A sermon preached by Jack Cabaness on July 10, 2016 at the First Presbyterian Church of Katonah, New York.
Sermon Text: Philippians 2:1-11
There’s a poignant and moving scene in the Broadway musical "Hamilton." It takes place after the tragic death of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s oldest son Philip, who died in a gun duel, eerily foreshadowing Alexander’s own death in a duel with Aaron Burr.
In his grief, Alexander Hamilton walks the streets of New York City, and the ensemble cast sings
If you see him in the street,
walking by himself, talking to himself,
He is working through the unimaginable.
And then the men sing
His hair has gone grey.
He passes every day.
They say he walks the length of the city.
He is working through the unimaginable.
I feel that’s where we are as a nation after this last week.
We are working through the unimaginable.
On Tuesday, a graphic video showed the killing of an African-American man, Alton Sterling, by police in Baton Rouge.
On Wednesday, police fatally shot another man, Philando Castile, after pulling him over for a broken taillight outside of St. Paul, and the horrifying incident was broadcast on Facebook Live by Castile’s girlfriend.
Then, the next evening, came the vicious murder of five Dallas police officers—Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. The five were patrolling what had been a peaceful protest up until that moment.
All that was last week.
And the grief and the rage are worldwide.
One week ago today, on Sunday, July 3rd, a suicide bombing in Baghdad, Iraq killed an estimated 250 people, making it the deadliest attack in Iraq in a decade.
And before last week there was the airport shooting and bombing in Istanbul, Turkey on June 28th that left 48 dead, and before that there was the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in the early morning hours of June 12th that left 50 dead.
As one of the characters in Hamilton sings,
There are moments that the words don’t reach.
There is suffering too terrible to name.
You hold your child as tight as you can.
And push away the unimaginable.
And maybe that’s the first thing that any honest sermon offered on this particular Sunday should say.
There are moments when the words don’t reach.
There are moments when all of us are trying to work through the unimaginable.
So, what do we say as people of faith? What can we say?
I think that we have to begin from a place of humility. When our own words fail us, we can strive to listen, listening particularly to the voices of those who are the most vulnerable, those who are grieving, angry, and afraid.
One of the most powerful lessons in humility I know comes from the second chapter of Philippians.
The Apostle Paul is in prison, not knowing whether he will ever get out alive. He urges the Philippians to have the same attitude in them that was also in Christ, and then he breaks out into song.
For nearly a hundred years the consensus among New Testament scholars has been that Philippians 2:6-11 is a hymn. The syntax and the cadence suddenly shift from prose to poetry, and most scholars do believe that Paul is quoting a hymn, perhaps even a hymn that he wrote.
Paul sings about Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality wth 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 became obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross.
That little phrase, even death on a cross, is a phrase that Paul added. It breaks up the meter of the poem, and in the words of one commentator, indicates that Paul has chosen theology over poetry.
Instead of offering glib answers to the question of human suffering and the horror of human evil, Paul gives us a picture of Jesus giving up the privilege of heaven to embrace an earthly life in service to others, even when that service to others puts his own life in jeopardy.
Our model of Jesus is a Jesus who gives up privilege in order to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering, with those who are grieving, with those who are angry, and with those who are afraid.
What does that say to us in the context of the debate about white privilege?
At the very least, might it motivate us to listen, and, in the famous words of St. Francis, "to seek first to understand and then to be understood."
My friend Matt Hackworth once worked as a reporter for National Public Radio.
On Friday he wrote, "When I was a young reporter, I spent enough time riding with officers in police cars in the dark of night to understand what it's like for them to face fear and uncertainty. I have also spent considerable time in courts, prisons, and the social justice movement to know there is certainly bias in our criminal system. I know wonderful people who wear a badge, and other wonderful people who fear the badge. My prayer is wonderful people on both sides can find a way forward that respects both life and law, so that justice might be righteous and abundant, and these tragic shootings might not be in vain." (from a Facebook post, July 8, 2016)
Following Christ’s example, we can offer a listening ear and a willingness to stand in solidarity with those who have been the most impacted by these recent tragic events.
Ashley-Anne Masters is a Presbyterian minister who works as a chaplain in a children’s hospital in Chicago.
On Friday she put on her clergy collar and walked into a police station on the South side of Chicago, and she said, "Thank you for showing up to work. I'm sorry for how broken so many systems and hearts are. How are you? Because if anyone deserves gratitude for putting on pants and going to work today, it's every skin color wearing blue."
Ashley-Anne was the only white person in the room.
One officer said, "A lot about this week is shocking, and you walking in here is up there." (from a Facebook post, July 8, 2016)
Perhaps it was shocking, but that's what happens when people begin to imitate Christ's example of humility.
We can begin with our own loved ones and colleagues, taking the time to check in on those for whom the events of the past week have been particularly distressing.
We can provide space in our worship this morning for the grief and lament.
As time moves on, we can be more intentional about our acts of humble service.
In the words of Brian McLaren, "here's what will happen to you if you listen to the Spirit. You will be in a public place. You will see a person who, by their dress or language or mannerisms, is clearly from another religion, another culture, another social class. That person will be uncomfortable or in need. And you will feel the Spirit inspiring a question within you. If I were in their shoes--in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable environment, what would I want someone to do for me? And you will move toward them. You will overcome differences in language or culture. Your kind eyes and warm smile and gentle presence will speak a universal language of neighborliness. And in that moment, they will feel that God is real, for God's Spirit is alive in you." (from Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 243)
And in humility, let us admit that this spirit of humility is not limited to Christian circles. On Wednesday, hundreds of Sunni and Shia muslims gathered for a prayer vigil in Baghdad, Iraq in remembrance of the victims of last Sunday's bombings and in defiance of ISIS and anyone else who would seek to enflame sectarian strife.
Indeed, Christians are not the only ones who practice humility, but when we practice humility, we do so because we are following Christ's example.
The sermon I had originally written for this morning included many more examples of humble service, but I am thinking that for today at least we should emphasize humility and the imperative of listening. We will have much more to say about concrete action in the weeks to come.
In the musical "Hamilton," Alexander's sister-in-law Angelica is the one who sings the line that "there is a suffering too terrible to name." But near the end of the song she also sings that "there is a grace too powerful to name."
It is a grace that makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible.
In the song that Paul sings, Paul names that grace anyway. The name of that grace is Jesus.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.