19th Sunday [Thursday] after Pentecost
The following sermon was preached by Kent Narum, M.Div. senior, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, September 29, 2005.
Ezekiel 18:25-32; Philippians 2:1-13
Let us pray… Gracious God, as we meditate on your Word of Life,
Create a turning of our hearts, encircle us with Redeeming love,
Sustain us in the Spirit of your wholeness. Amen.
I have a bit of a confession to make. I hope you don't think me strange or confused, certainly as a senior, I'm hoping you will still consider me fit for ordained ministry… or if you don't consider me fit, that you won't tell my candidacy committee… still, I hope you'll listen to my confession. The truth is… that I've been…well, seeing things… [longer pause]
Perhaps, I should be more specific, the truth is, I've been seeing… circles. And not just seeing them… I've been hearing about them, I've been experiencing them, I've been totally caught up – totally encircled (shall we say) – in them, and I haven't been able to get out! I've been going in circles with circles!
I do take some consolation, though, that I don't seem to be the only one caught up in circles. The author of our first reading, the priest and the prophet, Ezekiel – he's been seeing them too. I think you know how the book starts, in the first chapter, with Ezekiel's "vision" of four living creatures, each with (in Ezekiel's words) a "wheel on the earth beside the living creatures…their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel… [and] the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels."
Well, I did take some consolation that someone else was seeing circles, that is, until I read the introduction to the book of Ezekiel in my Oxford Study Bible, and there I read one scholar's assessment, that, "Ezekiel, the most unusual among a unique class of individuals…" (this made me feel pretty good, but then I kept reading…) "…[Ezekiel]…dramatized his prophecies by bizarre actions (I started to not feel as good) that some interpreters see as simply literary devices… but which others see as reflecting pathological states." …and then I didn't feel so good any more.
But before you ask me to take the psychological examination again or to endure another background check, at least hear me out for a few minutes. At least, let me tell you about some of the circles I've been seeing… and hearing about… and getting caught up in… the circles I've been experiencing… and trying to live in to…
This semester I'm taking a class on Womanist Theology, that is, theology that is grounded and grows out of the experience of Black Women. And each week we sit in a circle, literally. But we also talk about the circle that womanist theology invites all people in to – and this is the metaphor for the inclusion and expansion and liberation… particularly in the midst of a history of exclusion and oppression.
But, there's been other circles, too… Now, I'm no meteorologist, but lately when I've picked up a newspaper or turned on the television, it seems that weather patterns have been going in circles too. I believe the technical term is "hurricane" – and it's shown me that not always are circles about liberation, but sometimes they can be destructive.
And I'm no sociologist, but it's been noted by many, that those we have seen most effected by the hurricanes, are people trapped in another destructive sort of circle. Circles or cycles of poverty and racism… Circles which we as a country can't seem to step out of.
And I'm hearing about the movement of a circles in our first reading this morning. Ezekiel writes at the conclusion of our reading, "TURN, THEN, AND LIVE."
Incidentally, and I'm not even kidding, as I was studying this text from Ezekiel, I was listening to the radio, and I heard that song inspired by another ancient writer, "To everything turn, turn, turn… There's a season turn, turn, turn…" I'm telling you, I've had it up to my eyeballs… and my toes, in circles. I feel like I'm trapped in a DaVinci drawing as if I was in some sort of yoga pose, with my feet together and my arms outstretched…
But arms outstretched… That calls us to our reading from Philippians today. Listen again to the imagery that Paul writes of Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, or grasped after – something to be seized or something to be plundered… no, Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave – a servant – being born in human likeness. And as a human, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death outstretched on a cross."
Do you notice the turning that Jesus took? The emptying? And as if completing a circle, Paul continues, "Therefore, God also highly exalted – highly empowered Jesus, and gave him the name that is above every name. So that every knee should bend at this name and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
At this, we do well to remember – as the Philippians surely would have – that this talk of "knees bending" and "tongues confessing who is Lord" was very familiar. In the Roman Empire of the 1st Century, these were phrases that one used to talk about proper reverence to Caesar the Head of the Empire. And, as one scholar reminds us, applying this language to Jesus would have been "POLITICAL DYNAMITE" – it would have been seen as an affront to Caesar, especially in Philippi where there was known to be a substantial military retirement area. But what does it mean for our lives, here in this community, that the name of Jesus should be the name above all other names?
