Lectionary 26 / Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
Sunday, September 28
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen
First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA
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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here’s an interesting bit of Bible trivia: today’s second reading has a name all of its own. Theologians call Philippians 2:6-11 the “kenosis hymn.” “Kenosis” comes from a Greek word meaning “to empty,” and it’s called a “hymn” because it’s probably a quote from something the early Christians sang or spoke in worship, something that may have been in use even before Paul became Christian and started his missionary work. Given that Paul’s letters are the oldest things in the New Testament, older than any of the Gospels, these six verses may be the oldest Christian text we have.
“Christ Jesus, 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. 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.”
As one part of the triune God, Jesus could have had anything he wanted. Anything at all. Think about that for a second. If you could have anything you wanted, what would you do with it? If it were me, I like to think I’d start off with the big stuff—world peace, for example, make everybody who was fighting stop. Then how about ending hunger, disease, injury, all those problems the human race has been struggling with since there was a human race. And if I really could have everything I wanted, I’d make sure my own life was as comfortable as possible while I fixed all of the world’s problems. I’d have a nice house, with a cutting-edge home entertainment center and all my friends and family living close by. I’d be great at every sport and every art without ever having to practice. My favorite television series would never be cancelled, my favorite authors would come out with a new book every week, and I’d never have to work or cook or clean ever again. I’m sure you can all imagine what you’d do if you could have anything you wanted. In America, we’re good at imagining that. Somehow, the pursuit of happiness has turned into the pursuit of having more stuff than anyone else.
There’s a lot of exploitation in the world today, and we’re so used to it we don’t even notice most of it. Exploitation means making the most of what you have, using whatever it takes to get what you want. Our life experiences teach us early that if you have something, use it, especially money. If you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere in life, and people will probably take advantage of you. We associate being humble with being humiliated. To quote a song from the musical “Camelot,” “It’s not the Earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.” If you don’t think highly of yourself, and make sure everyone else thinks highly of you, too, you run the risk of being used or ignored. We are a consumer society; almost everything is for sale, if you’re willing and able to pay the price. Our entertainment is paid for with advertising that is designed to convince us we can’t live without whatever it is they’re selling. There are more shopping malls in America than high schools. Dollar value determines worth; it defines how we perceive everything around us, including right and wrong. Think about it: how often do you hear people use the terms “moral” or “ethical,” particularly about themselves or their children? You’re more likely to hear people talk about teaching their children family “values.” Values, a money word, as if you could tally up your choices on a spreadsheet and turn them over to an accountant for a cost-benefit analysis of doing the right thing.
We exploit the world around us. Instead of taking care of the planet God gave us, we use it up and throw it away. Americans are five percent of the world’s population but consume twenty-four percent of the world’s energy and one third of the world’s timber and paper. As a nation, we throw out 200,000 tons of edible food each day while ten million people world-wide die of hunger related causes each year. We throw away enough paper & plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to circle the equator 300 times.
We exploit our bodies. Sex is for sale, and sex sells; I’m not talking about literal prostitution here, but take a good look at the average music video. Or take a look at the billboard on Route 30 where a woman looks like she’s about to flash people. In 2006 a song about pimps won the Oscar for Best Song, and the word “pimp” is now a slang term for something really cool. And then we wonder why one in six women—and one in thirty-three men—will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes.
We exploit our knowledge. Most scientific research is funded by people looking for specific, tangible results—pharmaceutical companies looking for medicines they can patent and sell for a profit, for example, or chemical engineers looking for new fuel sources. And those who have knowledge and education often look down on those who don’t as being less intelligent, or use their knowledge to make themselves look impressive or authoritative. I did it at the beginning of this sermon, even—did you really need to know this passage is called the “kenosis hymn”?
Things were little different in Jesus and Paul’s day. The Roman Empire was really good at exploiting people, through slavery and other more subtle ways. They were equally good at exploiting the environment and knowledge, using their engineering skills to create an infrastructure of roads, aqueducts, and public buildings that enabled them to conquer and rule what was then the known world. The high priests and elders of the Jewish temple used their social position and their knowledge of Jewish religious rituals and laws to ensure their own position. They used their position to mediate between the Roman Empire which wasn’t too keen on subjects who refused to worship the Roman Gods and Jewish religious fanatics who thought they could drive out the mightiest empire in the world. It’s no wonder that the chief priests and elders didn’t recognize God in the form of a man who didn’t care about building his social position or working his way up the established religious channels. And it’s no wonder that the Roman citizens in the city of Philippi needed Paul to remind them that Christ Jesus, God in human form, worked through mutual love and compassion, not exploitation, through humility and not arrogance. It’s no wonder that we need to hear the same lesson again today.
Jesus humbled himself, instead of exploiting what he had. If Jesus had wanted to use his godhood, he would have used it more wisely and less selfishly than you or I would, but surely he could have saved the world in a more immediate and less painful way than crucifixion. Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply destroy all weapons, cure all diseases, feed all the hungry people, and then not let us sin any more? Make us righteous by not letting us be anything else? No need for Jesus to become human, with all the frailties that includes. No need to suffer and die. No need to do anything but stay comfortably in heaven, pulling strings here on Earth to make sure everyone does what they’re supposed to do.
But Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. He did not take advantage of it; he did not use it to force the world—force us—to be what he wanted us to be. Instead, Jesus took human form, became like us, shared the kind of experiences we have as humans. Instead of doing things to us, Jesus chose to work for us and through us, creating a relationship with us that can sustain us in the darkest of times because it’s based on love and compassion and a real understanding of what our lives are like. Through that relationship, we can be transformed. God doesn’t want our lives to be about exploitation, of ourselves or others or anything. God doesn’t want us to spend our lives worrying about getting ahead. Instead, God wants us to model our lives on the kind of love Jesus showed us: the kind of love that puts the needs of others above our own comfort, the kind of love that is full of compassion and sympathy, the kind of love that builds us up not just as individuals, but as a community. The kind of love that makes us truly the body of Christ.
There is a difference between humbleness and humiliation. Humbleness is when we let go of our arrogance and admit our flaws. Humbleness is when we stop being selfish and start thinking about others. It’s when we admit that we really do need God’s love and forgiveness. It can be a scary thing, to admit that we need help, that we can’t do it alone. But unless we are willing to admit our need, to make ourselves humble, we will stay trapped in the web of exploitation that surrounds us. Until we admit we need God’s help, we can’t let him in to our hearts and minds to work in us and through us.
We worship a God who loved us so much that he emptied himself and took on human form, who became humble and suffered for our sake, who died to save us from our sins and rose from the dead that we too might be raised. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and behavior, but as his followers we also are called to love and be humble and place the needs of others above our own comfort. We are called to live lives of service and love for others, where justice and relationships are more important than exploitation and our own comfort. It’s not an easy path to follow. But the good news is that we don’t have to follow it alone. Christ Jesus has been there, done that, got the t-shirt, and will always be by our side, helping and guiding us on our way.