Saturday, September 27, 2008

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus

28 September 2008 – Proper 21A / Philippians 2: 1-13
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
imago Dei

This is either the last in a series of sermons on what it means to be imago Dei – created in the image of God – or, the beginning of a series on the Spiritual Life and the need to empty oneself to allow God to come in.

Beginning earlier in the summer, we have been exploring week by week what it means to be imago Dei – created in the image of God. Working backwards from last week to July, we have found that being imago Dei entails the following:

• God loves and God gives – we are created to love and give
• We are to be as generous with others as God is with us
• Extend an equal measure of forgiveness to others as God extends to us
• Forgiveness must be from the heart
• Allow Jesus to lead our Great Escape from slavery to sin
• Even in our failure to be imago Dei, we are the special objects of Jesus’ attention and mercy
• We are to treat one another as we would treat Christ: Serve Christ in one another
• Remember: We are standing on Holy Ground/Take off, take off your shoes
• Each person who stands before us is imago Dei – Holy Ground
• Listen carefully with the ears of your heart
• Die to self – look outwards toward God and toward others
• Know that you are a Pearl of Great Value to God in Christ
• Allow God to thank you for what you have done for God today

In the great Hymn at the heart of the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians we find perhaps the most succinct and sublime summary of what it means to be imago Dei:
“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, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, 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.” -Phil 2: 4-8

Perhaps a helpful image here is the difference in energy it takes to keep ones hand grasped in a tight fist for a long time, versus allowing it to be wide open.

This is perhaps the very heart of life’s greatest mystery; it gets at the very heart of being imago Dei. The mind of God, the mind of Christ, is self-emptying – let this mind be in us. The word for this self-emptying is kenosis. That is God willingly limits God’s power in order to become engaged in life on earth. God’s way as that of the open hand and open heart.

God is willing to limit God’s power to undergo the ultimate powerlessness so that the power and glory of God can enter the world. To effect this, Jesus gave up security, status, dominance and reputation – all attributes of living life with our hands grasping tightly to all we can get our hands on. Jesus exemplifies another way, that of being made in the image of God with an open hand and open heart.

This is at the heart of one of the most fundamental and yet misunderstood Christian truths: that in weakness is strength; in seeming folly, comes wisdom; in giving up self, self is found; in death is life. These basic life-enhancing paradoxes were later turned around to be life-denying, so that we have come to believe that the only life worth living comes after death – this is not what Jesus had in mind at all. His is a life where kenosis fills kenosis – we empty ourselves, die to ourselves, so that God can empty God’s-self into us.

Maggie Ross on her blog,, asks, “What is the life of which we are emptied? Isaac of Nineveh (seventh century) has a wonderfully exact description of 'the world' (more specifically, the 'passions'):

". . . these are: love of riches; the gathering of possessions, fattening up the body, giving rise to the tendency toward carnal desire; love of honour, which is the source of envy; the exercise of position of power; pride and the trappings of authority; outward elegance; glory among men, which is the cause of resentment; fear for the body."

Note that these passions not only induce the illusion of power and status, security and even immortality in the person who possesses (or is possessed by) them, but that they also provoke envy and resentment in others.”

[Our misunderstanding of Resurrection is also related to this kenotic vision of God. “Resurrection is not mere resuscitation, nor is the idea of the immortality of the soul, which enjoys new popularity these days, an early Christian doctrine. When we die, we die. All of us. Body, soul and spirit, if you like those distinctions. But God gives us a new life, a greater, a better. And we are prepared for this new life with the continual and simultaneous death and resurrection that takes place in our daily round…”Maggie Ross, The Fountain and the Furnace]

We rather casually discuss all of this as a theology of the cross – which theology surrounds us on all sides as we worship here beside the Stations of the Cross. Such theology of kenosis, or self-emptying, and theologies of suffering and the cross not only challenge conventional theology, but, as Walter Brueggemann observed almost a quarter century ago, “also [challenge] conventional cultural assumptions that justify our models of humanness and our practices of political and economic power. The subversive force of this theological assertion extends not only to the religious tradition, but to the derivative forms of social power justified by biblical faith. Western preoccupation with dominance and power is no doubt linked to and derived from our imperial “image of God.” Clearly when that discernment of God is challenged, the images which take public form are in deep jeopardy.” - Brueggemann in The Suffering of God, Terence Fretheim, (Fortress, Philadelphia:1984) p. xii

What is at stake in our being those people God creates and calls us to be is our understanding of God itself. If we are to be imago Dei, we need to come to a fundamental understanding of just how Christian writers like Paul understand God. Remembering that in the arena of New Testament writings Paul is the earliest witness writing the closest to the time of Christ – his letters are the first recorded writings about the nature of God in Christ. Imperial images of God come about much later in the post-Constantinian Church which allowed itself to become the legitimizing power for the Roman Empire and Empires and Nation States that followed.