Maybe the answer lies in circles. The religious leader, Eric Law proposes a model for Gospel living. This model begins with a simple circle… with two entry-points – one entering at the bottom and the other at the top. The entry-point at the bottom of the circle is characteristic of the first half of our reading from Philippians: the action involved is a giving up of power, it's not considering equality with God as something to be exploited, but it is an emptying, it can be a profound experience of humility. This entry-point on the circle is the experience of the cross, of death, and of powerlessness.
However, the second entry-point on this circle of Gospel living is at the top. And this entry-point is characteristic of the second half of the reading – its the political dynamite – it's about the exalting of Jesus over and against Caesar. It's a lifting up of the lowly, it's an empowerment of those who have been sitting on the bottom of the circle. This is the experience of the empty tomb and the resurrection.
You see, one of my misgivings about this beautiful cyclical image from Philippians is that it has often been read by people in positions of power TO people who lack power – for example, as a justification of slavery in the United States. The interpretation went, if Jesus gave up everything to be a slave, then you should be able to as well. To be perfectly blunt, it's been used to maintain oppression.
Joan Chittester speaks of this use of authority in her book "In Search of Belief." In this book she writes one chapter for each word or phrase in the Apostles Creed. In the chapter entitled, "Our Lord" (as in, "I believe in Jesus Christ, Our Lord"), she writes:
At its inception, "authority" meant "to promote" and "to enrich." Now it means "to control or to govern." … Jesus governed no one. Jesus enriched everyone. And the people said, "He spoke as one who had 'authority.'… [or as in the case of our Gospel reading yesterday, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus, "By what authority are you doing these things?"]
[Chittester concludes,] When [we] pray, "I believe in Jesus Christ…our Lord," [it] calls us to remember the Jesus we knew before the Resurrection so that following him thereafter we might use human authority to imitate his outpouring of love, instead of trying ourselves to assume his glory before our time.
And I think Eric Law's "Cycle of Gospel Living" is such political dynamite for us – as a world, as a country, and as a community at LSTC – just as the Apostles Creed was to the early Christians and the "Christ Hymn" certainly was in 1st Century Philippi. Because as Craig reminded us yesterday in his sermon, Jesus has already done the work to save us – we've already been made a part of the cycle of Gospel Living.
But going around in the circles of Gospel Living can be a dizzying experience. And I don't know about you, but I (from time to time) like to take a break from all the turning… I wouldn't mind settling in to a place along the circle – for me this is the trap of depression, sitting at the bottom of the circle, in powerlessness… but I know as a part of white culture and as an American, I also like to settle at the top of the circle where all the power and authority is, where I can have an espresso, or make that a double-latté.
But just as womanist – and other forms of liberation theology – reminds us that theology isn't created in a vacuum, but that it has a context, a cultural that it grows out of – so too, our own Gospel Living doesn't happen in a vacuum – it happens in community. And we're all connected, so when we get settled at one point in the circle, we're probably forcing other people in our community to settle at another point in the circle. There's a direct connection between me sipping my double-latté and the farmer in Latin America who is barely struggling to make a living growing coffee beans.
When I think of Ezekiel's message of "Turn, then, and live," it reminds me of my background in farming. I can't help but to think of my upbringing in Western North Dakota. You see, about this time of year, after the wheat has been harvested, (and at the other side of the circular season – in the spring), the ground needs to be cultivated, it needs to be turned. And this turning is a breaking up of staleness, it's a cracking of earth that's become settled.
And this is Gospel living. It's being turned and cracked open as the Spirit breaks into our lives and our community. So let us go forth speaking humble words of empowerment for others – knowing that God has already empowered us, already brought us in to the circle of Gospel living. Let us "turn, turn, turn…" Amen.