Read the Sermon
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…nah
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you’re on your own?
No I get by with a little help from my friends…that doesn’t quite fit either.
I know, that’s perfect.
Oh, hey friends, it’s nice to see you again. It’s been awhile. I understand you’ve been reading bits of my letters, hope you like it. I can’t say that I enjoy being in prison, thanks for that Rome, but I love to write a good letter. Being locked up like this, I never know how people are going to receive what I write, I don’t know if they’ll crumple up the letter and walk away wondering what’s for lunch and I don’t know if it these words will be the spark of a seed in their soul. That’s the hard part of not being face to face, but every now and then it just feels right. Sometimes it feels like as I put these words down I can sense the freedom and liberation folks are finding and it gives me life here, even in jail.
I’m working on a letter to the Philippians right now. I love those folks, they’re just so good. I’ve been languishing here, writing my letters, and they sent me food awhile back. Can you imagine that? I’m in jail as an enemy of the state. Rome thinks that I’m plotting against their empire, and some of my Philippians friends visited me in prison, gave me a gift, and made sure I had enough to eat. I’m pretty sure that whenever someone that is an ‘enemy of the state’ has guests, those guests become co-conspirators.
The Philippians are my accomplices in grace and peace.
I’ve been working on this letter to the Philippians, reminding them that the God who began a good work in them would see it to completion. I just had to start with that reference to Genesis and the boundless creative energy of God, because God is with us, God has begun a good work with the Philippians, a good work with you, and when we move in the flow of this ceaseless vitality, amazing things can happen.
That just felt like a stronger way to open the letter than, “I hope this finds you well.”
So I’ve been writing to the Philippians about my struggles, because they know why I’m in jail and like me, they know the way things are headed. It’s been tough, and I sometimes wonder if calling it quits in this life and being with Christ would be better. After all, to live is Christ, to die is gain. As long as I live I get to share this grace and peace with whomever I meet and when I die I will be swept up completely into this love of God.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, as I wrote this first part of the letter, I wanted the Philippians to start cheering me on. I wanted them to respond to me and my struggles, saying, you can do it, we will endure this together, nothing can separate us from the love of God so we will share this great love together. And here’s the secret, here’s why I wanted them to cheer me on, because the struggles that I’m dealing with are the very same struggles that they are dealing with.
I love that Judo move. They were cheering me on, they were encouraging me, they were saying you can make it, we will be with you no matter what and in an instant they realized that everything they said to encourage me, they needed to say to themselves.
That’s why I keep using this word φρονέω (phroneó) in the letter. We’ve got to have the same mindset, the same thinking, the same understanding, the same orientation of our lives around grace and peace. So as I kept telling the Philippians about this grace and peace that is with them, about the movement of God that is generous and personal and communal, it felt like this letter was coming to a crescendo and I needed something to tie it all together, but none of my own words felt right.
I don’t know if people realize this, but my letters are full of other peoples’ ideas. Like someone else said, it’s not where you take ideas from it’s where you take them.
I was stuck, I just couldn’t write another word, and that’s when I remembered this poem. We’ve got this, I don’t know what you want to call it, but it’s a poem, hymn, liturgy, creed kind of thing that some folks have started to call the κένωσις (kénōsis) hymn. We’ll get to that word κένωσις (kénōsis) in a bit, it’s such a great word. If there’s one thing you need to know about it, it’s Jesus is Lord, but if there’s another thing you need to know about me, it’s that I love words.
Anyway, let me share this hymn with you:
Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the [Creator].
This hymn sounds nothing like any of the Roman gods. When has Jupiter ever been humble? Mars, the god of war, would they ever take the form of a slave let alone an average citizen? And then there’s Bacchus. I don’t want to be too judgmental of another persons religion, but when you all came up with Bacchus were you running out of ideas? I mean, maybe the idea of a god of grapes and wine sounds good at first, but in all the stories that you tell about Bacchus they’re too drunk or hungover to function as the god they’re supposed to be.
And what about Zeus? Do you ever really know what Zeus is thinking? Their mood seems to be all over the place and if you catch them on the wrong day, zap. Again, I don’t want to seem too judgmental, but do you really think the idea of a god that is just waiting for the chance to strike you down with a lightning bolt is worthy of praise?
