Sunday, October 29, 2017

"The Truth That Sets Us Free". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday 2017.

"The Truth That Sets Us Free"

John 8:31-36

This weekend a lot of people are celebrating Halloween.  But many Christians are remembering another day—one that marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. 
Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor in the university town of Wittenberg, published his Ninety-Five Theses by nailing them to the door of the Castle Church.  In those days, the church door served as a community bulletin board. 
The 95 Theses were in the form of an invitation to debate about traditional church doctrine and practice, that, in Luther’s mind, needed to be reexamined and reformed.  Luther was advocating for reform within the Catholic church, but before it was over Luther would be excommunicated from the church and branded an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor.
As John Buchanan describes it, “violence ensued, wars were fought, martyrs on both sides were tortured and executed.  Luther’s followers and their churches were called ‘Lutherans’ in derision, but during the next century large portions of northern Germany, France, the Netherlands, Hungary, all the way to the Italian Alps and the Scottish Highlands, separated from Rome and organized themselves into Reformed churches.”[1]
            Five centuries later, as we commemorate Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses, we are reminded that the Protestant Reformation was a development that took place slowly, over time, and that it is an ongoing process. 

            Reformation Sunday can be a time for giving thanks, but also for remembering that God is always doing a new thing, though we don’t always perceive it. God’s salvation story truly is God’s salvation story. Our time in the church’s history-- like the time of Luther and Calvin and Knox-- is a chapter in a story that we didn’t create and can’t control.  

            Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, we’re living in a difficult and challenging time to be the church.  Back in 2008, Phyllis Tickle started talking about how the North American church was going through an every-500-years “rummage sale.” She and some other church scholars have been telling us that, when we look at the big picture, it’s something we could have predicted.  
            Tickle predicted that it will take around 100 years to work through and to find a new normal as humans, as Christians, as people who are re-learning how to love and recognize the image of God in one another.  We’re in the “chaos” phase of this process of “becoming,” and it’s going to take a while, so we need to learn to live faithfully in the tension.[2]

            I think this 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is a good time to listen, with new ears, to Jesus’ amazing announcement to his followers: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
            These words should startle us as much as they did the Jewish followers who heard Jesus say them the first time. Some of them were offended. “We’re the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” I don’t think these people suffered from amnesia. Recounting the saving act of God bringing the people out of bondage in Egypt was one of the basic confessions of faith for the Jews. But it seems they had come to trust more in “Abraham being their ancestor” than in their history of slavery in Egypt and the Exodus and the liberating promises of God. I wonder if we’re very different, when we forget the truth of God and God’s promises.
            As often happens in the gospel of John, Jesus makes a startling statement and it leads to more questions.  “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’      For a moment, the people are shocked enough to open up enough to hear a new thing. 

            On this 500th commemoration of the Reformation and in the days to come, I hope that we’ll be shocked enough that God’s word can burn through the fog of familiarity and become fresh good news to us.
            The good news of the gospel is that God has done for us in Christ what we cannot do for ourselves. We are “justified”—made right with God—not by our own efforts to earn our salvation by keeping a lot of rules, but by God’s free grace in coming to us.  Salvation is not a prize to be won or earned by our good works, but a gracious gift for us to accept by faith.
            The good news of the gospel is that we are valuable and worthy because God our creator and redeemer says so.  We are creatures made in the image of God.  We are children of God, persons for whom Jesus Christ suffered, died, and was raised again, persons in whom the Spirit of God is at work.  Because of all of this, we are somebody.  That is the basis of our dignity, our worth, our human rights, and our human responsibilities.   
            Shirley Guthrie explains it so well when he writes, “We don’t have to try to earn God’s love and acceptance, because we are already loved and accepted by God—unconditionally.”[3]

            On Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that we are justified by God’s grace, through faith.
The question of the day is:   how shall we live, in response to God’s gracious gift?  That’s where sanctification comes in. “Sanctification” is a theological word for how we grow in the Christian life, as we are taught and led further into the truth and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
            Sanctification is a life-long process, as we are gradually freed from our fears and doubts and brokenness-- to love and serve God and our neighbors as Christ does. As we grow in Christian faith, as we open ourselves to be surprised and transformed by God’s word, we come to “know the truth.”
            One sign of growing in the Christian life is maturing in love for and solidarity with all of God’s children-- especially with those who are poor and marginalized.

