27 September, 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Can You Feel It?”
Year A, Proper 21; Philippians 2:1-13
All Saints Parish, Brookline, MA (via livestream)
September 27, 2020
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:1-13). Amen.
I’m tired these days. You may be, too.
As Fall arrives, school begins, the program year starts for many of us – we’re back at it! But the habits that may have helped us feel somewhat normal over the summer are also in transition. Something seems to have shifted in our collective spirit.
Last week I was on a zoom call with colleagues. With this particular recurring meeting, the practice is to spend some time reflecting together on a passage of scripture from the upcoming lectionary. This time the scripture was from Exodus 20, The Ten Commandments. When we were invited to name a word or phrase that stood out to us, probably half of the people on the call went straight to the fourth commandment:
- “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”
- “Six days you shall labor…but [on] the seventh day you shall not do any work.”
- “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.”
- “God rested.”
- “You shall rest.”
The need for rest is calling us. And just when you think there couldn’t be anything more, the next crisis hits. I’ve started to “laugh-cry” about how biblical our own times seem. I sent a text to a colleague last weekend jokingly asking whether this was the 7th or 8th plague – I’ve lost count. The response came back: “That depends on whether you count the murder hornets, because they never really showed up.”
We’ve been living with a lot. Richard stood here two weeks ago and reminded us that it has been six months. Six months of:
- Not being here, together
- Virus, hitting grim new milestones
- Racial reckoning that continues to be amplified more and more every day
- And, in the face of these crises, a deeply divided society. Divisions that interfere with our ability to respond. Divisions that are cast in ever sharper relief by the election season we’re in and the sudden vacancy of a seat on the nation’s highest court.
Have I missed anything? LIke I said, it feels almost biblical. It seems many of us are tired.
Take a breath and let that sink in. This is where we are. This is our time.
It feels like there are important things that scripture and the Spirit have to say in this moment. I think about the letter of Paul to the Philippians. I wonder if Paul must have been exhausted, too. By the time he wrote this letter, he had been circling the Mediterranean world for years on his mission as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” as he describes himself (Gal. 2:8). When this letter was written, his itinerant lifestyle had been temporarily interrupted because he had been thrown into prison.
Across his letters, we get an image of Paul moving from town to town establishing communities of Christ-followers. But hounding Paul’s efforts, almost following him around the Mediterranean from town to town, are others whose teachings are in conflict with Paul’s. I imagine Paul being tired, and beleaguered, and frustrated at these efforts to thwart what he sees as his mission. Tension and conflict are growing in the communities to which his ministry has given rise, meanwhile he’s stuck in jail and can only write letters.
Into this moment, Paul addresses himself to the gathering in Philippi. He greets them with great affection, assures them that he remains in good spirits despite his incarceration, and he offers an invitation. I know there are “opponents” in your midst, Paul says (Phil 1:28). There is dissension in the community, but I invite you to be of one mind. I invite you to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).
Then Paul describes this mind of Christ…by cueing a hymn. They weren’t Paul’s words; he didn’t compose them. They are thought to be the lyrics of a liturgical hymn in widespread use in Christian communities by the time Paul wrote this letter. Remnants from the very earliest followers of Jesus. The early communities would sing:
- That Christ was in the form of God but did not exploit that power. (Our English translation says “exploit”; the word might be better translated as “seize” or “grasp.”) Christ didn’t “grasp” to hold on to God’s power.
- Instead, he humbled himself, he emptied himself. He did not “seize,” he let go. He allowed his will to melt into God’s. Paul is reminding his readers, and probably himself, of a Christ who didn’t “seize” or “grasp,” or, in the words of our collect today, “run to obtain.” Instead, he relaxed into God.
Sort of mystical. Hard to wrap our brains around. These days, the sense that comes to me is that of letting go. Perhaps understanding the Christ Hymn may come more by way of physical analogy than intellectual. We may be able to understand this better by looking to our bodies. Each of us has a different reservoir of physical so I’ll speak to what I know. When I think of relaxing into God in the way of the Christ Hymn, these are some of the images that come to my mind:
- Standing on a trampoline, with arms spread, just letting myself fall back, feeling the mat absorb me,
- Or – I discovered this one with my sons when they were little – being in a gymnastics studio with the pit full of the softest foam blocks so the gymnasts above can give it all they’ve got, knowing that when they fall, they will be enveloped and cushioned,
- Or, practicing yoga, leaning into a posture and feeling the resistance in the muscle. If you stay with it long enough, sometimes it happens that you inhale and on the exhale the muscle suddenly releases, just lets go, and your body can melt inches more into the position.
Each of us has our own physical memories. Maybe yours are related to being in nature, or floating in water, or being part of making music, or creating art, or that sublime first run down the ski hill in fresh powder, feeling your weight lift at the beginning of a turn. Whatever your way of accessing this sensation, this kind of experience can give us the smallest glimpse of what it means to loosen the grasp, humbly melting into something beyond ourselves. Resting into God.
To be clear, Paul’s invitation is not one of abdication or self-absorbed piety. He’s not inviting us to rest into a cocoon of comfort and safety while the world burns around us. This isn’t about being meek and mild, some disengaged spirituality. That certainly wasn’t the model Jesus offered. Look no farther than today’s Gospel. Jesus is being challenged by the temple authorities for decidedly less-than-mild behavior: they’re calling him out for overturning the tables of the moneychangers at the temple. So, no, not a call to meekness. If anything, it’s a call to action. Action that emerges from setting aside fear, and struggle, and “grasping.” Action that comes from letting go of our own narrow sense of self and falling into the expansiveness of God.
We are tired. This season of transition is reminding me, at least, of that fatigue. The challenges our society faces seem so important, almost existential, and yet largely out of our individual control. Just as Paul invited the early church in Philippi to seek the mind of Christ, I wonder if our time in history might offer us a similar invitation. Without struggle, without grasping or seizing, without fear, this hymn from the earliest days of the church invites us to loosen our narrow sense of self and let the same mind be in us that we have in Christ. Can you feel it?