Sermon – Epiphany 2 – The Self Emptying Christ

Today’s sermon on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany in Greyfriars Kirk was prompted by servant imagery of Isaiah 49 in which God’s servant becomes the one, whom ironically, princes and potentates fall down and honour. Also, the humility of both John the Baptist, who steps aside as a leading prophetic figure to make way for Jesus and Andrew, the first Apostle to be called by Jesus, who immediately runs off and fetches his brother Simon Peter and introduces him to Jesus, probably fully aware that Simon Peter will eventually have a much bigger role to play in the drama of Jesus‘s ministry.

Perhaps you know the song by Lou Reed, who sadly died recently. “Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good”.

It is not uncommon for us to feel a bit of self-loathing and to wish that we were someone else. But however far we fall, goodness (the image of God etched in every soul) is planted far deeper than that which is out of joint.

If only we could accept the fact that we are acceptable, we’d undoubtedly be better people and would not have to wish we were someone else. We would become ourselves, discovering that identity deeply rooted in us that was given to us before we were even knitted together in the womb.

The relationship between Christ and ourselves is not a power relationship, it is neither propositional nor conditional, but is about love. It is more like the relationship Lou Reed had with his friend that he chose to write his song about. Jesus is one who is for us in spite of what we might have become, he makes us feel like someone good. That is because Jesus, and those people who are for us and who love us unconditionally see the good in us that we can often be blind to ourselves. They help us to become the people we were meant to be.

It couldn’t be any other way with someone who tells the story of the loving father who spots his “prodigal” son on the horizon heading home and rushes out to meet and welcome him home without waiting for either explanation or apology.

Think of the people whom you have known who have had the biggest and most positive influence on you. It isn’t those who have put you under pressure and tried to shape you and form you but those who have loved you for who you are and have maybe seen something in you and drawn it out? There are people who uncover the reality of your better self and let you become the person you were always meant to be. It is a great gift to be that kind of person for others and it requires a certain passivity in our mentoring or nurturing of others, because it is not about imposing our will or manipulating but enabling and nurturing.

We are so tempted to manipulate and exercise power and influence over others. But there is something so important about letting go and standing back. There is a Greek word, kenosis, that St Paul uses in his letter to the Philippian church “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” Philippians 2.

Kenosis means self-emptying. It is not the same thing as moderating power or exercising power with grace, it really means becoming as nothing and turning away from power. The wonderful Anglican churchman, Charles Gore was an extraordinary character who was born into the English aristocracy and had everything. He became a canon at Westminster Abbey and ended up as Bishop of Oxford, but he renounced all the trappings of the privileged life that could have gone with these posts and gave everything away. He once wrote of the incarnation of this self –emptying Christ in this way: “In taking life he lived through all the stages of a perfectly human experience and restored our nature from within by a contact so gentle that it gave life to every faculty without paralysing or destroying it”. (Dissertations on Subjects Connected with the Incarnation, by Charles Gore MA, Radley, published by John Murray, 1895, p.224.)

That’s such a deep idea and it is also beautiful. It is about a God who reveals himself not to Lord it over people but to walk with us, to be alongside us. Immersed in the thick of humanity with all its tears and laughter, not paralysing or imposing, not an almighty God so much as an all-embracing God. This gentle identification with humanity has no power, no institutional protection, no ideological undergirding, its only trajectory is towards the cross.

It is a thought that if the Christian church seeks to mirror or represent the character and manner of the presence of Christ in the world (as I believe it should), such an idea is a real challenge for the Church with its legacy of institutional power and manipulation.

Think of those people you have known whom you really admire. Isn’t it true that they are the ones who have not exercised control or manipulation? They are the sort of people who have few insecurities or anxieties about themselves, they just want you to flourish and find whatever great work is yours and yours alone to accomplish for the sake of the world. Isn’t that how the church should be? Sadly, it has not always be so.

When President Obama spoke at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela recently he said this, “he (Mandela) would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations, a commitment to democracy and the rule of law, not by his own election but by his willingness to step down from power”.

It is that humility thing again, that self-emptying “kenotic” idea. It reminded me of a UN ambassador who once said that the greatest thing the UN could do for the world would be to persuade every nation to legislate for a president or leader to govern for a maximum of only 8 years in office and then force them to clear off. Think of all the places in the world where tyrants cling to power by brutalising their own people and plundering the wealth of their nation. They just cannot let go.