            In a blog post a few years ago, church historian Diana Butler Bass writes: “It strikes me as interesting that those who followed the teaching of the new reform movement did not come to be known as ‘Reformists.’  Rather, the moniker that stuck was ‘Protestant.’  Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression.  These religious protesters accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful.   The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.”  Diana goes on to say, “It is time to put the protest back in Protestantism.”[4]
I agree with Diana when she says that at the heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.   Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually-- but actually. 
The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church-- but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.   The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination, in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.  The early Protestants were not content with the status quo.   They felt a deep discomfort within.  They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.     
We live in a time of great change and anxiety, perplexity and possibility, in the church and in the world.   In 2017, as the world groans under flame and flood, as families are left shattered by sprays of bullets and the devastation of war, in this time of pluralism and materialism and secularism, of brokenness in human relationships, I believe God is working to do a new thing in our time. 
I believe we are living in a time of new reformation and that God is working to create a new church, in and through us.  I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world.
            So—on this Reformation Sunday—we can be thankful for the Reformation of the 16th century and for the gospel truth that is setting us free... and for this great adventure of growing in faith.
            On this Reformation Sunday, and in the days to come, let us be praying that we may respond to the challenges of our time with joy and eagerness to carry out Christ’s mission. 
“In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, may we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks, and to live holy and joyful lives.”[5] 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 29, 2017

[1] John M. Buchanan, “Values Worth Fighting For,” at his blog Hold to the Good.

[2]  Britney Winn Lee, “Not Yet on Shore: An American Church in Tension”/

[3] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Rev. Ed., p. 319.
[4] Diana Butler Bass, “Putting the Protest Back in Protestantism.”

[5] “Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"Where Your Treasure Is." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Where Your Treasure Is"

Matthew 6:19-24; 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 24-34

In the movie “Jaws,” a marine biologist is desperate to find out what’s gone wrong with the sharks in the area.  A large shark is brought in, and the biologist lays the shark up on a table and proceeds to do an autopsy.  He slits open the shark’s belly.  Out of the belly comes first one fish…and then another.  He takes dozens of fish from the shark’s belly.  Then there’s a blender.  An old Florida license plate.  Assorted bits and pieces of this and that.  The shark really is an “eating machine.”
            But it’s an utterly indiscriminate eating machine.  The shark was consuming everything in sight—whether it was good for it or not.
            Someone said that the story of the shark is a parable of modern society.  We consume indiscriminately.  We have deep, vast hungers.  We try to satisfy them in different ways.  But often we consume and collect much that we don’t need…and that isn’t good for us.
            And so, for a while I’ve been wondering if part of our calling in the church today isn’t to find out what people want and then give it to them, to try to satisfy all their hungers-- but rather to give people food that’s worth having and to school people in how to be hungry in the right ways.

            The gospel lesson we heard is from a collection Jesus’ teachings on assorted matters in the Sermon on the Mount.  There’s a theme in this section: the urgency of seeking the kingdom of heaven above all earthly distractions.[1]
            In this passage, we hear Jesus warning against the human tendency to collect things and treasure them    and to judge peoples’ status by what they have.  In some cultures, one is judged by one’s livestock, in others, by the possession of precious metals and rare gems.  In some societies, a woman’s dowry might have been treasured clothing or jewelry.
            In a money economy, those who aspire to a higher status work to acquire monetary wealth. Then, when someone has enough money, they can show their wealth with luxury cars, large and elegant homes, fine artwork or valuable jewelry--to name a few of our treasures.  

