Sunday, September 25, 2011

He Became Like Us

“He Became Like Us”
Philippians 2:1-13
September 25, 2011

            Here is some background information that may be helpful to you as you get to know me.  I didn’t grow up Presbyterian.  I grew up Baptist, as some of you did.  I didn’t become a Presbyterian until I moved to Virginia for a job as a publicist in 1989. I was out of college a little over a year.  I’d been working on Music Row in Nashville but wasn’t really happy with that job, so I decided to set off for a new job in Richmond.  I was no longer a Baptist when I moved.  I really wasn’t much of anything. 
            But through a connection with an old family friend, I found my way to the Presbyterians.  I’d started attending Three Chopt Presbyterian Church and I loved it.  I was making friends.  I was an advisor for the Senior High youth group.  I was attending Adult Sunday school classes and loving them.  That last statement will mean more to you if you realize that as a child I had to go to Sunday school even though I really, really didn’t like it.  So for me to like any kind of church education class was a big deal. 
I lost the job that brought me to Richmond in the first place, but I persevered.  I wanted to stay in Richmond.  I was determined to stay there, because I felt like I was supposed to be there.  I just needed to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up. 
My involvement at the church was a saving grace during this time.  Along with the other things I was doing I decided to take part in a small group Bible study.  And that’s where I first (to borrow a term from the 70’s) encountered this scripture from Philippians. 
            Now I know that this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this particular passage.  I’d heard it read and preached on before.  But honestly, I’d never paid all that much attention to it.  It was just some verses from a book in the Bible I didn’t know very much about. 
            However it was the assigned scripture for that week’s Bible study, so I dutifully sat down and began to read.             
            “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete; be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
            I felt strange suddenly.  It felt like a glowing warmth was encircling me.  It was strange but it wasn’t frightening, so I kept reading.
            “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” 
            The words were now swimming in front of me because my eyes were welling up with tears. 
            “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
            This passage was speaking to me.  Paul’s words were directed at me.  God was working through them and addressing me.  Never before had I felt that way just from reading something in the Bible.  My Grampa Busse, who was also a pastor, would have said that I was convicted by Paul’s words.  I guess I was, because never before had I been so sure that I was hearing something at such a deeply personal level. 
            I can’t make the claim that as I read and reread these words that everything in my life automatically became crystal clear.  No celestial choirs of angels appeared to confirm for me that I was onto something.  I just knew, for the first time ever, that I was hearing scripture in a new way.  I not only comprehended the words, I felt them.  And it was one of those moments that I knew, intuitively, without being able to articulate why, that something larger than myself was trying to break through.  Even now I can’t articulate what actually and factually was happening or what I felt and understood that day.  All I can ask is that you trust me when I say that I knew with my whole self that something completely different was taking place.
In other words, I remain convinced that I felt the power of the Spirit at work on me and in me that day.  I will never fully comprehend the workings of the Holy Spirit, but I know enough not to take those moments when I am completely aware of its presence for granted.
            So why this particular passage?  Why that particular moment in time?  I suspect that one reason I heard these words differently is because our team of advisors was not living up to Paul’s call to have the same mind as Christ.  We were squabbling over how the group should be run, who was taking more responsibility, who was working harder, etc.  It was petty, silly stuff and I believe when I saw that situation through the lens of this passage I finally understood that.  I was so moved by this, that I asked the associate pastor, who coordinated all the youth programs in the church if I could provide the devotional for our next advisor’s meeting.  Guess which passage I used?
            But I also believe that these words were speaking to my own life as well.  As I said, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I didn’t see specific answers in this passage.  I certainly didn’t reach the conclusion that I was being led to a vocation in ministry, although this Bible study was one of the places that I began to discern a call in that direction.
            Yet I knew as I read this text that I wasn’t living up to it.  Here I was, full of zeal and full of myself for being back in church, active, participating, leading.  There was probably some selfish ambition and conceit going on there.  Definitely a lack of humility.  And this passage called me to task.
            I don’t have the same sense of being moved by the Spirit when I read this passage today.  Yet these words have not lost their power over time.  In fact, the opposite is true because when I read them now I have a deeper understanding of what Paul is trying to communicate in these verses than I did reading them for the Bible study years ago. 
            In the Greek there are different meanings of the word “if.”  Preacher and teacher Fred Craddock writes that “in our usage, ‘if’ most commonly expresses uncertainty or a condition contrary to fact.”  For example:  “If I were a rich man, (which I’m not).”  Greek has a way of saying this too, but another way of using “if” is that it “states the case exactly.”  As Craddock puts it, this way of using “if” would be better reflected in English with the word “since.” 
            “If then there is any encouragement in Christ – and there is – any consolation from love – and there is – any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete:  be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
            So what is all this talk of “one mind”?  Is Paul saying that we have to think alike?  Turning again to Craddock, the answer is no.  Paul isn’t trying to convince the Philippians to think alike, nor is he assuming that they agree on everything.  Instead his use of “one mind” is an acknowledgement that because of Christ they have the same “orientation”, the same “mindset” and “attitude”.
            I take that to mean that having the same mind in Christ gives us common ground and a mutual point of reference.  So now it is up to us to imitate Christ. 
            That’s what Paul wants them to understand.  You have to put aside petty squabbles and differences, quarrels and misunderstandings and imitate Christ.  Christ didn’t consider himself better than anyone else.  He didn’t feel superior.  Even when he was disputing the religious leaders, or confronting them for their dogmatic and unyielding ways, he didn’t do it as a superior chastising an inferior.  Christ never lost his sense of humility.  Ambition did not drive him.  Self-interest was not his motivator.  He did what he did out of love and gentleness and a willingness to be a slave instead of a master.  Nothing was beneath him, not even death on a cross. 
            And because Christ did this for us, we have the ability to follow in his footsteps.  We have the ability to imitate him!  We are also capable of humility, of refusing to see ourselves as better than anyone else.  We are able to put aside our self-interest, our ambition, our conceit and love others, even the others we most disagree with, and share a mutual compassion and empathy for one another.  We have that ability within us.  Because Christ lived and died this way, we have the power to do the same. 
            The trouble is … we don’t. 
            A friend of mine pointed out to me that most of our current frustration with our government leaders is that they have become like petty, bickering, backbiting children.  No wonder nothing can get done and a government shutdown looms large.  Our politicians seem to be too caught up in fighting and power struggles to actually do what we elected them to do. 
            But am I any different?  Are any of us?  I am as guilty of pettiness, of conceit, of being driven by self-interest as anyone else.  And being a person of faith doesn’t let us off the hook either.  We can’t point to non-believers or people in other religions, other faiths and say, well they don’t get it because they don’t have these words of Philippians to guide them.  Who are we kidding? 
            Christians squabble with other Christians all the time.  It doesn’t matter if we’re Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Catholic.  We battle people in other denominations.  We battle people in our own.  Let’s face it, Christians are masters of what I call “Biblical Smackdown”.  We don’t just proof text from the Bible in disputes with one another, we use this book to bludgeon each other. 
            But what we hear from these verses in Philippians is that we don’t have to.  We have Christ to imitate.  We may not agree on everything but our belief in Christ gives us common ground.  It is our orientation, our mindset. 
            And not only do we have an example to follow in Christ, a way to break free from our petty instincts, we also have God working within us.  Verse 13 says, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” 
            The Greek word translated as “work” is the same word we get our word “energy” from.  In a sense the text is telling us that God is energizing us to do God’s will in the world.  God doesn’t just give us the capacity to imitate Christ, God gives us the energy to imitate Christ. 
            Christ became like us so that we could become like him. 
Christ became like us so that we could become like him. 
Alleluia.  Amen.

