Philippians 1: 1-11
May 13, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Paul began every letter with a reminder of grace and he spoke about grace a lot in the body of those letters. “For all of you share in God’s grace with me,” he tells the Philippians, “whether in prison and as we work on behalf of the gospel.” I think Paul talked so much about grace because he knew that we fight grace. We have problems believing it, practicing it towards others, and accepting it on our own behalf because grace — the freely given and undeserved love of God offered to every person— goes against all of our instincts.
A few years back, bird-lovers throughout New York state debated the value of grace. That November had been so warm that a family in Binghamton had continued to replenish their hummingbird feeder for the dawdling Ruby-throated hummingbirds enjoying the unusual sunny days, and one day, while looking out her window to watch the Ruby-throats, the woman of the household saw a bird whose entire head glowed pink, and whose back flashed iridescent green. Grabbing her guide book, she positively identified the bird as an Anna’s Hummingbird and before the end of the day, the network of New York birding enthusiasts was abuzz. Anna’s Hummingbirds live in the parks and woods of California and generally don’t migrate. What was this West Coaster doing so near to the bright lights of Broadway? Had it got caught in a really long tail-wind? Was it a rebellious young hummingbird out to see the world? Or was its internal compass so skewed that it believed it was sipping nectar from a Sacramento feeder even as it sat in the bare branches of a maple tree in a western NY yard?
Regardless of the reason for its presence, the birding world was excited to have the opportunity to watch an Anna’s Hummingbird without having to buy a round-trip ticket to California, and dozens of avid nature-lovers trooped down to Binghamton over the next few weeks to spy on the errant Anna’s Hummingbird. Soon, however, the birding network was abuzz again, this time in anger and argument. Word had leaked out that a wildlife rehabilitator had decided to capture the Anna’s Hummingbird before the harsh December winds came, to keep it safe over the winter and release it in the spring. Some birders were in favor of saving the Anna’s, while just as many were adamantly opposed. The latter argued that the bird might have a mutant gene which had steered it off course, and if we interfered with nature and saved it, it might live to breed eventually creating a sub-species of screwed-up Anna’s Hummingbirds that can’t tell the difference between Binghamton and Hollywood.
I can’t tell you how the story ended; no one is exactly sure because the family hosting the hummingbird got tired of threatening phone calls from birders who so wanted nature to take its course that they were willing to spill a little human blood to make sure that happened and so the family dropped out of the forum and stopped talking publicly. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to watch the vehemence with which some of the birding community defended the law of the “survival of the fittest”: “If the Anna’s Hummingbird can’t make it without help,” they argued, “then nature should be allowed to eliminate that weak element in the gene pool.”
This debate arises frequently among naturalists, every time wild ducks are trapped in an early ice or whales swim up fresh water rivers, but it has also been part of our conversation about human social obligations ever since Darwin first published Origin of the Species. My sister Wendy, who is also a minister, told me of a conversation she had with a new member of her church who was a professor of Biology. The woman told Wendy, “Actually, I’ve always been a little embarrassed about being a church-goer. It’s not something I talk about much with the other members of my department because I’m sure they would think I’m strange. Biology and religion are just at such odds with one another.”
Wendy replied, “You mean, the whole problem of creation — the biblical account contradicting the Big Bang Theory and all that.”
The Biology professor said, “Oh no. I understand Genesis metaphorically, and that doesn’t give my any problem. I’m talking about survival of the fittest. As a Biologist, I teach Darwin’s theory that evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest but frankly, that seems to be a huge contradiction to the biblical proclamation that God is on the side of the weak and the sick and the poor.”
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. But should wretches really be saved, we wonder, because after all, if we save the wretches, they might breed and reproduce, and then we’ll only have more wretches to contend with. Was not this the sentiment expressed by Ebenezer Scrooge, who said perhaps it would be best to let the poor die and “decrease the surplus population?” And this was certainly the basis of social Darwinism of the late 1800s that led eventually to the horrendous eugenics programs of the Nazi’s during World War II.
In reality, however, God’s grace is not at odds with Darwin, but only with a misapplication of Darwin’s theory. This coming Saturday, we will be celebrating the life of Pete Finlay and one of the gifts he gave to me was introducing me to the writings of Steven Jay Gould, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. Pete gave me several of Gould’s books which we often discussed together and one of Gould’s most frequent topics was the way Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been misunderstood. Survival of the fittest, Gould argued, is simply the mechanism used by nature to determine evolution; it does not impart value or even imply progression toward some state that we can philosophically call “better” than the previous state. “Survival of the fittest” may cause finches with bigger beaks to survive when there are only thick husked seeds to eat, but if next year, the thick-husked seeds are gone, the big beaked finches will die off, and survival of the fittest will favor the little beaked finches. Philosophically, finches don’t progress toward some stable state of ideal finchdom, and there is nothing inherently more valuable about one finch over another except in its ability to exploit a niche at any given moment. One could even argue that should that Anna Hummingbird be taken in over the winter by a kind wildlife rehabilitator enabling it to survive another year, it has simply learned to exploit a unique niche — the niche of human kindness.
