Last Sunday, Eden picked up a Bible and started saying, “Jesus Loves Me.” We’d love to take credit for teaching her those words, but we have no idea where she learned that phrase. Our best guess is that she learned the song at Emmanuel Lutheran School. The other option is that it was the osmosis from being in a pastor’s family—like she came out of the womb knowing the song. It feels like that for most of us, though. We can’t pinpoint the moment that we learned all these songs in the United Methodist Hymnal. We sang them as toddlers clinging to mom’s knee and mumbled the words as self-conscious teenagers. And many of us will go on to recite the words in hospital wards and Alzheimer’s care units.
United Methodists have been caricatured as singing people. Charles Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, believed that the faith was best taught through word and song; he would go on to write over 6,000 hymns. You’ll recognize many of them: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” The Wesleys’ were right—theological doctrines are easily remembered when set to a catchy melody. Songs can evoke emotional responses, tug at your heart’s strings, in a more powerful way than any other spoken word. It’s the hymns, not a sermon, that likely to get stuck in your head when you’re trying to fall asleep at night. I have no illusion that you will remember any of my sermons, which is both humbling and reassuring. But it brings me great consolation as a pastor and teacher that you will remember the songs.
Singing the faith is a pedagogical tool that’s as old as the Bible. The Hebrew faith is a singing one. The Bible has a canonized hymnal called the book of Psalms. Hannah, Mary, and Zechariah burst out in song. Jesus quotes a Psalm in his moment of deepest pain, while hanging on the cross.
Paul quotes one of the early Christian songs in his letter to the Philippians. The Philippians were a grumbling, arguing congregation. He reminds them there is no unity because is was no humility. Paul doesn’t only give them a lecture; he gives them of a song. Remember this song—get this song stuck in your head when you walk to work, when you drive in your car, or when you are tying your shoes in the morning. The same goes for us—if nothing else, learn this song. Sing this song of Christ’s humility.
We’ve been thinking about songs. There is a fascinating little story about songs that is preserved for us in Greek literature. The story of Odysseus is the story of a man who tirelessly tries to get home to his wife. Along the way, Odysseus meets much opposition while he sails across the oceans. At one point he comes across these Sirens. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home, duty, and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Odysseus, determined not to be lured by the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat, and his crew stuffed their ears with wax.
Later, there was a better way to save yourself: take on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens?
Music has power. And songs are more than words blended with melodies. They create and destroy; they has the power to unite. You go to a concert when everyone is singing the same words regardless of religion, sexual orientation, nationality. It doesn’t matter who you are, I’ll give you a high-five when Journey starts playing “Don’t Stop Believing and wrap my arm around you shoulder when Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” comes out the speakers. Worship music is powerful because our voices are united; we’re singing some of the same words and tunes as thousands of congregations across the world.
Music brings unity. Maybe that’s the reason we’re caught up in a debate about a song and who is singing it and who isn’t, or who is standing and who is kneeling. It all might seem a little silly. But it’s not. Folks care deeply because songs are more than songs. When some folks kneel, on the other hand, they are trying to tell us that their voices have been drowned out. They aren’t being heard. It got me wondering if there is a more beautiful song than the song of a country?
It’s interesting—Paul gives this congregation a song in the midst of their disputes. Paul is in prison, facing death, and he has time to write a song. It’s reassuring to know that there is this quarreling and feuding even in one of the healthiest churches in Philippi. We read about these two sisters who are arguing. We’re not sure why—could have been the recipe for the falafel wraps. Or, one likes King’s Hawaiian for communion and the other prefers a long loaf of French. Paul writes to them, and this is the way that Eugene Peterson translates the Scripture, “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage.” Those are useful words for us, today.
And then he finishes it with a few verses of a song: Be of the same mind of Jesus 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 became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
Now, that’s a subversive song. It’s not likely to be the anthem for any nation, except the kingdom of God. Our world is structured by hierarchies and power, but Jesus’ life was about vulnerability. We can be self serving, but Jesus is self-emptying. In a world that exploits, Jesus becomes the exploited, a slave. It’s a song about humility.
