The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

μ

Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

μ

dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

μ

We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

μ

Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

μ

Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

μ

If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Cheerful Sacrifice

A sermon based on Micah 6:1-8 and 1 Timothy 6:56-19 preached on October 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

There’s a comedian and column-writer for Esquire Magazine whose name is A.J. Jacobs, who one day had nothing better to do, so he got this crazy notion to live a year of his life following the Bible as literally as possible.

Jacobs is Jewish, but he says he’s Jewish in the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant. He refers to himself as agnostic, so this idea of living biblically for a year didn’t come from his devotion to anything. At least at first, his desire to try to live an entire 365 days attempting to follow all 614 of the Old Testament’s commandments was born purely out of his curiosity. It was a stunt. At first, he thrived on the absurdity of it. After just a handful of days, as his beard grew out, his diet, his wardrobe, and so many other things about his life began to change, he wondered if this was even possible. He began to realize both the blessings and the curses of having to constantly think about what scripture has to say about the smallest little details of his life. After several weeks a remarkable thing happened. He started to notice the subtle blessings and the simple wisdom inside of having to pay close attention to absolutely every aspect of his life, how he dressed and what he ate, how he spent his money, and how he treated others.

Trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible was hard, and sometimes it was more than he could manage, but he realized relatively early on that there was a sacred intelligence beneath all the rules—that all of it together led him into something wonderful and freeing. What A.J. Jacob’s first though was going to be an absurd journey into something ancient and irrelevant quickly became an invitation into joyful living.

ν

We who are suspect of rules—we who often scoff at anything that seems on the surface, at least, to take away our freedom of choice—might be surprised by what would happen if we gave ourselves over to scripture’s invitation to practice a life of devotion and sacrifice to God.

What if we too made our decisions using more than just our own habits or preferences? What if we trusted that God has something life-giving hidden behind what appeared to be a suffocating commandment? What if we trusted that there was freedom hiding behind something that seemed altogether confining? We might be surprised to know that there is often blessing inside of sacrifice.

ν

Author Anne Lamott found herself sitting on an airplane next to Jewish man. She noticed he was wearing a yarmulke, and she being the curious sort, struck up a conversation with him. As they were talking, a stewardess stopped by and asked them if they’d like the chicken or the fish for their in-flight meal, and the man asked if either of them were Kosher. The stewardess had no idea, but she promised to find out. Anne Lamott asked him,

Isn’t it a huge pain to be restricted to a Kosher diet?

The man responded,

It’s not a pain at all. And it’s not a restriction. It’s a blessing because every time I eat, God’s a part of my choice.

ν

The practice of stewardship is just like that. Stewardship is a more-than-daily way of involving God in every single choice we make. It’s the more-than-daily intention of including the “capital S” Somebody into every one of our decisions. A life of stewardship is a life lived in gratitude and freedom because we are at each and every turn, we’re reminded that God is the Source of every bit of it.

The invitation of Stewardship is to practice a sacred mindfulness where we’re asked to consider the right use of all we have and all we are! And just like A.J. Jacobs or Anne Lamott, it is inside a life practice of stewardship that we can discover the blessing and the freedom that secretly reside inside what we first thought are just a bunch of rules for us to follow.

ν

We need not approach Paul’s words in this passage in a legalistic or moralistic way. Many have used this passage to shame those who are rich. Some others have, for better or for worse, given away everything they possess to live a life of poverty. Some have used this passage to preach the evils of money itself, as if having a few thousand dollars tucked away in a savings account is some sort of affront to God. This, of course, is a grave misuse and a dangerous misunderstanding of this passage. Instead we should see this passage as an invitation into fuller life, to let its wisdom redirect our steps—to let it reorient us until all that we are and all that we have are match up with who God is and what God desires for us. Until our own desires fall in line with God’s desires. Until God takes all that is disordered about our loves, and rearranges us until our lives reflect the life of Jesus.

ν

If you took a bible and cut out all the places where money (and its right use) is mentioned, you would have a very holey bible. Throughout scripture, money is spoken of as a rival love. Jesus warns us of this over and over again. Money, more than anything else in our life, has the power to pull us away from our relationship with God and others. That’s because we have a tendency to place money and our pursuit of it above everything else. We lose ourselves in our quest for more of it.

The love of money is called the root of all evil because a disordered desire for more of it is the most destructive power there is. Our over-focus on it will wreck us. God knows that we are what we do with our money. And how we acquire, regard, manage, spend, and talk about money is a window into our hearts. There’s almost nothing that reveals a person’s character more than this.