My thanks to the following sources:  
Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  Philippians, Fred Craddock

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Show of hands.  How many of you have watched the I Love Lucy show?
Keep up your hands up, I'm counting.
Thank you.

For those of you who have watched the show, whether in the original viewing or in reruns, how many of you remember the episode where Lucy makes a bet with Ricky, Ethel and Fred that she can tell nothing but the truth for a certain amount of time?  Apparently Lucy's little white socially acceptable lies were getting out of hand.  And the three stooges -- I mean Ricky, Ethel and Fred -- feel pretty confident that Lucy won't be able to hack it.  So they ask her pointed questions, questions that force her to tell the truth, trying to trick her. 

But Lucy surprises them all.  She not only tells the truth, she relishes it.  And they all feel the sting of her truthful words.  Because not only does she stop the white lying, she feels no compunction or hesitation about telling them the truth she feels about each of them.

I've never spent too much time in deep reflection about the I Love Lucy show other than to periodically cringe at the uncomfortable gender stereotypes it reinforced.  Yet I can't get this particular episode out of my mind.  I guess it's because I'm wrestling with my understanding of truth.

Sometimes I think we take the I Love Lucy approach to truth.  Truth telling as we see it is really just stating our opinions about other people.  And I know that truth and fact are often forced into a synonymous relationship, whether they should be or not.  But I know for a fact, no pun intended, that the facts and truth are two very different things.

Joe Friday asked for just the facts, but I want to dig a little deeper.  I want to know what is true.

Why am I wrestling with this?  It seems to me that whenever we go through a time of great change, of transition, this metaphysical conundrum rears its ambiguous head.  I'm meeting new people everyday.  I tell them facts about myself.  "I'm the new pastor at the Presbyterian Church."  "I'm here from Iowa."  "I have a family.  One husband, two kids, one dog, a house full of stuff."

Those are my facts, but what is my truth?  Do I have secret or not so secret dreams, ambitions, hopes, fears?  What is the journey that brought me here, to this place and to this time?  And before this gets too "I" centered, what is the truth about the people I meet?  What differences are there between the persona we present to the world and the truth of the person we are?  What is our truth?

Back in the 90's Alanis Morrissette put out an album entitled Jagged Little Pill.  I loved it then.  I love it now.  Every time I turned on the radio I heard another single that seemed to have been dredged up from her very soul  rather than written from a creative place in her brain.  Watching a mini documentary on her life, she spoke about this album as the vehicle for speaking her truth.  That's what she did on that album.  She spoke her truth.  I guess deep down that's what I'm trying to do, speak my truth.  Maybe you're trying to do it too.

John Keats wrote, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Ode on a Grecian Urn

Is it?