No Privilege

Passage: Philippians 2:1-8
Date: March 24, 2019
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Our scripture reading this morning is based on an ancient song of praise.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing 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. . .”

Kenosis. That is Greek, the word we translate “emptied.” Empty.How do you feel when you think of “empty”?

I remember being a new driver and driving a friend’s car (a 1972 Ford Thunderbird) during my freshman year of college. It was near midnight; I didn’t have much money in my pocket and had no credit card. The gas tank was running low, but I reasoned that I wasn’t driving too far and thought I’d have no problem. But, as I was climbing a tall hill, the car sputtered to a stop. I was all alone on a deserted road, far from a phone. I managed to pull mostly off the road. I hiked to a phone and my friend came with a gas can. He was pretty upset with me. When I think of “empty,” I remember the feelings that resulted from the empty gas tank: guilt, fear, dread. 

We mistrust emptiness, don’t we? Fill the silence with chatter. Fill closets, files, drawers, and garages with stuff. Fill our bellies with food and drink. Fill our minds with worries, obsessions, complaints, things we need to control. Generally, we don’t like “empty.”

This hymn that Paul included in his letter to the Philippians sings of a God who, from love, empties out Divine power to be one of us. This loving God becomes one who is disenfranchised:a slave. One who knows loss, suffering, and death.

When Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison because his teaching was deemed a threat to the status quo of the Roman Empire. Paul didn’t know whether he’d be released or sentenced to death. Paul wrote to the leaders in the church at Philippi, realizing that they may need to forge ahead without him. He urged them to be unified. To be emptied of anything that would set them apart from one another. Paul used this hymn that shows God vindicating the slave. (And yes, “slave” is a word that has history and pain in our American culture, doesn’t it? More on that in just a bit.)

In the New Testament context, the plea to “regard others as better than yourself” is about behavior, not self-esteem. Self-esteem is a modern concept. This type of humility has to do with people’s concrete, everyday lives. It’s about who has access to what they need and who doesn’t. Think about how as a host you would go out of your way to serve guests, to put their needs above your own. Paul’s admonition to “regard others as better than yourself” was subversive in the context of Roman society. These words weren’t aimed at the poor, the women, the slaves, because they were expected to be humble. No, those words were for the privileged ones. 

His message was countercultural, strange and even insulting. Paul wanted the privileged ones to be aware and to practice the values embodied in the hymn. Elsa Tamez, in her Biblical commentary on Philippians, wrote about this passage: “Sincere humility in people who have a privileged position helps maintain unity in a group that includes people from more than one level of society.”

In my experience, humility usually has come from experiencing failure, loss,and suffering. The cyclone that has devastated southern Africa; the flooding in the Midwest; the mourning New Zealanders; the mourning of dear loved ones—Walt Partenheimer; Carolyn Zelle’s father, Les—these are the latest manifestations of the loss and pain that permeate our life together in these mortal bodies, on this fragile and beautiful emerald and cobalt-blue planet.

Kenosis. Emptying. Pain is universal.It is when the heart is broken that compassion can begin to flow through it. Ecologist Joanna Macy said, “We are in grief, together.” Have you noticed that the more comfortable we are, the more insulated from suffering, the more isolated and judgmental we tend to be? You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been using the word “privilege” a lot. That’s because I’m trying to see in my own life the privilege that I enjoy and that has been invisible to me.

Earlier this month, ten of us from Westminster, along with 500 others from around the nation, attended a Presbyterian NEXT Church Conference in Seattle. We heard inspiring preaching from several people of color. As a white woman sitting in the pew, I was inspired. But there were times when I also felt pain and discomfort. It is difficult to recognize and name my own privilege. At times, it’s invisible to me, but it’s there.

By definition, privilege “is a special advantage, available only to a particular person or group.”

Author and activist Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as “ the invisible package of unearned benefits.” Now, in this congregation, we come from different races and experiences. Some of us have received the “package of invisible, unearned benefits.” And some of us have not received that package and are well aware of the barriers in everyday life. You may think that in raising this issue, I’m making trouble. But friends, the trouble has been here in the fabric of our American history from the early times, beginning with whites stealing land from the indigenous peoples and building an economy on the backs and lives of black slaves. It’s long past time that we talk about this and make visible the pain. It’s time to be emptied of privilege so that with “one mind and the same love,” with God’s forgiveness and grace, we can move forward.

Today, many are disillusioned by political struggles. But yielding to the disillusionment runs the risk of seeing things simplistically. In times of persecution, what matters is people’s concrete, everyday lives, because their bodily security is more urgent than debates about ideas. This is why we have the #blacklivesmatter movement. The ancient hymn in Philippians reveals a God who becomes a slave, whose life matters. A God, born in human likeness,who struggles with simply having bodily safety in an unjust world. This God who relinquishes power to be human points to our common humanity.

“Being of the same mind and having the same love” means that none of us can truly thrive while any of us are struggling to survive. In ancient Rome, and today, it’s true that those in power take more power by stirring up fear. But Jesus shook that up. I like what songwriter Leonard Cohen said:

“Jesus may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness. . . a man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless.. .It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion.” That generosity, friends, is our good news!

During our “Letters in Lent” series, we’ve been studying the letters in scripture and inviting you to write a letter during the week. This week, I invite you to write a letter to yourself. Write about what you fear losing. What have you lost that causes you pain? What do you feel about emptiness? Or maybe you want to write your questions/fears/anger about the racial inequities and conflicts. . . And where is God in that for you?

Our world is so hungry for honest and true conversation and action around racial injustice. I realize that I may have stumbled today, and if so, I ask for your forgiveness. I know that when we risk speaking about injustice our lives will grow so much richer and deeper because we have extended ourselves. Our creativity will blossom, for we will not be stuck with our old assumptions, our narrow ways of perceiving reality. Our world will grow wider and softer and more trusting. Priest Matthew Fox notes that “A truly emptied person is so vulnerable to beauty and truth, to justice and compassion, that she or he becomes a truly hollow and hallowed channel for divine grace.”

In the news this week, we met Abreem Rachid. If anyone has experienced being “emptied” it would be Abreem. She lost both her husband and her son in the shooting in one of the mosques in in Christchurch, New Zealand. She said, with passion: “I have love in my heart. So I’m happy and contented. You can’t see me crying.”

When the white supremacist began his rampage in Christchurch, Ambreen’s son Talha was inside the Al Noor mosque, praying. He had just graduated from college and was working as an engineer. Of her son, Abreem said: “Talha was a gem. He was such a kind, gentle person, always pretty helpful. He will live forever because beautiful things never die.” NaeemRachid, her husband of 22 years, died trying to stop the gunman. She said, “He had a strong faith and he had love. It made him so strong that he could confront a man with a weapon.”

In the past ten days, Abreem has found strength in something she saw at an ever-growing memorial in Christchurch. There’s a sign on the fence with just eight words: Birthplace: Earth; race: human; politics: freedom; religion: love.

Abreem said: “Those people with hate, they will never be successful. My son, my husband, and all those people who gave up their lives, they have just brought all the humans together.”

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete:be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:1-2)