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.