This would be why this hymn at the center of the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the young community of Christians in Philippi, which hymn is thought to pre-date Paul’s own writings, is one of the, if not the most, important texts for understanding ourselves.

Again, the mind of God, the mind of Christ, is self-emptying. The word for this is kenosis. God willingly limits God’s power in order to become engaged in life on earth. God is willing to limit God’s power to undergo the ultimate powerlessness so that the power and glory of God can enter the world. To effect this, Jesus gave up security, status, dominance and reputation. Jesus exemplifies such a way of being: made in the image of God – open hand, open heart.

The most central understanding of all this is that kenosis fills kenosis. That is, we empty ourselves so that God can empty God’s own self into us, making us imago Dei – our emptiness is filled with the kenosis of God’s own life, the life of Christ.

This all sounds hopelessly technical until we look at our present economic crisis, which we are reminded hourly if not daily is a global crisis. And it is a crisis that, at least in part, derives from an imperial understanding of God rather than Paul’s kenotic vision of God. This is where the rubber of theology meets the road.

So that an inescapable dimension of the Christian Life and our being imago Dei hinges on having the courage to empty ourselves and allow God to come in. What we need to empty, of course, are the false understandings of God which accumulate like so much moss on a stationary stone, as well as a lifetime of hurt, anger, guilt, frustration, and all such notions that we must be strong, self-made and independent beings. We are to be God-made. Is it any wonder that when God in Christ looks at Jerusalem, that ancient citadel of political, economic and religious power, Jesus weeps?

(Jerusalem is of course a metaphor for the consolidation of the grasping hand. Today it might be Washington, D.C. – the epicenter of encouraged consumerism, greed, power and violence. It is the task of Spirituality to empty ourselves and distance ourselves from such consolidation so that God might fill us with God’s Love, Mercy, Forgiveness and Grace. This, by the way, is a non-partisan, bi-partisan, all-partisan critique since our entire political system and all of our power structures are enmeshed in this imperial, grasped-hand working out of the economic and ecological melt-down. )

Today we stare into the deepest mystery of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be created in the image of God. The tasks of self-emptying do not come easy. Thank God that Christ is with us, now and always to the end of the age to guide us in our search for an understanding of God and of ourselves that will grant us the perfect freedom and joy God desires for all God’s creatures and all of Creation. Amen.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

God's Justice and Generosity

21 September 2008
Proper 20: Exodus 16: 2-15 / Matthew 20: 1-16
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s Episcopal at Ellicott Mills, MD

Manna Season: Give us this day our Daily Bread
The scene in Matthew is becoming more and more familiar. People are waiting for work. Waiting to be hired. Waiting to earn a days wage. Which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family. The issue then is one of daily bread. Just like Manna in the Exodus narrative. Just as in the prayer Jesus gives us when we ask him how we should pray.

To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wages means belt-tightening for the entire family. Not to mention what it does to one’s sense of self-worth to be overlooked or passed-by when the hiring is being done. To not be chosen to work creates anxiety.

The lesson here is one of extraordinary generosity and fairness. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed his or her family. Just as it was with manna, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

We say this over and over again every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Does it ever occur to us just what it is we are praying and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next? People do come to our church every day hoping we have listened to Jesus tell this story – and that we believe it.

Jesus is somehow trying to engineer a return to the wilderness sojourn - a return to manna season - a return to utter and radical dependence on God and God’s daily provisions. God makes it clear to Moses that you cannot gather the stuff up and save it for a rainy day. It goes sour on you. It spoils. It becomes crawling with worms and moths. Take it one day at a time and all will be well.

So with Jesus, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked just a few hours. Like any household with children, the cry of those hired early in the day is oh so familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were here first. We deserve more because we did more.” And we glibly reply to our children, “Life isn’t fair.”

Or is it? What Jesus seems to be getting at is that what is fair and what is just is established by God, not by our standards of merit, qualification and grounds for staking a claim. What is being discussed, as usual, is God’s kingdom - life lived under the reign of God - a God who is generous to a fault - a God whose generosity offends us and baffles us.

