The Gift of Emptiness

John 5:1-15 and Matthew 6: 25-34

Note from Pastor Katherine: This is a working draft of the sermon, which was presented more orally.

There is a story about a little girl who sat down to eat her lunch. There was a sandwich and an apple and a glass of milk on the table – but she didn’t touch any of it. About two hours later, she went to find her mother and said, “I don’t feel good. I’ve got a stomachache.” Her mother looked over at the table and saw that she hadn’t eaten her lunch, so she said, “Honey your stomach hurts because it’s empty. You need to put something in it. Eat your lunch and then you’ll feel better.”

About that time, the minister stopped by to discuss some church business. As they were talking, he said, “I’ve got a headache. I’ve had a headache all day long.” The little girl looked at him and said, “I know why. It’s because your head is empty. If you put something in it, it wouldn’t be so bad.”[i]

We have a lot of words to describe a feeling of emptiness: wrung out, drained, tapped out, hollow. We say we’ve got nothing left, or we are burned out, depleted – empty. They aren’t good words and it isn’t a good feeling. We are all familiar with emptiness. For some of us it is an occasional experience – after a rough day, after experiencing tragedy, when we’ve had over 60 hour work weeks for weeks in a row. We get to the point where we feel we have nothing left, nothing to give. We feel broken and aren’t sure where to go for healing.

When these times come, our natural reaction is to focus on what we lack. We have some good instincts that kick in and make us think it is time to get away, plan a vacation. If things are really extreme, or it seems that there is no other way out, we may be considering a job change or early retirement.

We may practice avoidance. Turning into a kind of robot that does all of the tasks that need to be done without engaging in them with our spirits – or sleeping a lot so we don’t have to think, don’t have to face what is happening.

Author and Unitarian minister Forrest Church writes this in the Preface to his book, Lifecraft…..[ii]

Forrest Church described our shared human experience well. And in this experience we do indeed encounter times of great emptiness.Times when we feel hollow inside – not just like the experience of going too long between meals, but when we aren’t sure we even want to eat, or that we will ever want to eat again. When we feel we have nothing to offer.

And other times we feel too full. Our schedules are too packed, our days are too full. We rush from one thing to the next with barely enough time to change gears. We find ourselves making phone calls in our cars so we don’t “waste time” and wasting our transition time instead. We now eat in our cars more than we eat at our kitchen or dining room tables. We feel like we meet ourselves coming and going, and we never get everything done that we need to do. And we shake our heads saying. “It’s too much.”

And we’re right. It IS too much. Our lives are too full of tasks. Our spirits are too full of stuff. How can we empty ourselves of the unnecessary or excess stuff in our lives? What is the remedy?

Kenosis. In Christian theology, there is a word used for when Jesus emptied himself of his own will in order to offer himself to God’s will. KENOSIS. It is a model for us: we can empty ourselves of our egos, our thinking we have the answers. We are often too full of ourselves.

If thou could'st empty all thyself of self, Like to a shell dishabited, Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, And say, 'This is not dead', And fill thee with Himself instead. But thou art all replete with very thou And hast such shrewd activity, That when He comes, He says, 'This is enow Unto itself - 'twere better let it be, It is so small and full, there is no room for me.' Thomas Edward Browne

When life is too full – we need self-emptying to allow room in us for God.

It is odd, but the remedy is the same, whether we are feeling hollow and empty or rather too full of the stuff of our lives. Emptiness becomes a gift when it teaches us, or opens us up to God. When we find we have nothing, sometimes we turn to the eternal to fill us. When we are too full, we long to be filled by something real and true and important. In both times, we need to connect with God – who can put things in perspective for us.

Trees. When I was a little girl and felt overwhelmed or frustrated, I would leave the house and yard and go down the block to a big old tree. Trees, in part because of size and in part because of age, seemed to me to carry a wisdom of their own. If I sat on the ground between the roots with my back against the trunk and closed my eyes, it was as though I could feel the life pulse of the tree beating very slowly. And my anxiety would disappear into the rhythm of the tree. When I was calm, I would talk to God slowly. My family called it running away from home, even if just to the end of the block – but for me it was running TO something vast, mysterious and real – not just away from my sister and the noise of the house. These moments nurtured me.

Stars. When Abraham is having trouble holding on to the idea of God’s promise, God takes him out to look at the night sky. “For God determines the numbers of the stars and calls them each by name.”[iii]

The stars put our lives in perspective. We look and see stars – suns over their own solar systems so far away that we cannot see their planets or know if there is life on any of them. We are on the earth, a small planet, one of eight or nine planets of a small star. And some of the stars that we see are so far away that for their light to reach us it takes more years than our planet has been alive – and some of those stars may not be there any more, but we are still seeing their light.

When we look at the stars, the small hurts or confusions of our lives don’t seem to matter as much. Even death loses its grip on our imaginations. If God knows all of the stars by name, even the death of a star is not lost from God, nor is ours.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. 2 Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. 3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?[iv]

So here is the way that emptiness is a gift – it makes us long for the presence of God. When we connect with God, the infinite YES – we are connected to the one who can fill our emptiness with presence, the one who can help us empty out the frustrations and pettiness of the stuff of life so we have room to fill ourselves with good things.

[i] John Ed Mathison, Treasures of the Transformed Life, 8-9.

[ii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood, 44-5.

[iii] Psalm 147: 4

[iv] Psalm 8: 1-4.

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