            The problem with investing our sense of worth and safety in money and possessions is that it is never truly safe.  Cash can be lost or stolen. Expensive cars can rust…and clothing can be damaged by insects.  Homes and other treasured possessions can be destroyed in wildfires or floods.  Deadbolt locks, safety deposit boxes, bank accounts--none of these can protect what we desire most deeply in our hearts.
            I think Tom Long is right when he says what our hearts truly desire is “to count--to count for something and to count to someone. To come to the end of a day--or the end of a life--with the satisfaction of having stood for what is good, with the joy of having been loved and having loved well in return, with the memory of having shown mercy, and with the peace of having walked with God--these are the true treasures, the treasures of the kingdom, a fortune no thief can plunder.”[2]
            The call to store up treasures in heaven is radical call to be oriented toward God’s way of love and abundance and justice in how we see the world.  If we see life as a gift from God, a bountiful outpouring of God’s providing, then we can be free to hold possessions with a light grasp and to be generous toward others. In contrast, if we see things through spiritual eyes that are “unhealthy,” we’ll see life as a competition between winners and losers over scarce resources. In the wise words of Proverbs, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”[3] 
             If we see the world in terms of scarcity, we won’t be freed from fear and selfishness. But if we have a healthy vision of life, we can trust in God’s goodness and abundance, and we will be free to be generous. 
            “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus teaches. “You cannot serve God and mammon--or wealth.”  “Mammon” is an Aramaic word that means “money” or “possessions.”
            Many of us like to believe we have chosen to serve God-- not mammon. But in our daily life it is often mammon that sets our priorities. Of course, we’d like to share more toward the poor, but it’s too hard, because we need so much for ourselves. We hope to be more charitable in the future, but at the moment we have too many obligations.  We’re afraid we won’t have enough.
            We live in such a materialistic society that it’s hard for us to look critically at how much power money and possessions have over how we see things and make choices.
            Ultimately, whether we serve God or wealth depends upon trust-- trusting God to provide what we really need.  
            Jesus continues, and the “therefore” in verse 25 tells us that this is all connected. “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith?
            “Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’…. indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
            “So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
            In the original Greek, the verbs translated as “look” and “consider” are strong verbs that suggest more than a casual glance. They invite us to study, to really look, at a world that God has created and has pronounced “good,” a world where God provides abundantly, a world where we don’t need to be imprisoned by worry or anxiety. Jesus invites us to imagine living in such a world of goodness and abundance.
            Yes, the rent or mortgage and insurance and taxes still have to be paid, and we still need to buy groceries, and the checkbook still has to be balanced. But we have seen this other world-- the world of God’s gracious, faithful care and abundance. 

            During stewardship season, we are challenged to hold our relationship with money up to the light of our Christian faith.  Our faith challenges us to strive to overcome our tendency to live out of fear, guarding whatever wealth we have left--   and instead open our lives more fully to the truth we hear in First Timothy:   “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
            What is the life that really is life?  It is the life that focuses on the only true security that human beings have in this world, the completely reliable love of God.  “Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you were made,” writes the author of 1 Timothy.  “It is God alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to God be honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.”

            It is one of the many paradoxes of faith that-- at the very times when we feel most anxious about our own sufficiency--   the act of sharing and generosity is the act that can give us the greatest joy and sense of peace.  It changes the lenses through which we see our own situation. 
            It is an act of liberation to be generous, an act that frees us from the bondage of anxiety, disappointment, and resentment over the loss of the false security.  It is an act of freedom that can replace false security with the real security of God, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”     It is an act of faith to commit ourselves to giving God the first fruits of our lives.
            “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”
            The “life that really is life” is a life of contentment.  The “life that really is life” is a life of trust in God’s gracious providing for what we really need, rather than endless desire and striving for more.
            So-- let us strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness…and store up treasures in heaven.   Let us open ourselves to the riches of the “life that really is life!”
            May it be so!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 22, 2017

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 73.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, p. 74.
[3] Proverbs 23:6.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Dressing Up for the Banquet". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Matthew 22:1-14 for Bread for the World Sunday

"Dressing Up for the Banquet"

