Sunday, May 30, 2010

Most branches of the Christian Church have long been messed up on the subject of human sexuality.  Jesus and our other Jewish forebears are not to blame.  If you want to point the finger, there are two fingers to point within the Christian tradition--the first finger gets pointed to the Apostle Paul.  Paul was, presumably, a celibate bachelor who liked to talk a lot about sex, especially his ideas of sexual “do nots.”  That paradigm has been perfectly followed up by the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  People who criticize in detail practices they supposedly abhor and have had little or no experience with or have up and turned away from are to be suspicioned.  These people who work in the brainwashing movements to turn gay people into straight people and are themselves, by their definition, “former gays,” not infrequently get caught in public places such as gay clubs on dates with or trying to pick up, hold onto your hats, gay men.  
Supposedly celibate men, and some of them really are, making themselves the rules makers when it comes to birth control methods is a riot.  I mean, seriously, can you imagine having someone who’d never had sex describing the only acceptable Roman Catholic option for birth control for married couples, the “rhythm method”?  That would be like taking driver’s education from someone who’d never driven, except maybe a simulator!  (I warned you last week that this week’s sermon was adult oriented!)
Paul’s writings are literally filled with sexual prohibitions.  We have no absolute evidence either way about whether Paul was ever married; the weight of scholarship has leaned to taking him to have been a bachelor.  Just because he never mentions a wife doesn’t mean he was wifeless; I know lots of married men who never mention that they are married--especially when they are trying to set up a date with someone to whom they are not married.  Philosophically speaking, an argument from silence is nearly always the weakest possible argument.  For example, there are members of Silverside Church who never tell anybody they are, and nobody knows until the obituary is published at which time even many of us who are members are surprised.  Anyway, just because Paul fails to mention a wife doesn’t mean he was always a bachelor, even if he were divorced by the time he wrote the letters that would eventually appear in what we now call Christian scripture.  Even so, I suspect that Paul was a bachelor.  
As I mentioned recently, John Shelby Spong in the last few years has been the scholar to raise questions about Paul’s own sexuality.  Spong wasn’t the first, but he has been the one in our time to be most pointed about bringing up that issue.  Spong believes Paul was a very conflicted gay man, even though being gay wasn’t condemned in the Hebrew scriptures on which he’d been reared or in the Greek world where he did most of his ministry.  Paul criticizes many specific homosexual behaviors, but he never offers a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.  I think it’s very important to know that and to point that out to the “Christian Right” who makes Paul their champion and hero.  
If Paul were a conflicted gay man, he imposed the condemnation upon himself.  That’s such a terribly sad place to be, and in my profession I’ve known all too many people who lived a lifetime under that relentless shadow that never lets the full light of life’s joys shine through.
Hebrew scripture and culture didn’t give Paul any reason to condemn himself if he were gay, and there’s not a single word putting down homosexuals in the teachings of Jesus.  If he lived his life under self-imposed condemnation, then he’s a tragic figure, and those of us not particularly fond of him need to be more patient with him.  
Either way, he wrote all the time about sexual prohibitions for straights and gays.  He was obsessed with sex, and he didn’t have the internet to help him along!  There’s a hilarious song in the musical, “Avenue Q,” called “The Internet Is for Porn.”  
The other finger has to be pointed to one of Paul’s most ardent admirers, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.  Augustine’s personal story was very different from Paul’s.  He wrote the first known full-length spiritual autobiography in the Western world.  The book was titled, Confessions, and was first released in the year 400.  It’s one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, and I’d never have completed it had it not been required for my first church history course in seminary.  Lord, have mercy, it was a dreary read.  
Writing late in his life, looking back over what had brought him to where he was at the time he wrote, the self-loathing was the overpowering theme in my reading of the piece.  I don’t mean he hated himself his whole life long.  I mean that as he looked back, in retrospect he hated himself for the way he’d lived his life, and that’s always such a waste of time.  Mistakes are mistakes; we can’t erase them and shouldn’t try.  We can learn from them, and that’s all.  Otherwise, we just have to let them go; there’s no other option.  
I’m not saying we deserve to be proud of everything we’ve ever done, but preoccupation with the past, especially those wrong decisions we made along the way, will do nothing more than rob us of the way life is supposed to be lived.  Many of us choose not to dwell on our mistakes; Augustine, in contrast, did what amounted to a “tell all.”  The book may have been not only the first full-length spiritual autobiography, but also the first full-length tell all.  Augustine was, before his conversation, one of the most sexually promiscuous figures in history except maybe for Tiger Woods and those who have been prostitutes by profession.  Sorry.  Tiger Woods jokes are getting really stale, aren’t they?  Seriously, I believe when someone acts out like Mr. Woods, there’s some kind of deeper problem.  Truthfully, Augustine who is the third most powerful influence on the Christian Church after the Apostle Paul and Jesus--and I put them in that order intentionally--made Tiger Woods look like a eunuch.
In his later life, however, Augustine converted to Christianity, embraced Paul, and suddenly came up with the notion that celibacy is better than being sexually active and that the less sexual one is the more holy she or he is.  Augustine came up with the belief that the only commendable sexual activity is intercourse, and that is utilitarian--for procreation, not for enjoyment.  So, even when you’re having sex to try to have children, you’re not supposed to enjoy it.  If you’re enjoying it, then something is morally wrong.  Now, remember that this perspective comes from the man who for much of his life had sex with every willing female on northern Africa and southern Europe!
He pushed his anti-sex, sex is dirty campaign onto the church in which he became a bishop, and for some reason these Augustinian principles have heavily influenced not only Roman Catholicism, but also conservative Protestantism.  Sex can be made into something lewd, and it often is; but humans were made to enjoy sexual expression if they so choose.  For the church to teach children and teens and adults that there is anything wrong with healthy, safe, respectful sexual expression is morally reprehensible.  
I’d be more willing to listen to someone advocating celibacy who’d practiced it all or a good part of her or his life.  I think Augustine stopped having sex, in part, because he was worn out.  We have to wonder if Viagra had been around in those days would Augustine have been so eager to push so zealously for celibacy as the preferred way of life for the spiritually focused.
Just for the record, Augustine did live with a young woman for some eleven years, and evidently they were monogamous.  He never calls her name in his writings, and they were never married--evidently because there was some social status issue to which she didn’t measure up.  They had a son together, Adeodatus.  Sadly, the boy died suddenly of unknown causes when he was only 17 years old.  After the relationship with Adeodatus’s mother ended, Augustine became a single dad, and a good one; and we all love good single dads!
