September 28, 2014

Running on Empty


Text: Philippians 2:6-7a: “[Jesus,] though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself....”

Probably by now you have heard about a finding from behavioral research about the relationship between the money we spend and the happiness we get. The basic finding is very simple, even if it is counterintuitive: Given a choice between buying a thing, acquiring a material possession of some value, or spending the same amount of money on having an experience, like a trip or a concert or French lessons, most people choose the thing. You can imagine the reasons for this. We tell ourselves that it’s better to have something durable than it is to spend money on an experience that’s here today and gone tomorrow. If we buy something real, something tangible, we have something of value; we can always trade it, or sell it, or something.

The thing is, that same research tells us a very different story about the end result of what we spend our money on. Because it turns the experiences make us happier than the things. We get more benefit out of things like the trips and the concerts and the French lessons than we do out of the stuff.

In a way, we at Saint John’s have been profiting off this basic fact of human nature for decades. After all, for years we’ve had a very successful Gift and Thrift Shop operating out of our basement. You can pretty much summarize the whole business model of the Gift and Thrift Shop by saying that people turn out not to really need all the stuff that they get, and so they bring it to us to make good on that basic idea that you can at least sell the stuff you have to derive some value back from it. And when they do, Cleo and Eleanor and Suzanne and Gary and Fran have to teach them about how painfully little stuff really is worth.

The stubborn truth is that we are very bad at predicting what it is will bring us happiness, or fulfillment, or satisfaction, or meaning. And if we are bad at that when it comes to material things in this world, we sure aren’t any better at it when it comes to the spiritual things that are the points of contact between our existence and God’s eternity.

Nowhere is that more true than in the experience lots and lots of people have of church. Often folks come thinking they know what they are looking for, and when they don’t find it they generally leave disappointed—feeling as though the church, or God, or something, has let them down.

But of course the problem may be that there has been a kind of collision between the prevailing culture we live in, and the way that folks with very little experience of a faith community think that spirituality works—or should work.

Very often these days folks come into a church for the first time looking to fill some kind of spiritual hole. They are looking for something that will help them become more self-realized, or feel more fully actualized, They have a basic sense of who they are, and a growing sense of what they lack, and they come to the church looking for something about themselves to be completed, or answered, or fulfilled.

And almost always the church fails them. But not for the reason you might think.

We fail those seekers first and foremost because we try to help them find what they are looking for on their own terms—instead of telling them the truth; which is that they are looking for the wrong thing. At least, the thing they are looking for is not the kind of spirituality that lies at the very center of the Christian message.

Here’s what I mean. We live in a culture and in a time in which we are surrounded by messages about the vital, urgent, existential importance of self-fulfilment. We all know that everything from consumer goods to candy bars, from toothpaste to toilet paper, is sold to us on the appeal that it will help us lead more satisfied, more fulfilled, more contented lives.

Not surprisingly, if you are looking to explore the spiritual dimension of this human life and all you have to go on are the ideas that culture has taught you, you’re going to have some pretty basic expectations that spirituality works in the same way. You will think that the reason to be part of a spiritual community has to do with self-realization, with becoming a new, improved version of who you want to think you are.

There are lots of people out there these days making a very good living for themselves exactly because they have figured out how to sell the idea that this is a kind of spiritual quest that will get you anywhere you want to go. In the first draft of this sermon, this was the point at which I started naming names. I won’t do that here. You know who I’m talking about.

The weakness of the church is that we look at the incredible success of people offering that message, at the many people who hunger and thirst for a meaningful spirituality who go after those messages, and we try somehow to offer the same thing. But as soon as we try, we are on false ground. As soon as we try that, we have left the truth of what we have to offer in a bad bargain to make it more palatable to the people around us. As soon as we try that, we are no longer in the business of “true religion,” as the collect of the day admonishes us to be.

Because the truth of our message is that the Christian gospel is not about self-realization, or about self-actualization, or about self-fulfillment. In fact it’s about something radically different from all of that—something completely counter cultural, at least to this culture. It’s about giving up the quest for self-fulfillment in order to find the person God wants us to be.

Those may seem hard words, but think about those lines from the letter to the church in Philippi that Mr. Goeselt read for us this morning. You know when the Bible treats a text like this, when you see all of those verses suddenly indented and set off differently, that something must be up; and it is.

What’s up is that Paul’s letter here is quoting something. Those words are words Paul knew would be familiar to the church in Philippi. The scholars tell us Paul was probably right, because these words were probably the lyrics to a hymn that the earliest church sang about Jesus:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a 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 a cross.

Jesus is the model of our faith, and the example that he gives us is not an example about self-fulfillment or self-actualization. It’s not a model about identity politics or about God affirming things about me I long to have affirmed—as beautiful as that idea is.

The example we are given in the life of Christ is a model of self-emptying, about giving up the very idea of self in order to understand just what God has created us for. God seems to have the idea that human selfhood is not the highest possible form of human existence; Self-actualization turns out to be false summit—or even a false hope. All we really get out of it is an idea of meaning, of purpose, of life, of moral reasoning, limited to ourselves.

It has often been said that our faith is built on paradoxes, and this is one of the hardest to grasp: The model we are given for the life of human spirituality is a model in which we give up what seems to be the most precious gift God has given us, our very sense of self.

But there is a straight line that connects these words from Paul to the Philippians to words from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel we read about a month ago: those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

And there is a straight line that connects both of those passages from the Christian scriptures with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great prophet of troubled times: When God calls you, God is asking you to come and die.

No one ever said that the Christian faith is easy. No one ever said it would make sense in the terms of this world. No one ever said that it would work the way we want it to.

But the evidence we get right here, living together in faithful community, is evidence for the truth of this difficult message. When we lose ourselves, we find a truth greater than ourselves. When we stop caring so much about our limits, we find how much we can be expanded to include the lives of others in our own.

Christians are not cars. We are designed to run best on empty. We are designed to thrive when we find the grace to empty ourselves, so as to become more fully aware of God’s purpose, and more fully capable of living it out in the world. Amen.