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Open to Abundant Grace: Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 1, 2023

--the Rev. Leslie Barnes Scoopmire


Grumble, grumble, grumble.

In all of the readings for today save the psalm, grumbling plays some part. Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi is grounded in the same issue. Unfortunately, we might miss that if we stuck to the verses we see here.

There is discontent among the Church at Philippi. This would become clear if we were given the two verses right after our reading today, for there Paul admonishes: “14Do all things without murmuring or arguing, 15so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.”

This might be where we see a tie-in with our gospel. People often see the gospel portion for Sunday as a straightforward criticism of the son who says yes to his father’s command but doesn’t go—a potshot aimed directly at the Pharisees who are questioning Jesus about his authority. Yet it is the son who grumbles “no” but later goes ahead and obeys his father who does his father’s will.

In this hymn we are being urged to be of the same mind as Christ—and Christ’s mind is not centered on empty shows of power, but on doing the will of God for no reason but out of humility and love, wanting to please God by doing exactly what we pray – probably with our fingers crossed behind our backs every single Sunday if we really think about what we are saying—when we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”

To have the humility to not place what we want, but what the Beloved wants at the forefront of our minds.

Oh, no, we think. Here we go with thinking about doing what we don’t want to do. To sacrifice. To give up things we value. All those fears that cause us to clench our fists around everything we’ve got because we think someone is trying to take it away from us.

What an interesting thing to bring up in the middle of our stewardship campaign.

Yes, I’ve said it. Especially when it comes to stewardship, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And since fear is all around us every day, Houston, we have a problem.

Because fear is EXACTLY what Jesus came to free us from. Fear that there is not enough. Fear that someone might want what we have. Fear that we won’t HAVE enough unless we keep a death grip on what we have. We have to keep score. We live by the dictum that those who die with the most toys, win.

Two thousand years later, we are reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Two thousand years later, therefore, the message of Jesus is just as radical, just as, um, strange, and just as challenging.

Listen to the introductory command in our reading from Philippians again: “…be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Well, this just about sums it all up, doesn’t it? If we want to be Christ-like, we start by being humble and outwardly focused, turning our hearts toward the needs of others. It’s in the very nature of who we understand Christ to be, especially Christ as the Incarnated One.

Jesus faced rejection again and again, even to the point of being accused of being a rebel and blasphemer and dying for it. He spoke of a love that sustained the world, a love that challenged the calculus of exploitation and injustice, and that made him an enemy of the state and a threat to those who thought themselves righteous. A love based not on grasping, but on grace.

At verse 7, Paul speaks of Jesus “emptying himself” of all his rightful honor and glory due to him as the Son of God, and choosing to be born lowly as a human. The Greek term for this is “kenosis,” and this section of Philippians is known as “the kenosis hymn.”

The problem is, as consumers in a consumer-driven culture, we have been taught to fear being empty. Emptiness equals hunger, desires not met. Emptiness goads us by reminding us of scarcity—scarcity of goods, scarcity of time, scarcity of real and lasting relationships. Emptiness, we believe, is the opposite of fulfillment. And let’s face it, if following Jesus means being empty, it’s no wonder that churches, too, are getting increasingly empty.

The problem is that we have gotten to be so afraid of emptiness that we are sometimes tempted into pre-emptively consuming—we eat when we are not really hungry, but to fill emotional needs or soothe old hurts. We buy a certain car to claim a status—whether we can afford it or not, whether that status is being sporty or powerful or environmentally hip. The wearing of logoed clothing has not gotten so ubiquitous that the trend among the truly wealthy is to wear luxurious but unlogo-ed clothing, a trend called quiet luxury. I wonder if this latest trend is a way of standing out by saying, “I am so wealthy and gorgeous I don’t need to stand out.”

And yet there is a hollowness to these vain strivings. It’s like trying to fill a bucket in the center of our souls that has holes drilled all in the bottom. That’s not the kind of emptiness Jesus embodies.

So here’s a key question: what if the emptiness Paul imperfectly describes isn’t something to be feared, but something that declares our union with God—the God who seeks to plug the holes in our bucket so that we can feel truly safe and at ease?

Instead, let me suggest that the kenosis, the emptying of himself, that Jesus embodies and calls us to emulate is instead something quite different—it’s openness. The openness that is a posture so alien to the world in which we live—the tribalized, fear-based, insatiable world that we breathe in in every moment. The world Jesus came to free us from by showing us something better: being rooted in a certainty of abundance—what is known as grace-- rather than a certain of scarcity and lack and need and hunger.

Because here is a fact: a clenched fist cannot hold anything. When we clench ourselves up, it is out of fear that we are vulnerable. The driving fear that runs this world, the fear of vulnerability, is a self-fulfilling prophecy though. The more you proclaim you are invulnerable, the more you realize it’s all a lie. Fear of vulnerability closes us off to others, to real relationship, and therefore to real fulfillment.