ν

There’s nothing more biblical than a budget. The way we spend our financial resources is another opportunity to be a part of the work of God. I encourage you to sit down this week with your family. Every one of you, kids included. Gather around and have a family discussion about finances. Bring it all out into the open.

Studies show that arguments over money are by far the top predictor of divorce. Many couples get married before they even say a word to one another about money. We tend to be too quiet about money and its important role in our everyday lives. I think most of us have a precarious and overly tenuous relationship with money because we don’t like to talk or think about it in the first place.

We mismanage money because most of us didn’t grow up inside of a family that was transparent about its finances. Whenever I log into my online bank account, I do it with one eye closed, because I have a contentious relationship with money. I didn’t grow up in a household where all these things were shared aloud. So when I started earning for myself, I didn’t have a heathy way to talk or even think about money. That’s when mistakes and mismanagement happens. So, I encourage you to sit your family down and talk to each other about you household finances—what comes in and what goes out. What does being a disciple of Jesus Christ mean financially? Have a conversation about what the faithful use of money looks like. Talk about contentment and what that has to do with money. Then ask each other what it would be like to live below your means as a spiritual practice? There’s nothing more biblical than a budget.

ν

This week, you received a letter in the mail from our Stewardship and Mission Committee. Inside of it, you received a pledge card. On the back of that pledge card, there’s a chart that will help your family discern how much to pledge to our church for 2017. I invite you to make your pledge to our church a part of your family discussion. And before you fill out that card, may I encourage you to ask a few questions aloud:

The first question is meant to change your perspective on giving. We are the relatively affluent, so the proper question isn’t so much What do I need to give? so much as it is, What do I have the right to keep?

Second question: What organizations other than church have our hearts and minds, and what might a faithful gift to them look like?

Third question: How much might we pledge to the church that represents a cheerful sacrifice? A cheerful sacrifice is an odd phrase. You might ask What can be cheerful about a sacrifice? But those two words together are meant to usher us into a biblical sweet spot. The idea of Cheerful Sacrifice is meant to give you twin guidelines for your giving.

When A.J. Jacobs was seeking out advice at the beginning of his year of living biblically, he asked a pastor about whether he should tithe his income before- or after-taxes. The pastor replied,

You shouldn’t get too legalistic with it. Give what you can afford. And then give some more on top of that. It should feel like a sacrifice.

Later on, Jacobs said about giving that he does it with a mixture of God’s pleasure and his own pain. If your giving is not a sacrifice, you’re probably not giving enough. On the other hand, if you’re not giving cheerfully, then perhaps you’re giving too much. Find the sweet spot. The cheerful sacrifice. Keep in mind that God works in the hearts of those who give an amount that stings a little.

Another consideration: Sometimes we need to be proactive in our giving. We need to give what we think we should give rather than what we want to give. So the next question I’d like you to ask as a family is, If I were the sort of person I would really like to be, then what would I give?

We can direct our hearts where we want them to go by asking questions like that. Sometimes giving is our best way into living.

ν

We are what we do with our money.

May our lives—all we say and do, and all that we are—be a faithful expression of our commitment to the practice and challenge of stewardship. And in our giving, may we find life that really is life!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Two Extended Hands

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on March 15th, 2015

Sermon audio

We had just arrived in a small, remote village two and a half hours outside of the city of La Esperanza. Thirteen of us from Three Chopt Presbyterian Church on a summer mission trip together to Honduras after my junior year of college.

Once we arrived, one of the men there asked us if we would like to go for a walk through the village.

Now, in Honduras, when somebody asks you if you would like to go for “a walk,” what they really mean is

would you like to go on a two hour hike up and down impossible inclines?

All of us put on our best walking shoes and set out down the main dirt road that cuts through the village.

I grabbed my water bottle at the last minute.

The day before we had arrived, it had rained hard but the main road was dried by the sun. After a short walk up the main road, we stopped at the beginning of this little path that led up to the top of the mountain that we were evidently taking.

Because it had rained the day before, I had seen that there was a patch of mud that we would have to jump over to get to the dry path that led up the mountain. And would you know it, I ended up being the first person in our group to jump across this muddy pit between where we were and where we were going. So I clenched my water bottle in my left hand like it was a football and I took a step back to get a running start. I leapt…and my left foot landed right into the mud, ankle deep. I took my foot out of the mud and laughed, embarrassed at myself.

