Sunday, September 28, 2008

The race to the bottom - Proper 21A - Sept 28, 2008

It would hardly come as a newsflash to point out that we are coming to the end of one of the longest presidential campaigns in U.S. history. I believe that senators McCain and Obama are both honorable and patriotic men who sincerely desire the best for their country. However, no one, especially in our time, can become president of the United States without possessing a degree of ambition that is almost unimaginable. The discipline of an Olympic athlete pales beside the discipline it takes to sit in the Oval Office. Furthermore, to become president one must be absolutely convinced that one is qualified to wield more power than any other single individual in the world and possibly more power than anyone else in human history. Finally, I also suspect that no one can become president without a degree of ruthlessness. I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense, but the pursuit of the presidency requires a willingness to put aside one’s own needs and often to put aside the needs even of one’s spouse and children. It requires a willingness to punish one’s enemies promptly and without sentimentality.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us about another race, not a race to the top, but a race to the bottom. Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [or servant]”. Paul outlines five steps in Jesus’ race” to the bottom: he emptied himself of his divine nature; he took human form; he became a slave or servant to others; he was crucified; and he died.

What a contrast to the presidential campaign! One is a race to the top and the other a race to the bottom. One is about having more and more power, and the other is about having less and less power. One is about seeking the highest office and the other is about seeking the lowest place in the universe – the grave. Don’t misunderstand me: we live in an imperfect world. We need officials, including presidents, monarchs, and prime ministers to order human affairs. The United States long ago decided that the office of president would be filled by someone elected to it for a four year term. In order to be elected, one must want to be elected and campaign for the office. And not even our greatest presidents have had unmixed and pure motives for seeking the presidency. But Christ bids us seek service rather than self-aggrandizement. He invites us to join him not in a race to the top but in a race to the bottom, a race to the place of greatest need.

The steps Paul outlines in Philippians are also the steps we have to take. First, Christ “emptied himself.”. We, too must empty ourselves. There are times when we must put the needs of others before our own, God’s priorities ahead of our own priorities. Now, because we are human and finite, we must also exercise good self-care. Without caring for ourselves, we would have nothing to give to others. But if we are attentive to God, then we will find that at times God calls on us to throw caution to the wind and in ways both large and small to give ourselves for others.

Second, Paul tells us that Christ took human form. We also have to get inside the skin and the minds of others – to learn to see the world from other points of view, to empathize with those different from ourselves. The world looks very different from the point of view of the developing world than it does in most of North America. If we are white, we would do well to imagine what it is like to be black in a majority white culture. Christians should occasionally stop and imagine the world through Jewish or Muslim eyes.

Third, Christ took the form of a servant. It sounds simple and it is simple to serve others. We do it every day. We prepare a meal for someone else; we even sometimes do the gracious thing and let the jerk in the approach lane cut in traffic ahead of us. But to be a real servant is to give up some of our power, our prestige, our place of honor. It is to step back and step down and let another have the higher place. It is to be willing to receive orders, rather than to give orders, and these are things I find very difficult to do and suspect you to, too.

Fourth, Christ embraced the cross. To understand what that meant in the first century, we must know that crucifixion was the most shameful form of death in the Roman world. The great Roman orator Cicero said, “Far be the cross from even the mention of a Roman or free-born person.” For us to embrace the cross is to embrace that thing, that place, that we find most disturbing, most difficult, even most shameful. Our cross might be our willingness to let others think less of us in order to save the reputation of another. It might be our willingness to tell the hard truth instead of the easy and face-saving lie.

Fifth and last, Paul tells us that Christ embraced death itself. We die not once but many times. We accept death when we refuse the job with more power and a higher salary because it will require moral compromises. We might die a bit when we reorder our financial priorities so that we can give more to the church and other worthy causes.

Winston Churchill once remarked that we make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give. For Christ, life was less about having and more about giving. And that is the mind, the attitude, that Paul tells us we should all have.

In Sunday School last week I pointed out that the Roman world put the highest value on honor but that Christianity reversed Roman values by pu tting the highest value on humility. The cross was the most shameful form of death but Christianity put the cross in the very center of their faith. Christianity also seems to reverse the values of our world.

I have no quarrel with those who seek the presidency in order to serve the common good. It is a noble task, and I believe that some are called to it. But all of us are called to seek not the place of highest honor and greatest power but the place of least power and greatest humility. Because that is where we will also find the most profound meaning for our lives and the source of greatest satisfaction. That s where we will find God and the very power of Christ’s resurrection.