Empty Yourself

Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
26 September 2020 – You can watch the sermon here.

Last Friday, I witnessed something that broke my heart. 

Will and I were attending a colleague gathering, and he, you, shared about the pain he has been feeling since learning that there would be no charges filed for Breonna Taylor’s death. 

This was incredibly sad but what broke my heart, was the reaction of the rest of us – an all white colleague group. We said, “I’m so sorry Will.” But then, quickly moved onto the next person who needed to “check-in.” I was at a loss for words, it was so clear to me that the pain Will was experiencing pain, you were experiencing, was so big and so heavy and we really didn’t know how to hold it with you. I’m so sorry for that. 

Later that afternoon, still thinking about Will’s sadness and our response –  the words from today’s epistle came to mind, “So let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, being of the same form of God did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness … emptied himself, humbled himself, became human.” 

You know, one of my favorite praise and worship songs, you will soon learn that I love praise and worship and gospel music, sings about this action of Christ, “You did not want Heaven without us, so Jesus you brought Heaven down.” 

Jesus coexisted with God – in a place free from suffering. Yet, Jesus’s longing and love for us motivated him to lay aside this comfort and take on our human experience, making him susceptible to pain all because, in doing so we might more fully know the love of God. 

Christena Cleveland, Black theologian and scholar, posits that this laying aside of privilege continued throughout Jesus’s life. He consistently sided with women, children, lepers, and Samaritans – people cast aside by society. As followers of Jesus, we too, are called to lay aside our own comfort and privilege and share in the pain of those who are oppressed and marginalized by society. 

This is not easy, especially for those of us who have more privilege. Our Gospel for today makes this clear, when  Jesus points out that the  prostitutes and tax collectors will have a much easier time finding the kin(g)dom of heaven than those of us in places of power. Those of us who Will talked about last week, who’ve been working hard all day long and think we’ve earned it. 

Those of us accustomed to prestige and privilege must a consistent and intentional effort to, in Paul’s words, “put other people’s interests ahead of hours” to “regard others more highly than ourselves” 

So why did this passage come to mind on Friday?

It might be helpful for me to start by sharing a little bit about my experience of last week. I remember where I was when I read the news but there would be no charges for Breonna Taylor‘s death. I thought, “Oh my God that’s horrible.” Then shortly thereafter I went back to work,  my day was not disrupted at all. This is hard to acknowledge and I say it vulnerably, but to me, Breonna Taylor was someone who was denied justice, something sad that happened. 

And I’m going to take a risk and guess that for many of you who are white, you’ve had a similar experience – acknowledging the sadness of the moment and then going back to business as usual. 

This is not the experience of my friends who are Black, my friends of color. My former supervisor, the now Reverend Canon Stephanie Spellers shared this on Wednesday, “Oh God oh God this hurts so much more than I expected. The only charges filed were for the bullets that went through the walls of her white neighbors home. There were no charges for the bullets that went through her ceiling into a black neighbors home. No charges for the bullets that went through her body. Her name wasn’t even on the indictment.”

What I’ve witnessed is that for my Black friends, this grief is akin to how I felt when one of my close friends died and my tears were so great that I was unable to stand. Or how I witnessed my mother, the morning of her mom’s funeral, folded over the sink in pain. 

I don’t fully understand it, but what I am learning from my Black friends, is that their experience of community extends deeper and further than the white experience of community. Because many Black Americans have a shared story – of enslavement, of surviving, and of enduring – this common experience of strength and resiliency has developed a beautiful vision of family that extends far beyond blood lines. A version of family that white Americans could learn much from, one in which others are seen as siblings – knit together in a common story. 

All to say, that when Black people hear the news of Breonna Taylor ‘s death and denial of justice – it didn’t just happen to someone – it happened to a sister or a mother or a daughter even to themselves.

To be clear, I’d rather not be preaching on this my second sermon at St. Barnabas. But church, here we are again. So the question is how are we going to respond? Not because this is the latest news story or because we don’t want to be cancelled – but because our Black and brown siblings are in pain. 

Are we going to shirk away because the pain is too heavy? Or are we going to follow Jesus and walk towards pain. 

This commitment to solidarity is at the center of our worship. Every Sunday when we celebrate Eucharist – we remember the story of Jesus – an innocent man was killed at the hands of the state. We partake in his broken body and blood, asking to share in his suffering. 

This is the time to put that commitment into practice, to come to the table “For strength and not only for solace.” It is time to lay aside comfort, to slow down and walk towards the pain, to let it disrupt our lives.” 

This is the time for whitepeople to call your black and brown friends, my colleague the Rev. Karen Coleman said, “Call your black friends. Ask how they’re doing. If they don’t want to tell you, They will let you know.”

While we will never know the pain our Black siblings are experiencing right now, we can call them and ask, How can I share in your pain?

We can ask, in the spirit of Paul, “How can I put you first right now? How can I affirm your worth in a world that’s denying it? How can I love in a way that causes me to empty myself? How can I be of the same mind of Christ?”

May God give us the grace here with the spirit is lead us, and the courage to follow

2 thoughts on “Empty Yourself

  1. Good morning Natalie,

    It was good to hear from you. I hope you and James are healthy and safe. George and I are hanging close to home for the most part and so far have not been sickened with this terrible disease. It is truly heartbreaking to learn of so many families who have lost loved ones.

    Thank you so much for forwarding me the link to your sermon. This past Sunday I attended St. John’s 10:00 virtual service and the Zoom session that followed. The Reverend Rob Lee, founder and CEO of FreshMinisteries, was the guest speaker. He is a descendant of Robert E. Lee and spoke of confronting his family’s history and the inequality that exists in our world today. In the Zoom session that followed Holly Carter shared that she has felt invisible during these turbulent times. Later in the afternoon I checked emails and there was your sermon Empty Yourself. I was brought to tears as I thought about Holly and Bill Carter who like Will must have processed this devastating news about the charges in Breonna Taylor’s death much differently from me. Without your words, I am not sure I would have fully understood Holly’s feelings.

    With love, respect, and best wishes, Elizabeth >


    • Hi Elizabeth, it’s so good to hear from you as well.

      I am sending you and George the same wishes for health and safety in this same place. It’s a heartbreaking time, so much pain in the world and limitations on how we can care for one another.

      I’m so glad that the sermon gave you a window into the pain of Holly and Bill. It often feels like we live in two different worlds, or that we have two different experiences of the same world. I think this is one of the greatest pains of racism and white supremacy – there’s an inability to really know one another. That’s one of the thing that motivates me to do this work, a desire to know and be known.

      I continue to pray for St. John’s. Y’all remain in my heart and I hope that, when this is over, I can return for a visit.

      With peace, Natalie


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