March 28, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

This service was livestreamed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Sermon Text

Scripture:  PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11                                        

     Mary and I have been enjoying the limited series, The Queen’s Gambit, on Netflix these past few weeks. I’m guessing a number of you have done the same, since I gather some 62 million people watched it in its first month. I said we’ve been “enjoying” it, and that’s true. But the series is not without its notable ups and downs. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a girl named Beth who’s a chess prodigy, and early in her life becomes one of the great players in the world. She is orphaned at a young age, though, and when Beth is adopted, her new parents are severely limited in their ability to love her. Early on, she becomes addicted to alcohol and what she calls “tranquilizers.” It’s a wrenching story, full of agonizing isolation and self-sabotage and tainted love.

     As I’ve watched, I’ve been struck by the perhaps simple truism that the story of The Queen’s Gambit has the outline of most great stories. The tales we love are full of challenges that threaten the main character and that ask something of them. It begins early in our lives. In one of my favorite children’s books, Madeleine is hit with appendicitis and is rushed to the hospital. Later we see the crises that strike Moana, and Simba in The Lion King, and Woody in Toy Story. As we get older, we are faced with the gargantuan challenges of Shakespearean tragedies and Russian novels and popular fiction.

     When I was in college, Richard Sewell taught me a course on tragedy. Like most people, I had always used the word “tragedy” to mean some sort of unrelieved misery. When we use the word tragedy, we usually mean a car crash that paralyzes someone, or a disease that steals a life before its prime. Sewell taught me, though, that the heart of tragedy is not so much about awful events destroying lives. It’s much more about what happens to a person on the journey. Does the person come to a new understanding about themselves? Do they grow? Are they deepened in some way? Great tragedy is about maturation. It’s about developing a new insight and coming to wisdom precisely through those horrific events.

     And this is largely what Christian faith is like, as well. Like tragedy, Christian life is, in many ways, about growth that comes in the shadow of the cross. It’s about coming to a recognition that you and I are pretty small cogs in an unimaginably gargantuan universe, and, at the same time, that that puniness is not all there is. 

     As children, we likely all saw life as revolving around us: did I get as much candy as my sibling; will I be chosen early in the pickup basketball game; will social media shun me for my new hair style? For most of us, from an early age life revolves around us.

     As we get older, we may well find that life still revolves around us, and we may well expect that God will see it that way, too. We may assume that life should go the way we want it to go. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Tim Keller, a Presbyterian minister in New York, writes about his sudden diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. And he suggests that when such a thing happens, so many of us think it’s patently unfair. He writes about a woman with her own cancer who tells him she can’t worship a God who would let that happen to her.

     And I suspect most of us understand that feeling. Many of us have gotten news about an illness, or the loss of a job, or the death of a parent or child or friend, and we’ve been so devastated that we may well blame God for a world that is so poorly arranged, so abysmally set up. Isn’t it just profoundly wrong, we think, to have a world in which spouses betray each other and adults are struck with Lou Gehrig’s disease and children are run over by drunk drivers? Who wants a God who lets that happen? Who needs that sort of God? Faith, to many, seems like sheer foolishness.

     We understand that feeling, don’t we? On one level, it makes abundant sense: God made the world; in many ways it’s a crappy world; so let’s give up on God. Who can blame anyone for coming to that conclusion?

     But here’s the thing: what makes us think the world was set up to be what we think it should be? How in the world did it come to that, that we’re convinced that, unless everything goes the way we diagrammed it, the world is a travesty and the one who purportedly set it all into being is a fool? What makes us think that earthquakes and tornadoes are punishments from a vindictive God, that illnesses are unfair, that death is somehow picking on us? Did many of us not get the memo, as M. Scott Peck wrote so memorably in the first sentence of his long-ago bestseller, The Road Less Traveled, that “life is difficult,” that it’s often manifestly unfair, that there are absolutely no guarantees for any of us, and that ultimately we’re all going to die? How did it come to be that so many of us expect something that always goes the way we want it to go?

     Despite the way we may sometimes feel, life isn’t really all about us. When bad things happen, God isn’t picking on us. When disease and job loss and discouragement happen, it’s not a sign of God’s callousness. Those things just happen. And when they do, the job of faith is to remember that life is so much more than the sum of our defeats and losses. It’s to remember that, even as minuscule as we are, endless beauty and delight fills our few brief moments on earth. And that God never lets us go. Life can be a humbling endeavor. And still God is present even in the humbling.

     In one of his more memorable bits of writing, the apostle Paul pens some words to a church he loves in Philippi. He tells them he treasures them. And then he reminds them of the heart of the good news about Jesus Christ. He quotes to them a few scintillating lines from a hymn evidently sung among them, some lines that the church sees fit to appoint for reading every year on the Sunday before Easter, the Sunday we call Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday we remember that at the center of Christian faith is a Savior who died a humiliating death.

     What Paul tells us is that, at the core of Jesus’ life was a self-emptying, a willing stripping of “the privileges of deity. . .. It was an incredibly humbling process. . .. [H]e lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death” (2:7-8, The Message). And as Paul says at the beginning of the passage, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself” (2:5).