If you really need a laugh some time, you should take up a study of how the church has interpreted the biblical book the ancient Hebrews called the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs.  
The book is probably better referred to as the Song of Songs rather than the Song of Solomon; the main reason I say this is because the book is a collection of love and love-erotic poems between one couple--one man and one woman, as it turns out.  One woman wasn’t nearly enough for King Solomon.  Of course, there were several men with the name “Solomon,” but only one stands out; same with “David.”
King Solomon had 700 wives and, in addition, 300 concubines.  With all those women at hand, even a goodhearted guy like Solomon just couldn’t feel this much intensity for any one in the harem.  He may have loved women in general with great intensity, but he couldn’t have loved any one of the several hundreds of wives and concubines with the kind of intensity we read in the book, the Song of Songs.  The “Wittenberg Door,” a journal that parodies religious issues and themes, had a funny article a couple of years ago called “700 Wives, 300 Girlfriends, and No Voice Mail.”  
Eerdman’s Publishers introducing a 2003 commentary on this biblical book said:

The Song of Songs is one of the greatest pieces of erotic literature ever written. Consisting of intense expressions of physical love, this classic poem describes the voluptuous beauty of lovers longing for one another. With a uniquely feminine perspective, its language is seductive and intimate, conveying an immediate, sensuous, and intoxicating desire.
The couple who speak the words of the poet in the Song of Songs have a deep love for each other punctuated with loving lust.  Not all lust is loving, as we well know, but when love and lust get all rolled up together it’s a powerful I recall!  The couple speaking to each other in this biblical book are clearly in love and in lust.  I assume that ancient Hebrews keep this book in the scripture collection to celebrate sex and to read at weddings perhaps.  One scholar has said that these songs were sung in taverns in Hebrew towns and villages.
Here comes the Christian Church all influenced by Paul and later by the celibate Augustine not knowing what in the world to do with blatant erotica in what they consider their holy scripture.  The option most often chosen was and is to ignore it, to pretend it isn’t there, and to hope that no one in a given congregation finds it.  The next most frequently chosen option, and this is where the humor comes in, is to allegorize it, to spiritualize it so that Jesus is the male lover, and the female lover symbolizes the church.  This approach is just too wild for many reasons--one of which, of course, is that these poems were written hundreds of years before there was a Jesus or a church.  That fact notwithstanding, interpreters through the ages and into the present start with some of the New Testament symbolism of Jesus the bridegroom and the church as his bride and work backwards into the Hebrew scriptures to say that’s what the ancient poet anticipated all along.  The results are hilarious.  Let me give you several examples.  
We’ll start with a simple one:  “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.”  Sometimes when you hear sermons about the Magi coming with gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus, about two years after the manger birth, much is made of the gifts that the Magi brought with them to honor Jesus:  gold and frankincense and myrrh.  One of the things plenty of preachers love to do is to tell their congregations what these gifts meant in the ancient world, and they like to talk about where these items--gold and frankincense and myrrh--are mentioned elsewhere in scripture.  Well, I want to tell you that in all my years of listening to sermons and editing sermons for publication I never came across a single sermon mentioning that the myrrh the Magi brought little two-year-old Jesus in ancient times had once been put into little fabric bags and worn as a necklace, as a perfume.   
The lover is to the woman who speaks like myrrh that lies not just near her heart but between her breasts.  I can imagine that his ears really perked up when he heard her speaking this metaphor.
What could the early church do with such flagrant flirtation, given the fact that it had the church being the woman flirting quite erotically with her lover, whom the church said was intended by the poet to be Jesus?  Did the church have breasts, and was the church supposed to try to seduce Jesus?  This is the position in which they, the early Church teachers, were getting themselves with their allegorical frame for interpreting the book.  
Let’s take this a little further:  “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”
Oh my.  Can someone turn on the air conditioner?  
If the fundamentalists are told that this book is in the Bible, and they get a hold of it, the next thing you can look for is a rash of Bible burnings and demands that libraries take sexually suggestive Bibles off their shelves at once.  
I don’t know if you can take any more of this at church, but I have to preach the Bible so here we go:  “My beloved speaks and says to me:  O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards—for our vineyards are in blossom.”
From all indications, at least some of their encounters are clandestine, and there is a fertility theme here too.  Little foxes are ruining the vineyards, and the vineyards are in blossom.  He says to her, “We have to make use of the vineyards when they are in blossom, not when they’re dried up or used up.”  How much clearer could he have been, speaking to her with her face uncovered out in secret places where no one could see them?
Now back to the woman in the poem:

Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
I promise you that no Sunday School teacher of mine EVER taught me this passage of scripture.
This beautiful woman lies in her bed at night sexually desiring her lover, and she imagines or dreams that she goes out into the town in search of him.  She asks person after person if they’ve seen him; no one she asks had recently seen him.  Suddenly, she comes upon him; she holds him, embraces, him, will not let him go, and in her dream she takes him back to her home--the home where she lives with her mother.  She takes him into her mother’s home in the middle of the night. She doesn’t say point blank what happened after they were together as her mother slept, but she does begin speaking to her girlfriends in a way that lets us know what happened in her dream that night.  She tells her friends:  do not stir up love or awaken it until it is ready.  We get that, don’t we?  There’s a point of no return once that sexual energy begins to overtake I recall!
Back to the gentleman one last time for today:  “Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.”  Well, now you know why Solomon sang!
A few years ago, I had a student at Wilmington University who gave a report one day on a pressing social issue.  He took us all by surprise.  He said that his mother was an administrator at a nursing home, and one of the increasingly challenging problems her facility faced was what to do about venereal disease among the residents.  It seems that Bingo and handcrafts were quite enough to occupy the minds or the energies of the patients.  Doctors couldn’t order restraints to prevent sexual activity so there was the basis for a dicey novel called something like “After Hours at Rest Haven Home” or “The Abraham and Sarah Syndrome.”  Most sexually active residents weren’t coming down with venereal diseases; they were just enjoying themselves and never complaining about the food or wanting to come home.  A smart marketing person could use the scenario to lure reluctant residents to agree to move in with no resistance to family members who have decided that a greater level of care must be provided for dear old Grand Mama!  Given the demographic that many fewer men live as long as women do, the fewer men in the community were having no problem getting in their cardio exercises week by week. 
