This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Sunday, March 29, 2015 (Lent 5, or Palm/Passion Sunday). The text was Philippians 2:5-11.

"Where the Way Leads" by Jan Richardson
“Where the Way Leads” by Jan Richardson

Pastors’ families tend to have weird traditions no one else has. A few examples from my own childhood: my family learned to negotiate my dad’s busy Christmas Eve schedule by eating dinner in his office in between the 6:00 service and the 8:00 service; growing up, I thought everyone spent a week of their summer at Lake Junaluska hanging out with a bunch of other pastors during Annual Conference; and I have more than once participated in the lighting of the family Advent wreath via Skype while away at college.

There is one weird tradition that might be unique to this particular pastor’s family. My dad and I share a love of musical theater, and so we usually watch the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar during Holy Week. My mom and siblings do not always join us. Jesus Christ Superstar has a pretty goofy re-imagining of Palm Sunday. In it, crowds gather to wave palms like we hear in the Bible, but instead of just saying, “Hosanna!”—this is a rock opera, after all—they sing, “Hosanna, hey, sanna, sanna, sanna, ho!”

There’s that word, “Hosanna.” We’ve already sung it several times this morning. Our hymns and Jesus Christ Superstar reinforce the sense that it kind of means, “Yay!” But that’s not what the word “Hosanna” means. It actually means “Save us.”

Why were the crowds shouting “Save us!” as Jesus rides into the city in triumph? Perhaps it’s because they thought he was coming to overturn the oppressive Roman empire. Maybe they believed he would break the iron grip of the Pharisees on religious life in the Jewish community. Jesus was though by many to be the Messiah, and to some, that meant a revolution was at hand.

Those crowds might have been disappointed if they could have read Paul’s words to the Philippians. The crowds were not expecting a self-emptying slave; they were expecting a military leader or a religious zealot. They could not imagine on that first Palm Sunday that Good Friday lay ahead of them, that death on a cross would be the shameful fate of this Jesus of Nazareth.

And yet, this is the path God chooses. It is the strange path of being emptied.

Emptiness is shorthand for all kinds of bad things in our world today— we say that we’re running on empty, we’re coming away empty-handed, the glass is half empty, that we’re empty-nesters—OK, I’m told that last one is maybe not so bad.

But just think how much time and energy we spend avoiding emptiness. We keep our stomachs full so we never have to feel even the slightest tinge of hunger. We keep our gas tanks filled, our bank accounts ample, and our homes full of things that make us feel secure. We pack our schedules with work and activities and social obligations so we never have to be alone with our thoughts.

But this is the season of Lent, and in Lent we are asked to let go, to give away, to empty out all the things that keep us from being present to God and to one another. Some of you have participated in our Lenten small groups or Jonathan’s Wednesday Food for Thought series or the last several weeks of Roots Revival worship. Here and in other places at Centenary, we have been asked to fast from apathy this Lent. We have considered how we might put our faith into practice, and we have acted on what we have seen and heard. Perhaps those acts have filled your cup, so to speak, and that is a good and wonderful thing. But now it is time to lay even that aside, because this is Holy Week, and this week is all about moving toward the cross that empties out.

Last month, Rodney Stilwell came to our Wednesday night Roots Revival service. Rodney is a chaplain with Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries, but he is also a potter. Our theme at Roots Revival that night was brokenness and redemption, so we had Rodney throw a pot on his potter’s wheel during worship. After the sermon, he led a hands-on activity with clay as our response to the word.

Rodney gave each person present a ball of clay and asked us to roll it around in our hands. He asked us to notice how smooth it was, how perfect, how whole. Then he pointed out that a smooth and perfect ball of clay may look nice, but it is not a very good vessel. In the same way, when we craft an image of ourselves that is smooth and perfect and whole, we might look good to the people around us, but we are not a very good vessel for God’s purposes. We’re only good vessels when we’ve been emptied out.