Zeus seems to only have two moods, tyrannical rage, or wanting to turn into sawn, or a bull, or an ant, or a cow, eagle because Zeus is feeling amorous.
My guards try to tell me that saying Jesus is Lord is ridiculous, I get their point, I am in jail for it after all, but every time they push me with that I push right back and ask them to tell me that swan story with a straight face.
They haven’t been able to do it yet.
And that’s when I tell the guards about Jesus.
We say in this hymn, “Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.” You know that word exploit, right? I love words and every now and then it feels like you’ve found the perfect one. Exploit, ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos), means to seize or grasp or grab.
It’s interesting, isn’t it. The Roman gods are always seizing and grasping and grabbing, they are always trying to take more and more and more, which is fascinating because if they’re god why do they need what we have? The Roman gods grasp and grab just like your Empire continues to grasp and grab.
Have you ever stopped to think about how the Roman Empire has the biggest, strongest, most advanced military in the world? And what does Rome do with this strength other than kill and pillage and destroy and grasp and grab. The purpose of the Roman Military is to expand the Roman Military, it’s like having brooms for helmets gave you all an inferiority complex.
The Roman Empire says I’m a threat, that’s why I’m in jail, but who would be threatened by me? I’m trying to be like Jesus, I’m not grasping or grabbing, I’m trying to keep my ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos) under control.
Because I say Jesus is Lord, because I will not say that peace is military might, because I refuse to say it is good news when Rome kills and belittles and destroys, I’m the threat.
The Roman Empire relies on fear and coercion. That’s where your power comes from. The Empire shouts peace is military might and I guess when you slice everyone down with a sword for disagreeing with you it create a kind of peace, because all of a sudden your enemies are silent, since you killed them, so it’s peace because of murder and I just can’t call that as peaceful. Rome swings their sword, but Jesus, Jesus once told Peter to put down the sword. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to meet Peter yet but if you ever do and want to see him freak out, just ask him, “Is that a rooster behind you?”
Rome, you keep grasping and grabbing, and it kind of looks like you are winners, you can ‘achieve’ a lot with fear and coercion and grabbing and seizing and grasping, but with all that might, with everything you keep grabbing and seizing, there’s one thing you can’t control or grab, love.
Jesus, Though he was in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God something to grasp or grab or seize or exploit.
Think about it like this. There’s a Danish Philosopher, and if you’re not sure where Denmark is, don’t worry about it, you Romans haven’t crossed paths with them yet. Anyway, there’s this story from a Danish philosopher that explains things pretty well, and it goes like this:
Once a great king that went out to survey their kingdom. They traveled from village to village overseeing the majesty of all that was theirs, and as they went from place to place, they saw, off in the distance, a fair maiden and that maiden took the kings breath away. The king had never seen such radiant beauty before and the maiden was all the king could think about.
The king makes their way back to the castle and immediately throws a meeting with all their advisors, saying to them, “I have fallen in love, and, as the king, I know that I can have whatever I want. I want this maiden so go and get them for me, send a carriage, put a ring on their finger, and a crown on their head because this kingdom now has a queen.”
As most of the king’s advisors started to scurry about, grabbing the ring and crown and making plans for the carriage ride, one advisor perked up and said to the king. “There’s a problem with that plan, your majesty.” The advisor stood before the king and said, “You can send a carriage, you can place a ring on her finger that is worth more than the family farm she grew up on, you can give her a crown, you can fill her life with luxury, but with everything that you can give to her, with all that you can provide for her, there is one thing you will never know, does she love you?”
The king let out a sigh and said to the advisor, “You’re right, that’s why I keep you around. Scratch that plan, let’s put together another trip into kingdom so I can visit the maiden’s village and meet this fair maiden face to face.” Again, the other advisors started to plan out the logistics of the journey, but the one advisor chimed in once more and said to the king, “This plan isn’t really going to work either. Think about it king, whenever you head into a village a trumpet call precedes you. Your royal announcement is loud, it grabs everyones attention, and if the noise isn’t enough, the ground begins to shake. King, you know how many troops you travel with. As the troops march before you, the ears of the villagers are still ringing from the trumpet call when the ground begins to shake from the thousands of soldiers marching into town, and that kicks up a lot of dust and dirt too. By the time you would actually meet this maiden, they’d have no chance to get to know you, all they would know is your power and prestige, all they would know is that you’re the ruler and you can seize and grab whatever you want. King, if you want to do this, the maiden will be afraid of you, and if you start a relationship like that, they may never truly love.”
