What a *Mighty* God We Serve

Philippians 2:1-11
David A. Davis
October 1, 2023
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Any parent whose child attends Vacation Bible School knows that young kids have a remarkable ability to learn every word of the week’s Bible School songs. Bible School songs are not necessary known for their musicality or vocal quality. It is more about singing with all the volume one can muster. It is about the youngest looking up toward the high school volunteers and the bible school band blasting the song and doing the hand motions. Back in the early summer, I stood in the packed Assembly Room for the closing worship of the last day of VBS. Parents were invited to join for the last few minutes of the morning. As I joined in with full voice and hand motions, I noticed more than just a parent or two singing every word. That’s not just because they were up on the screen. It was because the kids were singing at home all week.

When I was solo pastor/director/song leader of the two week Vacation Bible School back in the day, one of the favorite songs every summer was “What a Mighty God We Serve”. What a Mighty God we serve! What a Mighty God we serve! Angels bow before him. Heaven and earth adore him. What a Mighty God We Serve!” Over and over again. Louder and Louder. I can still see the faces of 5 or 6 year olds singing with all they had. I can see them remembering every word. I don’t have a name because year after year the faces sort of blend together. Singing with such an earnest and determined look, with urgency. Lots of clapping. Lots of foot stomping Every repeat. Louder and louder. “What a Mighty God we serve!” The song, it was part song, part cheer, part shout. It was more like a college fight song really. A song for a pep rally. Pep rally for a Mighty God!

Mighty God. It is biblical, after all. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome…” Deuteronomy. Or the Psalmist: “Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us: authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God….”. The prophet Isaiah. “What a Mighty God We Serve”

Those kids, they loved those songs and I loved leading them. The faces and the names that all smush together in my memory. Most of them would be in their 30’s by now. And the world they live in, my guess is that for most of them, it doesn’t look the way it did when they were clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Along the journey of a couple of decades they have had to learn that grandparents and parents, and even friends die sometimes. They have learned words like cancer, terrorism, predator, random violence, gun violence, waterboarding, mass shooting, mass incarceration, Christian nationalism, and pandemic. Jobs don’t last a lifetime. You don’t always get what you want and life isn’t fair. Peace never seems to come on earth, much less good will to all. Access to quality mental health care is really hard to find. Organizations that feed hungry people and health clinics that see people for free and shelters that protect abused women and children only get busier and busier. And when it comes to judging a person by the content of their heart and character rather than the color of their skin, or the religion they confess, or their gender or sexuality, or the accent of their voice, or the nation of their birth, well, humanity still has a long way to go.

Back at the church door on a Sunday morning, I often meet interesting folks who are just passing through Princeton and join us for worship. Last week, it was couple from Wales who spent time decades ago in town when one of them was on sabbatical. They commented on my very Welsh name. Turned out my grandparents were from the town where one of them was born. There was the woman one Easter morning at the door who said “You don’t remember me, do you?” That was a bit of a jolt. She and I were in youth group together in high school. There was the couple one Sunday who came to town to celebrate their 40th anniversary. They were married here in the sanctuary.

I wonder what would happen if I met one of those old young faces from 30 years ago back at the church door. What would I say if they said to me “Do you remember when you used to lead us in that song “What A Mighty God We Serve” and we would clap and stomp and shout? What if they told me how much they loved the memory but then said,  “You know it’s not that easy anymore! The Mighty God thing” And somewhere in my soul I wouldn’t know whether to have a pep rally for God or a good cry. Because I knew then in my 20 year old pastor self what I know now as well: The life of faith isn’t much like a pep rally.

A disciple of Jesus getting older learns that it is more like growing up in the chaos that the world has to offer and yearning to stay near the light of God’s presence. More like finding yourself wandering in the wilderness searching for purpose or meaning and hoping to hear “Come, follow me” again. More like traveling this bumpy road of faith and realizing that easy answers and the promise of everyday victory and the emphatic stomp that presumes joy was long ago replaced by the silence of waiting and the experience of unanswered prayer and the mysterious work of God’s Spirit in and through and despite the darkness of struggle. Turning away from affirmations that seem like victory marches and shouts that come from a fight song and being drawn to promises like “weeping may linger for the night but joy comes in the morning” and “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it” and “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

I think I need a do-over on “Mighty God”. A mulligan. Another chance. “For a child has been born unto us, a son given unto us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…”  It’s not a cheer at all. “For a child has been born unto us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…” and “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something 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 became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” That’s “Mighty God” redefined. “Mighty God’ redefined forever and ever and ever.

