For our whole season of Easter (7 weeks), in our words of Confession and Forgiveness, there has been a curious description for God, and I was wondering if someone might be troubled by it:
2 …“Jesus is risen indeed, and we have received the most precious blessing: life eternal in his kingdom. Neither sin nor evil has the power to separate us from the One who loves us, and the One who forgives us. In the name of the Triune God: All-vulnerable Creator...
Does it bother you at all that our God, the master and creator and conductor and composer of you and me and this entire cosmos, the Ruler of space and time, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end and everything in between, is being described as all-vulnerable?!
I mean if you’re all-vulnerable, that’s no place to be. That means everything hurts you. It’s like everything makes you cry. When we say a person’s [whisper] “pretty vulnerable now”, that’s code for “go easy on ‘em, they’re really sensitive.” If someone was describing you as “vulnerable,” how would you take that? Most of us, I’m guessing — unless we’re really in touch and secure with our egos and emotions — would prefer not to be described as vulnerable, and certainly not all-vulerable. And yet this is how we’ve been describing God our Creator for at least 7 weeks!
And it’s all been a lead-up to our text for today! The great and probably the earliest, “Christ Hymn” — what it’s been called — a powerful and even offensive theological statement about who Jesus is, who this God is, in whom we try to trust.
Paul writes — still from prison, still from far away, still in a spirt of joy and thanksgiving for the Christians in Philippi — Paul writes and gives this encouragement, and a statement of faith about this God around whom and through whom we all gather, even today: This God is all-vulnerable.
Jesus empties himself, Paul says, taking on the form of a “doulos” a slave, being born in human likeness and found in human form… (St. Athanasius said that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, descends through all of nature, all the way down, to the lowliest and merest of beings: the human being. A mere human being!) ...Paul writes that Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, even to the point of death, became all-vulnerable.
...and calls us to do likewise. To go and follow. To empty ourselves. That’s really hard to do!
Micah’s had a lot of great baseball coaches, but the best is still Coach Chris, who would always encourage and applaud a good instinct...and then give a tip to grow on. And it wasn’t like an endlessly dissatisfied parent that you could never please, it was great coaching, teaching, learning the game of baseball. “Great catch, Micah! Now, next time check the runner.” This is how we learn.
Paul is doing the same thing here with the Philippians: I am so thankful for you, sisters and brothers in Christ, I thank God every time I think of you, for your good ministry and sharing in the Gospel — “Great catch!” — now, here’s one to grow on:
“This God of our descends all the way down to our level, this God of ours is Jesus, who emptied himself, poured himself out, humbled himself even unto death. Follow him!” (Coach Paul)
“Trust him, even when the world says we need to trust power and might. I’m telling you, trust this all-vulnerable, self-emptying doulos, who gets down on his knees and washes the feet of his students, even his betrayers!”
This is something new...and different. This is unlike any earthly ruler or any other deity! There are tons of gods that are described as all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, all-present, but show me a God who is also described as all-emptying, all-suffering, all-vulnerable, all-obedient even unto death. This is our God.
It was several years ago here at SVLC, that we were looking at the budget as we always do during September and October. And things were looking tight. We were possibly on the brink of starting a capital campaign and a construction project, and so we were as a council considering cutting our $12,000 annual benevolence to TACO (Third Avenue Charitable Organization) in half. We were trying to be sensible and prudent, it seemed we were of one mind, and no one wanted to do this, but it seemed like we were going to have to…
And I don’t remember who, but in the course of all those discussions, someone put forward a beautiful image: “It’s like a fruit tree,” they said, “Our benevolence to TACO and other places are the fruits of our solidity and strength. When our trunk and our roots are strong, then we can produce good fruits, and right now it just seems that we need to pull/prune back a little and strengthen our roots…” Beautiful. Made lots of sense.
But it was Lois Hellberg, who was on council that year, who didn’t agree. Someone needs to write this down on the timeline, this is part of SVLC’s history: Lois Hellberg, for those of you who didn’t know her, was one of our long-time members, here almost at the beginning. She was welcoming, loving and strong. She started Agape House! She taught Sunday School and read, and served on the committees. We were blessed to get her just for a few years on council for just a couple more years, but it was probably her 3rd or 4th go-around. And Lois was also a mother, a strong mother, who wasn’t afraid to speak up when something was bothering her. And something about that image of the tree with the “fruits as our benevolence,” our “proceeds” was mixed up for her.
And she spoke up: “NO!” Mother Lois said, “that’s backwards. Our benevolence, our generosity, our love for others beyond ourselves is not just a fruit at the end of the branch, which might show up some years and might not other years. Our generosity and benevolence, our love for the other beyond ourselves [slowly] is our trunk and our roots! That is the center.”
Giving ourselves away is at the core of who we are as Christians, Lois reminded us prophetically. Benevolence and justice is at Shepherd of the Valley’s center. Put that on the timeline! Supporting organizations like TACO, is our trunk. And to cut our benevolence is not just a little pruning, that is cutting our heart in half. Sharing everything that we have with our neighbor and even our enemies is what Jesus does and calls us to do too.
It’s all here in Paul’s letter to the Philippians! And the encouragement—despite the challenge and the fear that’s involved with trusting—is that we do this work in joy. How true that is! “Since there is encouragement in Christ, and consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion sympathy, make my joy complete*,” Paul says, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord...Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 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 gave himself away].”
Jesus is our trunk. Christ is our center, and Christ empties himself and calls and commissions us to follow after that example. Not as impersonators, but as imitators. It’s different. None of us is Christ, but we are coached to be like Christ: humble, vulnerable, generous, forgiving, emptying.
And we are already joined to Christ, who is our trunk who is our center. We are joined in the waters of baptisms to the one who empties himself for others, in all-vulnerability. So this is a good day: a day of benevolence, a day of grace! AMEN.