Matthew 22:1-14;  Isaiah 58:1-12

“This is the good news of Jesus Christ!”   
            Is it?  Is that what you heard in the gospel lesson?  Good news?
            This is a difficult parable to hear…and difficult to understand and interpret.  We spent some time studying this parable at Evangelism Committee meeting a few days ago, knowing it was the lectionary passage for Sunday.  After we heard it, someone looked at me and said, “Good luck!”
            Some of the commentaries I consulted this week describe this passage as a “bizarre little story”[1] and “one strange parable.” Some scholars suggest that Matthew may have combined several parables into one, which may explain why the story seems disjointed.
            The wedding party in the story begins as custom in that culture dictates. A first invitation notice had gone out-- a kind of “Save the date!” that has become common again in our time. Then, when the banquet is ready, the host’s servants go out to summon the guests to come. That’s when things start to fall apart.
            First, the invited guests seem to treat the invitation as a joke and refuse to come. Some of the invitees even assault and kill the king’s servants. What happens in these verses is troubling. And so, I wondered:  Does this sound like Jesus talking in these verses?  I don’t think so.
            So, it makes sense to me that many biblical scholars think that the original parable that Jesus told can be seen by deleting verses 6-7    and that Matthew or his source added the extra verses--the ones about how the invitees seized the king’s slaves and killed them    and how the enraged king destroyed the murderers and burned their city--to turn Jesus’ parable into an allegory of Christian history.  
            Tom Long suggests that the implausible details-- like people killing other people and a military action that destroys the city over a rejected party invitation-- highlight the fact that Matthew intends this story to be read as an allegory, and that his first readers would have known how to decode the details.[2]
            At the close of the first part of the story, we have a symbolic picture of Matthew’s church. His readers could have recognized themselves in the story, gathered at the banquet as last-minute replacements, both “good and bad” people.
            The story gets puzzling again when a wedding guest shows up dressed inappropriately for a wedding celebration at the palace. The king reacts harshly. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” 
            If you think about it-- if the guest wasn’t expecting to attend a fancy party when he left in the morning to work in the field or tend his shop-- he wouldn’t have packed a wedding robe. But, again, this isn’t an ordinary story, but an allegory, and the wedding robe stands for something else.
            John Calvin, in his commentary on this text, suggests that two passages from the apostle Paul help to explain the meaning. In Romans 13:14 we read that we must “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and in Galatians 3:27 that because we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ.”
            The wedding garment is a symbol for putting on the baptismal garment of Christ…  being attired in the new self, created in God’s own likeness…  clothing oneself with the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience of one who belongs to the kingdom of God.[3]
            So, what’s going on in this strange parable? More importantly: what was Matthew’s-- and Jesus’-- main point?
            I think it’s mainly about responding to an invitation.  More importantly, it’s about how we respond. The parable reminds us that being a part of the Christian community should make a discernible difference in who we are and how we live.
            We know Jesus’ invitation into the reign of God. All are invited. But that invitation requires us to do something. It requires us to put Jesus’ words into action.  You need to come to the feast and wear the right garment-- clothed with Christ-- to show that you’ve accepted the invitation.[4]
            What does that look like?
            We find one answer three chapters later, in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  There Jesus tells us how we will be judged. It depends on how we treat the “least” of his brothers and sisters. Do we feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Welcome the stranger?  As we do it unto the “least” of these, we do it unto Jesus.
            Bread for the World Sunday is an opportunity to join others in praying for those who struggle with hunger and food insecurity-- and to re-dedicate ourselves to efforts that help end hunger. Our prayerful work to end hunger is a response to the Gospel’s invitation to take part in the banquet of God’s mercy and abundance that is ours through Jesus Christ.
            Our prayers are especially urgent at this time. South Sudan is suffering from a devastating famine, and famine threatens Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Drought is spreading throughout other parts of Africa. Humanitarian assistance and long-term solutions to hunger are more important than ever.
            Bread for the World reminds us that nearly 16 million children in the United States, in one of the richest countries in the world — that’s almost one in five — live in households that struggle to put food on the table. Many of these children have parents who have jobs and work hard, but whose wages aren’t high enough to cover the high costs of rent, transportation, and utilities — and daily meals.
            So, our federal government’s feeding programs serve as a lifeline for vulnerable children and families. Because children are hit especially hard by the effects of hunger and malnutrition, nutrition programs aimed at children are particularly important.  A healthy start in life — even before a child is born — pays off for years, in terms of intellectual development --not only for individual children and families, but for communities and our nation as a whole.
            Only one out of every 20 grocery bags that feed people who are hungry come from church food pantries and other private charities.   Federal nutrition programs, from school meals to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), provide the rest.   Our government’s child nutrition programs serve millions of children each year. 
Locally, and in the short term, we are helping to alleviate hunger when we give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program through our Two Cents a Meal or Cents-ability offering… when we support Church World Service…when we support the mission of the Open Door or Focus Hope or volunteer at Gleaners or support Blessings in a Backpack.