But look at John the Baptist, who said “he must increase I must decrease” or the fist apostle to be called, Andrew, who runs off to fetch his brother who ends up being far more prominent. The great gift of the self-emptying Christ to the world is, as Bonhoeffer said, “the opportunity to witness the great events of history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the maltreated, the powerless and the oppressed, in short from the perspective of those who suffer”.

The manner of the Church’s presence in the world should surely mirror that of the presence of Christ, who had no power of appeal, no resort to institutional muscle save that of the cross. Can we take the risk of love all the way to the cross for the sake of love, for the sake of enabling others to find their true selves and the discovery that they are, after all, someone good?

BBC Radio 4 Prayer for the Day

Land Reform is an issue before a Special Commission in Scotland just now.

Land ownership is tied up with history, culture and politics. Half of the total land area of Scotland is owned by only a few hundred people. There are majestic mountains, wild places and famous landmarks often owned by one person. And even though many of them feel the onerous responsibility of stewardship, in reality we all feel a deep identity and sense of belonging in our beautiful British landscape. So, can one person really own a mountain?

A man I know bought a little cottage many years ago in a remote part of Scotland. Digging in his garden he uncovered the foundations of a whole village. He researched the story of his community and discovered that the villagers had been forcibly removed by the local landowner and their homes destroyed. Most of the people ended up in North America.

It is story often repeated in our history.

Jesus had a passion for the excluded, the disenfranchised and people who were pushed out of the way by the rich and powerful. He wanted everyone to have a place.

There is a wonderful story about a US president who visited the NASA headquarters in Texas at the height of the space race. He asked a cleaning lady during his visit, “And, what do you do?” To which she replied, “Why, I put a man on the moon, Mr President!”

I like that.

 God of justice, as we seek the common good of all, help us to see our landscape as a common inheritance, the source of our wellbeing and a sign of your creative goodness and generosity. Help us to cherish the earth, to serve it and tend it as a sign of our gratitude to you, the provider supreme. Amen

The Eye of the Storm

 

Very often in the past I have made some negative comment on the Christmas crib scene. The idea of the baby Jesus, “no crying he makes” with cattle lowing and smelling of sweet grass gives the impression of a perfect baby in a pristine situation, when there is so much about this birth that is all wrong – the stable rather than a proper home, the young unmarried mother and the scandal involved with the culture of the time and the threat posed by Herod. Surely the baby wept as does every other new born.

But I wonder if it makes sense to linger a little on the scene and be still and wonder. The children of our church put on a wonderful Nativity Play just before Christmas and it was a joy to see. The idea of shepherds and wise men squeezing past each other to get to the crib, being asked to be quiet for the sake of the family by the innkeeper whose heart has been melted by what has occurred out at the back of his inn is quite a thought.   

A new birth is enough to melt the hardest heart. Every new life is a miracle and seeing our children take their first breath is a privilege and wonder that will stay with me all my life. I was profoundly moved by the story of Olga Yetikoua, a midwife working in the Central African Republic as it was shown recently on Channel 4’s Unreported World. http://www.channel4.com/programmes/unreported-world/articles/all/seyis-central-african-republic-experience

This brave woman leaves the security of her home and family for a few months each year and travels to one the poorest and most conflict ridden parts of her vast country to help bring new lives into the world. Hearing her talk with such joy and satisfaction over helping a new life to come into the world, even in the face of terrible conditions reminded me that we are standing in the midst of miracle and wonder at any  birth, be it in a conflict zone or a maternity unit in a western city. Such circumstances sow the seeds of hope. So, it is good to dwell a little on the crib scene at Bethlehem and take in the peace, stillness and calm for a few moments. (We never can be sure how long to dwell in certain places. Do we for example spend too much time in the build up to Good Friday and have a quick service, roll and egg and go off on holiday as soon as Easter comes?) So let’s allow ourselves to linger a while in this scene of calm.

There have been storms raging around our shores for the last week and it was Frederick Buechner who reminded me that in the eye of every storm there is a place of calm, a place where “even silence keeps silence”. This is that moment, for the birth of Jesus unleashes a great storm of unsettlement and challenge on humanity and the winds blow as powerfully now as they have ever done.