Humility is not the really the tune of our culture. Have you noticed that all the conventional uses of humility are always derogatory? A small, dingy house is called a “humble abode” or a low-paying job is a “humble occupation.” Humility is synonymous with poverty, lowliness. No one wants to be humble. We have more self-worth than that. We teach our children to grab the bull by the horns. The strongest people are the loudest. We idolize the folks with the biggest bank accounts. We spend our time and money to watch sports and movies about rugged, self-sufficient heroes.
A friend of mine told me that if we take our hands and create an upside down “V,” it creates the model for the way most of us structure our lives. We’re born weak and vulnerable, then we struggle to climb the ladder toward success, or we summit the mountain, before descending back into relative weakness or insignificance or whatever. That’s true, for a lot of people. Too often, we get to the end of our lives and realize that we’ve climbed the wrong mountain. I love what Thomas Merton says: “People may spend their whole lives climbing a ladder only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
Jesus’ life is the inversion; he lives into the opposite. Make a “V” with your fingers. Jesus starts in this place of power in the heart of the Triune God, but then he emptied himself like the strong father, who drops to his knees when his children get hurt. God gave up all of his freedom and became a slave, which is the lowest social status in the hierarchy. Slavery is no life; it’s a sysiphean task of pushing up a boulder day after day, only to have it roll back down the hill. At the end of his struggle, he dies the death of a criminal, in between two thieves, and as an enemy of the state. The cross is about pain and humiliation, it’s physical agony and social shame.
In that moment, at the bottom of the pit, Jesus was highly exalted. The only time Jesus was standing above everyone else is when he was hanging on the cross crying out, “Father forgive them.” It’s upside down. It’s completely backward and inverted. We stretch our necks to achieve, or become, or do and we end up tripping over the crucified God laying at our feet.
Scripture grounds us in the dirt—literally. In that first story that the Bible tells us, Adam, is created out of the adamah, or the dirt. His name is a play on the Hebrew word for dirt. Our word human is a derivative of the Latin word for dirt, humus. Humus—Human—humility. To be human is to be humble. It means to be in the dirt, grounded in the humus. It’s a recognition that we are earthy, nothing but carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Yet, at the same time, the story tells us that the God who created the universe breathes into the dirt and gives us this breath of life. We are the only creatures in the story who receive God’s breath. According to Genesis, you are dirt, but you have God’s own breath. Humble and yet, irreplaceable.
There’s a story of a Rabbi who travelled with dirt in one pocket and a piece of gold in the other. It was a reminder that he was both: ash to ash and dust to dust. Yet, at the same time he was as priceless as gold, created in the image of God. You’re the same way. So is all of your neighbors. We should treat each other like that. Too often, we treat others like they are just the dirt, not the gold.
Back to division: could it be that the missing ingredient for unity is humility? I love that the 12 step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, begin with the acknowledgement of weakness, not strength. They say, “We are powerless… our lives have become unmanageable.” Change and transformation is rooted in humility. The Philippians, like most of the churches Paul writes to, struggle with unity. So he tells them this: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.” Where are the places that our pride is sinking the whole ship?
Later, Paul will say, “Pour yourself out.” It’s a cliche that pastors use a lot, but it’s not terrible. We want to pour our lives out into the world because that’s what Jesus did for us. CS Lewis says that humility is not thinking less of yourself, but it’s about think about yourself less. Focus on the needs, pains, hopes and desires of others. Put away your self interest, your need to be right, your obsession with achievements. It’s only when you pour yourself out, that you realize you’ve become full. The more humble, the more forgiving. The more humble, the happier. The more humble, the more unity.
Orpheus sang a more beautiful song and it saved the passengers. Is there a more beautiful song? Sing the song of Christ. The song that gives us unity is not a national anthem, it’s Jesus. Sing Jesus. Sing a song of power in weakness and of strength in humility. Sing a song of crucified love. When we start singing Christ, who will bother to listen to Sirens?
Today, we come to the Table as adamah, humus, humans. We are dirt-beings who have had the Spirit of God breathed into us. We come in our weakness, dependent upon God. We are creatures, who must eat and drink to live. And Jesus humbles himself, again, to come to us in bread and wine. Saint Francis says, “What wonderful majesty! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation.” It’s simple fare; it’s food for the poor. But we are starving.