So how can we change the mindset? I want to suggest to you that it has been right in front of us, here at St. Martin’s, every time we gather to worship together. There is something at the center of our time together that is meant to illuminate the grace that is enacted at the center of every gathering for worship, praise, and encouragement we share every Sunday.

Smack dab in the center of the book we will be discussing in adult forum at the end of this month, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, Christian seeker Rachel Held Evans speaks about how Jesus comes to us over and over again by describing how approaching the altar rail at communion—a practice that was not central to her worship experience before leaving evangelicalism—reoriented her spiritual journey. With brash honesty she admits, in the chapter entitled Open Hands:

I resist it every time.

All the way down the aisle and up the steps to the altar I fidget, folding and unfolding my arms, clasping and unclasping my hands, forcing my mouth into a pleasant, inconspicuous smile as my eyes greet the faces of the congregants who have gone before me.

There is organ and choir and stifled coughs and babies’ cries.

There is incense and hairspray and old church and cheap perfume.

My knees hit the pillow beneath the altar rail and light from the stained glass dapples my skin. It's as vulnerable a posture as a body can assume: kneeling, hands kept together and turned out--expectant, empty, exposed-- waiting to receive. I resist it every time, this childlike surrender, this public reification of need.

Prayer, at least, offers some protection with its clasped hands, bowed heads, closed eyes. But here at the table I am open, unsheltered. The lines of my palms are dry creek beds and a basin awaiting water. I am a little girl crouched beneath the spigot.

The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

Jesus descends into my open hands.

The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.

Jesus slips in, through my parted lips.[1]

This giving, and its unspoken expectation that we be willing to receive, is at the heart of the life of a Christian, which is to say, the life spent emulating Jesus. Over and over, we remember, Jesus never asked for worship. Jesus asked us to follow him—to open ourselves to doing God’s will. Not our own. And the scariest thing is that God’s will is based not on taking from us, but giving to us. If only we will be open to that radical grace that Jesus embodies—the same one that throws away our ledger sheets and encourages our own radical generosity and receiving of God’s abundance so that we may share it.

Rachel notes how radically counter-cultural this posture of receiving is to us. She continues about how a friend’s gift of orchids when Rachel was being attacked and criticized by those in her former branch of Christianity made her feel vulnerable for its generosity. She continues:

I was in possession of my friend's gift long before I received it, on a gray day when its stubborn, irresponsible beauty could no longer be ignored. Until then I didn't want to admit how badly I needed her kindness, how helpless I was at sorting all this out on my own. I didn't want to see myself in those fragile, thirsty orchids, fighting against the gloom to trestle toward the light.

My friend knows better than most the nature of eucharisteo—thanksgiving-- how it enters through our soft spots and seeps in through our cracks. She knew God would then clench my fists and unfurl my fingers and that grace would eventually get through.

And so it did, when I finally opened my hands, when I received grace the way I received communion, with nothing to offer back but thanks.

“Grace cannot prevail,” writes Robert Farrar Capon, “until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”

This is why I need the Eucharist.

I need the Eucharist because I need to begin each week with open hands.

I need the Eucharist because I need to practice letting go and letting in.

I need the Eucharist because I need to quit keeping score.

… It's a scary thing to open your hands. It's a scary thing to receive, to say yes. I resisted every time period but somehow, whether it sneaks in through a piece of bread, a sip of wine, or a hatching bud, grace always, eventually gets through. And finally at long last, I exhale my thanksgiving.”[2]

Come to find out, God’s will begins with feeding us—an act of grace that starts us from the presumption that there is not only enough, there is more than enough. But the only way to know there is enough is by discarding our transactional notions of control, to let go of the cheap trinkets of this world we so desperately cling to in an illusion that we can be in charge of our relationships with others by demanding they fit our rules of behavior—and also to admit that we cannot control our relationship with God by thinking that God has some great ledger in the sky that we can earn our way onto. That illusion of control is as useless as a closed fist at the communion rail.

Jesus, in living among us as one of us, urges us repeatedly to open our hands and hearts so that we are able to receive and to hold to something infinitely better, infinitely precious: the grace and love of God. This mystery that we CANNOT earn, cannot achieve, cannot buy, cannot hoard. The mystery that comes only from being truly open to God and to each other the same way the roots of a tree open and spread out to hold onto the soil, for nourishment and stability and growth like we want to enable here at St. Martin’s through our financial generosity.

This sharing of communion—open to all, no background checks required—is the radical center at the heart of our Episcopal faith that broke me open as I, like Rachel, felt like I was a lover of Jesus but a hostage of the score-keeping Christianity in which I had spent several years in childhood—that same Christianity which makes a mockery of the radical grace at the heart of Jesus’s message and very life.

Come one, come all. Open yourself to receive the Body of Christ. Open yourself to receive God’s abundant grace. Let go of fear, and in a sacrifice of praise, receive the best God has to offer.

And go and do likewise.


[1] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving Leaving, and Finding the Church, pp. 142-143. [2] Ibid., pp. 144.

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