Years ago, a friend in Texas took me over to Galveston to attend a play at the Grand Opera House about a crazy Texas family--hard to imagine any such thing as a crazy family in Texas I know.  I remember that two male actors played all the roles.  It was a riot.  One scene had something to do with a grandchild finding out that his grandparents “still” had a healthy sex life.  He was shocked beyond words and almost angry.  His grandmother said to him, “Well, calm down, honey!  What in the world have you thought all these years that the old people in the homes with all that time on their hands?!?”  
The early church was scared to death to deal with the subject of Jesus’ sexuality so it didn’t.  That was one of the problems making him divine solved.  God is spirit and doesn’t have the body parts to have sex; if Jesus was God in any kind of way then he was beyond the need for or an interest in sex.
Just because making Jesus rather androgynously divine suited many in the early church, there were others who continued to think of Jesus as a human who experienced life very much the way they did, and they knew they had sexual desires so they assumed the same of Jesus.  The major reason the Religious Right hated Dan Brown and his “Da Vinci Code” is that Brown had Jesus and Mary Magdalene married to each other, and if Jesus had married her, there would have been a honeymoon!  In all likelihood, there would have been children, which is precisely one of the many traditions about what became of Jesus and those associated with him.  
This is not the point of today’s sermon, and I won’t take the time to pursue it.  Maybe we’ll do that at one of our summer Wednesday evening discussions together.  I will say that art, dated after Jesus’ execution, has been discovered showing Mary Magdalene, pregnant at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and there is a picture of Mary that has been discovered holding twin children whom art historians tend to recognize as little girls; I can’t tell from the picture.  There has long been a legend in parts of France that Mary moved there after Jesus’ execution and raised their children there; descendants of Mary and Jesus remain there to this day, some say.
Despite the groundbreaking work of the Song of Songs in the area of affirming human sexuality along with the typical bluntness about sexual expression and the acceptance of it in the culture and scripture passed on to Jesus, Paul, the Gnostics, and Augustine among others did their best dirty up sex and try to make it disgusting while they were at it.  This is part of the reasons some of the theologians of the early church were able to sell the doctrine of the virgin birth, which really should be called the doctrine of the immaculate conception.  The deal was, Jesus could not have been holy and pure, they said, had his begetting in any way involved human genitalia.  Propagating these theories or any variety of them is opposed to the religion Jesus inherited and taught.  The Song of Songs calls us to a sense of goodness about sex and sexuality.  It is fun, playful, alluring, and healthfully lustful, and it’s not just the right time for sex when it’s time to try to have a baby.  Menopause isn’t supposed to call a halt to sexual expression.  Judging from a few episodes I’ve seen of “Sex in the City” and from my viewing of every episode of the “Golden Girls,” my beloved “Designing Women,” and both installments of “Grumpy Old Men,” sex might even be more fun and exciting after forty.  
I don’t think it’s up to the church to tell anyone who her or his sexual partner or partners should be.  We all recognize that unprincipled sexcapades lead to all kinds of problems--physically and emotionally.  We as followers of Jesus don’t want to pass along the idea that sex in a connection where there’s nothing more than sex is a good idea; it usually isn’t, and it definitely isn’t if someone involves herself or himself in a string of these meeting for sex only encounters.  
Having great sex is a worthy goal in a relationship.  The graphic Song of Songs, in the end, tells us more about how to love sex than did either Dr. Ruth or Dr. Phil.  No question about it, if our true love partner can also be our lust partner, we’ve found our way into the best of all possible worlds.  
An important part of sexual maturation is owning your own sexual management processes.  How people express themselves sexually is their business, and not mine.  
Parents owe their kids a proper sex education, and the church owes those same kids the message that God loves them so much that they need to live in ways that reveal their love for themselves.  A good rule of thumb for a modern adult sexual ethic could well be:  Be safe.  Be selective.  Be sensible.  Be sure.  Be safe.  And don’t fall for every Tom, Dick, or Harriett you may meet.
How graceful are your feet in sandals,
   O queenly maiden!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
   the work of a master hand.
Your navel is a rounded bowl
   that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat,
   encircled with lilies.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
   twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,
   by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
   overlooking Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
   and your flowing locks are like purple;
   a king is held captive in the tresses. 

How fair and pleasant you are,
   O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree,
   and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
   and lay hold of its branches.
O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
   and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses like the best wine
   that goes down smoothly,
   gliding over lips and teeth.

I am my beloved’s,
   and his desire is for me.
Come, my beloved,
   let us go forth into the fields,
   and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the vineyards,
   and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
   and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In my illustrious career as an organist, I played for one wedding and one funeral before retiring.  Through I’d trained on pipe organs at Carson-Newman College, out in those two real world opportunities, pipe organs were unavailable so I played in each case on a two-rank Hammond Chord Organ--one with a full pedal-board and the other with just eight pedals, one octave only for deep bass accompaniment.  
At the funeral, I was mostly background music, which suited me fine because nobody was paying much attention to my mediocre playing.  Not all of my playing was mediocre given the circumstances and the context.  The funeral director told me to play hymns I thought appropriate, and that is what I did.  I’d grown up playing more hymns than anything else; and though hymns aren’t usually easy to play I did all right for the most part specifically because I’d been playing them frequently--from the time I was in the third grade on.  Even so, I found myself wondering after just a little while there amid the sadness why anybody would want to have that kind of job on a daily basis.  Certainly, I didn’t.  At the wedding things were much different. Many more people were paying attention to me--as opposed to having my music be just background, mood setting melodies.  What I played at the wedding was much more important; for example, specific songs determined when certain members of the wedding party entered, when the soloist sang, and so on.  
Shortly after we got the bride and groom and wedding party processed in, during a terrible lightening and thunder storm, I was playing the music during which the couple was lighting the unity candle.  A bolt of lightening struck the little country church down near Lenoir City, Tennessee, and blew out the power.  The organ and its music died, but not suddenly or instantly; one brave and strong note held on, all by itself, as long as it could.  Then it started to give up the ghost one little bit at a time, getting flatter and flatter as it lost power.  
Now, you know why things happened the way they did, but the folks in the congregation that night didn’t know the power was out because all the lights were already off in the candlelit sanctuary.  They thought something was seriously wrong with the young organist.
I think the officiating minister went ahead with the vows or some other essential part of the service.  It was right in the middle of such a serious, poignant moment that the instrument turned itself back on.