What we are doing joining this motley crew around the crib is sharing in a sense of wonder at the holy babe who inherits the world that we have tried to love. It takes a certain amount of still ness to take all that in. So, turn aside, tread a new path, go home by another way – like Moses pause to look at the lit bush he saw burning “and yet it was not consumed”, for in the face of this child we see the eternity that awaits us.

Reflection for Epiphany 2014

On the first Sunday of each month at 9.30am we have a brief celebration of Holy Communion. This is an intimate gathering of usually around a dozen people and takes place without music. It typically includes a reading of a psalm, some prayers of approach and a Gospel reading, a short homily followed by the communion with intercessory prayers. At these communions we always gather in a circle around the table and break the bread together. We also share the common cup.

Everyone is welcome at all services in Greyfriars, the hospitality is not ours but Christ’s and we encourage people to see full participation in communion as a way to deepen our faith and understanding. We don’t believe you have to be qualified or worthy before you receive this grace, it is a free gift.

 

Sunday 5th January 2014

Today is the Sunday before Epiphany, (celebrated on the 6th of January, the 12th day of Christmas). Traditionally, this is the day on which we remember the visit of the wise men to Jesus’ crib bringing their remarkable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is the festival of the manifestation of God in the person of the Christ child of Nazareth, a day of light and revelation.

Frederick Buechner has suggested that the story of the wise men is a wonderful illustration of the foolishness of the wise. These men went to the Herod to ask about a king that had been born the King of the Jews (Herod’s role), presumably to usurp him. When you think about it, they were remarkably naïve. As he writes, “it did not even strike them as suspicious when Herod asked them to be sure to let him know when they found him so he could hurry on down to pay his respects” (Peculiar Treasures – A Biblical Who’s Who, Frederick Buechner, Harper One, 1979, p55.) Thankfully, they were warned in a dream to beat a hasty retreat from Bethlehem and have nothing more to do with Herod and so made their way home by another route.

Being the first Sunday of the month we have three services in Greyfriars, Holy Communion, the Morning Service at 11am and our weekly service in Gaelic at 12.30pm.

At 9.30 am we read the prologue to John’s Gospel with these words, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

John 1: 10.

In the short reflection I told a Jewish proverb in which an old Rabbi, Zusya says that, “In the coming world they will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses? They will ask me, “Why I was not Zyusa?”

There are many reasons why we are not ourselves and why we pretend to be the people we are not. Not only do we sometimes fail to be ourselves, we also frequently fail to recognize others for who they are. This is what John seems to be suggesting about Jesus. What was it in people that meant that when they met Jesus, “they knew him not”?

We are often insecure, feel unacceptable and inadequate and we can pretend to be someone quite different to the person we were made. We can also be full of prejudice, fear and anxiety when it comes to other people and do not always see the other for who they are too.  

The complex theology of John can be seen as a reflection of something quite straightforward in human life; that in the midst of our fears, our refusal to accept who we are or our failure to see others as they are we can end up missing out on authentic human exchange. Life is full of pretence, prejudice, fear and invention and it often seems that if only we could meet eye to eye, face to face and flesh to flesh we would discover our common humanity and get along so much better.  Two things come to mind. One is the way in which we so readily use labels to categorise people, so the homeless beggar is just that and not a person. The other pitfall is illustrated by a well-known politician of whom it was said once that he was the sort of person who would always be looking over your shoulder at a party to see if someone more interesting and important had come into the room. To live your life as though the person you are with at any particular moment, regardless of their station in life, is the most important person in the world is a rare and wonderful gift. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” John 1: 5.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was filled with controversy, but one episode I heard about was an effort by a British soldier to meet at a human level. The commanding officer of the Black Watch Platoon that was the first to enter the city of Basra took a decision to remove his helmet and googles when he entered the city. In his view, the allies had no disagreement with the Iraqi people. He was sure that there was a need to meet at a human level. It would be all too easy to hide behind the masks and helmets and armour. Somehow, he created the ground for a human exchange and on that day no shots were fired in anger.

Do we have the courage to meet in the light of the person we are, without pretence, and to meet others as they are too? John suggests that if we accept the grace we are offered, accepting ourselves as we are and other people as they are too, we can become children of the spirit.