Let The Same Mind Be In You

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October 01, 2017

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost


Please note: Dean Dominic Barrington incorporated words drawn from a raffle at the Cathedral Gala. Below, he relates the words in red (curmudgeondotardpsoriasisda Bears, and bodacious) to the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and Moses. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

A pious young man felt called to the monastic life, and after much research and prayer enrolled in a strict contemplative order, known throughout the church for the severity of its ascetic life. Other than in liturgical worship, the monks lived under a vow of total silence, using simple gestures to work out the minimal requirements of their communal life together. Just once every seven years, they were allowed the briefest of interviews with the abbot, a reserved and taciturn figure who inspired an equal measure of fear and awe amongst the brothers.

For this particular young man, who had fully embraced the challenges of this intense form of religious life, his first seven-year interview allowed him the chance to make one request to the abbot, for something which had been concerning him almost since his arrival in the community. When asked by the abbot if all was well with him, he replied, “Father abbot, all is very well with me, save that the mattress on the bed in my cell is extremely misshapen and lumpy, and I find it impossible to get a full night’s sleep. I would be very grateful if it was possible to change it.”

The abbot nodded, and said, “My brother, it will be done as you wish.”

Seven more years passed, and the time came when Father abbot once again asked the not quite so young monk if all was well with him. “Father abbot,” he replied, “all is very well with me, save that when my mattress was changed seven years ago, the men who took the old mattress out of my cell broke the window, and every time it rains I get very wet, which makes it very hard to sleep. I would be grateful if the window could be repaired.”

The abbot nodded, and said, “My brother, it will be done as you wish.”

Seven more years passed. By now the monk was well into middle age, and the abbot had become a rather irascible curmudgeon, and, after 21 long years, the time came for their third interview. This time it went a little differently, for when the abbot asked if all was well, the monk replied, “Father abbot, I have reluctantly decided I must leave the monastery. Although the window was repaired seven years ago, the result of all the rain that came in over those years ruined the new mattress you had given me, making it even more lumpy and misshapen than the one I first had. If I am honest, I have not had a good night’s sleep in 21 years. I will have to leave the community.”

The abbot looked him in the face and said, “That will be best for all of us. After all, you’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”

So let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

And that, so Paul is keen to tell us this morning, that means not looking to our own interests, even if the rain destroys our mattress, and we get no sleep for 21 years. It means not looking to our own interests, even if things aren’t working out too well. It means not looking to our own interests even if we are being persecuted or imprisoned – as is the case with Paul, who is writing to the Christians in Philippi from a prison cell.

It means not looking to our own interests even if we are hungry – as was the case with the Hebrew people when we touched base with them last week, when, in the previous chapter of Exodus, they were claiming that Moses had only led them out of their slavery in Egypt to kill them by starvation in the desert.

And, of course, it means not looking to our own interests when we are thirsty, which is the current complaint of the Israelites, who, now that they have acquired an ongoing supply of manna from heaven that’s going to stop them being hungry for an entire forty years, now they’re moaning at Moses because they’re thirsty.

Yet again, the Israelites are debasing the miraculous story of liberation, in which God has not merely heard and acted on their prayer, but set up a narrative of release from slavery that to this day is part of the cultural and historical backdrop of the so-called civilization of the so-called developed world. But for now, the Israelites are moaning and quarreling again.

“Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” cries Moses.

Moses isn’t happy. And that’s fair enough. At every point in the Exodus narrative thus far, Moses has problem-solved, and problem-solved remarkably well, because Moses has problem-solved by turning to God, and demonstrating trust in God’s call to God’s people. A trust which the Israelites are remarkably slow in sharing:

[For] the people thirsted there for water; and … complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people?

What shall I do with this people? After all, they’ve done nothing but complain ever since they got here… And that’s because, of course, they are not of the same mind as Christ Jesus…who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Now that might sound a little unfair. For if we want to get narrowly historical about the events of the Exodus – something which, itself, is not entirely straightforward – but if we are going to talk dates or timings, we are talking about events some 1200 or 1300 years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. You might think that it is unfair on the Exodus wanderers to accuse them of failing to be of a Christ-like mind when the person we call the Christ was way over 1000 years in their future. But, for St Paul – and thus, perhaps, for us – that won’t do.

And the reason it won’t do is that, in this crucial passage of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, what is really going on here is not just Paul telling the Philippians to work out how to behave well in God’s eyes… Paul is wrestling with just who and what Christ Jesus is. Paul is wrestling with just what on earth it means to say that Jesus is God…being found in human form. And that has implications – a whole load of world-changing, life-transforming implications, which, of course, is why it is that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

And one of these implications is that if we are of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, we are, in effect, of the same mind as God the Father – the mind which Moses is deeply wishing the faithless Israelites possessed.

As I mentioned, Paul is writing this great epistle from a prison cell, quite possibly near the end of his long and remarkable life. But, even if he is advanced in years, his senses are not dimmed or failing, and he is certainly no dotard – if anything, he is quite the reverse. For it is in this passage that we find the first attempt to do what scholars would nowadays call Christology – which simply means thinking about the implications of saying that the human being called Jesus is divine. In this famous passage, we get the first ever recorded insights into the eternal nature of Christ.

