Scripture: Philippians 2:1–13
A poem, for your consideration, from Harlem Renaissance poet, one-time Lawrencian, and person for whom one of our larger elementary schools in town is named: Langston Hughes.
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.
Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.
Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together
Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.
Hughes wrote this poem in 1938, but it has had a resurgence in the last decade or so, especially in connection to deaths of children at the hands of gun violence. It has struck a chord among those who have watched the news in horror at another story of children dying too young. I saw this poem again this week on social media, as many of us have tried to make sense of the horror of another scene of kids dying. Gun violence in Uvalde, Texas. On the heels of gun violence in Buffalo, New York. This week held echoes of Parkland. Sandy Hook. Columbine. Once again, we feel terrified. We feel enraged. We feel hopeless. We feel all of the above. To read these prophetic and poetic words of Langston Hughes from over eighty years ago, we wonder if we have learned anything. As we watch kids continue to die.
Perhaps it feels like an odd introduction to this passage in Philippians, what is sometimes called the letter of joy. Where is the joy in topics like these? Yet, below the surface of that joy and gratitude in Chapter One, Paul has a hard word to share. While we don’t know the whole story, we can tell there is something happening in the subtext of this letter. As the joy of Chapter One fades to Chapter Two, we start to read these phrases that suggest that something isn’t quite right: “selfish ambition,” “empty conceit,” “looking to your own interests.” Paul drops these hints that something is amiss in Philippi. And if you have read much Paul, this won’t come as much of a surprise, because it is kind of what is amiss with the whole of humanity. Paul’s letters carry with them this theology of a sinful and broken world. He often speaks to the fleshly, selfish, hopelessness of the world and its values. Selfish ambition, empty conceit, and self-interest is only the beginning. These are personal manifestations of a systemic and structural evil that is embedded in our world, which Paul refers to as the “powers and principalities.” He doesn’t name names in Philippians, like he does in some of his letters, but clearly he is concerned with some of the selfishness and arrogance that he sees reflected there.
And all of a sudden, Philippians feels a lot closer to Buffalo, or Uvalde, or even the Hy-Vee parking lot in Lawrence, Kansas, doesn’t it? Look again at the events of the last couple of weeks through Paul’s theological lens of powers and principalities and structural sin:
- Racism that fears any diminution of supreme status, driven by some kind of irrational replacement conspiracy.
- A psychological need to overcome perceived powerlessness with physical and violent power. This is at the core of so much of our gun violence today. Individuals choosing to use guns to overpower innocent victims: elderly in the grocery store or children in their school. Or guns as an extension of “selfish ambition” and “empty conceit” that turns an immature road rage incident deadly.
- And in more basic terms, Paul might name what he sees as a destruction of community, failing to see others and hear others and build up others and respect others, choosing instead to react out of fear toward those who are different.
- A pervasive greed that clearly allows a political action committee like the NRA to buy influence of senators so that instead of enacting common sense licensing laws or limits on cartridge size on assault rifles, the dollars that flow from this one PAC ensure that those laws never see the light of day.
These are the things that Paul rails against in his letters. In practical and theological and universal ways, he seems to suggest that his world was filled with this stuff. I would suggest that it still is. Sin and death and destructive violence.
But, of course, Paul doesn’t end there. In Philippians or any of his letters. He is clear about the death and destruction he sees in the powers and principalities. But for Paul, there is an answer to all of that. In short, that answer is Jesus. Here in Philippians 2 we read what seems to be a poem or a hymn about Paul’s theology of Jesus. Scholars believe that this was likely some kind of complete work that Paul has brought into his letter, and for Paul, it is more or less the Gospel in microcosm. Look at these three ideological movements that summarize the Gospel for Paul.
- Incarnation. Paul is a lot like John in that he described Jesus as preexisting. Remember the prologue of John and “in the beginning was the Word?” For Paul, that preexistence of a cosmic Christ was important because it means that Jesus chose to leave the power and comfort of perfection to enter into the imperfection of the world. He knew exactly what kind of broken, messy, structurally broken world he was entering, and did it anyway. For Paul, this suggests a tremendous level of humility. He chose to become incarnate, Word become flesh, dwelling among us, even though he knew what that would cost. That is a big deal for Paul. Here in this passage, he uses this language of self-emptying and becoming a slave or servant in the simple act of becoming human.
