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“A Lesson in Losing”
Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 23:1-49
Palm/Passion Sunday, Year C
Back in the darkest hours of the Great Recession, when almost every day we heard stories of people falling out of the middle class into a more precarious existence, the Post ran an article on how people let go of their possessions when they fall on hard times. When people have to get rid of the contents of a house they have lost, they make excruciating decisions about what to let go of and what to hold on to. According to Jeremy Adams, a Library of Congress historian who studied the Great Depression of the 1930s, the very last things people let go of were “the little things that announced who they were – Grandma’s silver tea set, a gold watch that hasn’t worked for eighty years, photos, recordings….” In the nineteenth century people held on to their pianos the longest, because the piano was a symbol of a respectable family. Holding on to tea sets and pianos was a way of telling other people that “you were once worthy and could be worthy again.” The writer concludes, “Those things that we believe give us dignity are the last things to go. After they are gone…you drop into the abyss.”
The article was meant as a kind of thought exercise to encourage us, the readers, to think about what we would hang onto the longest if we saw the bottom fall out of our lives. This may be a worthwhile exercise to go through, if only for the insight it might give into what our most treasured possessions say about who we are – or who we want people to think we are. I will say one thing, though: while such a thought exercise may be interesting in the abstract, actually having to make those choices must be terrifying. “Those things that we believe give us dignity are the last things to go. Then you drop into the abyss.”
What would it be like to voluntarily give up everything, every outward visible sign of who you are in the world; to become a nobody, a cipher, a nonentity, and even worse – to be looked down on by the very people who had once looked up to you, to be considered disposable, expendable, beneath notice? That is to drop into the abyss, and it is normal human behavior to do everything in one’s power to avoid such a fate.
Let’s hear again the Philippians hymn we just read:
“Christ Jesus,…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
These words are a highly condensed reflection on the meaning of the incarnation, life and death of Jesus. What Jesus had done was to let everything go. On a purely human level, he let go of everything that gave human life dignity and meaning: friends, family, the respect and good opinion of others, not even to mention the barest worldly possessions. But there was even more to it than that. Long before he began the inexorable march to the cross, Jesus had already given up all the prerogatives of his divine identity. He had “humbled himself,” being born in human flesh. He “emptied” himself, which is not to say that he became less God than he was, but that he gave up every marker of divine status. And as a human being, he gave up every sign of being God’s favored one. As it says in the King James translation, he “made himself of no reputation.” Imagine what that meant for him as he hung on the cross: every success of his ministry – nullified; every human relationship he had enjoyed – gone; even the physical ability to wipe sweat from his face or brush away a fly – denied.
He “emptied himself,” the hymn says, which is to say that he dispossessed himself of everything that could have given him comfort at the end. Remember, the cross was not just an instrument of physical torture – it was a method of punishment that was meant to announce to the world, “The person you see here is nothing, not even human in any real sense, not fit to live.”
Quite a few years ago, a man named David Novak, who had been convicted of mail fraud, wrote a book about how to survive prison. His advice to the new inmate is to forget about thinking that you’re not really like the other criminals who are in there. “One of the first things you need to realize is you’re no longer [one of the people in the outside world], you’re…one of us,” he said. A nun who served time for her role in a political protest echoed this: “Nobody’s special here. Everybody’s just a number.”
This is the status Jesus voluntarily assumed when he let himself be arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. He became “one of” the outlaws, a member of the criminal class. At the end of his sinless life, he was identified not only with all the innocent victims of the world, all those who suffer and die unjustly, but also with those who are their oppressors, persecutors, and murderers. That the Son of God would do this must strike us as both absurd and shocking – it offends all our ideas about what is right and moral and decent.
The cross of Jesus overturns all the conventional wisdom about status, worth and power. It “levels the playing field” about every human rank, privilege, achievement or virtue. In the cross of Jesus, God uses the humiliating death of the Son of God to redefine power. Strange as it is to say, there was power in the death of Jesus, who took all the sin and hatred and suffering of the world upon himself, labored with it, and transformed it to give back to us as love.
The cross of Jesus invites us to see the world in a different way. The strange power of the cross calls into question all those things we call valuable, desirable, admirable. The cross shows us the nature of God in the death of a crucified criminal, who has been raised to sit at God’s right hand. The only power operative here is the power of love, the kind of love that will stop at nothing, not even the abyss of total abandonment and dispossession, to make itself known. We are asked to believe that that is power enough.
On Maundy Thursday we will strip the church. We will remove the paraments, the candles, the decorations, even the Bible whose words the Spirit uses to speak to us. Without these visible signs of worth and dignity, the church will look unimposing, naked and vulnerable – perhaps a good metaphor for the church in the world today.
As Richard Lischer has noted, “Holy Week teaches us all a lesson in losing.” We’ve all known some kind of loss: a financial reversal, a disappointment in love, people who have betrayed us or let us down, a thwarted ambition. And we are all losing something, all the time: our youth and health, loved ones who are slipping away from us, memories, dreams and expectations of what our lives would become. Being human is about learning to live with loss, and still to see the evidence of grace in the midst of it. Learning the hard lessons of losing is learning to transform our own losses and diminishments into acts of love toward others.
And if we are truly living a cross-shaped life after the pattern of Jesus, we will find ourselves letting go of certain things that most people consider pretty important. One of us may do something as foolish as giving up a well-paying job in a downtown office to go teach at-risk kids in a failing school. Others may give up their Saturdays, when the rest of the world is shopping and brunching, to volunteer at a shelter or repair homes in poor neighborhoods. Someone else may give up a dazzling career opportunity in another city to stay at home and care for an elderly parent. When we start doing risky and costly things for the sake of other people, it means the cross has transformed us.
The One who has emptied himself for our sakes, who voluntarily gave up everything and descended into the abyss for us, reigns with a power that puts all our notions of status and dignity to shame. The cross shows us the only power that really matters: the power to save us, heal us, transform us, and raise us from the dead.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
April 14, 2019
 Joel Garreau, “Last Impressions,” The Washington Post, Sunday, March 22, 2009, E1.
 Scott Sandage, quoted in the Washington Post article.
 Richard Lischer, “Holy Week and the Art of Losing,” https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-03/stripped-bare.