St. Mark’s, I am delighted to have the opportunity to visit with you today. Your congregation has for years been a place I have felt is my Lutheran home away from home, perhaps because I’ve spent a lot of time here these past 11 years since moving to the Bay Area from Virginia. I’ve never been to a Sunday service here before, but I’ve been to countless meetings here with the San Francisco Interfaith Council, with the Bay Area Organizing Committee working to save St. Luke’s hospital in the Mission, a World AIDS Day Service and even for a little while once a month into the early morning, I answered phone calls for the night ministry in your Urban Life Center. I know little facts about your church: for example, that portions of the movie version of the Broadway musical Rent were filmed in this sanctuary before your renovation. But I’m not here just to sing your praises, I did want you to know that I think of you fondly and appreciate your commitment to being a church of inclusive love and active engagement in the world.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians and Matthew’s gospel together remind us that faithful living is about pouring one’s self out, the Greek word is Kenosis, especially in the face of powerful forces of opposition, oppression, and hypocrisy. Paul’s letter was written as he was awaiting sentencing for as Acts of the Apostles simply states “turning the world upside down.” The immediate crime may have been Paul’s liberating a slave girl from possession, who was making her owners rich by telling people’s fortunes. Rather than being grateful that this girl was no longer possessed, they were angry to lose their source of wealth. In the portion of Paul’s letter we heard read today he is encouraging his followers to see his imprisonment and suffering as a consequence of his faithfulness to the way of Christ and to, in their own way with fear and trembling, continue turning the world upside down by placing Christ at the center of their lives.
For me kenosis, is about vulnerability and trusting that God’s knowledge, power, wisdom, providence and presence are more powerful than any other force in the universe and that true humbleness is real strength. The good news of God in Christ is this way of vulnerability. Jesus throughout the gospels models a life of accessibility to the high and mighty and to the weak and hurting. It seems that Jesus’ unique relationship with God is connected to his unique relationship with other human beings and the whole of Creation. Jesus’ teachings whether the Beatitudes or along the roads of First Century Roman occupied Palestine or from the cross, are about living a life of communion, connectivity and mutuality. On this day as we give special attention to animals, who in their own way embody kenosis, I am reminded of James Weldon Johnsons great interpretation of the Creation story which begins:
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
Some theologians might argue with whether we are anthropomorphizing God to suggest that the Divine Creator could be lonely. But loneliness is a real problem in our time, and our pets, our companion animals do much to ease our loneliness and communities like this one help remind us that the way of Christ is one we must seek to walk with others--not alone. Too often at least in my journey I’ve experienced churches and church people as inquisitors instead of comrades. Sometimes though religious communities can feel like the loneliest places of all, as Jesus himself discovered.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ dialogue with the chief priests and elders in the Temple where his authority is questioned reminds us that Jesus too experienced alienation from the very places and people one might have expected to greet him and his teachings with open arms and hearts. Matthew’s gospel reminds us that as we seek to follow the way of Christ we too will endure suffering, misunderstanding, and alienation. Jesus’ says at the end of today’s gospel lesson that those whom the pious and righteous most feared, rejected and despised are the first to experience the divine realm he calls the Kingdom of God.
Here are a few questions to consider in light of our lessons: What turning the world upside down activities might St. Mark’s be up to these days? How are you as individuals and as a congregation practicing kenosis, pouring yourselves out for the healing and liberation of others? A spiritual director of mine many years ago asked me a great question, “if you were arrested for following Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Which leads me to two last questions: How have you as a congregation and as individuals felt misunderstood or even suffered or been alienated because of the ways in which you have sought to follow Jesus? And when that happens, are you there to comfort and support one another through that lonely and difficult time?
For the past 3 years and a few months I’ve worked with California Interfaith Power & Light seeking to help congregations all over the state better understand and respond to the reality of climate change. I’ve witnessed climate activists, organizers, policy analysts, scientists, and clergy of every faith pouring themselves out for the sake of our common home. And yet there's so much more for you, for each of us to do, to recognize the way in which this issue really does exacerbate every other concern and that despite our state and this city in particular being far ahead of many others around this nation, we can't put this too high on our priority list. The devastation of this year’s record hurricanes just being one front page reminder that right now, people are suffering the consequences of our imbalanced relationship with God's good creation and there really isn't too much attention we can pay to trying to correct that.
Truly confronting the climate crisis with eyes wide open will mean that some people will lose their sources of income, like the owners of the slave girl whom Paul liberated. Pouring oneself out in the fight to protect our common home may mean being willing to find ourselves alienated from places and people we would expect to be our comrades. We may even find ourselves called to risk arrest in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
In closing I want to thank your congregation for being a place of comradeship to the climate movement in California. For pouring yourselves out in service to others, let us give thanks for all those who help us, including our pets, follow the self-giving way of Jesus, living lives of communion, connectivity, and mutuality.
-The Rev. Will Scott