Rodney asked each of us to hold that ball of clay with one hand and to take the thumb of the other hand and press deep into it. He said many things can empty us out, whether sin or sorrow or circumstance, and we might not be able to see God’s purposes in it. We may only feel pain. But in that emptying, space is made for God to come into our hearts and to make us an instrument of his love and peace.

What is emptying you out this Lent? Is it the doctor saying, “It’s cancer”? Is it the memory of your wife walking out on you or your husband not chasing after you? Is it the prodigal child who won’t come home no matter how hard you pray? Is it the depression or anxiety or grief that is hanging over you like a cloud? Is it the sin or vice or addiction or shame that you just can’t shake?

When we are laid low by illness or personal tragedy or even by our own wrongdoing, the temptation is to quickly fill the hole left by our fear, our pain, or our guilt. But this week, on this Holy Week when Jesus empties himself anew before our eyes, what might it look like for us to hold that empty space for God instead of trying to fill it ourselves?

In the 1980s, Dieter Zander founded one of the first youth-oriented churches in America. NewSong Church was located in Los Angeles County and was geared toward GenXers. Dieter drove the congregation’s worship with his charisma, energetic sermons, and rock piano playing. He went on to build similar high-profile nondenominational ministries around the country. Dieter was treated like a rock star and lived like one too, pulling a six-figure salary. He was, in his words, “King Dieter.” His kingdom was a stage, a microphone, an adoring audience.

And then, Dieter suffered a major stroke. When he woke from a week-long coma, he found he could no longer speak or sing, and his right hand was crippled so that he would never play piano again. “King Dieter” was gone. Today, his kingdom is the back room of a Trader Joe’s. That’s where he works now, breaking down used boxes and sorting expired food for donation. His kingdom is one of cardboard and spoils.

Dieter Zander was emptied out by his stroke. Much was lost that he will never recover. But Dieter has discovered something in his kingdom of cardboard and spoils. There is no more stage, no more microphone, no more adoring audience. There is nothing there except Dieter. For the first time, he says, there is only me.

And he has found that that is enough, that now he sees beauty and redemption in things he never noticed before—in cardboard boxes discarded but then broken down and recycled for other uses, in food marked “spoiled” for some small imperfection but then repurposed to feed the hungry. Dieter talks to God every day now. His world is less impressive, less accomplished, less “full,” but it is simpler, too. Dieter’s emptiness now is filled not with others’ accolades and approval, not with speaking engagements and public appearances, but with the quiet grace of God.

I recently read a book called Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son. It was written by Richard Lischer, a Duke Divinity professor who lost his son, Adam, to cancer. The book beautifully and brutally recalls Adam’s life and death.

As Adam succumbed to the effects not only of his illness but also of the treatment itself, he began to wither away. He grew thin and pale, and his body became speckled with small, white tumors. But his father said that this physical change never repulsed their family—instead, it gave them a clearer vision of who their son really was.

He writes, “…we loved Adam’s flesh…because what his body was losing in mass it was gaining in transparency. The sacred presence had always been there, of course, as it is in each of us…but we had never seen it so clearly as when he began to die.”

As Adam drew closer to death, so, too, he drew closer to God. His father, the professional theologian, envied Adam’s deepening faith even as his own faltered. As Adam’s body wasted away, his spirit, the divine image stamped on him from birth, became more transparent to those around him. Even as they mourned his loss, they cherished the agonizing but beautiful sacred presence illuminating the emptiness of his disease and of their family’s grief.

On Palm Sunday, we see one piece of Jesus’ identity—that of a conquering king. But as this Holy Week goes on, we will see more pieces of who Jesus is. We will see him wash his disciples’ feet. We will see him break bread with his betrayer. We will see him give himself up to arrest and interrogation and torture. We will see him go up on the cross and down into the grave. We will see him emptied out, and that emptying out will show us who he truly is. He will become transparent to us, the sacred presence of his divinity becoming clearer and clearer until we look on him and cry, “Hosanna! Save us!”

In his novel Jayber Crow, author Wendell Berry asks the age-old question—why did Jesus have to die? Why didn’t Christ come down from the cross? Wasn’t God powerful enough to save his son from death? This is his answer:

“He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.