     I suspect that the process of being humbled is essentially the process of recognizing that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Maturing in faith is, in so many ways, about my realizing that I am a piece of the intricate and beautiful web of life. To be sure, I am only a piece—it’s not all about me. But I am a crucial piece in that web—like a single line of color in a tapestry, or a single stone in a mosaic, or a single note in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Take any one of those out, and the whole thing falls apart. And yet, the whole is so much greater than any single one of its parts. And in living lives of humility, we share in that sublime greatness.

     I want to return to the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit. And a spoiler alert here: I’m going to talk about the series’ last episode. So if you don’t want to know what’s going to happen, just mute your sound for the next three minutes and you can pretend I’m a mime. Or, if you’re watching this later, just fast forward those three minutes! You can come back later to hear what you’ve missed.

     For those of you who’ve seen the series, or who know you’re not going to watch it, this is what is so beautifully done at the end. Yes, Beth ultimately wins the world chess championship, and there’s something thrilling about that. After all the challenges of her life, it’s such a relief to see her refuse to sabotage her chances with alcohol and drugs, and instead to embrace her potential.

     What really moved me about the story, though, was not so much her extraordinary ability and accomplishment as it was Beth’s stepping off her somewhat proud and lonely pedestal, and finding instead a way to receive from others, and to join together with them. One scene after another conveys to her that it’s not all about her, and that she’s not in this all by herself. She doesn’t, for example, have the money to get to Moscow for the world championships, so Jolene, an old friend from Beth’s orphanage days, reappears in Beth’s life and simply offers her the $3000 she needs, without any strings attached. Then, in the middle of her climactic match against Borgov, the reigning world champion, the match is adjourned overnight, and will finish the next morning. Beth is clearly flummoxed by the way the match has unfolded and has no idea how to proceed the next day. As she waits nervously in her hotel room, she receives a phone call from Benny, a former competitor and teacher of hers. Benny had been so frustrated by Beth’s volatile, antagonistic, self-destructive behavior that, when they last talked, he had told her he never wanted her to call him again. There he is on the phone, though, following the match from half a world away. He’s gathered with four or five of her former chess-playing acquaintances. For hours they’ve been dissecting the possibilities, playing out the ways she might approach the conclusion of the match the next day. They go over all the possibilities with her, saying, “If Borgov does this, try this. If he does that, try that. If he goes another direction, see if you can manage this.” It’s such great teamwork, full of selfless camaraderie. They all give up any sense of privilege and entitlement and simply work together, hoping to do, as a team, what none of them, including the genius Beth, could do by themself. Together, they are far more than any one of them could be alone.

     And that’s not all. When Beth the next day defeats the imposing, intimidating, impassive defending world champion, Borgov, the great Russian stands up. Then, to our amazement, he smiles broadly and hugs her in front of the huge gallery of onlookers. As she leaves, he joins in the enthusiastic applause the crowd gives her. His show of sportsmanship is a vivid display of the humility embodied in Christ—he can step to the side and acknowledge her greatness. And finally, when Beth makes calls both to Benny gathered with her friends, and to Jolene who has made the trip possible, they all react with absolute glee. It’s all a touching reminder that Beth’s win is really secondary to the rich fabric of connection and love in which she has finally been enveloped. The selflessness and humility of Christ have sprung up in beautiful ways.

     The humility that characterizes Christ is manifest in countless ways in our lives, as well. We need to be clear that humility doesn’t mean letting yourself be walked on or abused. Too often the standard of humility has been foisted on people, and particularly on women, to keep them in what someone perversely imagines to be their proper place. Real humility is never imposed. Genuine humility is always chosen. It’s a gift that grows out of God’s grace, an offering of love that emanates from someone who knows themselves to be loved and also practices their own self-care. 

     You might see genuine humility in the caregiver who tends patiently to the spouse or child who cannot fend for themselves. You might see it in the second-stringer who leads the loudest cheers from the bench. You might see it in the friend who listens patiently to the outpouring of grief or rage or   pain. You might see it in the support person at work who thrills to the public accolades for their peers.

     Real humility, the humility of Christ, is rooted in the knowledge that none of us is the center of the world. It’s about really seeing and respecting each other. It’s about taking in who someone else is. It’s about joining them on the journey. It’s about building together something bigger than any of us. And maybe most of all, it’s about knowing that, right there on the cross, in the midst of the world’s sorrow and fury and despair, God is doing something we could not possibly do on our own. God is making all things new. In humility, this is what we can see. Blessing larger than any of us abounds even there.

     I want to finish today with a prayer written by Federated member Bill Kenneweg, a prayer inspired by the words of Paul and the self-emptying that is lifted up there. Let us pray:

     “Dearest Lord Jesus, I surrender to you today since I can’t save myself. Help me to empty myself of all my well-constructed plans for happiness based on what I can accomplish, what other people think of me, and what I can possess or control. May I also empty myself of all unnecessary thoughts so that I may life fully in the present moment where your healing love alone is to be found. In so emptying myself, I pray that I will create a space for you to live through me. May I fully embrace each moment of this day as it occurs and give myself away in love to you and to each person whom I encounter. Amen.” (Bill Kenneweg, April, 2020).