Way back in the 1950’s, Sao Kya Seng
was the prince of 34 independent Shan states in northeastern Burma,
a part of the world currently embroiled in all sorts of turmoil.
But in the 1950s, this prince came to Denver, Colorado to study agriculture.
Sao Kya Seng was cautious.
He wanted to experience what it was like to be a student in the US,
without his status influencing everything.
Have you seen the Eddie Murphy movie “Coming to America”?
This is something of a real-life, not nearly as funny version of that.
So he kept his identity secret.
No one, not even his professors, knew who he REALLY was.
One of his fellow classmates was Inge Sargent,
herself a foreign born student from Austria.
She suffered horribly in World War II.
Both of them being exchange students,
Inge and the Burmese prince quickly found
that they had a lot in common
and they started to spend more and more time together.
Their friendship grew into love
but the Burmese prince decided that, still, he would not let on his true identity
even though they were dating.
He did not want Inge’s decision to date him
to be colored by the fact that she could marry into royalty.
So when he finally proposed,
with an engagement ring of ruby and diamond,
Inge still did not know who he was.
Inge said yes and they got married, just as any other couple might, here in the US.
For their honeymoon, Sao Kya Seng took Inge to his homeland,
so that she could meet his family and see where he was from.
Now, as their ship approached the shores of Burma,
hundreds of people were waiting at the harbor.
Many of them had gone out in small boat, holding up welcoming signs.
A band was playing and some people were tossing flowers at the ship.
Surprised at all this excitement Inge turned to her husband,
and asked whose arrival they are celebrating.
“Inge,” he said, I am the prince of Hsipaw.
These people are celebrating our arrival. You are now the princess.”[i]
Can you imagine Inge Sargent’s shock when she found out
just WHO her beloved husband was?
I know that all couples struggle with just how to communicate with one another
that they sometimes paint a situation this way, or that
but this is a pretty big thing to leave out, don’t you think?
I’ve been watching the epic HBO series Game of Thrones,
and such tales of kings and queens and princes and princesses,
ruthless games and machenations
for finding the seat of power,
might lead one to suspect that
such a surprise would be a welcome one!
Who wouldn’t want to be secretly married to royalty?
But I imagine such a detail might have been important to know, before the “I Dos.”
Sargent would spend some time coming to terms with this new knowledge,
trying to understand what it meant for her
and her new life together with the prince.
I want us to think a bit today about
the shock of coming to terms with new information,
particularly new information that doesn’t quite jive with our preconceptions
maybe even our hopes and dreams.
One way to look at the long story of Scripture
this story of God with Us,
first through God’s interactions with a family and a people
like what we explored in Genesis and Exodus
or in the story of God with Us, Jesus the Christ
one way to look at this story is a tension between our expectations of God
and how God surprises us, challenges us, disrupts us
in those expectations.
The God of the Bible is CONSTANTLY doing this.
It would be so much easier if God just played along
and purely fit just the kind of God that we want God to be:
serving MY purposes
condemning MY enemies
elevating MY position.
So much easier.
But that’s not to be, not in the Christian story,
not where God is God and not some figment of our own creation.
So for instance we saw in this Matthew story read today
a challenging moment, a disruptive moment indeed:
Jesus had just done something extraordinary
he went to the Temple, the place where the faithful gathered
out of their SOLEMN DUTY to offer sacrifices
in order to be tight with God, to be good with God
but where the faithful were being exploited by the money changers.
It was coersion at its finest: you must have these birds, you see,
but it will cost you… you want to be right with God, don’t you?
And Jesus saw it and was MORTIFIED. And he drove them out.
That had just happened, and then you see this exchange we read today:
the chief priests and the scribes—
those who had been profiting from that commerce
ask him what authority he had to end that practice.
They THOUGHT they had God figured out, you see.
This God AUTHORIZED that system of faith, or so they thought.
but Jesus turns the tables on them again.
In the end, Jesus asserts:
Even the Tax Collectors, and the Prostitutes
those JUDGED and CONDEMNED
those on the MARGINS of their society
were more likely to “get it” than they…
I wonder who in our society are the Tax Collectors and the Prostitutes of our day?
Its amazing, I think,
how the scriptures continue to challenge us.
