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Wreaths of Empire: The Idolatry of Politics

Sermon #200 St. James the Less #107 9/27/20

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 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 Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:1-13

Missing Hymns

Megan and I watch a lot of TV. I can’t tell you the last time we sat down at our dining room table when it was just the two of us. We’ll always sit on the couch and watch The Office or Seinfeld at dinnertime. There’s really no discussion about what TV show to put on. Like mindless zombies at the end of the day, we have our plate of food in hand and march straight for the couch.

I’ve always envied those people who don’t own a TV. It just seems like a great line in a conversation when someone asks if you’ve seen a certain show and the person responds, “Well actually I don’t have a TV at home.”

That is downright amazing, and Megan and I are in awe of you.

But for the rest of us who do turn on the TV from time to time, I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience as me over the past few months. I’ll be watching a show and the characters will shake hands or hug each other, and I’ll cringe or yell out “Six feet!”

I watched a movie the other day and the character sneezed in someone’s face. I was horrified. Did that actually used to funny? Now I get a mini heart attack.

The pre-pandemic days feel like a different lifetime, don’t they? Even as some restrictions expire here in Nashville and people may take their chances going out in public a little more, February of this year feels as foreign as the planet Mars.

Another TV show I was watching last week showed people in a church singing. Even that seems foreign these days. I can’t tell you how much I miss singing hymns together in our church.

Music brings an added dimension to our worship. If you think about it, there are few other places where you’ll go to sing in public with a mixture of friends and strangers (other than a honkey tonk downtown).

But hymns have a particular purpose in Christian worship and that purpose is to praise God. We sing to glorify God. Psychologists have even found that singing together can help communities grow closer together simply because they are breathing in and out at the same time. That rhythm of inhaling and exhaling can build a sense of togetherness.

And now, that very same exercise of inhaling and exhaling together which can unify a group of people is the very thing that spreads this awful virus and, in some major ways, it has divided us.

Unity in Phil. 2

This idea of Christian togetherness or unity was on Paul’s mind when he wrote to the Philippians. He encouraged them to, “Be of the same mind, having the same love.” And then he went a step further and said, “Regard others as better than yourselves…look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

During our Bible study on Thursday, we struggled with these beautiful but tough words. How easy it is to agree with Paul, even be mesmerized at his eloquence, oh but how hard it is to actually live it out.

It seems near impossible in our current cultural and political climate to be “in full accord and of one mind” on any given topic. All we must do is look at social media to find a major negative influence in our mental and spiritual health.

Facebook posts get more and more hateful and divisive as we get closer to election day, especially as we continue to try to correct each other on “the facts.” Someone once told me the comments section of YouTube and Facebook is the garbage pit of the internet, and I wholeheartedly agree.

In fact, the algorithms these big tech companies use funnel certain information our way in order that we will become more entrenched on one side of an issue. Facebook, and the like, are not great platforms for debates, but rather the vehicle that leads us into greater divisions.

But Facebook and the internet shouldn’t get all the blame. The the actual root of our division is the sin of idolatry. One of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Idols are those things that we put ahead of God—that we worship instead of God. Like any good thing that can be misused, politics can become an idol (and has become one for many).

Politics, politicians, and their parties are not the ultimate answer to our problem; they have an important role to play in this world, but we cannot look to them to be the savior of all our troubles.

Their function and purpose is limited and under the umbrella of God’s ultimate purpose that he has brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And the same logic can be used when we speak of “unity” whether nationally or in our own parish. Unity, for the sake of unity, is not the goal or the final aim for us.

As one writer put it, “Unity is [even] possible among thieves, adulterers and many other types. Those who commit genocide need to do so with huge corporate single-mindedness, as the Nazis showed when killing millions of Jews, gypsies and others” (Wright 99).

Instead, like performers in an interictally choreographed dance or rowers working together in a boat on the river, Christians are called to bring themselves in line with others, but in particular, those who are in line with the gospel.

Being of the same mind will only get us so far. As Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And it’s at this point that Paul’s tone in the letter shifts into poetic lyrics about Jesus’ true nature.

Many Biblical scholars believe that this second half of our reading is actually an early Christian hymn that Paul incorporates into his letter.

It begins in verse six, “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.”

Paul uses a hymn, maybe even a hymn that the Philippian Christians knew, to talk about the complex topics of the Godhead, Incarnation, and Jesus’ victory over death.

That’s what is so brilliant about hymns (especially the older hymns that have been passed down through the generations), they are able teach doctrine to people who don’t know the doctrine of the Church or who don’t feel like they need to learn it. Our hymns are chalk full of complex doctrinal issues, and many times we unwittingly sing along without paying much attention.

The crescendo of the magnificent hymn Paul is quoting states that every single knee will bend, every tongue will confess that Jesus—and no other—is Lord of all.

Paul uses this hymn to show that Christian unity begins and ends at the feet of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

At the Name of Jesus

There is a hymn in our hymnal that is based off this section of Philippians 2. If you’ve been in the Episcopal Church any time at all you’ve likely sung it, and it’s played in many other denominations as well. It’s entitled, “At the Name of Jesus,” Hymn 435 in our hymnal.

The first line goes, “At the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him King of glory now; ‘tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord, who from the beginning was the mighty Word.”

The woman who wrote this was a Brit named Caroline Marie Noel. Her father was a priest in the Church of England and hymn writer, and in her early years Caroline wrote a few hymns herself. But by the age of twenty she stopped writing them altogether and didn’t return to her beloved childhood practice until she was in her forties.

During those years she suffered from various illness and eventually was debilitated because of them. To encourage both herself and others who were ill or incapacitated, Caroline began to write devotional poems and hymns again. They were collected in a book entitled The Name of Jesus and Other Verses for the Sick and Lonely.

Whether you are sick, lonely, or just worn down by the concerns of the world, her hymn that pays homage to Philippians 2, is a great reminder that we should put our full confidence, our faith, and hope in Jesus.

Verse 3 says, “Name him, Christians, name him, with love strong as death, name with awe and wonder and with batted breath; he is God the Savior, he is Christ the Lord, ever to be worshiped, trusted, and adored.”

Just like Paul, Caroline shows us that we need to toss all the other idols in our life to the side and make way in our heart for the Risen and Reigning Jesus. Nothing, absolutely nothing, should stand in his way.

And especially with our present anxiety about politics and culture, it’s a good reminder to hear how Caroline ended her hymn, “For all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow, and our hearts confess him King of glory now.”

The answer to our deepest hurts, our most challenging questions is Jesus, it has always and forever been Jesus. This is not a copout, because as Christians we claim that Jesus addressed Sin, Death, and the Devil once and for all on the cross.

Everything that had gone wrong and would go wrong in the human project was ultimately rectified on Good Friday and vindicated on Easter Sunday.

For our present circumstances, we should debate the current issues whether in person or virtually (maybe even on Facebook if we must), but we should never allow it to consume us and lead us into idolatry—of putting anything above our allegiance to God.

Even now, God is reigning and ruling over the cosmos. All wreaths of empire lie with him, and it is with that sure and certain hope that we can live with confidence until he comes again.

17th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 21. Year A. Philippians 2:1-13. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters. N.T. Wright. Picture here.

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