Then I took another couple steps back to use my momentum, and I jumped—and I landed once again in the mud, my right foot this time. It wasn’t quite so funny to me now, and I was even more embarrassed. I started shaking out of weakness and embarrassment.

I heard Lisa, who was right by my side, ask me to hand her my water bottle, still clenched like a football in my left hand. I dismissed her and clenched it tighter. I took another two steps back and lunged myself forward. Once again in the mud—both feet this time.

By now I wasn’t only embarrassed but I was out of energy—exhausted physically and emotionally. I had made a fool of myself. This should be easy, and look at what is happening!

I lifted my head up to look to the other side—the dry path leading up the mountain. I thought to myself

This time, I’m going to get it. It will happen.

I was ready to jump again. And as I lifted my eyes up to see where I needed to be, I saw two hands reached out to me from the other side. On my left side was the hand of my friend Ken. On my right side was the hand of my brother Mike. I dropped my water bottle, and I reached out to grab the hands offered to me. Ken and Mike pulled me up and over the mud to the dry path up the mountain.

I was all right negotiating the rest of the way myself except for a couple of times on the way down where there were some slippery spots. My brother was ahead of me, and he seemed to know exactly where to stop and extend his hand or offer his shoulder to help me negotiate my way.

χ

Today, were talking about grace and the paths we walk along in our journey of faith. We’re also talking today about the wouldas, the couldas, and the shouldas of our lives. The have-to’s and the must’s.

As a part of making my way to West Virginia and becoming your pastor, I had to go through a series of interviews by a couple of the Presbytery’s committees, and Bob Bondurant was on one of those committees, and he asked me if I knew the connection between West Virginia and God’s grace. I was puzzled, and I said no, I had no idea what the connection was. And Bob said that people in West Virginia are hard working people who feel like they have to grind for everything they earn—no such thing as a free lunch, pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps, do it all yourself, or be left in the dust.

I think Bob was right, except for the fact that he left out the other 49 states. Every one of us has that mentality. In order to get something, we have to sweat for it, work hard to get it, bend forward to grab it. America is like that. Do it all on your own or go home. Hike the mountain yourself or get run over or left behind. That work ethic bleeds its way in our churches, and that’s what Bob was referring to.

Just as we have be taught by our dog-eat-dog world that anything good only comes to us if we work hard to grab it for ourselves, we also have somehow convinced ourselves—despite passages like this one from Ephesians—that we have to do something to get on God’s good side, that we are in charge of our own salvation, that it’s all up to us.

We in the church suffer from what Lutheran pastor Kyle Fever calls MPS, Moral Perfection Syndrome. MPS is that disease that keeps us restless. It’s the dis-ease that we carry around—an ailment that says we can never do enough or be enough because God demands moral perfection from us. MPS is leads to RSS: Restless Soul Syndrome.

The good stuff we do has to cover up or cancel out all the bad stuff we do, so the life of faith becomes something like a sin management program. Keep the sin-count low and keep the good deeds count high, and maybe, just maybe, we stand a change of getting on God’s favorite list. It’s as if the life of faith was like earning or losing points with Weight Watchers.

This is the problem we have with grace. The journey of faith is not toward moral perfection. It’s toward surrender.

That sin management program—it’s like a hamster wheel, pointless exertion that takes us nowhere.

χ

If hiking up that mountain was all up to me, I’d still be at the bottom with both of my feet stuck in the mud. My own effort wasn’t getting me anywhere. Grace got me through that day—the two extended hands reaching out to me and pulling me up and out of the mud and onto the path up the mountain. That’s grace.

Author Anne Lamott says,

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.

Grace is Jesus saying,

Step off the hamster wheel, I got this.

Grace is Jesus saying,

There’s nothing to earn here—no careful weighing of sins, no reason to try the balance them out with good deeds, in fact the scales are broken.

There are no scales, really. No point systems. Nothing at all like that. There never has been.

God is a terrible scorekeeper, and His eyesight is skewed. Because when God looks at you and me, all He sees is Christ. And Christ is the One who, with two extended hands on the cross, gave away himself to show us once and for all that there is nothing—nothing at all—we have to do to get in good with God. Because Jesus did that for us. To put our trust in our own efforts to climb our way into God’s favor is actually to doubt what Jesus has done for us.

When it comes to God’s grace, there’s no catch, no fine print, no strings attached. Salvation has nothing to do with what we can accomplish on our own. Paul says in verse 10,

Instead, we are God’s accomplishment.