That little church was prepared, I want to tell you.  It had a generator, a trusty little generator that brought the power back up, and with it the brave note reclaimed its place in the musical composition....going sharper and shaper this time to get back to where it had begun losing ground.  This continued, even though the officiant was talking by this time, until the full chord that had been playing when the organ’s electrical source was attacked by the lightening.  Everyone looked at me as if I not only could but should stop the resurrection of that chord, but alas I had no control whatsoever over how the organ recovered from the attack.  I was humiliated.  
The sad part was that my playing, given the context, was adequate, and the sound problem wasn’t my fault.  I had played poorly enough on occasion to have been justifiably humiliated, but the music stopped that night; and it wasn’t my fault.  The wedding ceremony was severely interrupted, but how was I supposed to explain to a bunch of people in the middle of a wedding that there was a very important reason we call electronic organs “electronic.”  I did officiate at a wedding ceremony once at which the organist was a friend of the bride’s, and she volunteered to play for the wedding.  The bride was elated even though she’d never heard her friend play.  The volunteer organist played every piece so badly that she finally stood up beside the organ, and spoke to the congregation saying, “I’m SO sorry.”
I had agreed to play the organ on that occasion, by invitation and not as a volunteer, because one of my dear friends from college was getting married, and practically all of his friends, as he had been, were ministerial students.  He wanted to include as many of us as he could in his ceremony, and since I was supposed to be able to play the organ that was one job he could assign not eating up the few opportunities for ministerial performance at his wedding.  
People who aren’t in the know say one of two things about such an event.  They either say something like, “Bless his heart, that young organist couldn’t play that organ to save his life, but why he hung on to that one dying note didn’t make any sense at all!”  Or, they say, “Janie and David deserved at least decent music at their wedding.  I wonder where they dug up that guy. They must have owed somebody a favor, or he’s related some kind of way.  The lady who plays at the skating rink could have shown him up ten times over, and, besides, she knows how to keep things moving no matter what.”
The music died that rainy Tennessee night, and though I had absolutely no control over it, public perception said that I did; I couldn’t face the humiliation so I resigned on the spot from accompanying anybody for anything, and I’d have to say that the musical world has been vastly better off as a result of my decision.
A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

We were singing this song as my high school years came to a close, “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.”  Most of us had no idea what we were singing about, but we sang out with gusto when this song came on the radio.  It turns out that there may have been some serious meaning behind what this lyricist, Don McLean, had written.
Some people in the know have said the “American Pie” lyrics were about Buddy Holly and other notable music figures from McLean’s past who weren’t around any more. Others have said that the “American Pie” lyrics attacked the Vietnam War.  Centrists, naturally, said McLean had both realities in mind.  McLean himself once told an interviewer that the song had something to do with his own impressions that, into the 1970’s. popular music was in decline, and he wanted to make an historical/musical comment on that in his song.
Almost no one disagrees with the fact that the actual day the music died, the first time that phrase appears in the song, was the day a plane crashed in 1959 killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson Jr.  The second the song refers to “the day the music died,” McLean was almost certainly referring to the rapid succession of assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.  McLean would never confirm, as far as I know, that some of the lyrics in “American Pie” condemn nuclear war and anticipate the Apocalypse. 
And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
A military chaplain in Iraq recently wrote up a story of an event he’d observed when some of the troops he served had gotten together for a movie night.  He explained that it’s the custom in the States and abroad when military personnel are gathered to watch films to have the National Anthem played--as it is at a sports function.  On the particular night about which he wrote, the chaplain said the crowd stood and snapped to attention when the music began.   Evidently, it was taped music because when the player got to a certain point--say, about three-quarters of the way through--the music stopped.
The tech trying to operate the equipment couldn’t get it to work at all; one would have expected the crowd to sit down and wait for the show to start--no doubt, hoping for a better technical outcome than with the playing of the National Anthem.  The chaplain recalls being very surprised that with the one thousand military folks gathered, there wasn’t a single ribbing or rude comment made, which, he said, almost certainly would have occurred at a similar event in the States.  The other fact that surprised him was that not a single one of the women or men took a seat.  They remained quietly at attention with eyes fixed on the flag.  Finally, the music started again--from the beginning. The soldiers listened attentively, standing quietly at attention.  You won’t believe this; at exactly the same point as before the music stopped.  Still, no laughs, sighs, grunts, or groans.  Each one present continued to stand quietly at attention.   
Suddenly, the chaplain reported in his report, there was a single voice, then a dozen, and quickly the room was filled with the voices of a thousand soldiers, finishing where the recording left off:   “And the rockets red glare, The bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night That our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In the reporting chaplain’s words:  “It was the most inspiring moment I have had here in Iraq. I wanted you to know what kind of soldiers are serving you here.”
Italy is opera's birthplace.  On and off stage drama is no stranger to Italy; lately, there has been more drama off stage than on.   This uneasy situation has been caused by what one journalist called “a clash of austerity politics with artistic passions.”  The result is that most opera houses have been closed down because of sudden unannounced strikes; singers and musicians are refusing to perform in response to the government’s recommendations to make all 14 state-owned and state-operated opera houses income sources and not just income drains.  What critics of the government are saying is that the government is willing to let the quality of the music slide in order to balance a budget, and they are willing to try to balance an unsuitable budget by messing around with the one thing Italy is most known for and produces consistently well.
Reporters, op-ed types, and bloggers are having a field day with this crisis.  Daniel Barenboim, one of Italy’s prominent conductors, insists that Italy’s musical heritage deserves to be protected, but he agrees that the government has a right to expect the opera companies and their opera houses to be more self-sustaining.
Do you remember the 2003 strike on Broadway when 325 musicians refused to play for the productions they were contracted to play for because producers were taking steps to replace live orchestras with canned music and/or to drastically reduce the size of the orchestras they employed for their productions?  Generally, the actors and the stage hands supported the musicians, and initially 20 theaters were left dark on a Friday night because of the strike.  The music stopped, my friends.  
There were bitter, highly publicized disputes between musicians and producers over how many players were required to make even a small orchestra.  For the large theaters, fifty years of staffing patterns said that an orchestra must be made up of about 25 players.  This, naturally, was adjusted downwards when the theatre was smaller or on occasions where the musical accompaniment didn’t require a full orchestra.  
