Sunday, July 12, 2015
In Bible study last Tuesday, Thelma suggested that I use as my sermon title these words from We Make the Road by Walking, “The Spirit leads us downward” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 231). Those are the words with which Brian McLaren begins this week’s chapter on being “Alive in the Spirit of Service.” Truth be told, it is an idea that catches us by surprise, as Thelma pointed out. Downward? The Spirit leads us downward? You mean we’ve got to get down to serve?
In an age, a society, a neighborhood in which everything seems to be about getting ahead, achieving, climbing the ladder of success, tooting our own horns, making sure you know all that I’ve accomplished and you address me by the correct title with proper deference, downward mobility makes no sense. How can getting down to serve be a measure of success? Surely you want to see everything I’ve done well, better than anyone else, when I put together my resume or curriculum vitae, when I fill out my application for college or a fellowship or a job or the country club. Who is going to be impressed with how I’ve emptied myself in humility and given myself to service, service I’m not even supposed to talk about? This is not the way of the world – certainly not our world. It’s all about “moving on up,” isn’t it?
So what are we to do with these texts from Matthew and Philippians? What do we do with the text from John 13:1-15 that we did not read which tells the tale of Jesus washing his disciples dusty feet? Maybe we can just reserve these teachings for a few saints like Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day or Francis of Assisi or Nevida Butler, people who somehow managed to give it all up in service of God and God’s creation. Surely these texts weren’t meant for us, right? Give us a break. But the truth is, we can’t make any such escape, palming these instructions off on others born with a predilection to help because we believe it’s too much for us to handle. No, the Spirit leads us downward. As followers of Christ, we are expected to get down to serve.
Paul makes this very clear in his word to the church in Philippi. Obviously he loves these people and wants the best for them. And, because he wants the best for them, he also expects the best from them. Here he is trying to teach them about what Dorothee Soelle calls “the strength of the weak.” It is only in humbling oneself, in faithful imitation of the Christ who empties himself in faithfulness to God’s call, that one finds one’s true self, the self that longs to be bound in compassion and love, in understanding and service to all that God has created.
In the strength of the weak we discover that the only needed reward for service is the realization that we were created in love and made to love. As I have said before, the real power in our world is the power to love. As long we keep climbing over one another and stomping one another to get ahead, to accumulate might or wealth or fame or knowledge or whatever else falsely promises to make us more than we are, we will never understand the power of love to give life and to give it abundantly. Until we learn to see with compassion, to understand otherness, to identify with the least and the lost and the last, we will not grasp the full meaning of life for which we were created. The Spirit leads us downward. We have to get down to serve. It’s the only way to rise.
I went to see the movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” Friday night. This is a many faceted gem of a movie. I mean to do it no disservice by tracing one strand as an illustration of getting down to serve. The film centers on two high school seniors, who are acquaintances, not friends. Greg and Rachel occupy different worlds. Rachel is at least nominally Jewish, I would guess that Greg is a “none” and a descendant of “nones.” Greg is something of an uncommitted lost boy, getting along just well enough with everyone so that no one gets too close or confronts him. With his one friend, Earl, whom he will only acknowledge as his “co-worker,” he makes quirky send-ups of classic foreign films. They have been “co-workers” since Kindergarten.
The action centers around Rachel’s sudden diagnosis of leukemia. Greg is badgered by his well-meaning mother into befriending Rachel. Greg, probably rightly, sees this as absurd, but his mother is a force to be reckoned with. Without giving too much away, you can probably guess that Rachel and Greg do indeed become friends. In fact, they become such friends that his dedicated lack of commitment, his self-doubt, his prospects of college, his connection to Earl are all challenged as he gets down to serving his sick friend. Connecting to another deeply, discovering his innate compassion, In a sense, “emptying” himself in service to others can cost you a lot and give you a lot in return. It may even give you your life. It can certainly turn your life upside down. I can’t say with any certain that it’s the that Spirit leads Greg downward, but who knows? The Spirit is known to blow wherever it wants. If you want to know more Greg and Rachel and Earl, you’ll have to see the movie. But I will just say that I was impressed with the power of service to change lives. In losing himself, Greg surely finds himself.
Equality with God is not a thing to be grasped, nor in the case of Jesus, the Christ to be exploited. In fact, Brian McLaren suggests that we think of the “form of God” from Paul’s letter as being connected to what it means to be created in the “image of God” in Genesis. He writes,
If the true nature of God is not status-oriented but service-oriented, Adam [and Eve were] created to bear that humble image. Instead, [they] chose to grasp at equality with God, to ‘be like Gods’ by choosing rivalry and conflict over neighborliness and conviviality. In contrast, Christ truly reflected God’s self-giving nature of servanthood, and we should have this attitude as well. (Brian D. McLaren, “Author’s Commentary to We Make the Road by Walking, p. 74).
The Spirit, God’s Spirit leads us downward for that is God’s very nature. It’s what compassion does and where love leads – down to serve.
I realize that this is not all there is to say about God’s nature, but I do believe it is important, perhaps vitally important. It is not what we expect to hear. It is clearly counter-cultural. It asks something of us we weren’t really expecting. Barbara Lundblad, who teaches preaching at Union Seminary in New York City, says that “I often tell my students to read texts with their bodies.” She goes on to envision this text from Philippians in the shape of a large “V.” “If we read this hymn with our bodies,” she says, “we need to start on a high place – on a chair or a ladder [because] Jesus was ‘in the form of God,’ and shared equality with God.” As Christ empties himself in humility and obedience, we fall to our knees in awed reverence. By the time we get to the bottom of Christ’s descent to deepest depths of human degradation, we find ourselves lying prostrate on the floor. Nor should we be too quick to rise. We linger awhile at the foot of the cross, amazed, perhaps transformed, by the extent of such self-giving love and compassion. The Spirit leads us downward. Even Christ had to get down to serve.
When the time comes to look upward, to begin to rise, Lundblad suggests that it is not only we who are changed, but God is also changed, or at least the way we understand God is. She instructs, “From this lowest of all places, the poem moves upward. Get up slowly now, up off the floor. From this low place, this emptying place, God exalted Jesus. God lifted him up and gave him the name that is above every name. Up, up, up we go with Jesus, back to the very heart of God. But,” she says, “God is no longer the same. God has been changed. The one who was equal with God has gone to the depths of human life and brings his suffering, dying-slave-self back into the life of God. God is no longer far off, but near” (Barbara Lundblad, “Stories and Letters from Prison (Philippians 2:5-11)” March 23, 2015, odysseynetworks.org).
I think that was Jesus (or Matthew’s) argument with some of the Pharisees and scribes. They got so caught up in the letter of the law that they lost sight of its spirit, that Spirit that leads downward, that gets down to serve, that draws us into the heart of God, into holy communion with one another and all creation. They wanted to “be like gods.” I imagine that’s a temptation we all face now and then. Even Jesus faced it in the wilderness, “Hey, Jesus, do your ‘God thing.’ Grasp. Exploit. You know it’s part of your super powers.” “No, no, not God’s way, Satan. The Spirit leads me down, even to you, nearer and nearer, carrying God’s love and compassion all the way to hell and back. Nothing will ever be the same after I get down to serve. Don’t you know that ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted'”?
“…the Spirit leads us downward. To the bottom, to the place of humility, to the position and posture of service…that’s where the Spirit, like water, flows” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 231). All of life is transformed, elevated, made whole when we get down to serve. Amen.