What’s So Full About Being Empty?
Romans 12:1-2 and Philippians 2:1-8
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God's mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don't be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God's will is--what is good and pleasing and mature.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 43786-43789). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
2Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 6Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7But 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, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 45118-45125). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Welcome to our third installment of the sermon series, “Thorny Theological Themes.” Our words for today are.....“Surrender and Emptying.” Yikes! These are not usually positive words in our culture. To surrender implies giving up, admitting defeat, failure, sacrifice of everything. Empty implies there is nothing there. Nothing in the gift box, the grocery bag, the gas tank. Why would we want to give up, to sacrifice? To be satisfied with having nothing?
I grew up with these texts from Romans and Philippians. With the words, give your life as a sacrifice for Jesus, empty yourself of your self for God as Jesus did. Coupled with “Be Saved” sermons and “I surrender all ... all to Jesus I surrender” hymns, the words sacrifice, surrender and empty were full of conflicting emotions. I wanted to be a good Christian, to follow Jesus, but I also wanted to live my life with my gifts and joys and passions. Were these things bad? As a young adult and even into later adulthood, these passages had all the makings of what I now call “door mat” or “what a wretch am I” theology. I am nothing unless I discover and follow exactly what God wants me to be. Which couldn’t possible be what I wanted to be since I was only a sinner. My hopes and dreams couldn’t be the right thing, could they?
I was deathly afraid God’s ways would mean drudgery, invisibility, and second string status. That voice was coming from culture as much as from theology. For women were second string as human beings. Support staff for men. People of color were second string, at best. Same with pore folks of any color. LGBTQ people were totally invisible when I was growing up. To each of these groups the message of surrender, empty yourselves of who you are, is NOT good news! Thank God, since my childhood there have been activist and theological movements leading us out of closets of oppression and into liberation. Joyfully we now proclaim that we are all equally beloved children of God, each with unique, divine gifts and graces, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or class. We have made great progress and the resistance movements of God’s liberation continue. We still have a ways to go.
Somewhere along the line of my life, struggling with the messages of culture and scripture and church, I discovered a paradox. To sacrifice or surrender or offer my life to God, I have to know I have a Life! A life of gifts and graces uniquely given to me by God and that I am God’s beloved. To be full of who I am in God’s image, I have to be empty of who I am in the eyes of culture, for that is not who I really am. To be Full = Empty.
A famous Zen master had a visitor....some say it was a student, some say it was another master, some say -- and I think its appropriate for this congregation -– it was a university professor. While the famous master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's full! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "This is you," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."[i]
Can you imagine what happened next? The professor could have walked out in a huff and claimed the famous Zen master was an old coot, a fraud. The professor could have spluttered with anger and begun to argue with master. Telling the master that this was a ridiculous metaphor and why not open the lesson with a treatise on compassion, instead. That would be really worthwhile! Or perhaps the professor had the grace to blush, to be suddenly silent and thoughtful. To get a tea towel and clean up the mess. And then to sit and wait. Thoughts churning, perhaps. But to keep silent, to breathe, to listen. After a time the master may have poured the cold tea from the cups, brewed another pot and perhaps, then the teaching could have begun in earnest. Grace in action.
Life has taught me to empty my cup. Particularly, when it comes to scripture texts that hold the baggage of a life time. What I didn’t hear or understand in these texts way back when was their crucial, life-giving wisdom. In the letter to the church in Rome, Paul gives the church instructions about new life under the lordship of God through Jesus, rather than the lordship of Caesar and the false powers of the empire. He instructs the people to structure their lives through God’s grace. Grace, the power of God’s unconditional love that Hal invited us into last week in this series. Paul says, “Because of God’s grace, God’s mercies, you can present your selves, your bodies, your whole lives as living sacrifices for God. Not burnt up, dead sacrifices, but living offerings. Present your vital, passionate, gifted life ready to live under the structure of God’s grace in the midst of all the joys and challenges.”
“This is your appropriate priestly service.” In Christ Jesus, WE are priests to one another, each and every one of us under God’s grace –- women and men, slave and free, Gentile and Jew, no matter our race or sexual orientation or gender identity or social class. We receive God’s revelation for ourselves and collectively for the community. Therefore we do not need to be poured into the mold of the world’s values -– greed, scarcity mentality, fear of the other, intolerance of difference, power over to get control –- we are transformed, changed in form through grace and empowered to live into God’s will for life, what is good and pleasing and mature. Empowered by grace to grow into all we are made to be in God’s image. Giving our all to God through Jesus, who gave his all to God. I think the world needs our living offerings in a big way right now! The world needs us to help structure it through the structures of God’s grace.
In the letter to the church in Philippi, Paul leads us further in understanding how to be a living sacrifice under the living structure of God’s grace. “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. [THEN] Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus. Put on the mind of Christ.” Jesus became human, he emptied himself, made himself fully available to God, in order to be filled and used by God. To live God’ grace. An empty cup waiting to be filled.