At the time of the strike there had been a committee in place for a decade to approve exceptions to the “less than 25 rule.”  Most requests were honored, but producers brought in their mediators and muscle trying to get the musical companies to agree to a minimum number of orchestra players of seven; even when, in negotiation, that was doubled, the musicians were saying, “Fourteen people don’t add up to an orchestra.”
Part of what was at stake was the quality of the music, the preservation of live music for Broadway performances, and the disdain for training professional singers to sing along with prerecorded music that can’t change with the mood of the performer or the audience.  Well, you know by now that that strike finally ended, and the music started playing again.  Show after show shut down, and it took those involved four only days to settle their disputes.  News sources reported that Mayor Bloomberg quietly became involved in the negotiations and helped move the groups at odd with each other to a resolution.  By Tuesday evening, the music started up again.
In Act IV of Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” before anyone realizes that Juliet has taken the potion to make her appear dead, there is a household filled with joy and excitement, aflutter with preparations for a wedding planned for that very day.  The Nurse is sent to go and awaken Juliet. She finds Juliet appearing dead and screams.  Juliet’s parents run to their daughter’s room and are soon joined there by Paris and Friar Lawrence and a group of musicians who had arrived at the home to play for a joyous wedding.  
The pragmatic friar encourages everyone to take heart for two reasons.  First, he says, Juliet has gone to a better place.  Second, with a few little adjustments all the setup for a wedding can be easily adapted to a funeral.  I have no comment on that at all!  But I will say the Friar was being pragmatic.  You have to credit my fellow clergy in all ages with pragmatism where potential financial contributions are involved, don’t you?
Peter is a servant to the Capulet family, and he asks the musicians why they don’t play happy tunes to ease his sorrow.  They refuse and say that it would be in appropriate for them to arrive at a function expected to play songs of joy only to turn around and play the music of death.  One musician, though, realizes that if he stays long enough he can get paid for playing at a funeral AND get dinner on top of his fee.  Not all were so noble as the musicians who said that there were reasons they did what they did that had nothing to do with music itself or with money. 
Hear again the words of people for whom music has stopped.
Our ancestors sinned; they are no more, and we bear their iniquities. Slaves rule over us; there is no one to deliver us from their hand. We get our bread at the peril of our lives, because of the sword in the wilderness. Our skin is black as an oven from the scorching heat of famine. Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah. Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders. Young men are compelled to grind, and boys stagger under loads of wood. The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!
Many of the ancient Israelites lived as if the negative circumstances that befell them might have been caused by their own failures to live up to God’s standards, but they also, many of them, believed that some of the unpleasant realities with which they had to live were ongoing punishments of their grandparents.  In other words, if someone did something bad enough to punish, punishment in that person’s life alone wouldn’t be enough; in order to make things right, God might have to punish that person, her or his children, and her or his grandchildren several generations down.
That’s about as off-base as the belief of too many people today that nothing we do has any impact on the generations to follow us.  Both perspectives miss reality all the way around.
The book of Lamentations is closely connected, a companion volume really, to the prophetic book called Jeremiah.  The words read earlier and these I’ve reread to you are from Lamentations.  The whole book is a collection of songs of sadness, songs of wailing.  In some branches of Hebrew tradition, the book is known by its first word, “How” in the sense of a question that asks God HOW such horrible things could be happening to such wonderfully dedicated, even if ever so slightly imperfect, people.  
The prophet Jeremiah himself is crying out his concerns about how such catastrophes could happen to his people as have been perpetrated against them by the Babylonians.  Many people who are God’s people expect to have SOME rough places here and there, but they don’t expect to have things quite so damaging as what comes to those who have no regard for God whatsoever.
My dear friend and mentor, the Reverend Dr. Marion Bascom, and his wife, Dorothy, began to have a siege of health problems between the two of them as they aged, and I was visiting with them once down in Baltimore when they said it had become helpful for them to stop asking the question, “Why us?”, and change it instead to, “Why not us?”  I told them as much as I loved and respected them that that approach wouldn’t work for me.  As long as trouble left me and my loved ones alone I’d keep my mouth shut altogether, but if it visited I might not ask, “Why me,” but I surely wouldn’t ask, “Why not me?”  I don’t understand many of life’s great mysteries, and that’s fine with me.  If struggle skips over me, I don’t need to know why.  I do think Marion’s and Dorothy’s approach is much more biblically grounded than mine is, but I’ll happily concede on those grounds too!
According to this song of lamentation, everything that the Hebrews valued, everything that they’d come to believe they could count on to celebrate life had been taken from them.  They were humiliated, and keeping life going in every practical way was a struggle.  They weren’t really governed by the Babylonians who sort of let things go wild, and those acting as their overlords on behalf of the Babylonians were other enslaved people so the ancient Hebrews found themselves ruled by slaves who didn’t care.
Hebrew women were raped regularly for entertainment.  The men’s lives were at risk when they ventured out to find food for their families in this strange land.
Elder men in their communities had long served as the rule makers and the standard bearers for their Hebrew communities.  The situation they were in, in exile made that pointless so the elders have left the city gates, and the young men whose love for life as evidenced in the music they sang to the delight of the whole communities had been silenced by the tragedy in which they found themselves.
The music of the young men was a sign of the joy of the people.  Now the music has stopped.  No music meant the absence of joy.
It’s not just the older folks who hated captivity, but also the younger people.  The seniors couldn’t make life better for those whom they most wanted to enjoy life--their children.
Outside a context of captivity, the same message holds true.  If our young people can find nothing about life in which they can take joy, the present is shaky, and the future is doomed.  Now, I join you in hoping that loud, vulgar RAP music isn’t what we have to endure in order to guarantee a strong future for our kids and our culture.  
I seriously disappointed a student several years ago.  He wrote out his final presentation for the course as a RAP song.  It was amazingly creative, but there was a key part of the RAP song written just for good ole Dr. Farmer.  I tried, as a good sport and out of concern for his feelings, to sing my part when the time came, and I was an abysmal failure at RAP.  I couldn’t get into the rhythm at all--not in any kind of way.  At first the class laughed, laughed heartily, at my efforts, but after a few tries they looked at me with a combination of pity and frustration or embarrassment.  My student said, “But I wrote it just for you, Doc.”
I said, “I know, and while it may not seem like it to you, I’m busting my butt here.  I just can’t get it.  I can say the words you wrote, but rhythmically I just keep botching it.”
