“…he emptied (ἐκένωσεν) himself… Therefore God also highly exalted him (ὑπερύψωσεν)…” Philippians 2:9
“And I, when I am lifted up (ὑψωθῶ) from the earth will draw all things to myself.” John 12:32
This morning we stand in a gateway—a hinge, if you will – of Holy Week. We have been walking together these last five weeks to arrive at this moment, “the entry into Jerusalem.” As the collect we prayed earlier outside beautifully put it (and as I commented upon in my Flame piece last week), today we “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts” whereby God has “given us life and immortality.” That is, today we step together into a space of contemplation, a prayerful and reflective practice of telling and hearing the story of the events leading up to and including Jesus’ death and – as we will celebrate one week from today – his resurrection. In the prayer’s odd phrasing, we “enter upon” this contemplation as if entering a room where multitudes long before us have been contemplating this mystery and where others will continue long after us. Having walked through today’s gateway, this week we will contemplate this story at much greater detail, worshipping here each evening at 7pm, beginning tomorrow night. At the start of this week-long contemplation, the question that swirls in my heart is what this story, this sequence of stories, reveals to us about God. Who is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ who -- after walking with us, healing injuries, proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives, casting his lot among outcasts-- died in a horrific execution at the hands of the Roman Empire? More pointedly, what does our collect mean when it describes the turns of this week’s story sequence as “mighty acts,” and what do those acts reveal about the God who carried them out?
First there is the mystery of the word “mighty.” This descriptor sounds impressive, kingly, perhaps even imperial, an evocation of a conquering God who overthrows evil foes. The Gospel of Mark’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the first chunk of the gospel that we read outside, also carries some of this tone when it, alone of the canonical gospels, includes the phrase “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mk 11:10) There was an expectation in Jesus’ first century Jewish context that when the Messiah came he would indeed re-establish the kingdom of David. He would be righteous and mighty. The Messiah would carry power in an easily recognizable, triumphal manner. The anointed one would be exalted. And I think it important to point out here that this idea of kingly exaltation carried deeply gendered dimensions. Particularly in a context of imperial oppression, where power was so often wielded as “power-over,” as a form of what contemporary theorists of gender in general and masculinity in particular might call “hegemonic masculinity,” one who would re-establish a kingdom was expected to carry power as a form of being in-charge, as calling the shots, as invulnerability.
The “mighty acts” of God in Jesus Christ, however, the workings of divine power in his life and ministry, in his death and even in his resurrection, do not come across as invulnerable. They are not invulnerable, in fact. They express the very height of vulnerability. These “mighty acts” look the opposite of strong. In fact, they look weak, so much so that they inspired mockery not only from the soldiers who took him to his death (Mk 15:16-20), not only from passersby who saw him hanging on the cross (Mk 15:29), and not only from religious authorities who expected a Messiah to look and act entirely differently (Mk 15:31-32a), but even from people being crucified alongside him (Mk 15:32b). If they looked like nothing else, all of these people supposed, God’s mighty acts in Jesus should at the very least entail coming down from the cross, not succumbing to it.
The Apostle Paul gives us an overview of this paradox of divine power in the hymn that he quotes in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians. Though Christ was in “the form of God” (a mysterious idea in and of itself), “he did not consider equality with God as [something] to be held onto” (οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ) but rather “emptied himself” (Philippians 2: 6-7). Instead of an exalted, hegemonic form of power that is easily recognizable as power-over, Christ “emptied himself” and took on a form of service. Paul puts it yet more provocatively by calling it, “the form of a δοῦλος,” which can be translated servant or slave. Paradoxically, in the wake of this emptying came exaltation. The base verb for this exalting – υψόω — is the same as the one we have heard for two weeks running now. As you may recall, at the conclusion of last week’s passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke of being “lifted up from the earth” (Jn 12:32). And the week before that, also in John’s gospel, Jesus spoke of being “lifted up” just like the bronze serpent on the pole (Jn 3:14). These passages used this idea of being lifted up as a sign of healing, a sign of new growth and life from out of hurt, out of pain, out of death itself. So too, Paul’s hymn speaks of God lifting up the one who poured himself out and adds the prefix “hyper” (ὑπερυψόω) — super-exalted, if you will. As with John’s gospel, being lifted up is intentionally paradoxical, purposefully subverting expectations of what we think divine power should look like. The mighty acts whose contemplation we enter upon this Holy Week reveal a God who poured Godself out in the life, ministry and death of Jesus Christ, a God who can be neither named nor contained by the standards of human power-over. In Jesus Christ, this God joins us in mourning and anguish, heals and consoles, stands in the margins refusing injustice, is willing to die unjustly that injustice itself might be overturned. This God does not model a form of power that walls itself off from others but, rather, one made manifest in the opening of hearts to presence and connection, a power that invites us to bear witness with one another to our unique humanity, to walk with one another just as Christ has promised always to walk with us.
