Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Cleaning the Dustpan"

[I have recently learned from my mother that my grandmother may soon be in hospice care. At the very least, my parents can no longer provide for her needs and are struggling with all that entails. Not long ago, I was preaching on the power of powerlessness, and could think of no greater example of this in my life than my grandmother. I'm sharing it with you, not because it is such a great sermon, but I need to honor my grandmother and RMJ shared the keys to this blog long ago, which has provided me with a forum. Thank you, RMJ.]

Text- Phil 2:1-11

This Paul fellow…he sure does like setting the bar kind of high, don’t you think? I mean, there are a lot of things that people in community can accomplish together, but Paul is asking a lot of these people in Philippi: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Doesn’t sound like he’s worked with too many committees, does it? How about “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself”? Sure “selfish ambition” doesn’t sound too great and maybe that’s something to avoid, but the last bit sounds like poor self image to me. And what about: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”? I mean, how are you supposed to look after the interests of others if you can’t be sure your own interests are going to be met?

It kind of sounds like Paul has lost his grip on reality a little here. After all, he seems to be advocating “downward mobility,” and how is that supposed to help the church grow and get the Good News out into the world? Maybe, instead of putting these suggestions on his wish list, Paul should be asking for a high powered lawyer, or some powerful and connected people to lobby on his behalf. At the very least, a cake with a file and a saw in it.

I guess I forgot to mention that Paul was writing this letter from prison. It seems that he had been making the powers that be rather nervous, and you gotta wonder why, when he hands out suggestions like these. Advice of this nature hardly seems threatening, does it?

After all, its not easy advice to take. It really would seem to be a difficult thing to “make (his) joy complete. Paul has a good grasp on human nature, doesn’t he? How do we measure and assess our lives? By comparison and with superlatives. Bigger-biggest, better-best, holier-holiest. We seem to be hard wired to be self centered and intentional about staying there. Wouldn’t it take someone exceptional to do what Paul is asking of the Philippians?

I suppose it depends on how you define exceptional. I’d like to tell you about Sophie. Sophie was born in 1926, the oldest of three children. She, her sister and her brother lost their mother when they were very young. During the Depression, her father traveled around for work and the children were left with a series of relatives, who were having trouble providing for their own families. Sophie occasionally remembers feeling like a burden, but never felt that she had been abandoned or was unloved by her family. She does remember many times when she didn’t have shoes, and developed something of a fixation with being well shod in adulthood-sort of an Imelda Marcos on a K-Mart budget kind of thing.

Sophie married in her late teens, when her handsome fiancée, who had joined the Navy when WW II broke out, was on shore leave. She gave birth to their first child just before he shipped out. Ernest served in the Pacific and sent her a bracelet made from the wreckage of a kamikaze plane that had hit his ship. He returned from the war and they went on to have four more children.

Ernest brought home a deep silence about his wartime experiences into which he poured hard liquor. He worked “high steel” in the booming construction trades, but somehow they never managed to own a home. Sophie occasionally had to leave with her children during times when Ernest was drinking hard and became abusive towards her, but didn’t consider leaving the relationship, concerned that she would not be able to support her children on her own.

The family moved from house to house, but in spite of the somewhat unsettled nature of their lives, the kids all turned out pretty much ok. All but one finished high school, and one went on to graduate college eventually. Her middle boy was stricken with polio when he was a baby, but he got the help he needed and he survived, even walked without aids. Her children remember many happy times as a family, don’t talk much about the tough times, and all look upon her as a “good mom.”

Sophie has 13 grandkids and, I think, 12 great grandkids. Her jobs outside the home were all menial. She outlived her sister, brother, husband and oldest son. Currently, she has rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s and lives with her oldest daughter.
Is Sophie exceptional? If she is, you wouldn’t know it from my recitation. She’s a working class woman who has had a hard life and did her best. By most standards, she’s clearly not exceptional.

By Paul’s standards, however, Sophie could make his joy complete. I’ve known Sophie all my life, and I have never heard her say a critical word about anyone. To her family, to her co-workers, to the stranger on the street, she is an encourager. She builds up with her words and actions. She cares for others before she ever cares for herself. Service is second nature to her. Being surrounded by insecurity and conflict her entire life hasn’t made her defensive, and she is a most vulnerable and trusting soul. She believes with all her heart that whatever happens has a purpose, and her appropriate response is to trust in God and see it through. What the world might think of her never seemed to matter. Sophie seems to have no better grip on “reality” than Paul does.

