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[Chalice] The Spirituality of Kenosis,[Chalice]
or Emptying

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Presented September 21, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Readings for talk:
Genesis 1:16
And God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.
Philippians
2:1 If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion,
2:2 make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind;
2:3 doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself;
2:4 each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.
2:5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus,
2:6 who, existing in the form of God, didn't consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.
2:8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.
2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name;
2:10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,
2:11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I want to start this year with two Sundays discussing two different spiritual concepts. In a couple weeks I will talk about a notion deriving from medieval Christian mysticism, "living without a why." And this morning I'd like to explore the notion of emptiness.

Emptiness is an important concept in many of the world's spiritual/religious traditions. Taoism often employs the metaphor of the empty jar or container to make the point that it is only the empty container that is useful. We should take care, Taoism reminds us, to not fill ourselves up with our own ideas and actions and that we can be more helpful to others and to the world if our lives are not such a completely full schedule of events and activities. Emptiness has an even more central role in Buddhism as you know. Buddhism asks us all to put on the mindset of emptiness and makes the claim that the self and all of reality is empty of permanent, substantial reality. All of reality, teaches Buddhism, is emptiness.

Each of you may think emptiness through Taoism or through Buddhism, but this morning I would like to begin with how this concept of emptiness comes into the Christian traditions, with Paul's use in Philippians of the Greek word Kenosis, or emptying. This passage is one of the most famous in the New Testament and one of the most important theologically: Jesus, though he existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . ."

This notion of Jesus emptying himself has for centuries caused commotion and controversy among Christian theologians because it seems to contradict or at least complicate the belief that became the Orthodox view by the fifth century that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. How could Jesus be fully human and fully divine if Jesus, as this passage from Philippians says, emptied himself of his divinity when he became a servant? This is still a dangerous passage for those who really want to protect and defend the Orthodox teaching of Christ's full humanity and divinity. There are plenty of scholars and ministers who have written things on the internet making sure others are not misunderstanding Paul's use here of kenosis or emptying. Am I discussing this passage because I want to defend or attack Orthodox Christology? Of course not. I just want to bring to our attention this notion this text gives to the Christian tradition and to us of emptying. Paul says that Jesus, since he was God, could have lived supreme over everyone but chose not to and humbled himself. He emptied himself of everything that could have elevated him above and separated him off from people. And why does Paul say this about Jesus? Not to defend or to attack higher Christological notions that were not formulated for 2 or 300 years anyway, but to convince the early Christian community to be like Jesus in being humble, in emptying ourselves of what separates us from others. Immediately before getting so heavily theological and talking about Jesus as emptying himself, he was saying to the Christian community at Philipi: make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; 2:3 doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; 2:4 each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

Paul discusses Jesus emptying himself because he is trying to persuade human beings to similarly empty themselves, to be empty of conceit, of thinking yourself better than others. This personal emptying-quite apart from all complex Christological issues-is Kenosis as a spiritual notion, is the spirituality of emptying.

I have been thinking of this concept of Kenosis, of emptying, all summer while I was out of our own country and in Romania. Why? Well, to be honest, not because I spent a lot of time over the summer reading about Christological controversies. My thinking about kenosis was prompted by discovering back in June, just before leaving the country, that on FOX news the reporters and the on-air personalities and the anchors all started to describe our country as "the greatest country God ever blessed the earth with." I left America and flew to Europe with this ringing in the ears of my mind: "America is the greatest country God ever blessed the earth with." This summer Dana and I were fortunate enough to be in some great places in Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and France. I kept imagining myself explaining to all the people who lived and seemed to enjoy living in all those places: look, these are all great places, and we are sure glad you are out there, but you have to understand America is the greatest country God ever blessed the earth with. I kept seeing myself explain to the French and to the Italians and to everyone else: You guys really shine but you have to understand that America always shines the brightest.