Recently we have seen this kind of power, this outpouring, enacted communally in rallies and uprisings across our country in response to gun violence. Young people in particular have been coming together to claim and affirm their agency, to call for accountability and gun control legislation in the wake of the violence that has been claiming their lives in neighborhoods and in schools across this country. This week in Sacramento people shut down highways in protest against the killing of Stephon Clark, a twenty-two year old African American man, dad of a one-year-old and a three-year-old. Suspected of breaking car windows in the neighborhood, he was shot in his grandmother’s back yard by police who fired twenty times, thinking he had a gun. He only had a cell phone. Two weeks ago in the Mission the community rose up in protest against the killing of nineteen-year-old Jesus Adolfo Delgado. An undocumented immigrant who had come to this country as a child, he was suspected of armed robbery and died amid a volley of 99 rounds fired by police as he hid in the trunk of a car, terrified of deportation. And of course, yesterday streets from Washington D.C. to Oakland and San Francisco were filled particularly with youth and young adults who have been activated anew in the wake of the school shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida on Ash Wednesday. As several of us from St. Aidan’s walked down Market Street, swept along by a band and drums, one of our children carried a sign we made when Ana Hernandez led us in a sign making and chant composition event in October. At the end of the day I watched speeches from Washington D.C.’s rally. The one that really got me was by Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Parkland shooting. She and her classmates are very clear that although this movement has recently risen into unprecedented prominence, their privilege has contributed to that rise and the scourge of gun violence has been afoot for decades. In her speech Gonzalez named all of her classmates who died, adding brief tidbits about their personalities. Then suddenly she went silent and stared out into the crowd. The silence went on and on as tears ran down her face. Several times the crowd cheered her and then went silent again. What was she up to? And then suddenly a timer went off. It had been six minutes and twenty seconds since she had begun speaking, she declared, the amount of time it took the gunman to kill all seventeen people and then blend in with the crowd as they ran to escape the building. By her practice and explanation of this silence, Gonzalez had in a powerfully way brought all of her listeners into the unspeakable horror of that day. She had allowed us – as our collect put it – to enter upon the contemplation of a sequence of events, a profound experience of terror, pain, death, and loss that has forever changed her and her classmates. By allowing a wide swath of people to become present to the sequence of events, all of us were brought into its immediacy. All of us were invited to see, experience, and be changed.
This week as we enter into the contemplation of that sequence that we dwell upon each year during Holy Week, we are reminded that this practice reflects and responds to the God who in Jesus Christ came to dwell with us. Sometimes our contemplation will take the forms of singing, and of praying aloud. Sometimes it will take the form of silence. As we make this journey, may we know that the God for whom we sing, the God to whom we pray in word and in silence, this God consoles us, stands in radical solidarity with us, and takes up into God’s own heart the violence and death that erupts in our world. Amid the violence of our world, God invites us to know every human being, including ourselves, to be profoundly seen, known, and beloved. The mighty acts of this God whose “contemplation we enter upon” this week do not take up what we might think of as hegemonic forms of power. These acts do not wall God off, set up bulwarks, exude invulnerability. Quite the opposite. In Jesus Christ God is poured out into the fear, the pain and brokenness of our world. In Jesus Christ, God has joined our world, has taken it up and into God’s own open heart in order to transform it, to raise it into a new creation of beauty, of love, of peace that surpasses all understanding. This is the God of hope with whom we walk—who walks with us. This is the God who through the mystery of this outpouring has given, has lifted up the gift of resurrection life.
 Book of Common Prayer, 270