A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019, by The Rev. Christopher L. Webber.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .”
A week ago Friday I went to a demonstration. They held it at the corner of Powell and Market at 5 pm. There were placards being waved and a speaker, three speakers, in fact, holding forth. And a crowd. Not a very big crowd – maybe a few hundred quite a few waving posters of one sort and another. We were there demanding release of the Mueller report. I don’t think we made a difference. I didn’t see anyone with a TV camera and I don’t think it even made the local paper, but it made some of us feel better.
Now, I wouldn’t have done that before I retired because I wouldn’t have wanted the parish I was serving to be divided by a political issue. But I’m not in charge any more and I do have opinions and I sometimes feel free to express them in public. But I’m as concerned as I ever was about political differences dividing the church and I would hope that maybe next Sunday Beth would mention in a sermon that she’d been at a Trump rally and we could celebrate the fact that our unity in Christ was greater than any divisions between Donald Trump and Robert Mueller or any conceivable divisions that might come between us. I think we could do that. I hope we could. If our unity in Christ isn’t deeper than our political divisions, there’s something wrong.
I think there was a time when that wasn’t true. We assumed everyone else either thought as we did or else was wrong. The history of humanity is largely a history of wars being fought between armies dedicated to the simple proposition that we were right and they were wrong. We understand a little better now that not all minds work the same way and that we can sometimes learn from the way other minds work or at least need to be aware of their differences. I think, in fact, that human beings have always been fascinated by other lives, other mind-sets, other ways of thinking. We read books, or go to the movies, or exchange gossip to get insights into other lives. “Did you hear what happened to Joe or Susan?” we ask.“Can you imagine?”, we ask. And if we can imagine, really imagine, not critically, but sympathetically, (the word sympathy means “feeling with”) – if we can do that, if we can feel with others, we can grow, we can get outside ourselves a bit, not be so cooped up inside our own mind-sets, our own limited insights, the narrowness of our own experience and understanding.
We need to pray for our leaders, on both sides – or many sides – that they have some glimmer of understanding of what it must be like to be Donald Trump, in an overwhelming job, under constant pressure, constant second guessing by talking heads, and with a very real possibility that his taxes will be made public and he may lose everything.
I remember meeting a very wise bishop years ago who had been a missionary in Africa and had known the man who became one of the first African dictators when the future dictator, Kwame Nkrumah, was a school boy. The bishop had gone back to visit him years later when Nkrumah was at the height of his power. “The poor man,” the bishop said, “The poor man.He has all that power and doesn’t know how to let go of it.” I wonder whether there’s someone who has that perspective on Donald Trump. “The poor man; he has all that power and can’t trust anyone.”
Sympathy. Feeling with. Understanding. The need for understanding. To get inside the minds of others and see the world as others see it and understand, really understand, why they act as they do. Is it even possible. Do even husbands and wives, children and parents, ever really understand each other; really understand?
But however hard that may be, think about the challenge posed by this morning’s epistle: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Can you even begin to imagine really doing that? And yet, isn’t that just one way of saying what Christianity is all about and what we are doing here today?
The letters of Paul come back to this theme again and again in all kinds of different ways. He talks about being “in Christ,” “Having the mind of Christ,” about Christ being in us, about being Christ’s body, about being joined with Christ. There’s a new jargon phrase I hear all the time in church talk these days: Christian formation. Well, yes: being formed – being re-formed – being not so much who we were as who we might be. “Putting off” – Paul’s language again -“putting off the old man or woman” and “putting on Christ”and beginning to be someone else: Christ in us; a new creation.
What would it be like to look at Donald Trump through the mind of Christ, to think about it from Jesus’ perspective? But more important still, what would it be like to live even a minute or two or three of our lives here, with the mind of Christ? What would it mean to deal with the children, the grandchildren, the parents, the neighbor next door, the clerk in the store, the waiter in the restaurant, to say nothing of our political leadership with the mind of Christ. Could we, for a minute or two imagine, letting that mind be in us?
The sentence just before that in Paul’s letter goes even further; it says:“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”Isn’t that dangerous doctrine? To look to the interests of others: Mexican refugees on the border, for example. They do me no harm, they don’t show up in my neighborhood. But some people obviously do feel threatened. Can I understand their interests? Can I look to their interests also or expect my representative to do so? And how do we deal with it when the President looks to other interests, that radical right, that so-called “evangelical” right. What is it that forms their mind-set, and could I somehow begin at least to try to understand, or share their concerns, or find common ground. What would a world be like where we all looked first of all not for our own good, but for common ground, common ground? or better still for the mind of Christ: Christ in my spouse, my friend, my neighbor: Christ in the stranger on the N-Judah, the waiter in the fast food restaurant, the homeless man or woman huddled against our office buildings against the cold and the rain?
It might not be easy. Having the mind of Christ led Jesus to the cross. Someone described for me some time ago an icon, a painting, showing Jesus at the moment of his arrest with soldiers bearing down on him with spears and clubs all pointing towards him and Jesus paying absolutely no attention but reaching down toward the slave whose ear Peter had just cut off, reaching down to heal, concerned for the other, not for himself. Death staring him in the face, and his mind, his hand, on the other. Have that mind in you, Paul says. Have that mind in you, that concern for the other before yourself.
This church is here for that purpose. Here at the center of this community is a building and a gathering centered on the notion that others come first, and that we can make a difference in this world, can serve God best, can serve our neighbors best, can serve our families best, by letting the mind of Christ be in us.
Paul goes on – we read it just now – to talk about Jesus emptying himself, humbling himself, down from the heights of heaven, down from any human glory, down to the place of a slave, down even to death and the grave. And what did it accomplish? Now, two millennia later, a worldwide church, a changed society, one in which elections are fought – sometimes at least – over how best to improve our schools, how best to provide security for older citizens, how best to use our government to heal and help and serve.
And yes, that’s putting the best possible spin on a situation that we know falls far short of the mind of Christ, but think of how far we’ve come from the day we read about in the gospel when an innocent man could be arrested, tortured, and killed in a matter of hours, with no pretense of a fair trial. And think of how far we still have to go and yet what a privilege we have in being called to be citizens of the new kingdom Christ came to build and to come to his table and be nourished with his life and to let the mind of Christ so transform us that we see the world through his eyes and respond to it with his love.