We live in a society that views death as a failure. So we try to avoid it…and all the hard stuff that feels like death. If you look around at our culture, we’re into all kinds of escapes through entertainment, substances, fantasy, virtual reality.
So the season of Lent gives us a unique and important opportunity to do something different and crucial and connective for our souls and bodies and minds and relationships: to approach death with acceptance and humility, recognizing that our days are numbered, like the Psalmist says, like we were doing on Ash Wednesday. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Learning to embrace our limitations again, our humanity, our vulnerability, and to work with ourselves as we really are. Lent is all about becoming more fully human. When we accept our finitude and frailty, we can allow the Spirit to reveal the divine in our humanness. Just like Jesus!
Our ultimate inspiration is seeing Jesus move toward death with acceptance, and move through it. That’s why the cross is up here front and center. Jesus takes the fear out of it. He shows us that death is not the end, and that it can be, in fact, a creative process that we can engage in now — learning to embrace our own little “deaths” and sacrifices – letting go – in order to realize the abundance of life.
Nature is a great teacher of this process, too. The poet George Herbert describes, “Thou (death) art a gard’ner now. We look upon the cross because it declares that death has been disarmed; it is no longer an executioner, ending our stories, but rather a gardener, tilling the fertile soil from which resurrection life rises.”
I think it’s no coincidence that the same root word for humility is contained in the word humus – the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of plant and animal matter. Humus is the product of death and decay that is essential for new life to grow! It’s powerful – full of so many nutrients because the mycelium – the bacterial network that we’re painting around the cross – has done its good work to refine and transform what is over into fodder for something new.
This is such a word of hope, friends, because I am so tempted to think when stuff is over, like relationship connections, or projects, that it’s just a failure and a loss. And I think so many of us have felt that way about different aspects of our lives over the past two years, right? Even in our church. We’ve felt terrible about whatever hasn’t worked. We’ve lamented not being to do things like we did them before. We’ve grieved losing connection with people we loved. We’ve questioned systems changing. It’s been so easy to look at all of this as failure and loss.
Yet here is the Spirit of God, even in nature, inviting us to see the opportunity in ourselves for something new. Even the wreckage and all of our terrible feelings and judgements around it are invited to be part of the transformation process. I’m trained in counseling and I learned from my teachers: “it’s all grist for the mill.” We learned to “trust the process” before the Sixers stole it, LOL. Everything in our lives: the good, the bad, the hidden, the obvious, is apparently all useful to the process of healing and new life. Because that’s where this is going!! Through Christ, the Risen King, the God of rebirth and spring-time miracles. The One in whom nothing is impossible, like the angel said to Mary.
But none of the good stuff happens – the really good stuff – the internal transformation that lasts – without the humility to enter this process of decomposition. Now, you might be thoroughly resisting this process of decomposition because it seems like it’s been forced upon you in some ways for the past two years. And really, we are instinctually taught to resist this process by way of survival as a species. We are designed for self-preservation, so we have all kinds of inherent defenses against change, and letting go, and giving things up, and getting vulnerable. If this was easy and inevitable, I wouldn’t be up here preaching about it.
But no, it’s really hard. It’s counter-intuitive, the way of Jesus. It is counter-cultural. It feels like dying, because it kind of is: dying to our ego, confessing our compulsion to try to manage what people think about us, giving up our illusion of control and manipulating outcomes, relinquishing being in charge of getting our own needs met, getting real about our motives and opening to the possibility that God could change us and God could actually take care of us because God loves us…all of this is like dying to an isolated sense of ourselves, and being reborn to our inherent connectedness to God and each other.
Let’s look at how God embraced that humility in his own humanity — in order to inspire us that it’s possible and to help us get practical with ourselves for how it can be done.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. – Philippians 2:1-13
The first thing I’d like to point out here is that it is God who does this good work in us. Dying to an isolated sense of ourselves in life is pretty impossible without the Spirit. That’s why we’re painting all this mycelium around the cross – to remind us that it’s a supernatural power – a higher power that gives us life.