            But we also need to work on the systemic causes of hunger.   For a lot of us, hunger and poverty seem overwhelming.   We don’t have to do it alone. 
            Bread for the World is a faith-based education and advocacy organization that I’ve belonged to for some years.  The reason I personally support Bread for the World is because they have a remarkable record of helping to win passage of bipartisan legislation that addresses hunger.   As a result of this advocacy, children in the United States receive vital nutrition.   Emergency food reaches refugees from famine and conflict in Africa and elsewhere.  Agricultural development is enabling hungry people in various parts of the world to grow enough food to feed their families.
            If you want to help Bread for the World with this important, persistent advocacy work, you are invited to give them a donation.  Or you could commit yourself to sending letters to your elected representatives in Congress.  I’ll post a link on the church Facebook page and send one in an email to help you do this advocacy work, if you feel led to do so.
            It took me between five and ten minutes to personalize the form letter at the website, which was then automatically sent to my congressional representatives.  It’s a small thing, but it’s important.  It’s a way to act prayerfully and faithfully.
            As Teresa of Avila famously put it, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours… no hands but yours…  no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which God’s compassion will look upon the world.  Yours are the feet with which God will go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which God will bless others now."
            When we put on Christ, we are called to serve—to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  When we respond to Christ’s call and work together, we can help to change the conditions and the policies that allow hunger to persist. 
            We are called to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house… to care for basic needs of those who are marginalized.
            Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God promises us that we will not have to do this alone.  When we call, the LORD will answer.  When we cry for help, God will say, “Here I am.”[5] If we remove the yoke, the speaking of evil, if we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, Then our light shall rise in the darkness.

            This is a blessed promise and vision: 
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places…
you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… 
you shall be called the repairer of the breach.
the restorer of streets to live in.
            So be it!  Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 15, 2017 

[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 246.
[3] Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10-12;
[4] James Martin, SJ, “Will You Accept Jesus’ Invitation?” A reflection on Matthew 22:1-14, in Bread for the World Sunday 2017.
[5] Isaiah 58

Sunday, October 1, 2017

"Every Knee Shall Bow." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyteria Church on World Communion and Peacemaking Sunday.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other civil rights activists kneel in prayer.

"Every Knee Shall Bow"

Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

In the gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has entered the city with the crowds cheering and shouting “Hosanna!”. He cleansed and occupied the Temple. On the second day, Jesus’ opponents begin a series of five challenges that try to undermine his authority.
            In this first challenge, the chief priests and elders of the people-- the religious authorities who pose the question-- are the very ones who will later conspire to have him arrested and put to death.  They demand to know: "By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gave you this authority to do them?"
            Jesus avoids their trap and turns the tables on the religious leaders with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Then he tells the parable of the two sons and asks, “Which son does the will of his father?”
            There’s a lot in this parable--probably enough for more than one sermon. One of the things I hear in the parable is that the future is open. God is here, inviting each of us into a future that holds the possibility of receiving God’s grace, repenting of things we’ve done, returning to right relationship with God and others, and receiving the future as open and full of grace and hope.
            We live in a time of great division over politics and beliefs and values and race-- things that people feel very strongly about.   In the midst of this divisiveness, how are we called to live, as followers of Jesus?

            Over the past week, I’ve been following the conflict over the NFL. Early in the week, one of my Facebook friends who is a professor of New Testament, pointed to the Philippians text.  Heads up!

            Writing from prison, the apostle Paul has been encouraging the church at Philippi to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”[1]  He goes on to appeal for community unity and individual humility. He asks the church to “make his joy complete” by being “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” 
            Along with unity, Paul is appealing for humility. This humility is grounded in Christ’s “humbling” himself to the point of crucifixion.

            Christ comes very near, and works in us. “God is the one working in you both the willing and the working.” God gives us the desire and energy to be instruments of Christ’s compassion in the world.  Paul exhorts the Philippians to “work out their salvation.” But this isn’t their private, individual destiny, but the quality of their corporate life, as it is lived in Christ. Paul has already described this quality of life in terms of mutual love and affection, sharing in the Spirit, unity, humility, putting others first--and all of this “in Christ.”

In your relationships with one another,
let the same mindset 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 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.[3]

            At the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.
            There’s been a lot of conversation lately about kneeling, or “taking a knee.”
             Many people have been offended or annoyed by the players who take a knee during the national anthem, while many others have supported them. 
            Those who are offended are saying things like, “They’re disrespecting the flag!” “They’re disrespecting the Anthem!” “They’re disrespecting the military!”
            Those who say this ignore what the protesters have said repeatedly about why they’re kneeling.
            Last week Eric Reid wrote in the New York Times that he began paying attention to reports about the numbers of unarmed black people being killed by police. One in particular brought him to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in his hometown.  He wrote, “I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what or how to do it. All I knew for sure is that I wanted it to be as respectful as possible.”
            A few weeks later, during pre-season, his teammate Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, but nobody noticed for a few weeks. When his protest gained national attention, the backlash against him began.
            Eric Reid wrote, “That’s when my faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, ‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.”
            He and Kaepernick talked.  Then they had a meeting with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawks long-snapper. Boyer said he saw in the quarterback a person who wanted to make his message about racial injustice in the country clear, but who also wanted to find a better way to do it

which is when they decided that it would be better, more respectful to the military, to kneel.  Boyer remembers they talked about how people take a knee to pray. In the military, when they’re exhausted on patrol, they say take a knee and face out. They take a knee as a sign of respect in front of a brother’s grave site.[4]
            I imagine there are people here today who have felt offended or disapproving about how some have been “taking a knee” during the National Anthem and that there are others who support their nonviolent protest.  Maybe some just feel uncomfortable being reminded of racial injustice and wish people would stop talking about it. Maybe some feel conflicted about it and are struggling.

