Grasping and Kenosis Sermon from August 25

         Take out your bulletins, and if you have a pen or a pencil, there may be some in your pews, I want you to find a particular word in the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  It is about halfway through our reading, just after the page turn.  The word you are looking for is “exploited.”  I want you to cross that word out.
This is a dangerous thing to ask you to do, I know, so let me explain.  The last thing I want you to do is to call our rector Luis on Tuesday morning, the day he gets back from Tennessee to say, “While you were away Mike started re-writing the Bible.”  I am asking you to cross out this particular word, because I think this is a BAD translation.  In fact of all of the errors in the New Revised Standard Version, our usual translation in the Episcopal Church, this one may irk me the most.  So cross it out.  And write in the margin a different word: “Grasped.”  Then Paul’s words read “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.”

I quibble with words, because words are important.  Exploitation is bad to, but in this teaching, Paul wants us to avoid this GRASPING.  The word we’ve just re-translated from Greek is harpadzo, it is the root for our word “Harpy,” those mythical creatures with great grasping claws.  The imagery the word conjures is strong, and sadly, a significant part of so many lives.  Grasping, always grasping.

You can read grasping in both of our other lessons this morning.  Jesus is before the elders and the priests in the temple, and they are grasping.  Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, have challenged their authority.  The priests and elders are heavily invested in representing God.  That’s their schtick, and these two country bumpkins, John and Jesus, are unwelcome competition.  John, at this point, has already been taken care of: Herod has beheaded him.  The temple authorities are now grasping after Jesus, and for now, with his clever stories he eludes their grasp for control.

Moses’ grasping at the waters of Meribah is a bit more subtle.  We can understand why wandering in the desert without water could make the Israelites grumpy.  What we don’t read in this text is what this incident means for Moses.  This is one of those moments in scripture where you know there is more to the story, more to the tradition then ended up on the page.  In Deuteronomy chapter 32 we hear of the death of Moses.  He is standing on Mount Horeb, he can see the promised land, but he is not permitted to enter because he “broke faith” at Meribah.  Moses plea, his grasping for God’s help in response to the people’s grumbling and murmuring, is a bigger deal than it seems on our page.  But, according to tradition, Moses grasped too much here, and thus he never enters the promised land.

Grasping proves problematic for the prophets and priests, and it iss problematic today.   There is a growing sense that everything that happens on the hill has to do with election cycles, with political games, with maintaining or achieving office, with grasping.  At my most cynical, I can think this town, Washington, is full of a bunch of Ron Burgandy’s, the Will Farrell character in Anchorman: folks that run around declaring, “I’m kind of a big deal.  People know me.”

We see grasping for power in this town.  We see grasping for money on Wall Street.  We watch grasping for fame on reality TV.  This is a culture infused with grasping.  Grasping, it seems, is a way of life: in our postmodern culture seeks to define us by what we can purchase, the items and services that fall within our economic grasp.

I’ll tell you the one that gets me: the next Apple product.  I can’t tell you how often I check my cell phone contract so that I know the DAY I will be eligible to upgrade to the latest iPhone.  I know there are some other Apple junkies out there.

But there is danger, danger in this cultural obsession with grasping.  If we give in to the scripts, if we become defined by our title, position, car, street address, we are in great danger of missing the point of it all.  And we all do it.  We all have moments where the grasping energy washes over us.

But there is another word for us in Paul’s letter, a better word, a word that is even well translated by the NRSV.  That word, in Greek is “Kenosis” or in the translation “emptied himself.”  There is a tension in Paul’s letter between “grasping” and “emptying oneself.”  Paul sees life basically as a tension between those two options: constant grasping, or constant self emptying.

This is the remedy for all that grasping, it is the incredibly counter-intuitive counter-cultural mind of Christ that Paul hopes will be in us.  Kenosis, self emptying, is not easy.  Self-emptying is not well rewarded with money, influence, or prestige.  All of those things we are taught to grasp after, taught will make us successful and happy, they do not come from self-emptying.  Yet Paul wishes self-emptying upon us.

