He Emptied Himself

A Sermon for Palm Sunday

On Thursday, my wife and I sat in our prayer chairs as the sun came up. Eyleen has given me the chair that lets me see the sun and a statue in our backyard, someone the whole world knows by name. St. Francis of Assisi, holding a bird in his hand, looks down at God's small creature. This man gave away his entire fortune, the inheritance of royalty, so he could follow Jesus, another man whose name known all over the world. “At the name of Jesus,” sings that wonderful hymn from Philippians, “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. . .” (2:9).

Regardless of which Gospel text – Matthew, Mark or Luke – we hear on any Palm Sunday, we always also get Philippians 2:5-11. Why? Barbara Brown Taylor, the great preacher and teacher, says, “For the full details of Jesus' arrest, arraignment, torture, and death, see the Gospel. For the mind of Christ – the attitude that determined his actions every day of his life, including the last (day) – see the Epistle” (Feasting on the Word, p. 171). On this Palm Sunday, Paul is in conversation with Luke. On this and every Palm Sunday, we begin the holiest week of the year with that seven-verse hymn. We sing not just about majesty and royalty, but of poverty and humility.

Yes, Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday. We sing “Hosanna!” and later, we shout, “Crucify him!” We hear, “(Jesus) emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” and we also hear, “Therefore, God also highly exalted (Jesus). . .” What a contradiction this seems to be! What dissonance! How can all this be?

Make no mistake about it. This is the lesson Jesus and Francis and countless others have taught us. Jesus empties himself, God fills him up with love for the world. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor: “'Let the same mind be in you,' Paul writes, apparently believing that this is within our reach. On Palm Sunday we do not witness the singular death of a singular child of God. Instead, we witness the kind of self-emptying that we too are capable of. . ..Sooner or later we, too, will be called to be obedient to death. In the meantime we are as free as Jesus to decide how we will spend our energy: on self-protection or self-donation, on saving ourselves. . .or giving ourselves away?”

In the 21st century, another wise teacher has said, the church that survives will be the church that gives itself away, without calculating its return on investment (Phyllis Tickle). What might it look like, I wonder, if you and I let the mind of Jesus become our mind, too? What if we emptied our congregational coffers in order to take the form of a slave, serving the community without holding anything back? How might this whole church become obedient to the point of death? As Barbara Brown says, “What crosses are right in front of us, just waiting to be picked up?”

If we do those things, if we follow Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, God will do for us what God did for Jesus. Jesus emptied himself, God filled him with love for the world. When we empty ourselves, God's love will flow through us into the world. Like a Pope who calls himself Francis I, bowing down to be blessed by his flock before he offers God's blessing to them. Jesus emptied himself. Will we?

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
March 24, 2013