And so, I thought, He…must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

Christ emptied himself so that we might know God’s love. Through his obedience unto death, Jesus became transparent to us, the titles and rumors and prophesies falling away one by one like scales from our eyes until all one could see was love. Jesus emptied himself so that he might be the perfect vessel of God’s love, so that we might be confounded by God’s power made perfect in weakness, so that we might recognize him in our own emptying out, so that we might come to him not by fear but by love.

And what becomes transparent to us in Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is no trick of the light. It is the truth of who God is. Jesus emptied himself, not despite his divinity but because of it. Our Scripture today says, “though he was in the form of God,” but some scholars say the Greek reads more like, “because he was in the form of God.” Because and not despite his divinity, he emptied himself. Jesus’ humility is not a charade, not an act, not an exception to God’s power and holiness. It is not a disguise or a stunt to get us to pay attention—is the truest expression of who God is.

It is because of this that we can bear with one another in our being emptied out. I have seen the beginnings of this in a member of our own congregation in recent months. In mid-February, Drew Moore, son of Sara Edi Boyd and stepson of Barry Boyd, suffered a cardiac arrest.

Drew remained in a coma for many days, but in recent weeks he has made remarkable progress. There is still a long road of recovery ahead of him, but I have marveled from afar at the strength, hope, and perseverance of Drew, Sara, Barry, and all Drew’s family and friends. They have been and continue to be emptied out by this experience, but it has born witness to the depth of love and faith that they share.

Sara wrote this in an update about Drew’s rehabilitation: “I don’t know how far Drew will be able to come back. But I know this, it has been a privilege to witness. I know that when Drew is done, this family can accept and cherish the Drew he will become.”

Dieter Zander’s stroke emptied him of skills and talent and power and prestige. But he has come to see his emptying not only as an end, but also as a new beginning. Reflecting on life before and after the stroke, Dieter says, “Years ago, I was a popular man. Now, my friends are small. Small is good.”

Jesus knew something of being a popular man. Crowds followed him across ancient Palestine, and they shouted with joy at his entrance to Jerusalem. But by the end of the week, Jesus’ friends would be small.

I wonder what Jesus thought as he rode that donkey into Jerusalem. I wonder if it all felt faintly like a mockery to him—the palms, the cheers, the grand gesture. Perhaps that was part of the point—perhaps he was subverting the religious and political establishment and its image of power and honor. Perhaps, too, he knew those people shouting “Hosanna!” would in a matter of days shout “Crucify him!” instead. For as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the cross was already before him. Even as he was celebrated by the crowds, he was already emptying himself out as he made his way toward Calvary.

Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem did not begin with the acquisition of a donkey colt. It began when he was driven into the wilderness after his baptism. For forty days, he emptied himself, fasting and being tempted by the devil. And when he returned to Galilee, he returned “filled with the power of the Spirit.” On Palm Sunday, we might think we are seeing that power as the power of an earthly King, but Jesus’ road is ever toward the cross, where God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

We are called to be of the same mind as Jesus in this Holy Week and at all times—not to seek our own martyrdom or humiliation, not to self-righteously endure perceived slights or petty persecutions, not to romanticize or relativize real suffering, but to empty ourselves of all that keeps us from God, and to hold space for God’s healing love when life empties us of all we hold dear.

As we move toward Jerusalem, we may only be able to see the cross and the grave. And we must not shy away from these things, must not hide our faces from Jesus’ final and decisive self-emptying. But we look forward to a different kind of emptying—the emptying of a tomb. In this kingdom of brokenness and pain, of sin and guilt, of cardboard and spoils, nothing is wasted, and nothing is beyond redemption. All because our King rode in on a donkey and emptied himself to show us who God truly is. May this Holy Week be emptied out of all but love for each of us, that we might draw closer to God in our pain and in our hope.

Hosanna! Save us!


Published by Sarah Howell-Miller

"I believe in kindness, also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when it is not necessarily prescribed." {Mary Oliver}

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