As Marguerite Shuster observes in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, NY:2001): “But grace is not grace if it is qualified by superior virtue in the recipient. Sinners are not sinners if some are less dependent on grace than others. Besides, if one has enough oneself, [as those in the story are all given], why would one even want more than someone else, unless out of some sense of pride and self-righteousness? That it seems odd to put the question that way – so normal, so natural, is our desire to want more – shows the depth of our sin. The more we insist on our tit-for-tat way of thinking, the more baffled and angry we will be at God’s whole way of dealing with us.” p.114

Again, consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day. The anxiety of going home empty handed looming more and more likely as each hour passes by. Is even laboring through the heat of the day any worse than having one’s hope of a meal for the family fade away as the sun begins to set in the western sky?

Even apart from the need for daily bread, work is an integral part of creation, and those denied the opportunity whether for disability, age or any other cause must feel a deeper sense of despair and a keen lack of purpose and meaning in life. Work can be stressful, monotonous and difficult, but to be out of work can be even worse.

I think of all the people who leave home each day, brief case or tool box in hand, pretending to go to work long after they have been laid off, downsized, outsized and resized. They cannot even face telling their families that they no longer have a job. We are tempted to say, “There but by the grace of God go I…”

The temptation is always to assume God serves our sense of what is fair, our sense of “justice.” The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving to stake a higher claim on God’s generosity, love and God’s forgiveness. The temptation is to believe that we can really earn the right to more than bread that is given daily. An even worse temptation is to think that it is always too late to accept the Master’s invitation to work in God’s vineyard.

The surprising good news is that God’s grace is so great and so surprising, that it can provide enough no matter how late in the day it is. On the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures, because the recipient need not add anything to the grace, but simply receive it in order for it to do its life sustaining work. Even as the sun sets on this life, it is not too late to accept God’s Amazing Grace.

And it is never too soon for the rest of us to begin to consider that heaven’s “enough,” heaven’s daily bread, heaven’s daily wages, makes all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.

Jesus’ assurance that the last shall be first and the first shall be last is tied to Manna season, and settling for bread and wages that are given daily. We are called to be those people who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and really make an effort to live that out. To live life in God’s kingdom is a journey to return to Manna Season. It is a journey that has been described in this way.

If 10 is Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei, and 1 is the poorest of the poor, Jesus seems to be announcing a great reversal of places in the kingdom. The New Testament calls this “turning the world upside down,” which is what people outside the church in the first centuries called Christians: those people who are turning the world upside down. Go figure!

So it has been suggested, that those who are really clever will live around number 5 on this scale of one-to-ten, because when it all turns upside down, they will feel the least amount of disruption in their lives!” Manna Season: everyone has enough, no one has too much, if you store it up it sours on you – the world lived at number 5!

Sounds easy! But on a global and even national scale most of us are living conservatively at number 9, except on April 15th when we attempt to argue ourselves down to an 8.5! Looked at from this perspective, the journey to number 5 looks like a long long journey! But, says Jesus, it is the journey to life lived in its fullest!

One suspects this journey begins with being as generous to others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. And as John 3:16 states, “God so loved the world that God gave…” God loves and God gives. We are created in God’s image. We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with others as God is with us. Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

How Do You Want Your Forgiveness?

14 September 2008 - Proper 19A * Matthew 18: 21-35
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

The Parable of The Forgiving God
This parable is called the Parable of the Wicked Servant. This title is not helpful to our knowing what this story is really all about. It is the story of an extravagantly generous and forgiving God. It is about our ability to accept God’s mercy, and accepting that God’s mercy always means being able to extend it to others. After all, we are imago Dei, made in the image of God.

If we examine the details of the story it becomes overwhelming. It was the custom to forgive someone three times in those days. Peter has correctly deduced that Jesus is looking for more than that from his disciples. So Peter suggests seven times as a generous improvement on custom.

Jesus blows that away with the formula seven times seventy! You may as well say infinity! More times than you can count would be an adequate translation. Or, you will forgive and forgive and forgive until you forget what you are forgiving.

Then the servant in the story is forgiven $10,000 talents. That figures out to be 150,000 years wages for the average worker in that day and age! Makes seventy times seven look pretty puny by comparison.

The offer of the servant to pay off the debt over time is of course ridiculous, suggesting the kind of unrealistic boldness that comes of human desperation. Most of us have been there before. Undoubtedly those listening to Jesus could relate.

