At the parish I served in Roanoke, Virginia—St. John’s—we had a partnership with the Virginia Tech Medical School, which is also located in Roanoke. At the end of each spring semester, med school faculty and first-year medical students gathered in St. John’s memorial garden, and together we interred in sacred ground the cremated remains of those who had donated their bodies to medical education. It was a lovely service, planned by the medical school students with minimal guidance from me. Doctors-in-training treated the ashes of the cadavers with reverence. Students and faculty of varied faiths prayed, side-by-side.
The identities of the cremated donors were unknown to those of us gathered in the garden and are unknown still. The only thing we knew about them was that, at the end of their mortal lives, they determined to give the entirety of themselves so that young medical students could train. Virginia Tech doctors settle in the finest hospitals all over the country. Who knows, someday you may find yourself being stitched up in the emergency room, the attending physician’s skill with needle and thread first having been formed by the sacrifice of a man or woman interred in the St. John’s garden.
But that’s all we knew. We weren’t aware of the donors’ family backgrounds, their professions, their religious faith, or their loves and passions. For a long time, that troubled and preoccupied me. I wanted to know those people. I want to know how they made the decision to give of themselves so radically.
In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we hear what some scholars believe to be the oldest passage in the entire New Testament. St. Paul has likely heard it elsewhere—he may even have written it himself—and in his conversation with the Philippians he determines to quote it. It is a hymn about Jesus, and it goes like this:
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 being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
It has been said that the most awesome, most incomprehensible truths are best conveyed through music, and this hymn—which was likely originally set to a chant—certainly fits that bill. In just a few lines, it captures the very essence of Christian belief, that which makes Christianity stunningly different from all other religious faiths. That essence is this:
God—the God, the one who crafts the galaxies, and creates quantum physics, and gives the azaleas bloom, and fills a baby’s lung with that first breath—that God emptied Godself in the person of Jesus, living among us as one who experienced the basest, the worst that humanity can do to humanity. After creating a universe in which human life is possible; after giving breath to that very life; in Jesus, God chose to give of himself completely to us, without reserve.
How we make sense of this is what keeps theologians from joining the ranks of the unemployed. But the fact of this truth has given, and still gives the deepest comfort to people of faith. Every day, its realization changes people. As the hymn in Philippians continues, “Therefore…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Not because of God’s majesty, and not because of God’s power, but because God emptied Godself of these things for us, because God preferred to know us as we are rather than sit remotely on a throne in highest heaven, we know Jesus is God Incarnate and not some pretender. We praise Jesus as Lord, as the one who has claim to our hearts and our lives.
That is the “therefore” of St. Paul’s hymn. In fact, he prefaces the hymn today with the exhortation, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, Paul is challenging the Christians in Philippi. He’s saying, “This is who God is. You want to know how much God’s heart yearns for you? You want to know how desperately God loves you? You want to know what God gives you? The answer is everything.
And how do we respond to that? How do we return that grace, that love? By letting our hearts and minds be like Jesus. By emptying ourselves. By giving God the all of us. By giving God everything.”
I’ll never know the identities of those people we interred in the St. John’s memorial garden. But I think I know something about them. I suspect that their final act was a sacrament, a representative symbol, of the way they lived their lives. In the end, they gave away everything: the eyes that had gazed upon their children, the hearts that had loved, the arms that had embraced. Whether or not they claimed the Christian faith, I suspect they’d have understood Paul’s hymn to the Philippians. Paul adds today, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Indeed. At the last, the people in that memorial garden gave everything. I’d wager they did the same at the first. I suspect they lived as they died, giving the all of who they were in life for the interest of others, in recognition of the profound grace in their lives.
We here do claim the Christian faith, explicitly, every week. Today, St. Paul sings to us the truth at the center of that faith. In Christ, God has given everything to us. We are to give everything back. But how do we begin? In a culture that rebels against this very notion, that immediately seeks to rationalize it away, that instills the mantra “me first” from every quarter, what first step can we take?
This is, in the end, what stewardship is all about. It is the first step, the way that we begin to orient our entire lives to God’s priorities rather than our own. Stewardship is the sacramental way—the outward and visible symbol—by which we begin to allow our hearts and minds to be formed like those of Christ. Biblically, stewardship is not just giving something back to God, it is giving the first and best back to God, what the Bible calls the “first fruits” of our labor. When we encounter the grace and freedom of giving to God the first and best of us, we soon discover that giving God the remainder—following the Way of Jesus with our entire lives—becomes infinitely easier.
Here, at the beginning of our Every Member Canvass, I pledge to do this, and I pray you will, too. To the instruments of the Church, I will give back to God in 2018 ten percent of my income. Before I consider anything else in my budget for next year, I will give to God the first fruits. My prayer is that this emptying will, slowly but surely, help me to realize the Lord of my life: the one who created the galaxies, who gives the azaleas bloom, who puts breath in my children’s lungs, and who beyond all of that gave everything to me in God’s incarnate Son. It is my prayer for all of us, and in our Every Member Canvass I pray you’ll join me.