Today we pause to take a look at what is one of the oldest fragments of liturgy
preserved by the early Christian church.
By liturgy, I mean something that was meant to be used when the people gather
in worship, in praise, in celebration, in prayer, in discernment of God…
This reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi
is called the Kenotic Hymn by Biblical Scholars.
The form of the Greek and other references to it in early Christian literature
suggest that Paul is actually quoting
a hymn or a poem that the early church would have known
as a part of its worship life.
They would have had it as part of their bulletin, so to speak,
or their hymnal, or projected on a screen,
or whatever it was that the early believers used for a common liturgy.
Listen again to this ancient Hymn,
and pay particular attention to how it describes what God is DOING
in the person of Jesus the Christ:
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 exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This is the “Kenotic Hymn of Christ.”
Kenosis is the Greek verb for the act of emptying something.
You would use that word, say, when you were talking
about pouring the water out of a pitcher.
This Kenotic hymn, one of the earliest songs in the history of the Christian Church,
Gives thanks and praise to Jesus’ EMPTYING of himself,
his giving up of something valuable…his power and might and nobility
for the sake of….well, for the sake of folk like you and me.
This hymn was written very early in the life of the church,
somewhere between Jesus’ death in 33 common era
and Paul’s including it in this letter, maybe around the 62nd year.
It was drafted as the church began to transition from life WITH Jesus…
this Rabbi who was teaching them about
the Kingdom of God happening in their midst,
until he was arrested by the authorities
and executed by the Roman State…
as the church began to transition from life WITH Jesus
to LIVING into the surprise, sudden awareness
of just WHO this departed Jesus was…
The story of Jesus is the story of God WITH us, God IMMANUEL,
coming to this world in a way you never would have expected.
It is the story of God incognito.
Jesus, in whom God dwelt fully in some mysterious way,
came to the world
and lived as an ordinary human being, like you and me.
Why did God do this?
Paul’s short answer: This is the way God shows God’s love for us.
Not MERELY as a TRANSCENDENT God…
there were plenty of those out there in the Greco-Roman world…
but as a friend, a neighbor, a partner,
as one who experiences pain and suffering and earthliness,
just like we do.
AND Paul says, something about THIS GOD
is important for the way we ought to live our lives, too…
There has been an explosion of theology recently about Jesus as Friend.
That makes sense, actually, since one of the Greek words for love, philea,
is the love shared between two honest friends.
The word the bible uses for God’s love, agape, is a selfless, self-sacrificial love
That includes in its deepest sense other forms of love,
including philea, the love of true friendship.
I was thinking about my friends this weekend,
last night, actually, as I was up with them at the Liberty Fall Festival.
Think, for a moment, about your true friends, your good friends.
Do you know what impresses me about good friends, true friends?
Among other things,
they will let me be MYSELF when I am around them.
I don’t have to pretend. I don’t have to posture. I can just relax.
I don’t have to pretend that I have everything together.
I don’t have to pretend that I am better than I am.
I can just be who I am with all my imperfections. All my flaws.
My good friends, my true friends are the ones that let me be like THAT,
are the ones who don’t play games with me. Not really.
And that goes both ways, too.
They don’t have a polished facade that they keep showing me
without letting me see their weaknesses.
They show me trust, so that they let me look into THEIR life, pimples and all,
and they give me the freedom necessary
so that that I can be comfortable letting them see my warts and wrinkles.
We talked at length last week about this sort of holding in the heart
that might be the root of true Christian community
but what does it mean to think of God in that way? As our true friend?
Be honest: when you think of the word “God”
what is the first thought that comes to mind?
Huge? Holy? Exalted? Throne? Awesome?
Did ANYONE come up with the words Paul used to describe Jesus:
Slave? obedient? death? humbled? cross?
But this is how Paul describes what God is doing in Christ Jesus.
This quality of God, not afraid to be LIKE US,
to find a way to be authentically our friend,
and thereby our savior, our Lord,
is CENTRAL to the Christian story.
It is a special claim about who God is, and who God IS NOT,
about what God is all about.
Is GOD something or someone that exists as a POWER
that CONTROLS, DICTATES, RULES over us?