“Oh, Doc,” he said, “‘Botching it’ doesn’t even come close to describing how bad you are at RAP.  I hope saying that doesn’t hurt my grade.”
I said, “No, but if you keep asking me to embarrass myself here, I see your grade moving closer to the letter Z than the letter C.”
He sang the whole song through singing my part himself, and I was amazed.  I rarely give an A+, but I did for that assignment.  Everyone off campus to whom I turned for consolation in my humiliation only said, “Oh my God, is it on YouTube?  You’re going to be famous like that goofy Asian kid pretending he could sing.  Your church is going to be so proud of you!  Are Jarrett and Carson willing to be seen with you in public?”
Yes, we can talk about my selection of friends at a later date, if you like.
I do think the happiness of our youth is a test of how well we’re doing as a culture and what kind of future we’re creating for those who will come after us.  If they put aside all their happy music and sing only sad songs or nothing at all, we can know they know what we want to conceal--that their elders have created a joyless world for them, and while the youth about whom Jeremiah spoke in Lamentations had the added slam of being ruled by an enemy state, the principles, I say again, are essentially the same.
Things are bleak in that department for us now.  Depression among our young people has risen to about 25%.  Now, not all depression is caused by external factors; some depression is chemically based and would be present even if a young person were living in an environment providing for every happiness.  But a good deal of depression is situational; it’s caused by unhappy situations through which people, young people included, have to live.
Right now, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in this country.  The sadnesses that lead to such horrible results often begin in high school, before the students become a part of the college statistic.
In our world of information availability, I can tell you that pressing and frightening world problems and government leaders at war with themselves contribute greatly to the unwillingness of our young people to sing happy songs, to get the music going again.  Before the finger pointing is finished, I’d like to say squarely into the face of organized religion for the last twenty-five years at least:  “You too are at fault for giving children and young adults no reason to grasp for or hope for joy.  The central part of almost every chapter written on religion eventually gets around to violence and hatred, and before that poison turns outward the religious folk turn it on those in their own number.”
So, I need to work on my RAP skills as one way to keep our young people singing songs that both reveal joy and keep it alive.  I have to be careful not to pass along pessimism or apathy about the present or the future to impressionable young minds.  Young people singing songs of joy is both sign and source that there’s a future out there worth living toward.
Listen!  The happy songs are returning.  Blessings on our beloved young people who carry the weight of a bright new world on their backs and in their voices.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our friend, Dr. Bob Miller of the Jesus Seminar, has shown conclusively in his book, Born Divine:  The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God, how typical it was in many ancient cultures to respond to human beings with amazing personal abilities, especially those that seemed to reach beyond what mere mortals were able to do, by calling them
“divine,” a part of the family of the goddesses and gods.   Divinity was accorded Jesus in just this manner--by looking back over what he had done.  Only seriously retrospective stories looking back to his birth presented him as divine from the womb on.  No one on the scene looked at the cute little Jewish bundle of joy and said, “He’s divine!”  Part of the issue was, no one associated smelly diapers and spit-up stains on swaddling clothes with a deity; surely such substances and smells were human things, not things from the gods!  We want our gods to smell good or at least neutral.
Even so, there are those who insisted that anyone who would speak as forcefully for God and heal people in God’s name and in God’s power had to have something more going for her or him than “just humanity,” and, thus, divinity was pronounced upon the mortal.  
There are two major ways modern theologians have discussed the question of the humanity versus the divinity of Jesus.    “Christology” is that branch of Christian theology concerned with understanding Jesus’ nature and the core of his teachings.  Among these Christologists, there have been two main ways of understanding his divinity by those who affirm it; and not all do or did.  A “Christology from above perspective” holds that Jesus was born as a divine entity; God had sent Jesus into the world as God’s own child--thus, making him divine from birth or conception onward.
Other Christologists have affirmed Jesus’ divinity, but called it “Christology from below.”  It’s an adoptive motif that says that when God saw how Jesus was devoted to God, God adopted Jesus as God’s child and bestowed divinity upon him at that point; that point is normally taken to be Jesus’ baptism, but that isn’t necessarily the time of divine adoption.
Then you have a handful of theologians who are interested in Christology only for academic purposes; they themselves do not believe that Jesus was divine at any point.  They do not believe that Jesus was ever anything other than, anything more than a human being exactly like you and me.  As I tend to say when this subject comes up, if there was any divinity in Jesus it was no more than the spark of the divine that exists in every human being who has ever lived.
It’s kind of silly to argue this point though there are those who make a career of it, literally.  If there’s not enough evidence to pull you in one direction or another, then nothing’s going to change because we already have all the information we’re ever going to get on that subject.  Same thing about the subject of an afterlife.  There is no additional information to be had on that subject, biblically speaking.  Whatever you believe about it is valid for you, and you have all the information there is to be had until you move to that other realm, if it exists, and send a postcard back to the rest of us who didn’t make the trip with you.
We know there are plenty of people in the Christian movement as has been the case from the beginning of the movement who were persuaded that one has to BELIEVE the correct facts in order to be in good with God.  To believe the wrong things is deadly since, they say, there’s a penalty for believing the wrong facts; and it is eternal separation from God.  I consider that whole notion nonsense, but it’s not our topic for today so I’m trying to leave it alone.
The mother religion of the two other monotheistic faith traditions is Judaism, and Judaism was, from its inception, much more concerned with how people acted than with what they believed.  Generally speaking, our actions are determined by what we believe.  If, by some strange turn, we do the right thing while believing the wrong facts, how odd, but how good nonetheless!
We do well to check our motivation now and then because being honest with ourselves and others is an important thing, but in the mean time if we feed the poor because someone we admire does so more than because we are trying to live like Jesus lived, the poor are still coming out better than if we did nothing at all for any reason.
Same thing with peace.  If we join an antiwar group because the leader of the group is cute and charismatic and not because we want to be the peacemakers Jesus called us to be, well, more is still being done for peace than would be done if we had no crush on the antiwar group leader and stayed at home every week to watch one of the 14 options for a CSI venue.  Hopefully, going to the group will sustain a lifelong interest in peace whether or not we ever get a date with the group leader.
What you believe about the nature of Jesus and Jesus’ relationship to God has nothing at all to do with how much God loves you or with where you will live in the realm after this one.  Right theology doesn’t get one in good with God and doesn’t get anyone a gold star or golden crown.  Call the next realm heaven or whatever you prefer.  If there is such a place, the souls of those gathered there in God’s intimate embrace are not there because they all believe the same things theologically or because they at least got the top five doctrines right--whatever those might be.