And, as a side note, if you want to know what that might mean to Paul in terms of poor old Moses’ problems that we saw in the first reading, you should look at First Corinthians Chapter Ten, where Paul is reflecting on the journey of the Israelites who, he says, were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea… And he talks about how they drank from the spiritual rock – the rock we just heard read about – and he makes the remarkable claim that the rock was Christ.

So, at least as Paul is concerned, being of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus is an eternal and ongoing challenge for the people of God. Paul, we know, struggled with what he calls a ‘thorn in the flesh’ – an affliction that dogged him throughout much of his life. Nobody knows precisely what it was, but most scholars think it was some kind of ongoing diseases such as epilepsy, or another chronic condition such as arthritis or psoriasis – but, whatever the precise nature of the affliction, for him, this was not a cause of complaint but a cause of rejoicing because whatever this weakness was, it helped keep him closer to the mind of Christ.

But, for most of humanity, that's a challenge, and it is certainly a challenge which we see the Israelites failing on their Exodus journey, as they drive Moses to distraction with their quarreling and testing. And it is a challenge which arises in each and every generation. For it is, quite simply, the challenge to do the will of the Father (to use Jesus’ own words from the gospel we just heard), rather than indulge our own will – even if we are parched and screaming out for water to slake our thirst. It is the challenge to keep our focus on God and not ourselves.

And do you know why this is so very challenging? It’s because we should know better. In each and every generation, we should know better than to indulge ourselves at the expense of serving God or serving our neighbor. In each and every generation, we face anew the challenge of being of the same mind and having the same love as Christ Jesus. Even though we know how God is calling us to do this – calling us through the Law, the Prophets and the life of Jesus, calling us through the stories of the saints of God and the mission of the Church – even though we know all this, it is always a challenge to shut off self-interest and wake up to living out a life fashioned around God-interest, so that at the name of Jesus knees will, indeed, bend in heaven and on earth.

And, of course, some of that plays into the controversies of the last week or so about ‘taking the knee’, as we are coming to call the gesture we have seen played out in sports stadiums, to the evident fury of the President. And while members of the Bears here in Chicago merely locked arms in solidarity at Soldier Field last Sunday, you will find a Sun-Times photo of two African American Chicago cops in uniform taking the knee in the lobby of a South Side precinct only six days ago.

The former Dean of Duke Divinity School, the English priest Sam Wells, was reflecting on this in a three-minute talk on the BBC during this last week, and speaking of how white Europeans fled persecution to find freedom in the New World that was these lands, but that for black people, the opposite played out, as they lost their freedom in Africa to be dragged into slavery in the Land of the Free.

That Colin Kaepernick chose to ‘take the knee’, and echo in public what Sam Wells calls the devotional practice of private prayer has something to do with a failure to heed Paul’s words: in humility regard others as better than yourselves…let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Whatever your own opinion about kneeling during the national anthem might be, you will recognize a truth that if in the early years of this nation those whose skins were white had exercised that Paul-like humility in not looking to their own interests, and regarding those whose skins were black as being better than they were, the history of the United States might have played out rather differently, even down to the age in which we live.

For the white-skinned Europeans who fled persecution and came to these lands, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, were not ignorant of the Bible or of the message of God, and perhaps they should have known better in their treatment of those whose skins differed in color to their own.

Just like the thirsty Israelites should have known better and trusted God and the leader he had sent them in Moses. And just like the chief priests and the elders of the people should have known better and trusted not just the teachings of John the Baptist but of Jesus, who outwits them in wordplay with consummate ease in today’s gospel reading.

For Jesus is clear and confident that the outcasts of his generation, it is these marginalized and despised folk will precede the self-righteous religious types into the kingdom of God. And they are liberally sprinkled through the Good News of the gospel narratives: abundantly repentant tax collectors like Zacchaeus, and bodacious women like the one who wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair to the fury of the pharisaical host, Simon.

Whether you look at the religious pre-history of the era of the Exodus and the enslavement of the Hebrews and their hungry and thirsty journey in the desert, or whether you look at the imprisoned and chastised evangelist St Paul; whether you look at the political and societal corruption that led to slavery in the south and sowed the seeds of racial discrimination that blights the US to this day, or whether you look at the corruption of vested interests and self-aggrandizement that causes the poor to be poor and getting poorer and the rich to be rich and getting richer in so many parts of the world in our own era – whatever you choose to look at, you can find too many examples of what happens when human ego has put itself first and not known better. And remember that ‘ego’ is the acronym for "edging God out…"

But Paul, Paul sings out to us gloriously this morning – Paul tells us, the children of God, to do something very different. Because God was found in human form – and God suffered human consequences in this very human and very unjust world. God in Christ became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

And don’t let 2000 years of accumulation of religion obscure for you the fact that for those to whom Paul was writing, that phrase – even death on a cross – was no less than scandalous. And it was by doing this – by living out this scandalous undertaking - that God showed it was not the end of the matter, because, incredibly, it is death on a cross that becomes the path to glory, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend – even in the sports stadiums and police precincts of America, apparently – and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Paul, writing from a prison cell, knows that he has staked everything on this radical transformation that God has wrought in the world – staked even his very own life. And he urges us to do the same – to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

And if you are really up for the challenge – who knows how we might change the world. Amen.