Nevertheless, the reason people have consistently misunderstood Darwin’s theory of natural selection is because it just gave them one more way of justifying what we have always done for most of human history — ordered human society by placing a valued few at the top of the pyramid with the least valued masses at the bottom. Even children, who have never cracked open Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”, play at the game “King of the Mountain” scrambling to the top of the mountain, knocking others off, so that they can stand alone at the top and proclaim themselves king — or queen. The Occupy Wall Street movement may have popularized the phrase, “the 1%” to indicate the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but human beings have always tended to accept the ordering of societies as giant pyramids, with the best and the brightest, the most powerful and successful, the richest and the ambitious at the top. [Everyone draw a pyramid on your bulletin and look at that picture for a minute.]
Notice that when you view society as a pyramid, you also accept the corollary assumption that since the higher you go, the narrower the pyramid gets, you are going to have to shove someone off in order to make room for you. We have lived with this understanding of society for so long, that we squirm at the idea of grace. If grace means that God freely bestows mercy and love on everyone regardless of worth, all of us at some point or another wonder if God is being a little too free and easy with salvation. Won’t saving all of the wretches lead to a degradation of society where even those without value can rise to the top, leaving less room for those of us who deserve to be there?
The reason the pyramid model of society has persisted is because it promises that hard work and self-sufficiency will be rewarded: the industrious will climb to the peak where they will have their reward. The problem, of course, is that we know through eons of human history that that promise is a false one. Though occasionally, society rewards hard-work with a rise to the top, just as often (some might argue more often) people make it to the top through power, self-interest, privilege, and deviousness. When we live with the pyramid model of human relations, we are in continual competition with our neighbors, threatened by anyone else’s success, and nice people literally finish last. It is indeed lonely at the top because no one can afford the luxury of worrying about anyone else while they are scrambling upward to take care of number one.
And so we come back to Paul. Before he became a Christian, the apostle Paul was scrambling his way to the top of the pyramid. He was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, to weed them out like a troublesome invasive species so that the proper order could be preserved, when he encountered Jesus in a vision. In that vision, Paul saw the crucified Christ raised by God to triumphant new life but Paul admittedly struggled with the meaning of this revelation because it goes against everything that we believe about the proper order of things. God chose the least likely candidate to save the world, one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, [a man] despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; [a man] of no account.” (Isaiah 53:2-3)
How could such a man save us? Paul wondered. And then finally, Paul got it. Grace, he realizes, saves us because grace turns the pyramid upside down. God chose the weak to shame the strong; God chose the foolish to shame the wise, and when God chose the weak and the foolish and a failed Messiah hanging on a criminal’s cross so that we might see that in God’s realm, God flipped the pyramid on its head. Take that drawing of a pyramid you made earlier and turn it upside down. This is the picture of God’s realm.
“In my realm,” God declared, “human relationships are not ordered by competition and self-absorption but by cooperation and self-sacrifice because to rise to the top, you must widen your heart and broaden your spirit.”
Living in an upside down pyramid, our task in life is no longer to push others aside to grab limited resources, but to gather more and more people to us in an ever increasing network of compassion and care. Ultimately, the widest part of the pyramid is now at the top and to get there, we have to join in relationship to the entire human family, and all of earth, and God’s self. To arrive at the top of the pyramid is to have expanded your heart and your spirit to infinite dimensions.
Many years ago, when I was a student at seminary, I visited the home of a family living in a very wealthy part of Pittsford. I had actually gone to visit their live-in cleaning lady who was a member of the church where I was working, but the owner of the house was delighted to meet me and have a chance to show off her posh dwelling to a new person. She pointed to the industrial strength stove, and the fine carpets; she told me the cost of the chandeliers and furnishings, and upon entering the living room, she waved proudly at a fine painting they had commissioned which sat on an easel in the center of the room. It was a painting of their house. Guests could sit in that sterile expensive living room and reflect upon the splendor of the house in which they sat.
Years later, I thought of that painting when I saw another picture of a house hanging on a living room wall. This picture, however, was just a framed snapshot, and you could really barely see the house because of all of the people crowded onto its front porch: the owners and all of volunteers from Habitat for Humanity standing together in front of the home they had built together.
The painting of the luxurious house in Pittsford is a portrait of a pyramid ordered by human instinct and its values: work hard, be successful, work your way up, and eventually you can gaze at a portrait of your lifeless possessions while sitting all alone in your sterile living room.
The photo of the Habitat for Humanity house is a portrait of grace where God turns the pyramid on its head: constantly expand your heart, making room for others in acceptance and love, working for their success as well as your own, and eventually we’ll all be at the top, embraced in fellowship, freed from the need to compete, living in the fullness of life..
We admit that we are often uncomfortable with God’s grace because we are afraid that it will break down the fabric of our society. Paul responds to our fears by assuring us that we are absolutely right. God’s grace will turn everything upside down. God’s grace will raise the weak and the poor and the crucified and force us to worry as much about lifting up our neighbor as we worry about lifting up ourselves.
And grace will free you.
Grace will free us all.
In the words of Paul, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.