: I’m Jared, a 25 year old male vicar, who is the first born son, and an older brother.  I’m a student and a teacher.  I am a bookworm, tv junkie, and movie buff.  I’m a best friend.  I own a dog, and am comfortably middle class.  I’m an American of Norwegian descent.  I’m a little ADD and a little OCD.   I’m a Lutheran.  

All of these are ways that I identify myself.  All of these are things that I hold near and dear to my heart.  All of these things are things I would be terrified to give up.  I hold on to these things to measure my success and place in the world.  They are how I know where I stand compared to other people.  

Except, Paul calls me, and us, to emulate Christ in all things, to be in the same mind as Christ.  To be of the same love as Christ.  To:
“empty ourselves,
                    take the form of a slave,
humble ourselves
                    and become obedient to the point of death”

That’s terrifying.  To empty ourselves of all of these pieces of our identity.  To let go of the ways that we measure success.  To stand back and let God work in our lives.  To live as the priest lived in the parable I told at the beginning did, giving away everything, holding on to nothing.  Not being afraid, even in the presence of evil and threat of harm.  To have nothing inside his heart but love and grace and forgiveness and joy. To have so much love to be willing “go the extra mile” so to speak.  To have so much forgiveness that we can turn the other cheek.  To have so much grace, that everything we do is a reflection of what God does for us.  

I know it sounds impossible.  It sounds like I (and Paul and Jesus) are talking about something that is ideal, but not realistic.  I mean, what happens when we offer grace?  We get taken advantage of, right?  Or our identities get in the way.  I can’t do this, because of x, y, or z.  I know this, because I do it all the time.  I think that I’m “too busy” to go out and help someone build a house.  Or that I’m “too afraid” for my life to help the homeless person with the cardboard sign because he might be crazy.  Or whatever...we all have our reasons, our identities that we cling so tightly to, and impact how we are able to love one another.  

And still, Paul - who wasn’t exactly the most charitable person at times, writes again and again that we need to emulate Christ.  He even writes at one point that we “lose our identities” in the waters of Baptism.  That we aren’t “ Jew nor Greek” - national identities, “slave or free” - occupational identities, or “male and female” - that one’s a little obvious. That these incredibly powerful cultural, occupational, and gender identities are no longer the things that define us.  That we can let them go, we empty ourselves of them because they get in the way of the work of God flowing through us.  That instead, we are children of God.  

And we see this happen.  We’ve seen people who have let go of their identities to bring love and grace to those they meet.  They aren’t just found in parables, like the one I just read from Peter Rollins.  Instead they are people like Maya Angelou, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pope Francis. They are the nurses who work at free clinics, the teachers who stay after school to tutor those who struggle, the veterans who worked to build relationships with those who differ from us, the construction workers who dedicate their time to Habitat for Humanity, the people who would rather go unnamed and unrecognized as they offer up their gifts and service.  We all know these people.  These women and men who emptied themselves of their identities and allowed themselves to be vessels of God’s grace.  Women and men, who truly were of the same mind as Christ.  Who weren’t afraid of anything to live into God’s kingdom.  And more importantly, they were just ordinary women and men.

Women and men, like you and me.  They just emptied themselves of their identities and became instruments of God’s grace.  And in the emptying, the humility, the service, the love, the being taken advantage of, the threat of death, they lifted up Christ.  They showed all the world how the power of sin was broken and that God’s kingdom is with us here and now.  Thanks be to God.