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-