The Sunday Sermon: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020
Scripture: Philippians 2:5-8
Being Found in Human Form
Well, we’re on the other side of Labor Day weekend and we’re having to figure out how to enter another season of our church life distanced from one another. In a bit of travel last week, Katie and I were listening to a podcast of Brene Brown’s. She suggested in her talk that this month is going to be one of the toughest yet because, even though we celebrate January first as the formal “new year,” for all intents and purposes this month, and specifically the days after Labor Day weekend marks the practical “new year.” We expect to really “begin again” this month, after summer ends and school and work settle into “normal.” But there’s nothing normal …yet…about this month. And that reality is likely to settle in even more negatively for us this month.
Maybe being aware of that will help us to push back. I have a good way to start: Pray with me …
So, as it sinks in (that we’re still in this new reality and that we’re going to be for a while yet), I’m wondering what we can “do.” Today is Rally Day, the Sunday where we traditionally celebrate a full return to Sunday School classrooms for all ages and the anticipation of Fall Fellowships. We have some very different, but exciting ways for all of you to get involved in deeper Christian Education. So that’s a big “something,” but what more can we “engage in” this Fall that will continue to make “this continued COVID time” worthwhile. I say “continue” because I do believe that our summer, subtle as it may have been, was worthwhile. I wondered in my letter of September second how many of you actually follow along with the arc of my sermon messages in any given “series.” In the case of last month, August, we moved from a promise to “forget the things of old” and recognize that GOD is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43) through our need to be “judged by love” (Matthew 5) so that we could recognize our shortcomings and “make different choices” (Joshua 24 and Romans 12), and into a promise to “lay down the weight that binds us” and live this life “with perseverance” (Hebrews 12). Five Sundays last month that launched us into this month and the Fall season, knowing that we will have work to do.
After a “listen back” last Labor Day weekend (and I hope you had a chance to do that, the service is still up on our Facebook page. It is a bit haunting, but beautiful.), after that listen back, we’re back in this place at this time, using our time of worship to direct us in where we’re going and who we’re supposed to be while we travel there.
Here’s where the Fall in worship begins for us: deep in the heart of our common humanity.
A long time ago my wife, Katie, gave me a small book full of aphorisms and little snippets of wisdom. It was called “A Little Compendium on That Which Matters.” The very first entry was by “anonymous” and asked this question: Could the reason for being born human be to become Human?” I’ve been trying to do that ever since – become Human (you can’t see it, but there’s a capital “H” on that Human) and I’ve been recommending it to anyone else who has listened since then, too.
Now, you’ve all heard this before. I’ve been teaching and preaching in this congregation and our wider community for twelve years, now. Even those who have only been “listening” for the weeks since our pandemic forced us into recorded worship services have heard me say it, in one way or another: “Our Humanity is not our problem. Our inhumanity is our problem.”
I know better than most that this is decidedly not very Reformed, theologically speaking, seeing as we’re taught to teach and preach Original Sin and the Total Depravity of Humanity. I also know as well as most how easy we deceive ourselves and think too highly of our ability to act as we’re supposed to act, to be all we were created to be. We betray our Humanity depending on how we understand it. Do we, like Caesar, exploit our roles as stewards of the earth and abuse the authority we may have with others? Or do we, like Christ, empty and humble ourselves?
In case you’re not sure about the correct answer to those questions (though you better be!), Paul makes it crystal clear in his letter to the church in Philippi. Listen for the Word of God.
Read Philippians 2:5-8. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“Obedient unto death.”
Death of the old self, of old ways of understanding our Humanity so that we may live more fully and honestly. This is not stuff for the next life. It’s for this life right now. And salvation in this life lies in our ability to empty and humble ourselves and find ways to empathize even more deeply with those we are called to serve. That’s not only hard to do because it most often goes against our self-interest. It’s hard to do because our evolutionary survival instincts have us hard-wired to do the opposite!
In that letter a few weeks back that I mentioned earlier, I asked you to read or listen to a commencement speech given my David Foster Wallace in 2005 to the graduating class of Kenmore College. I shared a short excerpt for those who wouldn’t find the time:
Everything in my own immediate experience (Wallace writes) supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence … It’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth … There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real …
Wallace doesn’t then preach about compassion or other-directedness or other so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue, he continues:
It’s a matter of (our) choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of (our) natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self … People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which (he suggests to us) is not an accidental term.
That’s what we’re going to be about as we begin this Fall like no other. This is what we’re going to “do,” what we’re going to “engage in” through worship that will continue to make “this time out of time,” but the only time we have, worthwhile. We’re going to seek to be “well-adjusted;” to have the “same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus;” to empty ourselves be born (or re-born) into human likeness;” to “humble ourselves and become obedient” to who we were created to be.
We read scripture passages like these verses from Philippians and think they aren’t talking about us. They’re only talking about Him. But they are…talking about us…too. Paul isn’t simply calling us to be more like Jesus. He’s calling us to be more like…ourselves. To be who we were created to be. Jesus did what we are all called to do. He does not differ from us in kind, only in degree. And if – when – we can do what he did, in small degrees or large, GOD will also “highly exalt” us. You have heard it said that you are worms, but I tell you “you are Humans,” created in the image of GOD to be GOD’s anointed.
We have work to do. The Coronavirus will continue to infect those we know and love and affect the way we live our lives for the foreseeable future. The racial unrest continues in our country, our city, and within ourselves. Decisions in the killing of Breonna Taylor will be handed down this week. Another decision awaits us only two months from now that will have much deeper effects on us than worldly politics, defining the very “soul” of our nation, if such a thing can be said to exist. The only way we can truly “perceive, be judged, choose faithfully, and persevere” in what lies ahead for us is by humbling ourselves and becoming Human, with a capital “H;” by engaging our full humanity and insisting that all others do the same, beginning with seeing the Humanity in all others, even before protecting it within ourselves.
We have work to do. Let’s begin to make it so. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 13, 2020