What Are We Even Doing Here?

Do you know what the “canon within the canon” is?

When we talk about the “canon of scripture,” we simply mean the texts that we rely on as authoritative—the books that got picked to be in the Bible.

And the Bible is so large and complex that it is impossible to mentally hold the gist of every single chapter and verse. And so we have what we call “the canon within the canon.”

The canon within the canon is the scripture texts that speak to your heart with greatest depth.

They’re your favorites, the ones you come back to time and again, knowing they’ll have something new to say to you every time.

They’re the ones that come to your mind in times of darkness and times of joy, to give you strength and to express your exuberance in praise of God.

My canon within the canon contains some classics, like the Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit) and the Magnificat (My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord).

Many of the psalms are in my canon within the canon, and some bits of Isaiah, the gospels and the epistles.

But today’s passage from Philippians is one of my all time top five Bible texts.

It expresses to me everything I need to know about Jesus, and everything I need to know about what Jesus is asking me to do.

You’ll hear this text referred to as the Kenosis Hymn, and I want to talk about both parts of that, both the kenosis and the hymn.

Kenosis is a Greek word meaning “self-emptying.” This is the word used in verse 7 as we read, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

And we call this the Kenosis Hymn, not the Kenosis Poem or the Kenosis Text, because we know from Biblical scholars that these words were sung in worship, as a hymn, in the very early church.

This is what the early Christians sang together to express their love of God when they came together to share Eucharist, just like we are today.

In the Episcopal Church we are justly proud of our worship tradition.

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” is a sort of unofficial motto of our liturgy.

We spend time and resources to make our nave beautiful.

Our altar guild and flower guild set the stage, our choir lends their voices, and our acolytes assist with grace and dignity.

Our lectors study their lessons, our greeters welcome us in, and our ushers guide us where we need to go.

We as the clergy, along with our choirmaster, spend a great deal of time planning and choosing our worship materials, making sure they honor our rich tradition while remaining fresh and new.

Our sexton keeps the nave clean and our parish administrator copies endless bulletins.

We put a lot of people power into our liturgy, and it shows.

But what Episcopalians have from time to time been justly accused of is being precious and prideful about our liturgy.

We can get so caught up in the details, slavishly adhering to “the way we’ve always done things” and thinking the Holy Spirit won’t be present if we break a prayerbook rubric.

I’ve definitely been guilty of this myself!

It reminds me of the old saying, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

We’re not here to put on a fancy show and wear pretty clothes and congratulate ourselves on our elegant liturgy.

We must remember two important things: who is doing the worship, and who we’re worshipping.

People are worshipping, and we are worshipping God.

The most important thing about our worship is not the lovely details we enjoy about it, wonderful as they are. The important thing about our worship is what is truly happening when we are in this space.

In worship, the Body of Christ comes to life, worshipping God the Father through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

I always tell people, you can pray by yourself, but you can only worship in community.

When we walk through these doors, we leave our individuality behind to become part of the gathered Body of Christ.

Or perhaps a better way of saying it would be that we let go of our individuality to let it be taken up and blended into the great whole.

Notice that in worship you never speak or sing anything by yourself. We always speak and sing in unison.

This is where we get into the beautiful mystical dimension of worship.

When we speak or sing together, we must breathe together.

It is the silent, unnoticed moment of the Body of Christ rising up, drawing breath to speak and sing glory to God.

Our breathing together is the biological functioning of the Body of Christ, and remember, the Holy Spirit is always spoken of as the breath of God.

In worship, you are not just saying words. The breath of God is moving through your lungs, and creating the voice of the Body of Christ. That is powerful!

This is an important realization that reminds us, when worship gets so familiar that we are no longer mentally and spiritually present as we speak and sing, that there is something much larger than ourselves happening and it behooves us to pay attention to it.

But we’re not all the way there yet.

Because even when we realize that breathing and speaking and singing together is what makes us the Body of Christ in the fullest sense, we are not yet saved from a self-centered worldview.

Even with that knowledge of the mystical truth of worship, we can still just sit here and congratulate ourselves. Look at how pretty we are when we are the breathing Body of Christ!

Here we have to go back to our Philippians text, the Kenosis Hymn.

The early Christians somehow understood that in worship they would need a reminder of what it really meant to be the Body of Christ.

It is not about creating something beautiful to enjoy for ourselves.

It is about self-emptying. It is about pouring ourselves out.

If our worship is radiantly beautiful in this room on Sunday morning, and then does not lead to pouring ourselves out for the world, it is useless.

If we are only worshipping for ourselves, we are essentially doing no more than actually worshipping ourselves.

Worshipping God means pouring out our hearts and souls to God. God then pours Godself into us in worship. And God pouring Godself into us fills us with joy and energy and purpose and love, which then we must go and pour out to the world.

As we empty ourselves for the world throughout the week, we know that we can give of ourselves without counting the cost, because on Sunday morning we will return and God will fill us full once again.

The Body of Christ is nourished by this holy Eucharist every week, and then we are to go out and feed the world.

This is the true purpose of worship—emptying ourselves to God, being filled by God, and then pouring ourselves out for the world.

Worship really matters.

The physically and spiritually starving people all around us every day depend upon what we do in this nave every week.

And whether we do it with full integrity and intention may make the difference between a hungry person you meet this week finding you to be a source of sustenance or as sadly blank, needy, and distracted as they are.

We spoke at the beginning of this sermon about the canon within the canon, the Biblical texts that awaken our hearts to new and vibrant life.

Let us close with “the purpose within the purpose” of what we’re doing here today.

Worship has more than one purpose—to help us learn through hearing scripture, to give the firstfruits of our lives as offerings of time, talent and treasure at the altar, to bind us in Communion at the Eucharist with each other and the great cloud of witnesses, to glorify God.

But the purpose within the purpose is to pour ourselves out to God, that God may pour Godself out into us, that we may pour ourselves out for the world.

And the simple fact that we come together, we breath together, and thereby we worship together means the Body of Christ is coming alive, right here and now in and as us.

And that is how we, the Body of Christ, may through the slow work of grace, be conformed to the Mind of Christ.

Then the Kenosis Hymn, the cherished words lifted up in song by the earliest Christians in worship, may be made true in us: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

In human likeness. Today, here and now, that likeness is us.

Breathe in with your neighbor, and let it live.


If you liked, please share!