χ

Our lives are lived not to prove our goodness to God but to respond to God’s goodness by walking on the path where we encounter God’s blessings. We could respond to the free gift of God’s grace by saying,

Since there’s nothing for me to do here, I guess I’ll spend all my time sitting by the pool sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them.

That sounds nice, especially since spring break is upon us, but after Paul declares that we are God’s accomplishment, he writes,

created in Christ Jesus to do good things.

Not only that though,

God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

We do good things—something as small as holding the door for another or making a stranger smile, or something bigger like building houses for Habitat—as our way of graciously responding to the goodness and mercy of God.

Christ extends his two hands to pull us up and out of the places where we’re stuck, so why wouldn’t we want to respond to that and be that presence for others?

χ

I spent a lot of time during the rest of my trip in Honduras thinking about that moment in the mud and the two extended hands that reached down to pull me up.

By the time we left for home, I knew that moment would be one I’d never forget. It meant too many different things all at once.

When we don’t have the strength to do something ourselves, we need to rely upon the strength of others. That’s grace extended to us. And before we can reach up to receive the gift extended out to us, we have to stop the frantic struggle to get up the mountain by our own efforts.

I had to let go of that water bottle—that thing I clenched onto so tightly, and up until that moment, refused to let go of. I had to release it in order to take hold of the hands extend out to me.

χ

The only way to fully accept God’s grace is to drop it all and come to Him with empty hands.

Salvation is not determination. It’s surrender.

Can you give up trying to hike up this mountain on your own?

Instead, can you reach out and take God’s hands? They’re right in front of you. There are two of them, extended out and ready to pull you up.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Failure

A sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7 and Philippians 2:1-13 preached on September 28th, 2014.

Sermon audio

Henri Nouwen’s resume was long and impressive. A Dutch born Catholic priest, his interests were mostly in psychology, pastoral ministry, social justice, and community. After decades of service in the priesthood, he taught for 20 years at institutions like the University of Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. He’s the author of 39 books— they’ve sold over 7 million copies and have been published in more than 30 languages.

Henri Nouwen was a spiritual giant—well regarded in his field. People flocked to whatever speaking engagements he scheduled and his classes were always full—no matter what the subject of the course was. He was a highly-esteemed Christian thinker who could have lived the elite academic lifestyle until he retired comfortably and without a care. But that’s not the path Nouwen chose for himself.

As he worked his way up the ladder to his teaching post at Harvard, Nouwen began to reflect on where it was taking him. He wrote,

Something inside was telling me that my success was putting my soul in danger.

So he left Harvard, and university teaching altogether, and became a caretaker and chaplain at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. There he served people with developmental disabilities for the next 10 years until his death at the age of 64—trading his station high atop the ladder at Harvard to tend to the daily needs—the feeding and the changing—of some of the most vulnerable people there were.

μ

Nouwen’s choice to leave the ivory tower of Ivy League academia for humble service mirrors the journey of a man named Jean Vanier—the man who founded the L’Arche Daybreak Community in which Nouwen served as Chaplain.

Jean Vanier came from privilege too. He was the son of a former Governor General of Canada. Jean Vanier joined the Navy and became an academic in Europe. He did very well for himself.

While he was teaching in France, he met two men who lived in an institution for people with developmental disabilities. He saw how their needs were not being taken care of by that institution, so Vanier invited the two men to move into his own home. For the next few years, Jean Vanier took care of these men himself—tending to their daily needs.

Vanier was a man of great privilege and power—destined for greatness, but through taking care of these 2 men he saw their weakness and vulnerability. And day by day as he tended to them, he experienced a profound sense of belonging with them—a deep sense of shared daily life, and he began to sense an overwhelming change in his own values. The tenderness, love, and unity between he and these 2 men changed his life. These two men who Vanier cared for would became the first members of the L’Arche Daybreak Community which he founded, the same organization Henri Nouwen left Harvard for.

Vanier was quoted as saying, “We don’t do great things at L’Arche.” In fact the idea is more of a break from all that the world calls “accomplishment”. Instead, everyone in the L’Arche Daybreak Community makes a choice to leave that world behind to be with those inside—to be present to the weakness and powerlessness of those who live in the community.

The L’Arche Daybreak Community has been called a movement toward failure. In a world that would have much preferred the story of Henri Nouwen’s meteoric rise to the top of Harvard’s elite or Jean Vanier’s inevitable success as an academic in Europe, both chose to take the path downward. At least by the world’s standards, both chose failure.

