David A. Davis
September 27, 2020
The opening hymn on our first Sunday of livestream worship a few weeks ago was “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” We had four people here in the sanctuary that morning but only Marissa was singing the hymn. Michael was playing. Lauren and I were standing, with our masks on, singing in our head. You couldn’t tell that because Marissa had a microphone and Nick in the sound room turns our lapel mics off. But to be safe and follow protocol, we were only singing in our head. During the hymn I realized that it wasn’t the first time I sang “Holy Holy Holy” in my head. I can’t be the only one who every now and then finds themselves singing a hymn just in the head. Sure, sometimes singing out loud to oneself, humming to oneself. But sometimes just in your head. Like watching a sunrise and not wanting even your own voice to spoil the beauty. “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.” Just in your head.
A parent singing a child to sleep with a hymn, the voice gets softer and softer until the last few lines, the last verse, the last part is just in the head. Making sure sleep is there to stay at least for a while. I have told you before I put my kids to sleep singing college fight songs. For Cathy it was the same hymn her mother sang to her when she was a child. “When He cometh, when He cometh To make up His jewels, All His jewels, precious jewels,
His loved and His own.” Quieter and quieter until at some point she was singing in her head.
On Sundays when the full adult choir is in up there in the loft, Carol Fagundus and I sometimes have an unspoken contest to see who can sing all the verses of a hymn without picking up the hymnbook. I assure you that when it comes to singing hymns by heart, Carol always wins. Singing a hymn in your head. Singing a hymn by heart. And here in Philippians, it is singing a hymn not by heart, but in your heart. Singing a hymn with your heart with your life. The Apostle Paul writing to the church in Philippi and exhorting them to sing a hymn in their hearts. To sing a particular hymn with their lives.
Most biblical scholars believe that the poetic language about Christ Jesus in the second chapter of Philippians is taken from an ancient, early Christian hymn. Some suggest that it was probably or possibly a familiar hymn among the earliest of Christians. I guess that would be like Paul quoting “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “Fairest Lord Jesus” to us. Paul quoting familiar hymn about 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 become obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Paul is writing to a Christian community trying to live the gospel in the face of significant opposition and persecution. Acts 16 describes how Paul himself was thrown in prison along with Silas for healing and liberating a slave girl who made her owners money through fortune telling. As Luke puts it “when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities” (Acts 16:19). There in prison, after midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns. An earthquake rattle the prison foundations and the doors were open and chains fell off. Eventually they were asked to leave Philippi. After miraculously being set free from prison during an earthquake, they are told to leave the city.
So the Philippians were trying to be the church in a town where gospel proclamation and gospel liberation had already been perceived by the authorities as a threat. People with the means and power a to make a living off the backs of others had already came to the conclusion that these followers of Jesus were going to take their money. By the time Paul wrote them the Philippians were trying to figure out what it meant to be the church in a world where healing and liberating grace falling on the oppressed and the poor was already seen as some kind of threatening chaos unleashed. This wasn’t just a letter written to a congregation with some division and trying to get along. It was Paul writing to congregation that was experiencing persecution to them and opposition to the gospel itself. A congregation trying to be the church of Jesus Christ in a world that was pretty much antithetical to everything he taught.
As the second chapter of the letter begins, Paul is addressing the nitty gritty of community; the flesh and blood of their relationships one with another, Paul is exhorting the Philippian church to reclaim a community life that is marked by love, compassion, and sympathy. A life together that honors Christ Jesus and reflects his own humility and love. “…any encouragement in Christ…consolation from love…sharing in the Spirit…any compassion…sympathy…be of the same mind, the same love…in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interest of others.”
Then, as if to sum it up the community life he is trying to describe, to get to the epitome of life together he is pointing to, to underscore the only way really, for the Philippians to live in a community that puts others first and values humility, and priorities looking to others interest first, Paul writes maybe in capital letters, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” or also translated “let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus.” The same mind as Christ. The mind of Christ. Let the mind of Christ be in you.
At this point Paul can’t explain what that means. He doesn’t go on with an argument of why that is. He doesn’t try to describe how having the mind of Christ happens. No, he starts to sing. He starts to sing a song they all knew. He started a quote that the congregation could finish in their head. They could finish by heart. But, of course, just being able to finish the quote is so not the point.
After the hymn, with the familiar words still on the lips of those who helped him finish the song, Paul writes “Therefore, my beloved…carry out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” God’s good pleasure. A humble, others first, life in a community of compassion, love, and looking to the interests of others gives pleasure to God. How you and I live our lives and specifically our life together in Christian community, indeed as the church of Jesus Christ striving to live in world that is still antithetical to everything he did and everything e taught, this live together can give pleasure to God! Think about that! A faith community that puts the interests of others first, proclaims putting the interest of others first, advocates for putting the interests of others first, bears witness to putting the interest of others first, gives pleasure to God. That begs the question, doesn’t it?’ It begs the question of the heartache God amid the church’s tepid witness in a world, a nation, an economy, and a politic that is driven by putting the interests of no one else…. first.
Paul’s exhortation to the church of Jesus Christ isn’t to finish a quote or sing a hymn, it is a call, a plea, and invitation to sing the hymn in your heart, to live the hymn in your life. To live that hymn with the full assurance that God is at work in you and the nitty gritty, flesh and blood relationships in your life can give witness to the very mind of Christ 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 become obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
The synagogue massacre at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh was two years ago next month. The shootings occurred during Shabbat services on Saturday morning. After sundown here in Princeton, when Rabbi Feldman was able to talk by phone and use his devices, he and I decided to host a prayer service here in the sanctuary at Nassau Church the very next night. Our respective staffs sprung into action on social media. The Princeton Clergy Association joined in along with Coalition for Peace Action. Amazingly, by 7pm Sunday evening this room was overflowing with people. There were folks ushering and helping people find seats that I had never seen before. People were streaming into this building.
At one point during the service, the cantor from the Jewish Center offered a song of lament. It started as a solo, acapella voice. In a very moving way, other Jewish voices around the sanctuary joined in with him singing Hebrew in the prayer being sung. Then as folks who didn’t know the song or know Hebrew listened to repeating chorus, they joined in catching the tune and faking the Hebrew. The plaintiff sound just continued to build and to build. One song. One voice. Others joining in and singing along, praying along, lamenting along. It was a powerful, unforgettable witness of faith. I will never forget the Princeton community surrounding the broken-hearted Jesus community in song in this room that night.
One person starts to sing and others join in. Not just with song but with their lives. That’s the Apostle’s intent in Philippians, chapter two. That one person’s life of humility, compassion, love and selflessness would bring about a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. As others join in that song, that movement, that discipleship not just in their heads, but with their lives. When you live in a world so antithetical to the gospel where the violence, the greed, the injustice, the bitterness, the bigotry, the selfishness not only never ceases, rather it builds like a hurricane force wind, at least one place to start, one thing to do, one prayer to ask, is for you and me, in our life together, that we would be congregation that by God’s grace and God’s spirit would be a faith community that puts the interests of others first, proclaims putting the interest of others first, advocates for putting the interests of others first, bears witness to putting the interest of others first,
Let’s start to sing Nassau Presbyterian Church, and see who else joins in.
God, I trust, good use a bit more good pleasure these days.