But Paul hasn’t lost his grip on “reality,” as its defined by human society. He’s cheerfully flung that reality vigorously across the room and deeply desires for everyone he meets to do the same. Why?

Why? Because this “reality” is something we’ve made, and not something we’re made for. For Paul, everything is redefined by Christ, including reality. In urging the church at Philippi to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he is urging them into a reality that is defined not by power, but by powerlessness. A reality defined by an emptying, not a constant quest to become more full.

Make no mistake about it-this is a radical reordering of things. By rejecting power as the world knows it, Christ was powerless. He was of no social standing; he was destitute and homeless; he could do nothing to affect change; in analogy, a slave, who has no identity and who can be executed at the whim of whomever has power over him.

But Christ was empowered. Everywhere he went, people experienced the divine through him. He claimed from God the power to forgive sins, the power to heal, power over death itself. His death on the cross was powerful enough to provide for an end to the separation between humanity and God. Therefore, he is exalted and his name is above every name. And we call him Lord.

The Good News that Paul brought to the church at Philippi, and to the Church today is that we are empowered as well. We are empowered to see, as Paul did, the power that separate us from God and each other and reject it. We are empowered to build one another up in love. We are empowered to see where power destroys and empowered to take risks to meet it with the love of Christ that heals and builds up. This Paul fellow does indeed set the bar high, but he knows he can because we are empowered by God to surpass it, if we accept the power that Christ had-the power to be powerless, to no longer fall under the power of anyone or anything but God.

This is very threatening to the powers of the world. No wonder they locked Paul up. Can’t have that sort of thing spreading around.

That high bar can be very intimidating and some may say that Paul is perhaps too optimistic, but I say: let’s look at Sophie who steps over bars without even seeing them.

Sophie is my grandmother. When her daughter and son-in-law, my mom and dad, were going through a very rough time in their relationship, Grandma Sophie would keep me so my mother could finish school and work. When one or the other of my parents would pick me up, they would talk to her about where they were at in their relationship. Grandma Sophie would listen, tell them how much she loved them, and express the hope that things would work out and her confidence that if they didn’t work out, it would be for the best. She gave them grace. She was Christ for them. My parents remarried each other. It has lasted 25 years. It resulted in my sister and it has certainly influenced who I am and my presence here today.

When my mother visits my family, she brings Grandma Sophie whenever she can. We go into frenzies of preparation to make the house ready, only to have them both clean it from top to bottom while they are here. Grandma Sophie, in particular, cleans things I would never have thought to clean. I sit at the table, listening to them talk and laugh, and watch while my grandmother cleans the dustpan, scrubbing it in a sink of hot soapy water.

“Why clean the dustpan?” I ask.
“Because its dirty,” she promptly replies.
“It’s a dustpan; its supposed to be dirty,” I respond.
“Anything that can be cleaned isn’t supposed to be dirty,” she informs me with a smile.

I ponder this awhile. Anything that can be cleaned should be cleaned. This is simply how she lives her life. A dustpan can be cleaned, so my grandmother will clean it for me. Anyone who can be fed should be fed, so she cooks for anyone who shows up… Anyone who can be healed should be healed, so she listens to everyone who needs a place to pour their hearts… Anyone who can be loved should be loved, so she never rejects or judges anyone… There’s no need to ask if cleaning the dustpan is your job-you are empowered to do it, so you clean the dustpan.

My grandmother has been Christ for me in so many ways there is no counting them. But I am reminded of them all when I look at my dustpan. And a clean dustpan is no small thing when it is the vehicle for God’s gracious presence.

What you are empowered by God to do isn’t as important as accepting the power to do it. By the grace of God, it will get done. You don’t have to be exceptional because God already is, and God can make an exception out of you. My grandmother has taught me that.

I do so hope you have all known a Sophie of some sort who has cleaned your dustpan. It is a constant source of confidence to know that there is someone out there whom you can always count on to be the presence of Christ for you. If you’ve not been so blessed, then perhaps you will find one here among your brothers and sisters at *******. Here there is encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy and we are empowered. If you accept the call to make the power of God’s grace and love the center of your being, if you let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, then you will make my joy complete. And oh, the dustpans we shall to clean together by the grace of God!

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