Mighty God whose strength is revealed in human weakness, whose power is defined by self-giving love, whose victory comes finally not by force but by emptying himself so much so, that there was no life in him. Mighty God. A Mighty God who knows suffering and is in solidarity with the most vulnerable. Who challenges the wealthiest and threatens the powerful and upends the strong and pushs a finger into the chest of empire not in a battle of weapons but with subversive teaching about the first being last, and a radical grace that embraces the unloved, and an unceasing call to care for the sick and feed the hungry and visit the prisoner. Mighty God.

A Mighty God whose kingdom shall one day come on earth as it is in heaven. A kingdom that will know no end. A kingdom whose borders will be beyond what we can imagine. A new heaven and a new earth. No more crying or weeping shall be heard. Houses shall be full. Vineyards shall overflow. Swords shall be turned in plowshares. War will be learned no more. And they shall not hurt or destroy anything or anyone on God’s holy mountain. And a little child shall lead them. Mighty God forever redefined.

I spent some time in Asheville, North Carolina this week with a group of 25 Presbyterian clergy friends. On Tuesday our hosts took us to visit The Haywood Street Congregation. It is a Methodist Church that sits in what is referred to in Ashville as “the homeless corridor.” The congregation started about ten years ago in a church building that had been vacated by another Methodist congregation. The founding pastor, Brian Combs, met with us in the sanctuary. He told of how the congregation started with offering a welcome table once a week. Anybody was welcome. Unhoused people. People who worked in the neighborhood. Members of surrounding congregations. A homecooked meal served at round tables, flowers on the table and tablecloths. The meal, he said, was as much about relationship as it was about feeding hungry people.

Brian went on to say that over and over again, folks in the congregation tell him the hardest, most dehumanizing part about being unhoused or living in poverty is when people refuse to look at them; acknowledge them. Nothing takes away your dignity quicker than people trying to pretend you don’t exist. Thus the the welcome table. No questions. No documentation needed. No worship service required. Just a meal and conversation around a table. Ten years later, the welcome table is served several times a week. They worship twice a week. All kinds of other programs are available in the community from a hair saloon to beds of respite care for the sick.

A few years ago, the congregation partnered with a local artist named Christopher Holy to commission a fresco for the entire wall behind the sanctuary. Working in the same ancient medium as Da Vinci when he painted the Sistine Chapel and the Last Supper, the artist designed a wall to wall, floor to ceiling work that intentionally highlights unhoused or previously unhoused people who are a central part of the community. As you look at the beautiful piece you can see how the artist holds each in relationship to the whole, the importance of the Welcome Table/Lord’s Table, and the rich diversity which is the Haywood Street congregation. The names of those people depicted in the artwork are Charlie, David, Angel, Eric, Blue, Rachel, Thomas, Jeannette, Jerry, and Christopher. You can see the person who is now the chief gardener. The one who volunteers in respite care. One of them died of pancreatic cancer just as the fresco was being finished. The pastor can be seen just a bit tucked behind a rock on the right. The woman at the center of the fresco is Mary whose cooking and hospitality rests at the center of the congregation’s life, conviction, and theology.

A documentary about the making of the fresco has been done by a professor at Wake Forest University. It is called “Their’s is the Kingdom” and includes interviews with most of the folks in the art. Both the artist and the pastor comment on how fitting it is to honor a population so unseen with painting their image on a wall that will last pretty much forever. As these clergy types sat looking at the fresco for a long time, the pastor looked back at us and sighed a bit and said, “When the artwork was finished and people from all over Ashville came to see it, when other congregations and pastors came to see it and experience it, we took some criticism and blowback because this fresco has no depiction of a Christ figure.” He reminded us about art history and how the messianic figure was most often depicted in a likeness consistent with the patron putting up the money (which meant European white male.) What was most powerful last Tuesday afternoon was when he shared his response to the theological critique of the art. Pastor Combs said in almost a whisper,  “I look up at that wall and I see a Christ figure absolutely everywhere.”

Mighty God redefined forever and ever and ever.