The king hung their head and said to the advisor, “You’re right, again, I know what I have to do.” With that, the king took off their crown, and said to their most trusted advisor, “The depth of love that I long for can only be found in freedom, I’ve got to give up everything, all the pomp and circumstance, everything that is regal and grand, and meet this maiden as an equal. All I can do is tell this maiden how much I love them, maybe I can try to show the maiden how much I love them, and if I can do that, hopefully they’ll love me back.”
How’s that for ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos)?
You can keep seizing and grasping and grabbing, you can keep conquering with all of your military might, but you can’t grab love.
Love, love is an invitation, it’s a hand reaching out, inviting you into the dance.
That’s what you Romans just don’t get.
In our hymn we say that Christ κένωσις (kénōsis), emptied himself. Jesus let go of every sense of power and might and comes humbly, as God with and for us. Really, God is with us, God is for us, the God that we know in Christ cares and sends the Spirit to keep us going, even in times and spaces and places like this.
Can you say that about Zeus?
I’ve met a quite few folks throughout the Empire that have been swept up into this holy hope of God with us, God for us, God emptying themselves so that we can be filled. More folks crave this kind of hope than you realize.
When we live into this great love, it’s not like everything is easy, I’m in jail after all, but with this love know we can endure, we know that no matter what happens next, we can do the next right thing, because that’s what Jesus would have us do.
That’s why in the hymn we say, “When [Jesus] found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Every now and then someone tries to say that God had to kill Jesus and the point to this hymn to make it seem like our God has the same blood lust as all the Roman gods, but that’s not really what’s going on here.
What this hymn is saying, and what we as followers of Jesus know, is that when you refuse to grasp and grab, when you empty yourself so that others can be filled, in this flow of grace and peace, you commit to doing the next right thing, and the next right thing, and the next right thing, you live with love. God didn’t will or plan for Jesus death on a cross, God willed Jesus’ obedience to love.
Jesus was so obedient to that hope, this love, this promise of grace and peace, that in the face of the cross, the pain, the scandal, the abuse, to all that suffering, even then Jesus refused to grasp or grab or seize, Jesus just kept being obedient to grace and peace. You can threaten Jesus with death and hatred and pain and loss, and Jesus is still only obedient to love.
Jesus may have been the victim of a Roman cross, but you never victimized Christ.
You beat and bruised and bloodied Jesus, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, you hung him on a cross to suffer and die. Clearly, Jesus was a victim of the Empire.
But there’s no victimization here – Whatever you threw at Jesus in the cross there was no rage, resentment or revenge that Jesus tossed back at you. As much as you grasp and grab, you can’t control Christ. With our God, even in the midst of the worst thing there is only resurrection.
I bet you didn’t see that coming. But don’t feel bad, most of us missed it the first time around. I thought it was crazy the first time I heard about it, but here I am.
With your military might, all that brute strength, as the global superpower, even with with ever weapons for war, you couldn’t make Jesus a victim. Jesus decided to do the right thing, and it lead to his death, but he didn’t die as a victim.
You Romans assume that you can make someone your victim, that you can hang them on a cross, take away their power, and bring an end to the movement, but the weird thing is, we’re just getting started.
Instead of being a victim, in the resurrection is Jesus vindicated and it’s inspiring us to do the next right thing, no matter what. Your act of abuse and pain has by the grace of God opened a whole new world of love and peace and hope.
You know what this means, right? You can put me in prison, but you’ll never get to define me. You don’t get the last word on my life.
Terrible, awful things happen to people and every now and then because of that folks can go through the rest of their life saying I can’t do this or I can’t do that because of what they once did to me. Sometimes we are the victim, look around at my humble abode. I know how much this life can hurt, I know how difficult it is to keep going. Every now and then, too often, we are the victim of things that are bad, evil, horrible, wrong, sinful, cruel, but we don’t have to be victimized.