            I’m not here to tell anybody which side they should be on in this controversy.  What I am called to do is to continually proclaim God’s word, and keep reminding us that we are all called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,[5] and to keep asking us to think and pray about what that looks like for us today. What does it look like for us to be humble and to look to the interests of others?
            I think that humbling ourselves requires us to listen, to open ourselves to understanding and being in solidarity with others, especially those who are oppressed, including trying to understand why someone would decide to use whatever platform or opportunity they have for peaceful protest of injustice.
            Colin Kaepernick and some of the others who are protesting are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
            Kaepernick is a Christian who was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran and attended a Baptist church during his college years.  He has a Bible scroll with Psalm 18:39 tattooed on his right arm. Underneath is written “To God be the Glory.”
            Is it possible that Kaepernick and some others kneel not out of disrespect but as an act of faith?

            I keep thinking about the kneeling and how Kaepernick decided to kneel rather than sit after talking with a veteran. But I keep thinking there’s a link to his Christian faith.
            Kneeling can show respect or reverence. It can show humility.  Many churches, especially Catholic churches, have kneelers. I remember that to take communion in the Methodist church in which I grew up, you had to go forward and kneel at the railing to receive communion.  In the church, over the centuries, kneeling has been seen as a holy, worshipful act.[6]

            Some of the beautiful things about our nation are our diversity… our freedom of religion--freedom to practice any religion we choose or not to practice any religion-- and separation of church and state.
            On my Grandmother Frances’ side of the family, I have Brethren in Christ roots, which is part of the Anabaptist tradition, which came out of Radical Reformation.  Within the Anabaptist tradition, it is believed that it is a denial of their Christian faith to pledge their allegiance to anyone or anything other than to Jesus, and it’s common to abstain from symbolic acts such as displaying the flag or singing the national anthem.  There is also a deep appreciation that they live in a country where religious differences are tolerated and gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, including the freedom for conscientious objectors whose scruples prevent them from bearing arms in the military to perform alternative service  
            As a Presbyterian, I remember that John Calvin wrote, “The human mind is a perpetual factory of idols.” [7]

            Among the great themes of the Reformed tradition listed in our Presbyterian Book of Order is “the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.”[8]
             As I followed the commentary this week and meditated on the questions of authority and the call to humility and unity in our scripture lessons, I kept remembering what the John Pavlovitz suggested in a post:
            “Maybe we should all be kneeling right now….
            “And instead of demonizing Colin Kaepernick and instead of blaming shooting victims, and instead of shouting down our brothers and sisters of color as they mourn—we should be listening to them.
            “More than that, we should be saying with our presence and our pain and our social media voices and our dollars, that we are grieving alongside them; that this is not okay with us, that this is not the America we want either.”[9]
            On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  We celebrate the good news that Christ has broken down the dividing wall between people...  and that Christ is our peace.[10]  
             Today, Christians come together around the Lord's Table-- the one place where we are one, no matter what our race, or language, or nationality or theology or politics.
            As we come to celebrate this sacred feast with our brothers and sisters in the faith, let us pray that we may be filled with Christ's passionate dislike of whatever keeps us from his peace. Let us heed those in our time those who raise a prophetic voice against the ways of injustice and oppression and call God's people back to God's ways of righteousness and peace, and let us remember them each day in our prayers.
            As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, may we do so in thankfulness for the unity we find in Christ...  and in willingness to go out to be God's peacemakers in the world.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 1, 2017

[1]Philippians 1:27-30
[2] Susan Eastman, in “Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13, at Working Preacher.

[3] Philippians 2

[4] Nick Wagoner, “From a seat to a knee: How Colin Kaepernick and Nate Boyer are trying to effect change.

[5] Micah 6:8
[7] Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1560), Book 1, Chapter XI, section 8.
[8] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order 2015-2017, F-2.05.
[10]Ephesians 2:14-