Or Is our God Love? Is our God HOPE? Is our God PEACE?
The answer to THAT question was SO important
to who the church was at its inception,
that it became the very basis of some of the earliest worship services ever devised.
Songs of praise lifted up to the God who isn’t just UP THERE,
but who allowed Godself to become one of us, so God could know us and love us.
and so that we could see and understand God better too…
Isn’t it better simply to conceive of a GOD who is just ….BIG.
That idea could still contain the notion of a messiah.
Or, ok, if this messiah is going to become flesh-and-bone,
then how about something more….Regal.
more in tune with the prestige and power that a God might rightly enjoy.
A Game-of-Thrones type, perhaps? Strong and mighty.
Wouldn’t that be more…Right?
Paul’s answer is NO, that’s not enough. That’s not right.
You miss something important about what God has done in Jesus
if the main focus is on God’s power, God’s strength
There is an irony in this kenotic hymn that you might have missed,
but it would have been unmistakable to the earliest Christians.
On the one hand, it sings about a Christ who empties himself for our sake.
On the other hand, it ends with God’s intention in doing this
that every tongue might come to know that Jesus Christ is LORD
to the glory of God…
While this word “Lord” comes to us through two Middle English words:
llaf, meaning “bread” (like a loaf)
and weard, meaning “guardian” or “keeper,”
the concept is similar in the Greek original Kurios.
The word has as its meaning “the head of the household
in his (typically) relations to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread.'”[ii]
The “keeper of the bread,”
the one who can give or deny access to one’s daily bread,
could be a life-giver or could be an oppressor.
The Hebrews we encountered in Exodus knew of God as LORD in this sense,
The one who gives manna in the wilderness
And water to a parched people.
And because of this, they acknowledged their
just dependence on God for their life and livelihood.
During the time of Paul there were an elite few who held the power,
that those who heard this letter would recognize as their worldly Lords.
Those on whom their life and livelihood depended,
and those who DEMANDED homage and respect.
There were Temple lords – the chief priests of the Temple;
There were military lords – the Roman army;
There were economic lords – the landowners,
heads of households.
But there was above them a Lord of lords, a King of kings.
He was called Caesar.
At this time, to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord was to challenge all sorts of cultural norms.
To say, “Jesus Christ is my Lord,” was to say,
the land owners are not my lord,
the chief priests are not my lords,
the Roman Soldiers are not my lords,
Caesar himself is not my Lord.
My Lord is Jesus the Christ.
And just this is Paul’s Point: What kind of LORD is this LORD?
The kind that demands ritual purity in order for religious favors?
The kind that rules with military force and might?
The kind that governs subjects? That expects you to lower yourself to them?
This is the kind of Lord that EMPTIES HIMSELF, HUMBLES HIMSELF,
GIVES HIMSELF UP for your sake, with your best interests at heart!
THAT LORD is my LORD. And that’s the kind of life THIS lord wants us to imitate.
How do we do that?
I think we do that by taking Paul’s advice, for one
and start working our own salvation through deeds of loving and serving.
We can act as if the only true power is one of exploitation,
or might makes right,
or my family is going to eat even if that means yours is going to starve,
OR, we can start seeing ourselves as interconnected in fundamental ways
that there is no difference between how God loves those on the margins
and loves you or me
and that BY OUR OWN LOVE,
we can be God’s kingdom here on earth.
I came across this video as I was pondering the text this week:
So maybe our question might be:
How can we empty ourselves, so that others may find life?
How can we empty ourselves, so that the world might know joy?
How can we empty ourselves, so that the world might find peace?
There God goes again, shaking things up….
May we find such happiness in following the Prince of Peace
into places unknown, unexpected, amazing…
the one exalted BECAUSE of his self-less love.
[i] This story, some of this sermon text, and overall inspiration for this sermon inspired by Sigurd Grindheim, and his sermon “God Incognito”. This quote (From Twilight over Burma: My Life As a Shan Princess, by Inge Sargent.)
[ii] see What to do About “Lord”, by Ruth Duck. Published by UCBHM in 1996. p. 7
Image: Jesus of the Breadline, Mural by Gary Palmatier, an interpretation of an etching by Fritz Eichenberg.