I was stressing out a little bit this weekend trying to communicate to all of our friends, far and wide about the time change in our meeting, to try to call us back together as a congregation after two years in the pandemic, and one of our leaders, Jimmy Weitzel called me out. He told me that Jesus was chillin’ out, smoking a cigarette, while I was running around asking, “What you do need Jesus, what can I do for you?” Jimmy said that Jesus was smiling at me and enjoying his cigarette, saying “I got this.”
I don’t think Jesus is smoking a cigarette and I do think we work in partnership together. But Jimmy’s point is solid. God does the real work. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting in our lives. And Jesus promised that if he was lifted up from the earth, like he was in death on the cross, that he would draw all people to him. He is doing that drawing work right now through the Spirit! And the apostle Paul wants the Philippians church to know and rely on this fact, because following him in “death” – imitating the humility of Christ – is not easy. It’s not Christianity Light. It’s the process that transforms us and enables us to endure the worst of times and circumstances with faith and love that spreads like wildfire. That’s what I want for all of us.
So how do we do it? How do we enter this process again, besides trying to remember that it’s not just about us and our power, it’s about relying on the power of the Spirit?
Well I see alot in here about community. I see a real surrender to ONE ANOTHER. I see a call to share our love and be like minded and be willing to serve each other. And I do not see a lot of qualifiers about that. I do not see clauses in here that say: if these other people share your same instincts and communicate in a way that is kind and acceptable to you, then you should love them. I do not see any justification for tone policing or judging each other in here. I do not see any requirement for even liking each other or having anything in common except a desire to be with Christ. I see a very low bar: if you have ANY encouragement from CHrist, if you have ANY tenderness and compassion, even a shred, then value others above yourselves, and look to the interests of others. Help us Jesus! We have gone so far in the other direction as a culture where it’s our job and a hard one at that to just take care of ourselves and our own families! And here you are showing us that the way to LIFE is through taking care of each other. Help us, Lord.
I think we could start pursuing this communal love by simply meeting back together again, consistently, now that we can, in small groups throughout the week, and Sunday meetings, and see what God could to do. Simply showing up will put us in the environment, the soil, to change and be remade. That is a comfort.
We are showing up to look at Jesus, after all. He is the main event that makes the imperfections of ourselves and others manageable. He is why we’re here. And if we contemplate him in community and alone, we will become more like him.
What does it mean to contemplate? It means to take a long look and keep looking. It is a focus, and returning our gaze when we get distracted again and again. All we have to do is come back to look at him again. I keep a cross above my doorway at home, across from the spot on the couch where I think and write and pray and talk to people. As I work, I often bump up against my limitations, and that inspires me to look up at Jesus on that cross and see him there above my doorway, all stretched out in love, actively loving me and the world. And I ask for help to be like that. Sometimes I see myself in his embrace, his eyes of compassion on me, and sometimes I simply feel called to be more in that posture myself. But you get the idea. Looking at Jesus changes us and our perspective. It calls us to our truest selves.
Looking at Jesus is all God really asks of us, and I hope that’s all our church really asks of each other. Because we’re not in charge of controlling and judging the other stuff. We’re not in charge of the transformation. But if Jesus is at the center, and he is, we can look toward him for hope and clarity, even if we feel really far away.
I appreciate how some theologians have been borrowing terms from mathematicians to talk about how groups are held together in the church. A “bounded set” is a group that is held together by a clear line of expectations and rules, doctrine and beliefs. Those who do not meet the expectations are out, but the people who follow all the rules can stay in.
Without clear expectations and rules, the group could be considered a “fuzzy set.” It’s not clear what keeps these people together and eventually the group dissipates.
But if the group has a center, like the gravity of Christ, lifted up from the earth in humility and love, everyone has a point of orientation. Everyone who has even a side-eye on Jesus belongs. It’s not the group’s job to measure that distance that anybody is from the center; the invitation is simple to look toward the center. Our gaze and desire for God is what holds us together, even when it’s weak. God does the holding, after all.
When we see Jesus there at the center, we see One who gave up his divine advantage to dominate in order to serve. He yielded his capacity to control. He surrendered to the organic process, to God’s way, even to death, in order to connect and bring us together. He transformed to show us that we can, too. Looking to his humility helps us recognize and dissolve the lines that keep us from each other. By moving toward him, we move closer together.