As most of you know, Stephen and I are now officially empty nesters. Zoe is off in Madison, Wisconsin hopefully safely navigating the corona virus surge in the state as she launches her college studies. And as of this week Hannah is back in Westwood to resume classes in UCLA. After 19 years of children at home, it prompted us to ask: what was life like together before we had children? As most empty nesters will tell you: it is sometimes hard to remember. One thing I do remember well is the time we spent together in Princeton, New Jersey when Stephen was on sabbatical the year before the kids came and I started seminary at Princeton Theological Seminary. Stephen was working and we were living at the Institute for Advanced Study, which was founded in the 1930’s as a private institute for scholars across disciplines to gather to advance the boundaries of knowledge. Aside from an excellent library and remarkable conditions for research, the Institute had some old traditions. One was hosting a Valentine’s Day dance for all its scholars in residence. And in preparation for that Valentine’s Day dance, recognizing that brilliant scholars and absentminded professors might have two left feet, the Institute offered a series of ballroom dancing classes. Not wanting to make complete fools of ourselves on Valentine’s Day, Stephen and I signed up. And one evening a week we would walk over to the parlor in the main building that was otherwise used to serve afternoon tea and cookies for the dance lessons. I have to confess: I have a particular shortcoming when it comes to ballroom dancing. Would anyone want to guess what that is? [. ]. Exactly: I don’t know how to follow, and after a few minutes of trying, I would end up trying to lead! I remember at the end of maybe the second or third lesson, feeling quite dejected and unhappy with myself, apologizing yet again to Stephen and telling the dance teacher: “I’ll never learn to dance.” Where upon the teacher winked at Stephen and looked sympathetically at me and said: “Nonsense. It’s never too late to learn ballroom dancing. Not even for you! Try to get into the soul of the music, and let the music help govern your movements.”
Every week we send out an email from the church office with announcements about this week’s ministry opportunities. And at the head of each message I write a brief note to you, a short reflection that I then post as a blog on our website. Any of you ever check out our email and read the message? If you did, you will already know that one of the main themes of our readings today is that it is never too late. I want to try a little game here with you this morning: complete the sentence. People on Facebook too: Complete the sentence: “It’s never too late……..” [. ]. It’s never too late to learn and change. It is never too late for metanoia, for repentance, for change. Because it is never too late to receive God’s grace and love. In our first reading, God speaks through Ezekiel the message that we are all—parents and children—under God’s care, and God enjoins us to repent, “to turn then and live.” And in our Gospel reading, another parable of two laborers in a vineyard, Jesus challenges our understanding of righteousness, and proclaims that it is never too late to align ourselves with God’s good will and intention. The one who promises to do God’s work and will but doesn’t abandons God’s will. The one who first says he won’t go work in the vineyard, but ultimately does is named God’s servant. And so it is with us. We are in God’s care. We are under the cover of God’s grace and love. And we are told: it is never too late to align ourselves to God’s will. We may set out to defy God’s will—like in last week’s reading about Jonah who refuses to serve as God’s prophet to Nineveh. We may set out to defy God’s will, but when we turn around, when we change and align our selves with God’s good intention—even in the last minute.
It is never too late, God teaches us, to change our way of life and align ourselves with God’s intention. It is never too late for us to “grow up” spiritually. But what exactly does that mean?
The answer I believe lies in our second reading today-from the second chapter of Philippians, 2:1-13. A few words about this extraordinary letter and passage. For one thing, it is one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, certainly outside of the Gospels. The letter to the Philippians is, we believe, one of the authentic letters of Paul, possibly co-written by Timothy. Like 1st Corinthians, which we have been studying in adult forum, Paul seems somewhat concerned about conflict in the community. And about the community’s ongoing spiritual growth. The chapter we read from today, Chapter 2, contains in its center a poem about Jesus Christ, that most scholars believe predated Paul’s letter. That is, Paul quotes this hymn of praise that summarizes the nature of Jesus Christ to remind people what it meant to live and be a follower of Christ.
The language in this poem and in the chapter as a whole is somewhat unusual. 9 times in the letter to the Philippians Paul uses the phrase “the mind of Christ.” That we are to be of the same mind as Jesus Christ. That as a community we are called to be of one mind with Christ. The Greek here is “phroneo” or “phronesis” which means wisdom, but a practical wisdom, a wisdom related to action, wise action. A suggested modern translation is the word “mindfulness.” To bring the mindfulness of Christ to bear on our actions so that our actions embody the mindfulness of Christ.
What does Christ’s mindfulness consist of? As we look at the passage we see that Christ’s mindfulness consists of: regard for the well-being of others, compassion and sympathy, love, humility, turning status and glory into tools for servanthood. As I imagine the mindfulness of Christ, I think of the great sculpture—Christ the Redeemer, Cristo Redentor, that stands half-mile high on the mountains above Rio de Jainero. I have only seen it in pictures, but to me it embodies the mindfulness of Christ. Here is a giant Christ standing poised to enter into the world, with arms not nailed to the cross, but outstretched, ready to embrace the sorrows and joys of the world. Christ the Redeemer is this Christ of Philippians, mindful of human suffering, mindful of the human need for love and redemption. As I look around the world to see who may embody this mindfulness of Christ, I see that mindfulness in many of you who manifest tremendous compassion for other people, for people who are poor, for people who are sorrowful, for people who are sick. I see it at times in the current Pope, Pope Francis, for whom the mindfulness of Christ is central to his conception of self and papal power—it’s why he chose the name Francis. I think of his emblematic action on the first Maundy Thursday as Pope, when he went to a hospice center to wash the feet of people dying of AIDS.
But let’s be honest: being the same mind of Jesus Christ isn’t always easy. There is in most of us human beings an innate self-interest, a longing to advance our own status and glory. Ambition is human. A desire for success and achievement is human. Whether that is measured in money or property or pleasure or the number of followers on your Twitter account. And so we have within us this tension, this spiritual tension: we long for our own advancement, our own glory. And yet we long to embody the overflowing servant-mindfulness of Jesus Christ. If you ask me what it means to become more spiritual mature, I think I would say it is when the balance of the struggle between our self-interest and the interest of others tips in favor of the other. When we realize by the grace of God that we no longer need to act for our own salvation, and can direct our actions in humility and service toward others. When Jesus says: love one another as I have loved you, I think this is what he means.
But the truth is, this type of spiritual maturity doesn’t come quickly or early. In some ways, this kind of spiritual maturity feels like a luxury. When you are poor, when you don’t have enough money to pay the rent or the mortgage, when you are consumed with worry about how to raise your kids, when you are overcome with fear for your safety or physical wellbeing in the face of a pandemic, it’s hard to shift your concern, your mindfulness from yourself to others.
Here is the good news: being of the same mind as Jesus Christ isn’t something we just decide to do and have to do by ourselves. It is something that God does in us. It is God who sets us free from the bondage of self-interestedness, from the burdens of glory-seeking, the shackles of fear, it is God who sets us free to take on and embody the mindfulness of Christ. As Paul says: Jesus offers us “encouragement”—the Greek word is paraklesis, the word “Paraclete” used to describe the advocating power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is encouraging us by going along side us and advocating for us, cheering us on as it were to more fully embody Christ’s mindfulness. And God, as Paul says at the end of the passage, God “is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. It’s a bit like learning to ballroom dance. Letting the music enter into you and govern your movements. It can take a lifetime to take on the mindfulness of Christ. Which is why it is such good news that: it’s never too late.