Receiving the Kiss of Kenosis

2. Pedernal 1945

Readings for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16 Year B Track 1)

1 Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Psalm 84

Philippians 2:1-11 (in place of Ephesians 6:10-20)

John 6:56-59

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on August 23, 2015. 

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve had the privilege of working with a renowned art historian, curator and collector named Lanier Graham, who has recently donated (or in some cases loaned) a huge portion of his sacred art collection to the library of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I have been helping with the cataloging of his collection, which includes ritual vessels from the Chinese Bronze Age, some of which are in the form of a decorative owl or rhinoceros or a ferocious yet benevolent tiger or a composite of several creatures, both real and mythical. His collection also includes figures of a flying shaman from the ancient Chinese city of Sanxingdui (12th – 11th centuries BCE), a flying horse from the Han dynasty (about 200 BCE – 200 CE), a dancing dragon from the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE), several buddhas sitting in the lotus position; figures of bodhisattvas from Tibet (Tara, Avalokiteśvera and Yamantaka), Hindu deities from Cambodia and a vast array of small jade sculptures from the ancient Hongshan culture (4700 – 2900 BCE), sculptures of monks and pigs and dragon embryos. I will let you know when they are in display.

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Lanier has been collecting sacred art ever since his godfather (who happened to be an Episcopalian) taught him about world religions and encouraged him to find a spiritual teacher from each of the major faith traditions. He has taught at several prestigious universities (including UC Berkeley) and curated exhibits at many prominent art museums (including the DeYoung). He has authored numerous books and has generously given me three of them, one of which is a book of poetry, beautifully titled “The Kiss of Kenosis.” The subtitle is “10 Poems for the Christian-Buddhist Dialogue” and in his poetry he explores the concepts of non-duality, oneness and emptiness with levity and wit. “Kenosis” is a Greek word used by the Apostle Paul in Philippians to describe Christ’s self-emptying in his incarnation. Christ let go of (and refused to grasp) his transcendent divinity so that he could be immanent, enfleshed, incarnated and grasped by us. In Christ, the God who transcends all of our understanding and faculties limits himself to a physical body in order to give himself to us in a tangible way. Through his kenosis, we can receive his kiss. I imagine that the artists who created the many gods and buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Asian cultures also believed that the God who transcends our finite and dualistic categories can still manifest Godself in our concrete and palpable world.

Now it is true that our Hebrew scriptures are full of admonitions against idolatry. The second of the 10 commandments instructs the Hebrews not to “make a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4; Deut 5:8). Based on this text, the ancient Hebrews would most likely not approve of Lanier’s sacred art collection or they would at least hold it in great suspicion. However, our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning reveals that the Israelites’ understanding of this command was much more nuanced and complex than we might initially think. In 1 Kings 8, “the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.” Although God commanded his people not to make any image or likeness of anything that is in heaven above, he also commanded them to “make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at two ends of the mercy seat” (Ex 25:18). At the physical site of the Israelites’ most holy place stood two golden statues of angels, likely sculpted by the best Hebrew artists. God said, “I will meet with you and commune with you between the two cherubim” (25:22). The God of Israel knew that tangible images could help point to that which is beyond our physical senses. The prohibition in the 10 commandments speaks to a concern around mistaking the tangible images for God himself. That is why the second commandment includes another prohibition: “You shall not bow down to [the images] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” Ex 20:5; Deut 5:9). This prohibition functions as an explanation for the commandment. In other words, the reason why you need to be careful about making images is because you might make the mistake of believing that God is an object and therefore something that you can control and manipulate. That is idolatry and we commit that sin all the time, with or without images.

The wise and enlightened King Solomon understood this well at the temple’s dedication when he asked, “Will God indeed dwell on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Solomon understood that God existed far beyond heaven and earth, far beyond anything we can comprehend with our limited minds and even beyond our dualistic categories of transcendence and immanence. The enlightened Solomon understood God as non-dual. One of my favorite poems by Lanier, in his book, is one pithy rhyme, which goes, “If we want the biggest prize we simply must undualize.” Solomon understood this and yet he also knew that we need help; we need physical signs that point to spiritual realities, which is why he prayed that God would be present in the temple. He essentially asked the non-dual God to become limited by physical boundaries. He asked for the kiss of kenosis.

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And God responded by dwelling between the two cherubim in the Holy of Holies. God’s kiss of kenosis came in the form of the “shekinah,” the Hebrew feminine word for “dwelling,” a word and concept that has inspired many female images of God by artists. It was God’s shekinah glory that stirred the Psalmist to say, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God…For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room” (Ps 84:1, 9). And that physical location of God’s shekinah glory is the reason why millions of Jewish and Christian pilgrims visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem today, the part of the temple that is closest to what was once the Holy of Holies, the presence of God between two golden angels.

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God also responded to Solomon’s prayer with the kiss of kenosis in the form of Christ, the fleshy and physical incarnation of God on earth. “Christianity,” according to former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, “is the most materialistic of all great religions…. Based as it is on the Incarnation, [Christianity] regards matter as destined to be the vehicle and instrument of spirit.”[1] God loves physical matter. He made it, he became it and he wants us to experience him through it. And this is what Jesus has been trying to get through to his listeners in the Bread of Life discourse (which we have been reading now for several weeks). Jesus is saying, “I want you to experience the God who transcends all understanding, in a piece of bread and in a sip of wine. I want you to experience the divine with your bodily senses, with your eyes, with your tongue, with your taste buds. I want you to physically receive the transcendent God’s kiss of kenosis.”

This invitation was and is scandalous for many reasons, especially to Jesus’s first century Jewish listeners. That is why Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” He knew that many would be scandalized by his insistence that divine and eternal life could surge through matter, even bread, even flesh. This sounds like he’s bordering on idolatry; but before they say anything, he nips this accusation in the bud, when he says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”[2] In other words, flesh that is not animated by spirit is not worth our attention, but when flesh and matter are used as “vehicles and instruments of spirit” then they become sources of eternal life. They become God’s way of kissing us.

The text then says, “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (Jn 6:64). God knew that by incarnating himself in the physical body of Christ he would make himself vulnerable to other people’s sinful idolatry, to other people’s attempts to objectify and manipulate him. And that’s exactly what happened at the Cross. But the Resurrection of Christ makes it abundantly clear that any human attempt to nail God down and put him in a box (or tomb) for our own convenience is ultimately futile. God will not stay nailed down on our cross of dualistic thinking and God will not remain in a box or tomb of our finite categories. However, when we refuse to manipulate or use God as a commodity we open ourselves up to receiving his kiss, even in a physical and tangible way.

Some may experience the kiss of God in a Buddhist statue or a dancing dragon or in Zen meditation. In my own spiritual journey, I have found much spirit and wisdom in Eastern philosophies and yet I keep coming back to my guru, the radical Jewish mystic, Jesus of Nazareth, whose words continue to puzzle me, comfort me and disturb me and to whom I keep saying along with the disciples, “Where else can I go? You have the words of eternal life. You are the One who makes yourself known in the bread and wine so I can touch you and taste you and be transformed by you as you point me and guide me to the non-dual reality of the divine. And you are the One who embodies for me God’s kiss of kenosis.” Amen.

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[1] William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (London: Macmillan & Co, 1959), xx-xxi.

[2] F. Lanier Graham, The Kiss of Kenosis: 10 Poems for the Christian – Buddhist Dialogue (Brentwood CA: Soluna Press, 2002), 2.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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