This metaphor of shining brightest comes from another story from another religious tradition, Judaism, and this story too is really about a certain divine emptying and the spirituality of emptying. This is a rabbinic story in the Talmud that tries to make sense of certain Biblical passages regarding the moon. It makes sense of them by imagining a conversation between God and the moon. In two different passages in the Hebrew Bible it describes two great lights in the sky, referring to the sun and the moon. A bit later it refers to the moon as a lesser light. A bit later in the sacred text it says that at every new moon and animal must be sacrificed. Centuries later rabbis are trying to understand this. Why does there have a sacrifice at the first moon. The rabbis reason that perhaps there was a conversation between God and the moon. Seems the moon pointed out that first the moon was described as an equal light, and then later was referred to as a lesser light. The moon comes to God with a complaint. The moon feels slighted by this second text and this reference to her as a lesser light, so she says to God essentially "What gives? First you say I am one of the two great lights, and then you call me a lesser light. Which is it?"And the moon then begins to argue that she shouldn't be considered a lesser light to the sun. At that point, of course, God could have said to the moon: Look, how dare you complain to me? Who created you in the first place? Besides, isn't it obvious that you are not as bright as the sun? Be quiet" But the rabbis contend God must have emptied himself of his supremacy and superiority in his conversation with the moon. God saw the question from the moon's perspective and was concerned that the moon felt slighted by the scriptural reference to the moon as a lesser light. That is why God commanded that at every new moon the people are asked to pay tribute to the moon. God wishes us to make up for the slight the moon feels because of this Biblical verse.

The rabbis here give us a beautiful story about God's humility, God's concern for hurt feelings! It is a story we Americans might think about when we see the moon, wherever we are, whichever country the moon is hanging over at the time. God cares about the slight to the moon, but we Americans are to traipse around the world and say to whatever country and to all the other people of the world: nice place you got here but you have to understand that America is the greatest country God ever blessed the earth with. Now you might say "Well, that's just Fox News," and you would certainly be right, and yet we shouldn't fail to be outraged at the fact that we now have a culture where a major network viewed by millions of us every day can have all of the on-air people outdo each other in affirming that America is the greatest country God ever blessed the earth with. I doubt that French journalists or British journalists or Hungarian or Romanian journalists repeat to each other constantly that theirs is the greatest country God ever blessed the earth with. When did we become so filled with arrogant lack of concern for the feelings of everyone else in the world, for all the citizens of all the other countries?

And if you think this American presumption and arrogance we are filled with is restricted to Fox News and its devotees, did you know that the House of Representatives this summer finally voted to officially apologize to African-Americans for slavery and for Jim Crow? The statement that was voted on and passed by the House regrets our American history of slavery and Jim Crow. It says slavery and Jim Crow "are stains upon what is the greatest country in the history of the earth."

I don't think this arrogant notion that we are the greatest country in the history of the earth-this belief that essentially insults every other country and every other people on the planet-I don't think this is restricted to the viewers of Fox News but is a much more widely shared belief and may in fact be something most Americans take for granted. Of course we are the greatest country in the history of the earth. That is why I think it is right here that a spirituality of emptiness should begin. If God is so concerned about the feelings of the moon, shouldn't we really reevaluate this belief out of concern for the feelings of all the other people of the earth? God emptied himself to take into consideration the feelings of the moon, Jesus emptied Himself to serve humanity, and Paul says in Philippians to empty ourselves of all rivalry and conceit and all thinking of ourselves as better than others. Who does that more than we Americans do?

The spirituality of emptiness prompts us to think of what is inside us that we need to empty out. I suggest our national arrogance as Americans is a good starting point for a spirituality of emptiness, but it is or should be just a beginning. One of the exciting aspects of this coming presidential election is that it confronts us all with a spirituality of emptiness. Each of us has to think about whether there is any racism still in us or have we emptied ourselves of that? Are we willing to accept our first female vice president or do we still have so much sexism in us that we cannot accept the idea? The spirituality of emptiness forces all of us to look inside ourselves at our ideas and habits and really think about what we need to empty out of ourselves.

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. The Spirituality of Kenosis, or Emptying, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20080921.shtml (accessed December 14, 2018).

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