Year A Proper 21 Love Goes Out--The Humility of God
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty
Love Goes Out: The Humility of God
As I was listening to our reading from Exodus last week, I was captivated by the wondrous beauty of those images of evening quail and morning manna—that flakey substance fine as frost on the ground. The Israelites are hungry, thirsty, dusty, and a long way from the comforts of home. Exhausted, they start to grumble and wonder if God is really with them. Predictably, doubts begin to crop up and proliferate in their minds—maybe Moses is a charlatan. Maybe this whole thing was a terrible mistake. Maybe that no-good Moses brought us out of Egypt so that we might die of hunger. What is this I AM WHO I AM God up to anyways? Well, one of the ways that question gets answered is through the paired signs of the quail and manna. God provides in the morning and God provides in the evening. In light and in darkness. No matter the circumstances, we have our fill. Our God is a God of abundance and fullness of life who showers down the gift of Godself upon us—to everyone, everywhere, and without exception.
In this week’s portion of the Exodus account, the saga continues and, no surprise, the grumbling continues. Having supped on quail and manna, the Israelites start to quarrel over the lack of water. Like a kid who’s eaten a huge chocolate ice-cream cone and suddenly realizes they are thirsty for a drink of water, the Israelites lodge their complaint while the free gift of quail and manna is still digesting. And we thought that we were the only ones burdened with life in an instant gratification culture! Think again. What’s interesting, though, is how quickly things escalate. Pretty soon, the Israelites aren’t just thirsty—they are ready to stone Moses to death. Their muttering and grumbling gathers such momentum that the entire congregation is on the verge of turning into an angry lynch mob with poor, reluctant Moses in its crosshairs. One person’s anger inflames another person’s anger, muttering turns to hands reaching for a stone, and before you know it we are teetering on the edge of the precipice of cyclical violence.
This time, the crisis is averted by yet another sign of God’s abundance and overflowing generosity. Moses strikes the rock at Horeb with his staff, and waters gush forth—slaking the thirst of the angry mob at Massah and Meribah. The water from the rock is God’s witness to the Israelites that, in answer to their question—“Is the Lord among us or not?”—he is. Always was. Always will be. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not hunger, not thirst, not the loss of a child, not natural disaster, not cancer, not pain and suffering, not divorce, not even death itself. All is held in the tender loving palm of God who draws forth new life out of seeming death and makes a way out of no way.
Does this mean we will skate through life unscarred? Heavens no. Being the shape love takes in a broken world means we will face life’s slings and arrows. Does this mean that we will always feel like there is “someone at our side” or that God’s presence is immediate and tangible to us? No. That is not what it means to walk in faith, to see through a glass darkly, and to inhabit our feeble mortal frame and relate to the infinite creator of the universe through the apparatus of our five senses. But the story of Massah and Meribah reminds us that even when life is at its most stony, and rocky, when life’s sharp edges press painfully into our tender flesh, the waters of God’s steadfast, faithful love are always washing over us, gushing up and gently irrigating the parched and dry wildernesses of the soul. There is a balm in Gilead.
In our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we come across another image of the gracious, bowing, humility of the God who stoops to serve. In this section of his letter Paul is quoting what is known as the “kenotic hymn” that was widely in use in nascent Christian communities at the time. The term kenosis means self-emptying, or going out of oneself in love like the perfume in the alabaster jar poured by the unnamed woman over our Lord’s feet. At first blush, we might think that since this little section of Philippians is concerned with talking about Jesus—self-emptying, kenotic love must just be about the Son of God. But it’s far more interesting than that. Self-emptying gets to the very character of the biblical God and who we are called to be as God’s people. Indeed, if a single image could capture the character of God in the first creation account, it would be that of a gracious bow. God is not a remote, monarchical figure who sits upon a throne demanding tribute, but is intimately intertwined with all of God’s creatures. God is the “infinitely related one” seeking to draw forth flourishing, abundance, peace, justice, reconciliation, and communities of mercy.