I don’t have to let your decision to throw me into prison define my life. You do not get to shape my response to your decisions.
Jesus doens’t play the victim, so neither will I. This gospel, the good news of God’s love and grace and peace, it liberates us from being passive recipients from whatever someone else attempts to decide for us.
With our God, humiliation can become exaltation. In the midst of tragedy there can be transformation, no matter what pain or hurt or sorrow comes our way, there’s grace and peace.
I know sometimes you’ve just got to call it what it is and say this sucks, but even then we can catch these glimmers of goodness and grace that unfold around us, because even this mess, even this heartbreak, can become something holy.
I am not a victim. You’ve got me in jail, I’ll just keep writing, I’ll just keep pouring my heart into those that have poured their heart into me. In our poem we say that Jesus was obedient until death, even death on a cross, so just like Jesus, we’re going to be obedient to the next right thing. And the next right thing for me, if you don’t mind, is writing this letter.
That’s not to say I haven’t loved this conversation but you really need to find a way to get a word in edge wise, I do take breaths, that’s your opportunity.
You Romans might think these letters are silly, who’s going to read the ramblings of an inmate and enemy of the state, but you never know. The tomb is empty, Christ is on the loose, you never know when grace and peace are going to take hold.
I’ve got another day here, I’ve got another day in prison, which means I’ve got another day to be obedient to grace and peace, obedient to love, so that’s what I’m going to do. Like I said, you can try to treat me like a victim, and you’re doing a great job at that, but you don’t get to define me, you don’t get to choose the direction of my life, for me, for us, it’s all grace and peace, grace and peace, grace and peace.
Let us pray,
God, you created us to live out your dreams. Each of us, together. Through our choices, our hopes, our communities. God has given us the capacity to embody Divine hospitality. To practice radical love. To be brave together and take risks on doing things differently. So let us live with willing hearts, praying thy kindom come, thy will be done. Holy One, though the gap between where we are in this moment, and where you dream for us to be can feel like a chasm that cannot be bridged, you renew our faith. Do not let us dismiss the small wonders of love that heal and transform. Help us to perceive the ordinary miracles of life that surround us, that we may be eager participants in the everyday grace of your kindom. All this we pray through Christ who taught us to pray saying, Our God (Father, Mother, Creator) who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Aug. 31 – Sept. 5
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Exodus 12:1-14
Notice -This was (and, to a great extent, still is) Israel’s defining story. Moses told Pharaoh that if he stubbornly refused to free God’s people a deadly plague would kill every firstborn child in Egypt. But the story’s focus was on God’s provision to “pass over” Hebrew children (the origin of the word Passover). Using a hyssop branch to put the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts delivered them from death into life. Saved by God’s power, they marched out of Egypt as free people. It seems like a trivial detail—“ eat it along with unleavened bread.” That preserved the memory of a departure so rushed that there wasn’t time to let the bread dough rise, of a moment when God’s people had to respond NOW, not later. Have you ever faced a situation in which delay was practically the same as refusing to move at all? How can you live ready to respond to God, even if it leads to unexpected changes in your life?
Pray – God, you asked your people to remember how you set them free. Help me, as their spiritual descendant, to hold that remembrance and extend that freedom to others with your grace and peace. Amen.
Read – Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Notice – Most mainline scholars believe Exodus and Deuteronomy compiled traditions and stories from earlier in Israel’s history, and put them in the form in which we have them today in the 6th or 5th century before Christ. * The setting for Exodus was Mount Sinai after Israel’s deliverance from slavery, while Deuteronomy’s was about 40 years later just before entering the Promised Land. That helps explain why the two versions of the 10 Commandments gave different reasons for remembering the Sabbath. Exodus 20 said to rest on Sabbath because “the LORD made the heavens and the earth…but rested on the seventh day.” “The Sabbath’s purpose was to give the Israelites time to reflect, not on their works, but on God’s works. They were to find refreshment in knowing that their physical needs were supplied not by their toil, but by the God who had created the universe and had given them life.” ** In what ways does remembering God’s creative work move you to thankful worship? In Deuteronomy 5, the reason for Sabbath was “you were a slave in Egypt, but the LORD your God brought you out of there.” The creator God also acted to rescue God’s people from slavery, from human violence and cruelty. “The principle of the Fourth Commandment on the need for time to reflect upon God’s glorious work never changes. Yet it is interpreted differently from one generation to another.” ** What glorious, freeing acts of God have mattered most to you?