Here is the seemingly dangerous part. The leap of faith to empty ourselves of the ways we are conformed to this world means looking inward. The leap of faith is to look within at the fear, greed, consumerism, possessiveness, scarcity thinking, suspicion even hatred of the “other”, to look at the anger, hurt, and wounds, that may be in our lives. I used to be afraid to truly be quiet and go inside....I was afraid I would find nothing there, a void, a nothingness. No one home. What I found was I was not really empty, but full of fear and self recrimination.
When I finally took the time to be in solitude and quiet, to intentionally go within, even just for a few minutes each day, I found that in “empty” was the presence of Love, the presence of God. Love first for family and friends and congregation. Then increasingly Love and forgiveness for myself.
If you take the leap to faith to empty your self in silence and solitude and prayer, to intentionally seek to let go with the body’s help of the energies of neediness, of fear, of not having or being enough, of anger, of greed, of false pride..... you name the unhealthy energies that consume you....if you seek to empty your selves of these things? Will you be filled? Will you even survive? If you come with an empty cup to learn from God’s ways of structuring the world through grace, will you really be transformed, changed?
Yes, my friends, you will. God wants to fill you with grace and love. In fact God has already put them inside of you. You only have to look within. To let go, empty your self with God’s help. Then God will show you who you really are and what amazing gifts you are filled with and how you are to use them!
So we take the leap of faith, individually and collectively as community. We give our lives as living sacrifices, offerings as Jesus did, and then the world comes back at us with fear and hatred and persecution and oppression, what then? Life happens – we lose a job, a marriage, a child, a beloved parent or friend. We receive a diagnosis that is not good. What then? We feel emptied of all strength to keep on keeping on, empty to the point of nothingness, what then? God’s Holy Spirit will fill our cups with grace– which also brings love, courage, justice strength and compassion. We will be able to respond with a cup full of the gifts of grace and we will withstand the onslaught that can sometimes be life. So practice emptying to be filled. Empty can be so full.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Fort Collins, Colorado
September 7, 2017 (Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
[Silence from Pulpit looking out at the congregation.]
Have you ever had the feeling [PAUSE] that there was so much (so much 2x) you MUST say to someone that you couldn’t even start to speak? Today is one of those days for me as a young pastor. There is so much to say this morning and so much need for sacred, indignant Christianity in the face of Empire. But there is also a need for comfort and God’s assurance that All Shall be Well again… eventually in God’s Realm of Love and God’s Providence/ God’s dream for us as co-inhabitants of this finite planet and finite, mortal lives.
It appears to me, and many scholars, that the Apostle Paul, the author of this letter to the Christian community in Rome from the lectionary for today, was in a similar situation as a preacher. He had so many concerns and so little time to try to say it all to the communities he was leading. This means that Paul, in the midst of so much to say, sometimes contradicts himself, but today’s reading from Romans 13 seems to be Paul breaking free from systemic gridlock, confusion, logistics, and institutional minutia into a moment of absolute ethical clarity.
We imagine Paul saying to himself, “Yes, this must be said to Rome, forget about disagreements about laws, antiquated and complicated and contradictory as they are. Rather, refocus on Love (agape).” Like Paul, today, let’s get back to the basics: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” All of the commandments, “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to neighbor; therefore, love is fulfilling of the law.”
As I humbly attempt to channel a bit of Paul’s predicament and also clarity from Romans this morning, I covet you for your prayers. Pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our Rock, Our Sustainer, and Our Dreamer. Amen.
Hurricanes (plural) made of wind and rain and hurricanes of bad policy that puts old law before young people, protectionism before those who most need protection, a political base before the basic ethics of Christian faith. Bombs tested this week both in the arena of diplomacy and international relations with North Korea and in the middle of the living rooms, educations, and the personal lives of DACA/ Dreamer residents of this country— our neighbors. Where is God? Is God also on a golfing vacation somewhere in New Jersey?
This is a question that the Romans and the other early Christian communities also probably ask themselves—well, except without the New Jersey part. Where is God? Verse 12 says, “the night is far gone, the day is near.” Paul is writing to a community of Christians he has never visited in person, and he is trying to share with them the dream of Christian hope, a law of love, and a sense of where God is in the midst of persecutions, hiding, and life threatening potential conflict. Because the letter to the Romans is written without much specific familiarity, it is Paul’s most comprehensive letter with the biggest vision for what Christianity is all about. Paul, like his contemporaries, saw his time, as some of us see our own here and now with conflict, persecutions, and global climate change, as apocalyptic in one form or another—a time of great change and crisis.
Scholars agree that this chapter from Romans, while filled with a deep sense of love for neighbor (which means the whole world… all people... and not just a literal neighbor) is rooted in the genre of apocalyptic literature and a feeling of urgency, fear, and a sense of God’s Realm being the dawning of a new day...like tomorrow or now. So next time you hear this Romans passage being used in a wedding, I want you to chuckle to yourself and remember it is an apocalyptic text being used for that wedding!