How many of us give up all that we have for the sake of others?

μ

Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi in Greece. For the most part, the church in Philippi is a peaceful one—they’re learning their way just like any young church would. There is some infighting between the leaders of two of their churches, but as a whole, Paul counts the Philippian church as a great success story. This passage in chapter 2 is a glimpse of how Paul is encouraging them to keep doing what they’re doing.

Paul emphasizes being joyful in community—to share all things, to uplift one another, to be confident in God’s promises, and continue serving one another without regard to the well-being of any one person in their community—to share all things together, to be a truly interdependent people.

Paul doesn’t want each person to look out only for their own good, but to watch out for what is better for others—to celebrate and suffer all things together. And in order to make this point, Paul uses what is now the most ancient statement about Jesus the church has ever used.

If you look on your scripture insert, you can see that vv.6-11 are indented. This is a poem, a statement of faith—maybe a song that the very early followers of Jesus sung together. And the words are surprising.

This isn’t a song about an awesome God who does a mighty thing through Jesus. You’d think that if the early church was a persecuted group of people, they would have wanted to sing about how Christ was a superhero Messiah, how he came to boldly rescue the world from its sin and show how powerful God is—how strong Jesus is.

But this is not a power ballad, is it? This is no “Jesus is my superhero” kinda song. This early Christian song is about how Christ gave up his powerful place at the right hand of God and chose to come to earth, taking the form of a slave and becoming one of us—with all the vulnerability we live with, all the suffering we feel, the pain, the joy, the disappointment and ambiguity of life as a human being.

This ancient song speaks of how Jesus, even though he was God among us, refused to use a high and lofty power to get himself out of tough spots, but instead became weak—even humbling himself to the point of death—a humiliating death—the worst kind of death: death on a Roman cross.

It’s hard to fail more than Jesus failed. This isn’t “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” This isn’t Jesus Christ Superstar. This is Jesus as suffering servant. A holy failure.

Why sing this song?

This hymn takes a turn in verse 9, doesn’t it, when the focus turns to what God thought about Jesus failure on the cross: Because Jesus emptied himself even to the point of death—death on cross, no less, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names so that everyone would one day bow to him and confess that Jesus is Lord.

Jesus’ crucifixion was a complete emptying of himself, a death with nothing heroic or meaningful behind it. But God, God turned it all around and raised him up and made him King of all Kings. God gave meaning to Christ’s death on a cross. With God, Jesus’s total failure became a total victory. And the only reason why it happened is because Jesus chose to first give it all up—to empty himself and become not a power-player—high on the totem poll of worldly opinion.

Jesus chose to become a servant, he chose to love us so much that even if it led to his death, he would die for us.

μ

Anne Lamott is an author who lives in California. In one of her books entitled Bird-by-Bird, she tells a story about a boy and his sick sister. The girl had leukemia and needed a blood transfusion to live. There were other possible blood donors, but her brother would be the best possible match. So, the doctors and the parents talked to the small boy. They explained to him that his sister needed his blood if she were to survive. And they asked him to consider it.

The boy thought long and hard, but finally agreed.

They laid the boy on a bed next to his sister. In each child’s little arm they ran a line with a needle. The boy watched as his blood made its way up the tube and then down into his sister’s arm. He watched very quietly – intensely.

Finally, he turned to his parents and asked, “When do I start to die?”

μ

The cross of Christ is not a story about an angry God needing a sacrifice to appease some sort of righteous anger. And it’s not about a Messiah who would bravely come to throw himself up on a cross for the sake of us all. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked God that if there was any way out, then now would be a great time for God to let him in on it.

The cross is about how far Jesus was willing to go, as fearful as he may have been, to show us that his love for us knows no boundaries—that his love for us is a love that is willing to go all the way, even if that meant he would lose his life.

μ

The story of the cross of us is this: We should serve one another as that little boy served his sick sister—with every bit of our being we too should give ourselves for others—watching out not for our own self-interest but living out God’s purposes for us by watching out for the good of others—even if that means choosing a different path for ourselves, even if by worldly standards that choice seems like the wrong one—a journey away from what the world calls “success.” God will use it for good.

That is the story of the cross. That is the attitude of Christ. That is the sacrifice of Christ—the One who gave of himself even to the point of death on a Roman cross so that we may have life and have it in abundance.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen!