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The Table of Joy

I wonder if you remember the story “The Gift of the Magi” written by one of North Carolina’s most famous sons, William Sydney Porter (better known as O. Henry)? It’s the story of two newlyweds, James and Della, who are desperately seeking the perfect gift for their beloved. They are deeply in love, despite being completely broke. Each is on a quest to give the other the perfect gift to show their love. James sells his most prized possession- a gold pocket watch his grandfather had given him- so he could buy two beautiful jeweled hair combs for Della’s gorgeous red hair. And Della cuts off all her hair and sells it to a wigmaker so she could buy James a platinum chain for his watch. Of course, the irony of the story is that in sacrificing for their beloved they each rendered the other’s sacrifice useless. These gifts are meaningless- a watch chain with no watch and hair combs with no hair. But O. Henry’s point was that the actual gift was never the combs or the watch chain anyway; the gift was love. On this story, priest and author Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “In the voluntary relinquishing of their most cherished possessions, they make manifest what love really looks like; they give tangible shape to the bond that holds them together.”

It's a lovely story, of course. It stands in sharp contrast to the story Jesus tells about two sons, both of whom are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. “No, thanks,” says the first son. Perhaps he was busy playing videogames, or he was tired, or hungry. Maybe he’d just gotten back from working in the barn or maybe he just didn’t want to go. But later on, I guess he gets to thinking about it, and he changes his mind, and goes to work in the vineyard. The father also asks his second son to go to the vineyard. And this son, eager to make his father happy in the moment or maybe just to get his dad off his back, says yes. But of course, he doesn’t go. At first glance, you could say this parable is about doing the right thing rather than just saying the right thing. But, when we put it in it’s larger context, we can see that Jesus is making a different point.

This parable is told in response to a conflict with the chief priests and elders. They ask Jesus by what authority he does all that he does (and he’s in Jerusalem after the triumphal entry, he just turned over the tables in the Temple) and he shuts them down, defusing the conflict by refusing to speak about where his authority comes from. But then he tells this story. And I’d suggest that Jesus’ point is actually a challenge to the chief priests about whose authority they obey and whether or not they actually obey or if it’s just lip service. The parable is pointing out that people can be transformed when they submit to God’s authority but just looking the part is not real transformation. The second son, and perhaps the chief priests and elders too, and maybe us as well- the second son has decided to look the part but to not actually be transformed into action under his father’s authority. The story was designed by Jesus, the brilliant teacher, to make his listeners wonder by what authority they were living their lives. “By what authority am I acting?” Jesus asks. “By what authority are you acting? Because it isn’t what you say it is.”

All of us are under some kind of authority. It is, quite simply, the way we shape our lives- the goals we strive towards, the things we seek, the values or ideas we give importance to. Whether we will admit it or not, we give a lot of power to having the right material objects, to being the best at our jobs, to being seen by others as the right kind of person. So, we authorize those ideas, we give those ideas the power over us and they shape our choices. And it’s so, so hard to be so full of these voices and expectations. We are full to overflowing with these ideas of how things ought to be, how we are supposed to be, how we want other people to see us, how we have to be the best, how important we are. This fullness is a terrible authority.

Think back to Della and James from “The Gift of the Magi.” They had one authority- love. Neither submitted to the authority of vanity. James didn’t submit to the authority of the past- the watch was his grandfather’s remember. They emptied themselves out for love. Which, is of course, is what we see Jesus do. In Philippians 2 we read what is believed to be a hymn from the early church. It speaks for authority, although in different words. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, humbled himself, became obedient.” The author of our lives is Jesus. The ways of Jesus are the authority by which we make our lives.

I want to sit with this word “emptying” for a moment. In Greek, the word is kenosis, and it means self-emptying, pouring something out. So if we let the mind of Christ be in us, the we, too, must become empty. We pour out all the terrible false authorities that have kept us full for so long, and in the emptying, we become the first son- the one who learns to do what his father asks. It’s very easy to believe that the spiritual life is an uphill climb, an ascent up the mountain. But Jesus shows us another way; Jesus shows us that the way to a spiritual life is down, it’s emptiness, humility, service. Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.” We must submit not to the authority of expectation, of the past, or of building a future. To follow Christ is to submit to kenosis, to emptying ourselves.

The great spiritual teacher and priest Richard Rohr writes, “If you’re protecting yourself, if you’re securing your own image and identity, then you’re still holding on. Your ego remains full of itself. The opposite of kenosis. . . . I hope this does not surprise or disappoint you, but I have often noticed these divine qualities in people who are marginalized, oppressed, “poor,” or “mentally disabled” — more than in many others. They have to trust love. They need communion. They know that only the vulnerable people understand them. They profit from mutuality. They’re always in relationship. They find little ways to serve their community, to serve the sick, to serve those poorer than themselves. They know that only a suffering God can save them.

You can take such a pattern as the infallible sign that one lives in God, People filled with the flow will always move away from any need to protect their own power and will be drawn to the powerless, the edge, the bottom, the plain, and the simple. They have all the power they need — and it always overflows, and like water seeks the lowest crevices to fill.”

This week I heard a story from the pastor and professor Joy J. Moore that helped me to understand the downward path we take to get to Christ. Years ago, a man from her congregation came to her and said something like “Just so you know, I’m never going to be a hand-raising, Bible believing, knee-praying Christian.” “Okay…” she said. His meaning was clear to joy- he had no intention of ever being a committed Christian. Oddly enough, he began engaging Joy about what she believed. He read every book she suggested and talked to her and debated with her frequently. One day, she says, he quit reading the books I had suggested and just began reading the Bible. And, in her words, “he literally changed.” His family and coworkers began to see a difference, even though the man himself did not realize he was changing. One day, a coworker called him a Christian, much to the man’s shock. He went home that night and said, “this guy called me a Christian!” His beliefs were unsure still, but his behavior had changed. He was a different person. He had unintentionally begun living into Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ self-emptying, self-giving authority.

Ultimately, all of this “come to the table” talk, leads to this- if we take on the mind of Christ, if we give Jesus authority over our lives, then we know that Jesus makes room at the table for everyone. There is no head of the table, no one gets to be the host or the guest of honor. There’s just pulling up more and more chairs, sharing what we have, living what we have learned and experienced with Christ.

There is great joy in the self-emptying path of Christ. You may have heard of St. Francis of Assisi. He lived in Italy and was born sometime around 1181 to a wealthy cloth merchant. He received a good education and was considered a leader among the young men in town. At around age 23 he decided to go off to battle, to make his renown as a solider and military leader. But on the way there, he had a vision- a vision that told him to go home and wait for a call to a new kind of knighthood. One day in this time of waiting, he was worshipping in the ruins of an old chapel, where he heard a voice say “Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is well-nigh in ruins.” Francis went home, gathered some of his father’s finest cloth and went to town. He sold the cloth and his horse in order to give the money that the chapel might be rebuilt. He renounced all wordly goods and his family. The chapel was repaired, and several others as well. His sense of call continued and as he began his ministry he did so barefooted, with nothing to his name. He lived, very intentionally, led by these words in Philippians 2, to pour himself out. And now, many Christians all over the world pray words attributed to St. Francis. Hear these words that so often remind me to empty myself- “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

You see, the mind of Christ lets go of all our self-interest, all selfishness, all need to be first in line, head of the table. And in that emptiness, the mind of Christ dances in the joy of creation, of the great filling up of Jesus’ mercy, the spaciousness of God’s grace, the expansive abundance we receive from the Holy Spirit. Come to God’s table, friends, know God’s hospitality and be fed on grace, peace, love, and joy. Amen.

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