- Crucifixion. But incarnation is only the beginning for Paul. That line in the middle—“even death on the cross”—is significant. Jesus could have become human and entered into the halls of privilege and power, but he chose to live a life that so challenged those values and notions that it got him killed. And killed in a way that was painful, unjust, and humiliating. For Paul, the cross was a symbol of everything that Christ did on our behalf. He took these powers and principalities—this violence and greed and dehumanization—and exposed those powers for the failed values that they were.
- Resurrection. But the cross is not the end of the story, either. For Paul, it matters that Jesus became human. It matters that he followed that humanity to the cross. But it also matters theologically that Jesus is the Risen Christ. He was and is and will be exalted in ways that we can only begin to understand.
These are the theological concepts that Paul uses to challenge the powers and principalities of sin and death and violence. But for Paul, these are not dry theological concepts, but ways to live in community. He is at work, trying to dismantle this “selfish ambition” and “empty conceit,” in the practical context of Philippi, among his friends. Perhaps you know about the idea of “riffing.” Riffing is a technique often associated with improvisational jazz, where a standard song provides the starting point, and then the musician improvises or riffs on those familiar notes. Langston Hughes did it with poetry, and the Harlem Renaissance did it with music and verse. For Paul, Philippians 2 becomes a chance for him to riff on these ideas of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and asks what they might have to do with us…
Lift up others. In the first draft of the sermon, the word that I used for this section was “humility.” It is the word that Paul uses to describe Jesus here, and even the concept that he invites the Philippians to embrace. But after listening to some great commentary on this, I started to realize that it isn’t as simple as humility. Robert Williamson and Amy Robertson helped me see that some of us need to be humbled and brought down, but some of us are already low enough. I think of Howard Thurman and those “with their backs against the wall.” I think of young people dealing with depression like those I talked about a couple of weeks ago. These are not people who need to be brought any lower. Perhaps the healthier model is to ask “how do we lift others up? Robertson made comparisons to historically black colleges and universities, which reject the “ambition and conceit” model of so many white institutions, encouraging and rewarding academic violence and models of overpowering. Instead, they ask how might they empower? How might all be lifted up? And really, a closer look at Paul suggests that he is saying the same thing. “Look to the interests of others.” “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Paul is using lifting-up language. For some of us, that means we need to be lowered. We need to get out of the way so that others can be lifted up. For Paul, it seems to be about rightly seeing who is benefitting from the powers and principalities, and who is being crushed by them. To see rightly those who are hurting, and look to their interests.
Do your work. Next, Paul riffs on the idea of crucifixion and struggle. “Work out your own salvation,” he writes. It is interesting how therapists and psychologists will use some of the same language today, inviting us to do our work, to ask ourselves the hard questions, to take a long look in the mirror. Paul would likely tell us that God does that work with us: “work out what has been worked in you,” he says. But we have a role in it, don’t we? And when we see the brokenness and violence and death and racism and othering in this world, Paul would likely challenge us to do that work of seeing rightly. How are we complicit? How are we contributing to the violence in this world, and how are we protected from it? How might we participate in the ways of peace? How might we need to challenge the brokenness of a sinful and death-dealing world? Working out our salvation is not easy, but Paul would point us to the example of Christ’s suffering to suggest that it is good and holy and important work.
Join the party. Finally, Paul does a riff on resurrection. About exaltation. “Make my joy complete!” Paul’s call to joy is based in the exultation of Christ by all of God’s children. We all get to join the party! One of my favorite books by American Baptist pastor Tony Campolo is titled The Kingdom of God is a Party! Campolo reminds us, as does Paul, that the joy and hope that the first disciples had when they saw a Risen Christ is still with us. Of course, we are hurting when we see those in pain. Of course, we feel grieved when we see such examples of violence. But we also have hope when we see Christ’s values of peace enacted on earth. We have joy when there are those doing God’s good work.
You heard that a little bit in the poem by Hughes at the beginning. Langston Hughes had a love-hate relationship with the Church. He saw ways that Christians participated and even enabled the violence and death and racism and sin of this world. But he could not give up hope. He never threw away his joy. He never completely left the party. Even in the painful words at the beginning of the sermon, he found hope even as death and violence were taking place. I end today with another poem from Hughes that suggests an even clearer vision of hope. May these words be a reminder of God’s good work in our world.
I Dream a World
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn.
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head,
And joy, like a pearl,
Attend the needs of all mankind.
Of such I dream—