There isn’t uniformity of thought on hardly any theological concept when you look at the Judeo-Christian scriptures as a whole anyway.  Those who believe that the Bible confirms in multiple contexts key theological concepts are seriously mistaken.  The Bible if not continually then frequently contradicts itself.  “Then why study it?” inquiring minds ask, and the answer is not to find any systematic unity of thought on key theological ideas.  The two main reasons to study the Bible are 1) to learn a chunk of the history of how two of three great monotheistic religions grew in their understanding of God; and 2) to seek out inspiration from some of the same stories that have inspired many seekers across time, which is not to say that every story or treatise found within what we call the Bible will inspire me if it inspires you, and vice versa.
I think another reason to read the Bible is that it is an amazing anthology of types of literature collected by diverse people of faith across centuries.  They are written around some bias toward the God of Israel, and that’s literally all many parts of the Bible have in common with each other.  Again, it’s not the same bias in many cases.  
In the same way that doctrines of God Godself developed over time, many in conflict with each other, so also doctrines developed about who Jesus was, especially in relationship to God.  There were differences of opinion at the beginning of the theological journey, and those differences continued all through the process; in many cases, they are still going on today.
For some people, to say the name “Jesus,” is to call the name of a remarkable human being who lived in the environs of Jerusalem during the first half of the first Christian century; he was a carpenter and a great teacher who died for offending the Roman Empire with his message of a God, the only one there ever was or will be, who loved all people and, thereby, challenged Rome’s sense of ultimate authority making him a political enemy of the mighty Roman Empire.  
For other people, calling the name “Jesus” is calling the name of a human being who was also fully God, a human being in whom God fully invested and fully revealed Godself.  In the extreme, the names “Jesus” and “God” are synonymous.  There is no reason to prefer one over the other; both have the same functions, and either may receive our prayers.  This may be your view, and if so I respect you; but it is not how I view Jesus at all so I have a difference of opinion with you and a serious difference of opinion with the Christological hymn, which Paul borrowed when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi. 
Several weeks ago, I made reference in my sermon to this hymn Paul used in the book of Philippians and to the broader fact that there are several hymns that the writers of New Testament books used when they wrote to their respective audiences.  
In the Gospel of Luke, when Mary realizes that the child she is carrying will have a special role in leading God’s people, she breaks out into song.  Today, we call her song, “The Magnificat,” but Luke doesn’t cue the orchestra when we read the passage; we read it to sound as boring and monotonous as we take most of the Bible to sound.  Still, this young woman is singing, folks; in Luke’s version of the story, whether you take it literally or not, Mary is singing when these words come forth from her:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is the divine name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.  God has shown strength with the divine arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  God has helped the divine servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).
When we read the book of Revelation correctly, it’s a little easier for us to see how the music could fit in, since the book of Revelation is a pageant, a drama.  Some prominent New Testament scholars through the years have insisted that the book of Revelation was originally written as a seven-act drama, envisioned by the writer, John, as suitable for performance on the stage of the great theater at Ephesus.  I studied with one of those scholars, the late James Blevins, whom I hold in highest esteem.  
It’s easier for modern readers to envision a character suddenly starting to sing in a drama than a novella or than in a theological treatise, but in Christian scripture hymns show up all over the place.  Speaking of the book of Revelation, here’s one of the hymns that Dr. Blevins believed was intended to be sung when the play finally made its way to a stage, if the political situation in which John wrote it ever allowed for that.  
The book of Revelation is John’s visionary view into heaven, and one of things he observes while in his visionary state is this:
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8 NRSV).  
Since John is clever enough to use the verb “sing” here, we get it.  The four living creatures--these were God’s most intimate attendants--see everything that is going on around God’s throne (thus all the eyes), and they sing constantly a very simple song.  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”  Singing as they serve God and kind of watch out for activity around God’s throne is nonstop.  
This is a little song about the eternality of God; in relationship to people on Earth, God came, is now present with people on the Earth, and will be present with people on Earth in the future.  The song is ironic because a part of the meaning of the word “holy” is separateness.  So, the God who is and will be with humanity is also, in some sense, separate from them, from us in an exalted way.  No one person and not humanity as a whole can receive the presence of God in such a way as to usurp or take away all that is God.  There is always more to God than humanity can apprehend.  God reveals Godself to us in bits and pieces, and not always in fine narrative or chronological forms.  This is part of the mystery that is God.  There is no representation of God, no revelation of God that is so comprehensive that the divine mystery dissipates.  To some degree, God is always a mystery to human beings.  This is one of several reasons we can never be more than seekers on the journey to find and to know God.  
Another song from the pageant that is the book of Revelation:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Rev 7:9-12 NRSV).
This song in the book of Revelation counters those theologies that limit the number of people who make it to heaven.  The crowd that John observed in his vision was so numerous that no one could count all the people.  This song also counters the notion that only one ethnic group will make it to heaven or that only the adherents to one theological movement will have a place in the next realm.  
Careful to stress that God and the risen Jesus are separate entities and not one in the same being, this humongous crowd is shouting out its conviction that humans cannot create their own spiritualities.  God is the creator of spiritual realities, and Jesus, the Lamb in this context, has made the truth known.  
Now for some more singing.  This time the four living creatures are joined by others attending God who sits on God’s throne; the attendants fall on their faces before the throne, symbolizing utter devotion to God, and they sing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen”
They begin and end this song with the word, “Amen.”  There is no special reason that “Amen” has to come at the end of a prayer as a way of letting God know that we’re finished for now.  “Amen” means so be it, and can be said in affirmation of any theological truth one has spoken.  The song sings of God’s astounding attributes, God’s amazingly powerful ways, all used for the good of humanity, and the song sings in hope that this will always be the case.  Amen, so be it!
So Paul uses a well-known hymn from his time, something sung in worship where he worshipped, no doubt, to say what he wanted to say about Jesus.  Paul’s Christology was a Christology from above, but even grander than that alone.  Paul believed, we have to assume that he did, that Jesus was fully God and had existed in the heavenly realm with God before the earth came into being.   Paul was following the pattern I mentioned earlier, and literature from the religions of the world are filled with it; seeing a remarkable human being as either fully or to some degree divine.
We can’t miss that or ignore it here, but Paul did, after all, have a motive for including the song as a part of what he wrote to a congregation of which he was particularly fond, the Philippian congregation.  
Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus, the Anointed One, 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. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus the Anointed is Lord, to the glory of God (Phil 2:5-11 NRSV, adapted).
Did you notice how the song began?  That’s vital to our understanding of its message.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus, the Anointed One.”  In Paul’s way of thinking as evidenced in the hymn, if a divine entity, Jesus, came from the lofty heavens down to earth, which was surely an act of self-humbling.  That alone is beyond comprehension, but to make what he did even more remarkable he didn’t come to the Earth to be an emperor or a chief; he chose, instead, to be a servant to the marginalized, a servant who would preach the reality of divine love until hatred would try to extinguish him and his message.
I do not buy into the preexistent Jesus thing--that he lived with God or as God before the world was created and then relinquished his divinity in some kind of way so that he could be a human being.  As I’ve said before in the hearing of many of you, the truly remarkable thing about Jesus was that he was fully human.  Still, Paul’s comparison in his use of the hymn is well-taken.
Someone who is truly connected to God isn’t concerned about power, prosperity, and prominence; instead, she or he is concerned with service to the dispossessed, to the neediest people of all, to those whom most others want to ignore.  Let the mind that was in Jesus be also in you, Paul said.  Don’t be worrying about how powerful or well-known you can be.  Don’t be sweating how you can get people to do things for you to make your burden light.  You roll up your sleeves and do the dirty work, and be thankful for the opportunity.  You even demonstrate your willingness to serve in places where seeing God’s love in action is entirely unwelcome.
Is that the song we sing?  Many of us?  Any of us?
I don’t really want to do the dirty work, do you?  I mean, I’m willing to do my share if it’s absolutely necessary.  I’m willing to pay my dues so that I can move beyond the dirty work and get to a better place, a nicer place, a cleaner place, a more respected place.  I’ll do my share of the dirty work, but I don’t want to be stuck doing it for long!  Let the newbies go ahead and get their turns!  Surely, after all these years, I’ve put in my time!  
The other major twist in the song is that, ironically, Jesus gave his life serving those who weren’t usually regarded as worth anyone’s time, and in the end God lifted him up as the example for all to emulate.  Jesus had washed the dirtiest of feet and hung out with lepers and prostitutes.  These were not behaviors that Paul’s readers would have applauded, and yet God said that by doing the dirty work Jesus earned the right to be honored according to every means humans have for honoring those who make a real difference in the world.  They are honored not by sitting in high-rise, corner, corporate offices, but by being given the opportunity of hobbling along on an AIDS walk to take the chance that a little more money for a little more research will alleviate even a little bit of pain for someone the people of Westboro Baptist Church say don’t even have the right to live.
Martin Luther King Jr. may have had some imperfections that were kept from the public until after his death when some of his former associates had the need to make him look bad.  That humans are imperfect isn’t exactly new news.  I’m glad that for the most part the smears didn’t minimize in the minds of historians and others his contributions to racial equality and other expressions of social justice.  
Say what you will about Martin Luther King Jr, Reverend Abernathy, but he lost his life in the struggle for justice for all.  Let me tell you something about Dr. King.  With his brains and his upper-crust academic credentials and his astounding gifts for communication, he could have had any of several high-paying, cushy jobs.  He could have been pastor of any number of high-paying churches.  He could have been an esteemed professor in any of several seminaries; he could even have been president of several of those schools.  He could have written more and made piles of money that way, but he did the dirty work.  He had the same mind that Jesus had.  King rolled up his sleeves and said that Black people count.  They need a voice, and they need opportunity.  They deserve to be educated, and they deserve the right to vote.  They deserve the right to gather for worship without being jeered or bombed.  King spent more than his share of time in jails because he kept combating these ills through his nonviolent means.  In his death, many have seen that he deserves to be exalted and honored.
I don’t care about the Christological debate that the song Paul quoted unavoidably raises, but I do care about the comparison and the challenge he uses it to inspire.  Let the mind that was in Jesus be the same mind that you have.  Whatever claim to prominence and privilege you may have, forgo it; role up your sleeves and give your life to the dirty work.  
A few summers back, one of the college kids from my church in Baltimore grew up and was graduating from Harvard Medical School.  His name is Ricky Grisson, and I’ve loved him from the first time I ever shook his hand.  He called and asked me if I’d come to his graduation, and I told him nothing could keep me away.  As you can imagine, every graduate was a star.  Each one had already done impressive research and/or served in key hospital settings; it was clear that the new generation of Harvard docs were going to follow in the footsteps of those impressive women and men who had taught them.
The students elected a few from among their number who received special awards, and it was the award recipients who did most of the speaking at the ceremony.  I was stirred by all who spoke--what they had done and what they hoped to do.  One of those students inspired me the most, however.  He had done his clinicals, most of them, in a clinic for the poverty stricken, and his main goal as a Harvard doc was to return and spend a lifetime of service in that clinic or one like it.  He didn’t care if anyone outside that clinic ever knew his name.  He wasn’t concerned that with so little administrative assistance and support he’d have little to no time to get himself published or to take those speaking engagements that would pay him handsomely.  He cared about ministering medically to those who had absolutely no one else to help them find their way to healing if that was at all possible.
Other than seeing Ricky walk across the stage and take his diploma, the highlight of that commencement for me, and I’ve sat through a pile of them, was the brand new Harvard doc who intended to use his Harvard credentials in a place where no one would or could ever understand its importance.  
The docs and the dentists graduated together.  I remember that one of the award recipients from the dental side was so happy about the fancy car he was going to be able to afford as an orthodontist to the rich.  Nothing wrong with that.  No reason rich folk should have crooked teeth if they don’t have to, but I have to tell you that the dentist whose goal was to get a fancy car seemed like the court jester in comparison to the humble young doc whose calling was to patients, few of whom would ever be able to pay him more than a token amount of money, if that.  Let the same mind be in you that was also in Jesus.
As far as that goes, all claims to divinity aside--and I think they all came from others and not from Jesus himself--Jesus with his communication and healing skills could have made a nice living for himself.  He could have been wealthy, well-known, and a Jew in the good graces of Rome had he been willing to use his gifts to promote himself.  He could have preached God’s love a little less radically and lived to a ripe old age, but he never counted his God-given gifts as the bases for self-promotion.  He knew that everything that he was or could be had to be used in ministry to those who could neither pay him nor praise him.