The Letter to the Philippians reminds us that it is the nature of God to go out in love. God goes out of Godself in creation, and takes a risk in creating free creatures who can choose whether or not to be in relationship with God. God goes out of Godself in his encounters with people of Israel—in the burning bush that lures Moses off the beaten path, in his dealings with the grumblers in the Wilderness of Sin, in the figure of the angel with whom Jacob wrestles. God goes out of Godself in the incarnation—the uncontainable takes the form of a tiny baby squirming in the muck and straw, the timeless enters time and gets hung upon a tree, God shares in the poverty of our flesh that we might share in the riches of the Godhead. And, of course, in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus we see what a life of self-emptying love looks like in human form. Again and again the disciples want to turn following Jesus into a way to store up power, prestige, privilege, and status. Again and again Jesus shows them that it is in coming among us a servant, in pouring out as unconditional love, that God reveals Godself to us. Jesus goes out to all those from whom we have been taught to recoil in fear or simply pretend aren’t there.
To my mind, the key phrase in this hymn, comes at the very outset where Paul exhorts us to, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard quality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” In the old RSV translation “exploited” was rendered as “grasped,” which provides us with a powerful key to understanding what kenosis looks like in the midst of daily life. Self-emptying love is the way of ungrasping, the way of letting go and letting be, the way of surrender, the way of voluntary vulnerability, the way of joyful abandonment to the audacity of God, the way of pouring out, the way of lavish excess, the way of giving oneself away to others, the way of self-forgetful service, the way of a humility so humble the word never even comes to mind. What is it that Jesus says to the startled Mary Magdalene in garden when she recognizes him? “Do not hold on to me for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Don’t grasp me. Don’t turn me into a possession. Let me go in order that I might live even more fully in you. Let me “ascend” beyond what you can comprehend with your rational mind that I might descend into the depths of your heart and live my live there through you.
Some of you might remember the movie Babette’s Feast set in a tiny village in 19th century Denmark and centered around a rather austere and dwindling religious community presided over by two spinster sisters. Into this remote locale comes the chef Babette fleeing the counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris. In exchange for a place to stay, Babette cooks for the two sisters for the next fourteen years when she suddenly gets word that she has won the lottery—10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris from her exiled existence in the dismal Scandinavian hinterlands, Babette decides to spend the entire fortune on a sumptuous feast for the whole village. At first, the villagers are suspicious of the meal Babette has planned. They fear its strangeness and exotic lavishness. They wonder whether eating such good food will turn them over to the enjoyment of pleasures of the flesh. Finally, they decide to eat the meal, but under the strict proviso that they must refrain from speaking about enjoying the food during the meal.
What happens as a result of the feast is truly transformative. The community that was once closed in on itself, isolated, suspicious, fearful, judgmental, aging, and shrinking in size opens itself to the lavishness of Babette’s gift. Old grudges fall away, new loves are rekindled, and the entire village staggers out, more than a little tipsy, into the village square to dance around the fountain. The villagers have found that living water gushing up to eternal life. Babette’s generosity shows these dour, repressed, broken-hearted villagers, “what God is like, what love is like, and what true humanness is like. And she does it precisely by throwing away her entire escape route in a single act of extravagant abundance, extravagant beyond the bounds of earth (and therefore invoking the presence of heaven).”
If we are to let the same mind be in us that we have in Christ Jesus, that means our lives need to take the shape of Babette’s Feast, to take the shape of the quail and manna, the shape of living water flowing from the rock. Karl Rahner writes that, “God is the prodigal who squanders himself” and we are called squander ourselves in imitation of this squanderous God. When we give ourselves away and go towards those we’ve been taught to fear, when we drop our grumbling and stop trying to assign blame, when we trade the fearful grasping of storing up and hold on for the letting go and giving away, something new has a chance to burble up from that little empty space. We’ve opened a little space in hearts and in our lives for God to work. Our mind is changed. God starts to live God’s life in us, and it’s the life that takes the shape of a servant eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. So, who’s coming to dinner?