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Psalm 131 (Inclusive Psalms Translation)
Philippians 2:1-11 (New Revised Standard Translation)
Nothing less than the New York Times reported it this way – “The landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is a diviner of places, a city whisperer. Though he had never set foot in Tulsa, he was coaxed to a flat, ho-hum stretch of land overlooking the Arkansas River by the billionaire philanthropist George B. Kaiser, who was bent on building a park.
Seven years later…a much-anticipated $465 million park…one of the largest and most ambitious public parks ever created with private funds — and the latest example of deep-pocketed citizens rebuilding cities through projects they perceive to be in the public good.
If it succeeds, as its founders and community leaders hope, it can bring families together and help mend a city with a legacy of segregation, where many neighborhoods grapple with poverty, health disparities and the isolating effects of urban renewal. “Tulsa has a long history of social inequality,” Mr. Van Valkenburgh observed. “There’s hardly a better way to bring people together than in a democratic space like a park.”
Now, it’s not a popular position, I know, but I’m not down with the hype – which goes far beyond this article from the New York Times. It looks like a lovely park from all the pictures I’ve seen and I’m aware that seemingly half of Tulsa showed up yesterday to celebrate it’s opening. The praise is that it was a great, multicultural, diverse gathering. So let me be clear – I don’t have anything bad to say about the park itself, or even the generosity of the many philanthropists around town, who also do amazing and crucial work with their wealth aside from parks. What I am critical of is the narrative attached to it. Mending a city? Dealing with a “legacy of segregation?” You might remember that some of the same words were attached to the opening of another park – Reconciliation Park – downtown almost a decade ago.
In the second chapter of this letter from Paul to the Philippians we find the “Philippian Hymn,” what many scholars believe is an ancient piece of liturgy. It starts with verse 6, “…who, though he was in the form of God…”, and goes all the way to the end at verse 11, “and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” It is a remarkable hymn, placed right in the center of a letter in which Paul speaks very directly to the Philippians about how they ought to act in the world, what their ethical “norms” ought to be and how the world may tell them one thing, but they ought to work for something else. For Paul it is this thing that he calls the “mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ is imbued with all of the power of the Creator – God in human form – but, as the hymn says, Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.
Christ, in Paul’s model, is God – literally the image of God on earth — and the implication is that Christ has the same power we ascribe to God. The key is this – how is that power used? With humility or hubris? In a very big picture sense, this might be the critical point for Christianity today – how we will relate to power, how we will view and cooperate with and even acquire it, and what we will do with it when we have it.
After all, what is going on around us today? We have turmoil in the Presidency that is a struggle with power. We have another shooting of an unarmed black man, this time in his own home not running or arguing or combative – shot dead in his own apartment while people burn their Nikes to protest the protest of this power struggle which African-Americans have been engaged with their whole lives – and generations before. We know that as the debate goes on for who gets named to the Supreme Court that we are not just talking about judgment or temperament, we are talking about power, for the failure of the legislature to actually legislate has shifted the balance over to the courts.
In Paul’s world, and certainly the world of the Philippians, the power was the Roman Empire. Paul writes to compel the group of Jesus followers to a higher calling, to an obedience beyond the civil regulations. Their responsibilities derive from the Gospel of God given through Christ Jesus. He calls on them to love and to show compassion and sympathy, to be humble and to set aside ambition. And he tells them directly that the group outside their meeting place where they worship God together will see their actions as destructive to their existence, as damaging to their way of life, as disruptive to the status quo. They will see your behavior as bad but, Paul tells them, this is YOUR salvation.
It’s salvation that requires us to work it out – with fear and trembling – as Paul says – a Hebrew idiom that means, “with serious concern.” In other words, we have to engage with our own rescue, to labor over the conflict between the values we claim in here and the values that are at work out there. We must be willing and able to say to the power brokers in the world that we see power differently, to speak truth to that power, even if it seems well-intentioned, and to confess that our current systems of power are unsustainable if we seek the salvation of liberation for all of God’s people. It cannot be that we simply confess with our tongues that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” we must actually do what Christ does, sacrifice like he sacrificed, and have the mind of Christ, to respond to our own power the way that Christ responded to his.
With this hymn, Paul subverts the paradigm, taking what we anticipate, power in the same old form (only on “our” side now) and turns the whole thing on it’s head. For here is a Christ who will take the power of God and give it away, not in a philanthropic sense, dolling out to causes, but as a reversal of the story of Adam, not seeking to play God, not self-exalting, obedient to God’s will. In a world of self-preservation, self-promotion, and just plain selfishness, we might be perplexed by the words of this hymn. With so many people striving for power they do not deserve, why would Christ surrender this power? It seems not to make sense. I might even say right now that it doesn’t seem Christian.
After all, we bear witness to a church with very different agendas. We see an evangelical tradition line up behind a leader with completely different values than them, simply, it seems, for the power it gets them. We see the church in Rome facing what might be the result of their own power structures, as 5 more cities in the U.S. alone begin investigations into their own state’s dioceses, investigations that seem likely to turn up evidence of the same evil and injustice that we have seen before. We bear witness to a church that on various ways wants to claim it’s embrace of all of God’s people but cannot get humble enough to allow the action of the Spirit that is moving us to new places.
We like our status. And we like our honor. And, perhaps most of all, we like our privilege, whether that comes from us being white in a culture built on white supremacy, or financially stable in a culture that rewards being rewarded, or Christian in a culture that advantages the claim of that title, without, it seems, much need for any proof. That privilege is power, which the “mind of Christ” model tells us not to exploit, but to give away. And despite the higher ideals of a park, this is not what I see happening all around us.
I know that many of my friends gathered on the lawn last night – the sprawling lawn of this new trademark park in Tulsa to listen to the Roots and jam out amongst a diverse crowd. I know that the parade was full of symbolism and what I believe are sincere gestures to a brighter future for our city. I have to hold those ideas alongside my awareness that the very land the park is built on was once parceled to Tuckbache, a Muscogee man who had the land taken from him through guardianship, the process by which much Creek land was removed from its rightful owners and awarded to whites.
I hope that we don’t make the same mistake that was made with Reconciliation Park, which is that we rush to reconciliation without the truth telling that it requires, or that we seek the absolution without the confession. If we don’t make serious efforts to correct systems by which we all live – criminal, social, economic systems – and address the imbalance of power, which really can only come by changing the status quo, by shifting our paradigms, by people who have the power giving it away, many of them, we ought to note, who are professing Christians.
I have heard many say, after a carefully orchestrated day of celebration, that The Gathering Place could allow us to imagine a new Tulsa, one that is younger, more energetic, and far more racially diverse – where historic divisions are tempered as we gather together. I hope that is the case. But that won’t happen at a park. It will happen first in our own hearts, for this is where God is at work in us – working ON us, my friends. Then it must happen in the board rooms, the classrooms, the city council and school board meetings, the police training academies, the county jails, the city halls, in the legislature and in the voting booths. Those are the places where we work out our salvation, friends, with fear and trembling.
May it be so. Amen.