While the immediate reality around them was grim, the call of Christianity from this letter onward has been to be the Dreamers for a better world that goes beyond borders, nationalities, and politics. Christians are called to be dreamers for a world beyond violence, deportations, and cold hard expediency or literal law. This is what Augustine wrote in The City of God. Christ calls us to post-borders, citizens of God’s realm of Love, to be Dreamers and enactors of a world of Holy Love for all.
“The night is far gone, the day is near.” “The night is far gone, the day is near.”
We are, in many ways, on this Sunday of setbacks and contradictions, wars and rumors of wars, weapons of unimaginable destruction, and deportations (separating of families and friends in the name of law and order)…kindred Christians with Paul’s community in Rome. We feel the need for a new day. We are on the brink of something new. Paul is writing to and for us. Additionally, like Paul’s Christians, we know that after us Christianity will never be the same. What will be left of our legacy?
Today, therefore, is the day to ask this question: What is the core, fundamental, back-to- basics dream of Christian faith? Let’s get back to basics. For Paul, the law doesn’t go away and still has value, but it is summarized first and foremost by a focus on striving to love and take care of one another.
The dreamers we are called to be for God’s world of love are threatened by unholy temptations to turn inward! Vestiges of Theological Education, remnants of denominational infrastructure, and catastrophic shifts in institutional function and arrangements threaten to take all of our attention as Christians to save what was and has been rather than dream of what could be. Some want us to dream of yesterday of before everything went wrong; but that is nostalgia, not a dream. Nostalgia in national politics and in church culture doesn’t lead to love-in-action. Christianity is the faith of the dreamers for God’s realm of now and tomorrow not the faith of nostalgia for a past that never really was.
To dream is what God does and it is something that comes for the future. When we release ourselves from the bonds of conflict and false prophets of nostalgia, and open ourselves up to love, then we are Christian Dreamers with God.
Does being dreamers for a world of love mean that we are inactive or passive observers?
Verse 11 and following: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in the day…not reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness… NOT in quarreling and jealousy.”
This week, veiled in confusing tweets and promises, those who were brought to the United States as children, raised as friends and patriots here, educated, invested, loved here as their home and country were told that they are no longer safe, no longer neighbors, no longer able to dream. You have heard of "un-friending," like on Facebook? [Ask for a show of hands.] This action is un-neighboring of 800,000 beloved and their families. DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, also known as dreamers, are the subject of Romans 13 today! You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!
As Christians, we also claim full solidarity with the dreamers being un-neighbored by policies of false nostalgia and false promises. As Christians, borders and political excuses don’t limit our ancient faith and ancestral calling. God’s dream is too big for that. You know what time it is! I am not going to leave you guessing today. God is a DACA recipient. God is a dreamer. Where is God? That is where God is—sleeping in a cold deportation center cell in Aurora.
God doesn’t need more lawyers debating God’s intent. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to neighbor. God is the one in our midst who looks like a neighbor or a childhood arrival immigrant working for a better future in education, community, and hope. This is how we live honorably as in the day of love rather than in the night of quarreling and jealousy—we work for justice and hope for DACA recipients. Only by showing love of neighbor in real ways can we wake from sleep and live-into the dreamer status we are called to embrace… to become Christian Dreamers (ALL) as God intends for us.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! In responding to the needs of DACA recipients, supporting them in following their dreams, recognizing their contribution, and standing in solidarity in these days of uncertainty… we love our neighbor as ourselves.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!
In giving to the victims of Harvey and Irma and by advocating for policies that will protect God’s beloved planet and people from further climate change and devastation… we love our neighbors as ourselves.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!
In our prayers and voices advocating for diplomacy and de-escalation rather than war and destructions, bomb tests, and global anxiety. By advocating for peace for the planet, we love our neighbors as ourselves.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!
It is time for love. It is time to be dreamers with the DACA Dreamers for a better world and a better tomorrow. It is time to dream a new world into bring.
Yes, we are dreamers called by God as Christians to imagine a better world, but that doesn’t mean that we are asleep to the needs in our midst. We are dreamers— visionaries for a world rooted in love.
Like Paul, we live in a changing and dangerous world that often seems apocalyptic. Often we get bogged down in politics and church nostalgia, but today we go back to basics… to love and to dream a dream for a new world.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! The dreaming has only just begun. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
The Rev. Ron Patterson preaches on Romans 12:1-8.
The Rev. Ron Patterson came to Plymouth as our interim for the fall of 2017 during the Rev. Hal Chorpenning’s 2017 sabbatical. Ron has served many churches from Ohio to New York City and Naples UCC in Florida, where he was the Senior Minister for many years before retiring. Ron’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren attend Plymouth.