(Sermon for September 28, 2008 || Proper 21, Year A RCL || Philippians 2:1-13)
For the first several weeks after moving into my townhouse, about half my stuff littered the living room floor. I had put away my clothes and shelved my books. I had arranged my furniture and replaced the light bulbs with those curlicue ones. I had set up my TV and hung a handful of pictures. But this mass of extraneous stuff persisted. There were sealed boxes and boxes whose contents had thinned as I randomly put things away. But even these boxes lingered, some with single items remaining in their depths. Every time I came home I dodged the crate of office supplies, stepped over the plastic filing cabinet, and wished everything would gain just enough sentience to find a place to go that wasn’t the middle of my living room. The objects of my wish, of course, remained stubbornly inanimate.
The number of times I’ve moved has reached the double digits now, and I have discovered a universal law: for every five boxes you pack, one will remain unopened until your next move. These extra boxes are (a) shoved unceremoniously into the closet under the stairs or (b) stacked in the garage where the car should go or (c) pushed next to the couch with decorative afghans thrown over them and turned into end tables. Currently, my one-in-five-boxes, so recently cluttering my living room, are now lined up against the wall in the guest room awaiting their fate.
I have all this stuff. I can’t possibly need it all. I can’t possibly use it all — the nearly empty boxes, the still sealed boxes, the hanging bags, duffel bags, laundry bags, garbage bags, trunks, suitcases — not to mention all the stuff that used to be in these containers that I did unpack. Most of the stuff seems to exist simply to take up space.
So, when I read in today’s lesson from Philippians that the same mind that was in Christ Jesus should be in me, I find I’m in a bit of a bind. Paul praises Jesus for doing something that my accumulation of stubborn inanimate objects shows I’m unwilling to do. “Jesus,” says Paul, “who, though he was in the form of 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.”
The Greek word translated “something to be exploited” might be better translated as “something to be grasped” or even “something to be hoarded.” Even though he was in the form of God, Jesus let go of his station. Even though he was part of all the might and majesty and magnificence of God, he did not hoard them. Even though he shared the most precious thing in the universe — equality with God — he shared himself with us by emptying himself. By taking on the form of a slave. By being born in human likeness.
Then he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Then God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. All this happened because Jesus was willing to let go of his grasp on his divine form. All this happened because Jesus refused to hoard the incomprehensible harmony of light and love and grace that is our God. All this happened because Jesus emptied himself.
And I am supposed to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus? Surely, Paul, you ask too much this time.
If I am unwilling to relinquish my stuff, even the stuff in the boxes that won’t see the light of day until I move again, how much more unwilling am I to empty my heart and mind of all the stuff that diverts me from following the Lord. Indeed, the boxes and bags and furniture function merely as physical reminders for all the clutter encumbering my soul. If one in five boxes remains unopened after a move, what percentage of my soul remains sealed off after moving through life? How much of my heart is unusable because of all the stuff piled so high? With my mind distracted by the detritus of the day, when will I have time to contemplate the works of God?
Where is this mind of Christ Jesus that neither grasps nor hoards, but seeks to empty? How do we obtain this mind? How do we grasp it? Right here. Right here is where the imitation of the mind of Christ begins. We can’t obtain it. We can’t grasp it. We can only resonate with Jesus’ self-emptying by beginning to empty ourselves. We can only come to some lowly analog of the mind of Christ when our own minds let go of the persistent accumulation of distractions. This emptiness is unlike any other instance of emptiness out there. This is not the emptiness of a bare pantry or the emptiness of thirty miles after the fuel light comes on. This is expectant emptiness, purposeful emptiness, holy emptiness. This holy emptiness makes room for the grace of God to expand within us. Our internal houses, once the storage depots for the stuff of the world, transform into the sanctuaries they were always meant to be. The emptier we become, the greater is our opportunity to discover true fullness.
This wonderful paradox is at the heart of our life of faith. Paul says that God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. As we begin the slow process of self-emptying, we realize that God has been at work in us all along: rearranging our internal furniture, removing the clutter, and unsealing those parts of our souls we packed away. Truly, we’d never have been able to start emptying ourselves without God first tidying up the place. When we empty ourselves, we are ready to respond to God. We are eager to serve others. We are prepared to give of ourselves because we know the fullness of God expanding within us has no bounds.
I invite you to join me in an experiment this week. Each night before you go to sleep, focus your mind and heart in prayer. Identify something in your life that is taking up too much space within you, that is cluttering up your internal living room. Perhaps this something is trouble at work or doubt about your financial future or concern for a loved one. Give this something to God in prayer. Ask God to inhabit the space vacated by this offering. Do this every night. Each time give something else to God. Allow more space for God to move in your life. Soon you will empty yourself of enough clutter to notice that God has been at work in you all along, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Thanks be to God.