Henri Nouwen captured this sense of kenosis, this sense of the self-emptying Christian way for our times perhaps better than anyone I know.  He called the Christian path a journey of “downward mobility.”  Those very words are so counter to our culture: “downward mobility.”  I am sure many of you are familiar with Nouwen’s work, but for those who are not:  Henri Nouwen was a famous Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale.  He left his high profile position as one of the sought after theologians in the Ivy League because, though he had reached the apex of his field, he did not feel fulfilled.

Nouwen went on a sojourn through Latin America, thinking he would give his life in service to the poor, but he could not force a sense of call in the slums of South America.  When he returned to the US, he remembered invitation to come live at the L’Arche community a very strange living situation set up by Roman Catholic priests and lay people.  Able-bodied and disabled people share life together, spending time in meals and at prayer, living side by side.  The group started in France and has grown into an international organization.  We actually have a couple of L’Arche houses here in the DC Metro area.

Henri spoke and wrote often of his first months with the folks at L’Arche.  He spoke of his time with Adam, a young man who was so disabled that he could not speak, or get himself out of bed, bathe himself, dress himself.  Henri wrote about how terrified he was during his first weeks with Adam, how frightened he was that at any moment while Henri was trying to lift or dress the fully grown man, he might errupt in an epileptic seizure.  He talked about the patience required to sit with Adam over the course of the hour it would take him to eat his meals.  Nouwen wrote about how it got easier, about how eventually the anxiety faded, the need to get everything right fell away.

I want to read you a couple of quotes from a speech Henri Nouwen gave, where he talks about Adam:

“Adam taught me a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way. First of all, he taught me that being is more important than doing, that God wants me to be with God and not to do all sorts of things to prove that I’m valuable. My whole life had been doing, doing, doing, so people would finally recognize that I was okay. I’m such a driven person who wants to do thousands and thousands of things so that I can somehow finally show that I’m a worthwhile being. People say, “Henri, you’re okay.” Here I was with Adam and Adam said, “I don’t care what you do as long as you will be with me.” It wasn’t easy just to be with Adam. It isn’t easy to simply be with a person without accomplishing much.”

After months with Adam Nouwen wrote of a particular moment when he “suddenly realized that Adam was not just a disabled person, less human than me or other people. He was a fully human being, so fully human that God even chose him to become the instrument of God’s love. He was so vulnerable, so weak, so empty, that he became just heart, the heart where God wanted to dwell, where God wanted to stay and where God wanted to speak to those who came close to God’s vulnerable heart. Adam was a full human being, not half human or less human. I discovered that. Suddenly I understood what I had heard in Latin America about the preferential option for the poor. Indeed, God loves the poor and God loves Adam very specially. God wanted to dwell in his broken person so that God could speak from that vulnerability into the world of strength, and call people to become vulnerable.”

That is Kenosis, that is self-emptying.  Henri Nouwen learned it from Adam, and shared it with us.

Now, I am not declaring that to know God, to have the mind of Christ, you have to give up your job and move to L’Arche or Latin America.  That may not be your call, but I do not want to exclude the possibility either. God needs self emptying doctors, self emptying lawyer, self emptying janitors and teachers and stay at home moms.

What I can say is that I think some of the best teachers we have for the spiritual life are those who are excluded from the grasping of our world.  I hope you have had some teachers.  I hope you have caught glimpses, perhaps even practiced this self-emptying way.  If you need a teacher, let’s talk.  I can introduce you to some children in Anacostia at Ferebee hope, or some folks who sleep out on the streets of Washington.  You might even go visit L’Arche up in Adams Morgan.  I am with Paul, in my limited experience I think that this self-emptying leads us to the mind, and to the heart of Christ.  All our grasping won’t get us there.  We have to let go.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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