January 1, 2012, Holy Name of Jesus, Year B

Holy Name of Jesus, Year B
January 1, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was

Does anyone recognize the Greek word kenosis? It means something like “self-emptying.”

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not take equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of 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 the Cross. Therefore God also Highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend, in Heaven and on earth and under earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of the Father.”

Is anyone familiar with this passage? It is amongst the very best that Paul left us with. “…though he was in the form of God, did not take equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of slave being born in human likeness.” Does anyone want to make a stab at what it means?
Paul did not write these words. They actually constitute a hymn that had been used in ceremonies from probably the very first years after Jesus was executed. Remember, Paul was writing long before any of the Gospel writers, at least fifty years before Mark, which was the first of them. But here he is, commending to the folks in Philipi a hymn that he had learned somewhere in his travels.

All good religion is dependent on some balance between the known and the unknowable. The thought, the felt and the wondered upon. The forgotten and the as-of-yet-unrevealed. The seen, the unseen, the imagined and the not even considered. What this little hymn does is bring to the fore the paradox of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. It teaches us that He is fully God and fully human, and (maybe even most importantly) that that matters. It matters because we can learn from Him. We can practice this. We can walk the path that our God laid before us. You can let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

So what is this mind? How might it be in us? What is Kenosis?

Since at least the fourth century with Cyril of Alexandria through Sarah Coakley who is writing today, kenosis has been a hot topic. Initially the conversation was about how much of the divine-side of Christ’s nature was suppressed, emptied, so that the fully human side of Christ could live. The gospel record shows Jesus in dismay and anger and hope… things rather impossible for an omniscient/omnipotent God-man. Some of those divine powers had to be dealt with.

Think of our story… our God became incarnate and was born of a most humble and unlikely family. And here, in this realm, he walked around not smiting evil doers, not changing the world with a snap of his Divine fingers, he did yell at some folks, he did cause a ruckus or two, but mostly he did three things: he taught; he healed; and he fed. Poor people, mostly. Humble activities. “He emptied Himself, taking the form of slave… He humbled himself and became obedient, to the point of death, even death on the cross.” No triumphant King of Kings here. He rode to his death on a donkey into Jerusalem in a piece of legendary political lampoon that Abby Hoffman would have appreciated.

In modernity, though, the discussion of kenosis has taken on a much more interesting tenor. A more subversive tenor. Because if Jesus Christ teaches us one thing besides loving God and neighbor, it is that every one of His followers has a religious responsibility to subvert the powers and principalities of the world. What all this kenosis, this self emptying, this humbling to the point of death teaches is that the our greatest power is found in our vulnerability. We, these meek and fragile creatures with intensely limited abilities, we are powerful precisely in our humility. I think of Gandhi and the salt marches. Did you see the scene in the Ben Kingsley movie Gandhi, where rank upon rank of men walked into the swinging clubs of British imperial police. It was said that the British Empire broke on the heads of those martyrs. I think of the people just 35 years later walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Selma. And the dogs and the fire hoses. I think of that lone young man standing before the tank in Tianamen Square in 1989. Or Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who sparked the Arab Spring with his self-immolation.

It is everyday going to off to a job that you do not like, but that you need to support your family. It is getting up in the middle of the night with the sick child. Maybe it is getting up night after night after night with a child that will not get better. The nursing back to health, or gently accompanying our parents to their deaths. I know that the most powerful thing I have ever done had nothing to do with the tanks I used to command, the tractors I farmed with, or the people I ordered about in industry, no, the most powerful thing I have done in my life is filling the supporting role I had in the conception, gestation, birthing and now raising of two little girls. Humble work. And powerful. In it, the world will be changed. It already is happening.

Keep in mind, and I think this is what Paul was relaying, true power has very little to do with what we do. True power lays in who we are. Rosa Parks was a 42 year old, black church lady when she finally had had enough. She did not “do” anything. What she did was stop being what she was expected to be. She was expected to be compliant. She had not a lick of power in the conventional sense, but her being who she truly was, what God made her to be, powerful. So powerful that Montgomery, that this nation was changed forever.

What kenosis means is that true power, the power of God is manifest in those who most give it up to God. To those who most realize that it is not about them. It is not about me. Or my little community, my concerns, my nation. It is about God and God’s will. It is about conforming to the true nature of things. True power manifests in those who most fully submit to God. God is always on the side of the conventionally powerless, because physical power, the power to destroy, to kill, the power to make others do what you want them to do, it is nothing. It is not important. It pales in the face of the power of love, the power of creativity and friendship, imagination, the power of healing, and nurturing. It pales in the face of the power of hugs. “He emptied himself, taking the form of slave, being born in human likeness.”The greatest power in the world is the power to be.

Submission is part of kenosis. This is troubling, particularly for the oppressed, particularly for children, particularly for women, who do not need any more religiously sanctioned reasons to submit to anything or anyone. But a gift that current theologians like Sarah Coakley have given the world is tying the notion of kenosis to lives of practice. She writes that “we can only be properly empowered if we cease to set the agenda, if we make space for ‘God to be God’”. Remember, not being the one in charge is not shameful because truly, not one of us, not one human is actually in charge, preached by a person at least nominally in charge, mind you. And the more and more we think we are in charge, or worse, act like it, the further and further from God, from moral power, from true power, we are.

Here is how prayer can change the world. When we approach God, we need to put ourselves aside, put our needs and fears and comfort aside, our personalities, our histories, our lives aside, and meet God on God’s terms. This is kenosis, this is emptying ourselves. Bowing before the Lord is an experience shared by kings and serfs; priests and people; the CEO and the person who launders his shirts. The 99 and the 1 percent hold equal individual power in the economy of God, though the 99% generally have a leg up in the humility race. And therefore are more powerful, truly.

The one insight I ever had in meditation was along these lines. After a week of 16 hour days in the meditation hall, a question came to me. We were in silence, I had not heard my voice the whole week, and it occurred to me, that voice in our heads, the one that is us, the “me” voice, well the question that came to me was, “Whose voice is that?” In the kenosis of rigorous prayer, the emptying into silence, what I always assumed to be me was revealed to be yet another construct, another idea and not the true nature of things. We all have a chorus in our head, and we cannot really get on to God until we tame some of those voices, until we empty ourselves, until we find a way to really submit to Almighty God’s self. “And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of the Father.” AMEN