To be forgiven all that debt with no conditions, no strings attached, is beyond belief.

Here we are all meant to pause. For the repentant among us, even the desperate and unrealistic among us, God wants to love us that much and to forgive us that much. It has been suggested by many more insightful than I that what is at stake here are not huge, gigantic, overwhelming sins on our part. It is all the little things that add up.

As a friend has observed upon taking a sweater out of storage, when we see one or two holes in the sweater we think, “This can be repaired.” But when we discover the moths have literally eaten dozen of holes out of the sweater, we consign it to the trash.

Lots of little holes make the garment appear worthless. Lots of little sins make repentance look ridiculous. Evidently God does not see it that way. Evidently God does not mean to consign us to the trash.

We say this forgiveness is without condition, but by the end of the story we learn there are in fact two conditions. For those of us who accept such an overflowing measure of God’s mercy, the condition is that we extend an equal measure of forgiveness to others. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” Jesus teaches us to pray.

There is a video that shows a woman alone in church saying the Lord’s Prayer. Each time she says a line, God speaks to her. When she gets to, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” she tries to sneak out. God stops her, and asks, “What about your brother?” “I knew you were going to say that,” she blurts out! “How can I forget what he has done to me?” “I don’t know,” asks God. “How do you want your forgiveness: with or without forgetting?” Long Pause. “How about you just begin to think about forgiving your brother, and I’ll do my best to forget all the times you have forgotten about me?” “You got me again,” she says, and the dialogue continues.

The second condition is that this forgiveness we extend to others must come from the heart. That is not out of duty or from some reasoned argument. If accepting such generous and extravagant forgiveness is difficult, extending it to others is even more so at times. Having it come from the heart is often beyond the pale. Yet, as Christians, this is our calling.

To put our metaphorical arms around all of this is challenging. Add to that the very challenging and complex times in which we live.

This week collectively we remembered 9/11. We are quick to want to pass judgement on those who have afflicted our nation with immeasurable hurt. Yet, we have been slow to even begin to examine all the tiny moth holes in our own garments of policy and life- style, not to mention our disregard for the global ecology. There is much for which we can all ask for forgiveness, as individuals, as a church, and as a nation. “Forgive us our sins,” teaches Jesus.

It is as difficult to grasp the measure of mercy God willingly extends to us. It is even more difficult to imagine just how we might extend the same measure of mercy to others.

Yet, our individual and collective health and security depends on gaining some understanding of this and acting on this. Holding onto all the hurt, anger, and judgment of ourselves and others just gets exhausting as time goes on. Letting go and letting God hold onto it and take care of it all in the end may be the only thing that makes any sense at all.

L. William Countryman in his little book, The Good News of Jesus, begins the book this way. “What God says to you in Jesus is this: you are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus lived and spoke….There are other things God could conceivably have said to us. And we may as well face it, most of us know forms of Christianity that relay a message quite different from this one. They say things like, ‘Good News, if you are very very good, God will love you.’ Or, ‘Good News, if you ave very very sorry for not being very very good, God will love you. Or, (most insidious of all), ‘Good News, God loves you. Now get back in line before God’s mind changes!’ These messages may be good news for somebody….God might have said it more simply, ‘You are loved. I love you.’ This message is true, but it would have been ambiguous. It might have meant,’I love you because you’re good.’ It might have meant, ‘I love the nice bits of you, but I really wish you’d clean up your act.’ It might have meant, ‘I still love you and would like to go on loving you, but I won’t tolerate your behavior much longer.’ Instead God says something quite unambiguous: ‘You are forgiven.’ What this means is, ‘I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I am trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.’” p. 3-5

Turns out God does not wish to toss us into the trash bin of moth eaten sweaters after all!
The Parable of the Incredible Amazing Forgiving God! Let us bless the Lord!
Thanks be to God! Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Great Escape

7 September 2008 * Exodus 12:1-14/Psalm 149/Romans 13:8-14/Matthew 18:15-20

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

The Great Escape

All three of our lessons are about how we are to live and be the community of God’s people: Exodus details how we are to remember who we are and where we come from, Romans and Matthew get specific about how we are to treat one another.

Last Sunday Moses stood on Holy Ground before a bush that burned and was not consumed. A number of chapters and episodes later we now find him planning The Great Escape. The people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been led into a generation or more of slavery by a series of credit arrangements, mortgage foreclosures, and property confiscations orchestrated by brother Joseph – Joseph who had gone to work for the Empire and controlled the central bank.