Pray – Creating, freedom-giving God, thank you for the gift of life and for the gift of freedom from the slavery and guilt of sin you give me. Help me never to forget your mighty works done for me. Amen.
* See the introductions to Exodus and Deuteronomy in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, pp. 81OT and 259OT.
** Both comments by John Maxwell, The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 5: Deuteronomy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987, pp. 103-104.
Read – Psalm 71:10-11, 14-16
Notice – Sometimes trouble and fear make us forgetful. But in those times, we especially need to remember God’s role in our whole life. “The psalm talks in terms of ‘always’ (no psalm makes more use of this word). In the past, ‘my praise has always been of you.’ In the present, I need you to be ‘a shelter to which I can always come.’ In the future, ‘I will hope always.’” * How can you more deeply ground yourself in God always being with you?
Pray – God, you are always there for me, every day, all day long. But if I forget you, that doesn’t help me much, so keep training me to do a better job of remembering. Amen.
* John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1–72. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p. 221.
Read – Jeremiah 31:31-34
Notice – Jeremiah linked the promise that God would “engrave” God’s instructions on our hearts (an echo of God engraving the 10 Commandments on stone tablets—cf. Exodus 31:18) with God mercifully forgiving and “never again remembering” our sins. Why would God’s mercy change the way a person lives? How has your gratitude for God’s forgiving mercy in Jesus moved you toward living as God wants you to live? • God’s new covenant is a gift, but not one we just passively accept. “The metaphor of writing on the heart suggests a context of revelation: God’s law will be revealed by Israel as they live out its principles.” * Jesus taught us to pray “Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us” (Matthew 6:12). How do God’s instructions, God’s principles engraved on your heart, show themselves in your day-to-day living?
Pray – Jesus, help me to remember and live into the gracious way that you so thoroughly set aside my sins that I am free to leave them behind me. Thank you for sometimes choosing to forget. Amen.
* Zondervan, NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, eBook (Kindle Locations 174937-174938). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Read – Acts 20:17, 32-37
Notice – Today’s passage included the only direct quote from Jesus that is not in the four gospels (verse 35). The apostle introduced it by talking about the value of remembering the Lord Jesus’ words. What habits (the daily GPS may be one, since you are reading this!) have you formed that help you to remember Jesus’ words? What value do you see in remembering at least some important words without having to look them up? As he left this group of church leaders, Paul said, “I entrust you to God and the message of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all whom God has made holy” (verse 32). As he walked into an uncertain future, Paul saw those devoted Christian leaders as a key part of his legacy in the world. Who are some people you have been able to influence for good and would count as one part of the legacy you rejoice in giving the world?
Pray – Jesus, you have given so much for me and to me. Keep shaping me into a person who does not simply take from you, but who seeks actively and creatively to share you with others. Amen.
Read – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Notice – We began this week reading about the origin of the Passover remembrance. In today’s reading, Paul told the Christians in Corinth how Jesus expanded the meaning of Passover into the act of remembering we know as the Lord’s Supper. (Since Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians before any of the four gospels, this is the earliest record we have of what Christians believed Jesus said and did on the night before the cross.) Jesus asked his disciples to remember, and to “broadcast,” his death. Jesus chose to memorialize this most painful part of His story. He wanted us to remember not only the resurrection, but also the sacrifice before the resurrection. Jesus told his disciples, “Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” The apostle added, “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.” Jesus’ enemies meant the cross as a disgrace, a cause for shame, but Christ’s followers honored the memory! How does it shape you spiritually to remember Jesus giving himself for you? Sometimes at a communion service, we hear Jesus’ words, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” without sensing their import. He was pointing back to Jeremiah’s promise we read on Thursday. He was saying, as scholar William Barclay translated it, “This cup is the new covenant and it cost my blood.” * How can you deepen your grateful worship of Jesus by remembering and honoring the price he paid to create a new covenant of grace and forgiveness with you?
Pray – Jesus, walk with me each day, helping me to live as a truly redeemed subject of your kingdom. Amen.