Sermon from January 20, 2019

From Zero to One, Part II: Kenosis, Metanoia and Agape
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
Januray 20, 2019    Second Sunday after Epiphany and
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday
Isaiah 49; I John 3-4; Luke 4:14-21

The Rev. Jim Antal talks in his book, Climate Church, Climate World, about Vincent Harding who co-wrote one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most important addresses given a year to the day before his assassination.  The speech called for a revolution of values in our society away from materialism, militarism and racism to an ethic of love and the golden rule, changing systems and policies exactly as we are envisioning doing on the sheets in the Parish Hall.

Vincent Harding warned about a national holiday in King’s honor, “There is a tremendous danger of our doing with Martin King precisely what we have so often done to Jesus.  That is, put him up on a wall and leave him there, to use his birthday as a holiday and an excuse for going wild over buying things, or domesticate him—taking him according to what we want, rather than what he is demanding of us.”

One of the ways that Professor Harding’s fears have been realized is the dropping of the Rev. Dr. from King’s name.  As a result, people can forget that King was part of the same movement as Jesus and John the Baptist, the same movement as Moses and the Hebrew prophets, the same movement as the churches that have reformed and transformed human civilization throughout the centuries on a moral arc bending toward justice.

We can forget that King’s courageous call for a revolution of values grew directly out of his training in the collective wisdom that the church has carried forward for thousands of years.

King’s main toolbox was the church, and to secularize him—to aspire to similar accomplishments without understanding the gifts the church gave him—is like planning a lunar exploration without understanding rocket science.

This is important because we have reached a point in human history where we must pick up where King was cut off.  We must complete the revolution of values he envisioned, and to do so we need all the wisdom and practices that the church uniquely offers, we need access to the higher power that spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and filled Jesus at his baptism and called to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to rise up and keep going when he was praying at his kitchen table in his darkest midnight, exhausted, lost and afraid.

One of the most important tools the church offers is the spiritual path that I began describing in last Sunday’s sermon.  I talked about how Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan gives us a symbol of what his way asks of us: the death of our old self followed by resurrection as someone new; lowly self-emptying followed by filling with the Spirit’s higher power.

Gandhi, said “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect.  This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”

The Apostle Paul encouraged us to have the mind of Christ, and what he meant was that we need to have a practice of emptying ourselves of our self.  For Jesus self-emptying was not just once on the cross, it was a continuous practice.

To crucify our self-will, to die before we die, to empty ourselves of self is called in our tradition by the ancient Greek name, kenosis.  We train ourselves in kenosis by practicing meditation or centering prayer where we let go of our thoughts and feelings, and by mindfulness or heartfulness techniques that help us be simply present without the usual agenda of our ego.  We also self-empty when we humbly and lovingly serve the needs of others.  Kenosis can also happen to us from outside, through great suffering or great love.  [See Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward.]

Two weeks ago at our first congregational conversation about Fulfilling Our Vision we came to the realization that over and over two things keep us from following the Golden Rule—selfishness and fear.  Self-emptying kenosis frees us from both of those and it opens us to personal transformation, the second step on this spiritual path.

The traditional Greek name for this transformation is metanoia.  Metanoia is a change of consciousness that takes us beyond where we are now, a change in the way we see the world that changes our way of being.  Kenosis leads us toward being zero.  Metanoia leads us toward being one—one with God, one with our neighbor or enemy, one with all creation.

This week we add a third Greek term that may be more familiar than the other two: agape.  Agape is what we do when we have undergone kenosis and metanoia and our consciousness has become one with the heart and mind of Christ.

Agape is Christ-like love.  Every time you heard the word “love” in the passages from the First Letter of John that I read, it was agape in the original Greek.  “God is agape, and everyone who abides in agape abides in God and God abides in them.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. contributed his own experience to the traditional interpretation of agape.  King saw this kind of love from the perspective of someone whose church had been bombed, killing four young black girls.  King knew the power of agape as someone who struggled with the temptation to hate and fight violence with violence, to get revenge and oppress those who had oppressed his people.  King spoke about the power of agape as someone who had seen it work miracles, not only in enabling his own heart to transcend its hate but also overcoming a vast systemic evil that no one thought could ever be overcome.  King saw firsthand that the love a person wields when they become zero is the most powerful force in the universe.

We need that power now for the overwhelming challenge ahead of us, bringing about a revolution of values in human civilization within a very short period of time.  We need King’s wisdom about it.

He called us in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, to project the ethic of agape love to the center of our lives.  He said, “Agape…. is the love of God operating in the human heart….  It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor…. Agape is not a weak, passive love.  It is love in action.  Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community…. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.  He who works against community is working against the whole of creation…. In the final analysis, agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated…. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”

The creative force King describes can fill us when kenosis empties us of fearful self-concern.  That creative force opens our eyes to the oneness of all creation as metanoia transforms our consciousness.  That creative force works through us in the form of agape to bring the world around us into a harmonious whole, a beloved community of all creation with the ethic of love at its core.

It took King fourteen years to expand his vision from the single issue of racism to the entire spectrum of human civilization.  Today that is where we need to resume his work.

We need to articulate a dream of what the realm of God on earth would look like, a dream of our society’s policies and systems operating by the golden rule and ethic of love.  We need a dream informed by the wisdom from all the ages that a spiritual repository like this church can provide.  And then we need to put our agape into action in meaningful ways to fulfill that dream, we need projects and tasks that can be done by a variety of people with different gifts and energies and abilities, something for everyone so that we are all working together to bring the dream into being.

This is the model King has given us, moving from the zero of kenosis to the oneness of metanoia to that oneness lived out on earth through agape.  As I said last week, we need to be Generation Zero-One, a generation that rises to the greatness that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspires in us, rising to say as Jesus did, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….’”

This scripture, this path, this revolution of Jesus and King, needs to be fulfilled by our generation, by us, now.  Jesus made his courageous commitment to bring good news, to free the oppressed, to proclaim a new era of God’s realm on earth, not knowing how he would fulfill it.  He knew only that he would give his life to it. and the Spirit would guide him.  He got busy building a small community of other courageous, committed people.  Together they contributed what they had to move earth another step toward being the realm of God.

We cannot know and do not need to know how everything will work out on earth, all we need now is our own courageous commitment and the desire to build our own small community and contribute what we can.

Let us pray in silence…


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