It is the story of Passover – being protected by the blood of the lamb. Later, it would be John the Baptizer who would declare Jesus as the Lamb of God. John knew that our Great Escape, our deliverance, from our alliances with slavery, a slavery to sin in all its myriad varieties, would only come through the blood of the Lamb of God – Jesus.

So it is we say, often with a sort of perfunctory unconsciousness, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” In just what kinds of slavery do we find ourselves enmeshed?

Paul in his letter to the church at Rome, Matthew writing the Good News of Jesus to a later generation of early Christians, both boil it down to the essentials: put on Lord Jesus Christ – honor one another, love one another, as Christ loves us.

Some four hundred years later in his writing on the life of the Spirit, Saint Benedict would make the same distinction: Rather than first call us to prayer, or sacrifice, or devotions, Benedict calls us not only to see Christ in one another, but to treat the other as Christ. Love God, love the other, do no harm to anyone.

It sound simple enough, but life in community is never simple. The call to be in a church is a call to live in community. And although our Baptismal Vow is to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” it is much easier not to do so.

Paul and Jesus know it is far easier to fall into quarreling and jealousy. It is far easier to allow our anger, our certainties, our needs, our problems, our loneliness, our sadness, get between us and others in the community. And anything that gets between us and the love of God, a love God has for all persons, the Book of Common Prayer tells us is sin (BCP 302).

Paul and Jesus, like Moses before them, know how damaging and unhealthy this becomes for the community. Yet, as much as we might even know this, we become addicted or enslaved to behaviors that are as damaging to the life of the community as they are to us.

This would be why addictive disorders of all kinds are often referred to as family disorders or disease, because the disorder, the sin, damages everyone in its path. It is Paul elsewhere who writes with passion that despite his own best efforts, the sin he wishes not to commit he does. It becomes a kind of slavery.

There is the old Woody Allen joke: a man goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doctor, doctor, what can we do? I have an uncle who thinks he’s a chicken!” “Very simple,” says the doctor, “it sounds like a simple neurosis. We should be able to clear that up in just a few sessions.” But the man says, “No, Doc, you can’t do that!” “Why not?” asks the doctor. “Because we depend on the eggs!”

Family systems adapt themselves to unhealthy behaviors and disorders because we come to depend on the eggs – in many cases this means that we don’t like the behaviors, but at least they are dependable.

So in Exodus, God assembles all of his powers and the spirit of his mighty wind and delivers the Hebrew children out of slavery and into freedom – The Great Escape. Where, of course, we will hear them in two weeks from now begging to return to Egypt and slavery because they had become so dependent on the eggs of slavery – three square meals, and patterns of living more predictable than waiting to listen to what God has in store for them next!

Today we gather to be with Jesus our Passover – believing that Jesus will find ways to deliver us from our addiction and slavery to all kinds of sinful behaviors. We find Matthew’s Jesus laying out a simple flow chart for unmasking, undoing and forgiving the sins to which we cling like so many dozens and dozens of eggs!

The beauty of this passage in Matthew, and the similar outline offered by Paul, is that it can be understood to apply to life in community, be it family or church; or, it could be understood as Jesus in a sense talking to himself since in the end, he is the one against whom all have sinned.

So imagine it is Jesus who comes to you himself, alone, to offer a way out, and later embodied by one or two members of the community, until Jesus surrounds us with loved ones who desire our repentance. This would be the church.

And although the procedural plain sense of verse 17 suggests excommunication for those who fail to repent, becoming to the community as a Gentile or Tax Collector, we are those people who remember. We remember that Jesus says elsewhere (a few weeks from now actually!) that Gentiles and Tax Collectors will enter the kingdom ahead of the righteous.

So if that is true, that in our refusal to repent we become in fact as Gentiles and Tax Collectors, we then become special objects of Jesus’ attention and mercy. Imagine for a moment how it feels to be the special object of Jesus’ attention and mercy.

And then imagine how this is the key to our learning how to stand on Holy ground and to honor our baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.” Are we capable of not just seeing Christ in one another, but treating one another as Christ – as if he is right here in our midst? Because we in fact believe he is here, now, in this place where two or three are gathered in His name. Christ our Passover is here ready to deliver us from all that holds us in bondage and set us free. He is the Great Escape for us all!

In the words of the Psalmist we sing, “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful!” Amen.