Take a knee

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On the Camino de Santiago, you had to take care to follow the signs. Yellow arrows were common and well-known markers to all pilgrims along the path.

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It was easy to get lost, especially in the big cities, if you missed one of these markers. But also at critical junctions in the forests, the fields or roadways where if you were not paying attention, you could lose hours on the journey and have to double back.

I learned, sometimes the hard way, to pay attention to what others might consider obvious. Some markers are easy to notice.

Some are sort of easy to notice:

But often it was a challenge to find that yellow marker:

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The signs — like the sacraments of baptism and holy communion — are reminders of what kind of journey we are on. These signs are embedded in the journey itself, on earth. These holy signs don’t stay in some other-worldly realm; they are very much a part of this world: Baptism uses common water; Communion uses bread and wine – basic, earthly elements which remind us of what God is all about on earth.

The signs are part of our daily, ordinary lives. The signs are already there, along the way, before we even commit to the journey. We only need to open the eyes of our heart and mind, and pay attention. Because the signs are too easy to miss. And when we do miss them, we get lost and go down other paths, paths that lead to division in the Body of Christ, the church.

I remember when our then 12-year-old son started playing football I first learned what it meant to ‘take a knee’. According to the tradition, if a player on the field was injured everyone ‘took a knee’. And it didn’t matter which team the injured player was from; that is, all the players from both teams knelt down and waited there until the injured player either walked off the field on their own strength, or was carted off on a stretcher.

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have both attracted world-wide media attention for ‘taking a knee’ in the last couple of years, although for very different reasons. Both have made a public display of their faith. Both are prayerful, and devout. One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attended a Baptist church during college.[1]

Tim Tebow, however, is a darling of the church while Colin Kaepernick has been reviled. Their differences reveal much more about the brand of Christianity preferred by many in the church today. Tebow is known for his signature move – dropping to one knee on the field, his head bowed in prayer, his arm resting on his bent knee. He’s clean cut, polite, gentle, respectful.

Colin Kaepernick, starting last year already, refused to stand to attention during the playing of the American national anthem. Originally, he did so in support of Black Lives Matter and to protest police violence against black people. Kaepernick was voted most disliked player in the National Football League (NFL). People posted videos of them burning his jerseys. He was called “an embarrassment” and “a traitor”. Of course, with recent events in the NFL, his witness gains momentum nonetheless.

Two players, two brands of Christianity:

Tim Tebow represents personal piety, gentleness, emphasis on moral issues. Colin Kaepernick represents social justice, community development and racial reconciliation. One version of Christianity is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest. One is concerned with private sins like abortion. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination. One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of social transformation. One is reading Paul’s letters. The other is reading the Minor Prophets.

Are these versions of Christianity mutually exclusive? Much of Christian history, especially since the Reformation, would suggest, ‘yes’, even among Lutherans. The proliferation of Christianity into some thirty thousand different denominations by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 would suggest, ‘yes.’ The divisions within Christianity is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.

Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann expresses it well: He writes that Christianity should be “awed to heaven, rooted in earth.” We should, as he says, be able to “join the angels in praise, and keep our feet in time and place.”[2]

Christianity, sadly, remains on its knees because of our divisions, when all along the vision of the Gospel, expressed best by Paul himself, is that “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth”[3]. How do Christians today, regardless of background and orientation, contribute to this vision in ways that actually make a difference on earth?

In the second reading for today, we learn about the essential character of the biblical God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, all of God’s acts, blessings, and delights in creating are for the sake of others. This is typical of God, “who is intimately concerned with justice, peace, and the flourishing of all creatures.” This is typical of God, “who is ‘on high’ but never remote, who is ‘over all’ but faithfully and dramatically invested in life on earth.”[4]

God does not embrace hierarchy. Nor does God rest in privileged autonomy, according to some deist idea of a distant and uncaring God. God is love. And the New Testament witness continues this description of a God who cares intimately about our humanity, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God is Immanuel, God-with-us and for us.

In setting up this wonderful hymn that Paul includes in his letter to the Philippian church, Christians are called to exemplify a humble regard for others, seeing them as “better than yourselves”; we are not to primarily serve our own interests, but the interests of those who are different.[5]

These may be an impossible task for us in our self-centred, me-first culture. Nevertheless, we are encouraged, as Paul encouraged the early church in Philippi, to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”[6]. Why even bother?

Because God is already at work in us.[7] God is already at work in the world, as difficult as it can be to spot those signs of God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s good work. As Martin Luther insisted, matters of salvation revolved around God’s actions, not human activities. Justification — being placed into a right relationship with God — is totally God’s activity. After all, as Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Philippians, we need to believe – despite what appears to be everything to the contrary – in the promise and the vision that God “who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.”[8]

God’s grace precedes all. Just like the signs on the journey before us and around us. Even though we may miss them from time to time doesn’t mean they aren’t there, waiting for us to notice. God’s grace continues to guide us and point in the right direction.

We therefore have nothing to lose, to take a knee for the sake of those who do not have a voice. To take a knee for the sake of others who are silenced by discrimination and abuse. To take a knee for all God’s creatures who long for a better day.

We pray for and support agency to help the refugees today escaping violence and oppression in Myanmar. We pray for and support agency to help victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We, so, ‘take a knee’, in the spirit and mind of Jesus Christ who took a knee for us all.

[1] I thank Michael Frost, “Colin Caepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A Tale of two Christians on their knees” (The Washington Post, September 27, 2017) for much of the content I use in this section of my sermon

[2] cited in Michael Frost, ibid.

[3] Philippians 2:10, NRSV

[4] William Greenway in David L. Bartlett & Barabara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.112.

[5] Philippians 2:3-4

[6] 2:12

[7] 2:13

[8] 1:6

The gift of the Beatitudes

There is the story about a little girl who was one day drawing a picture. She was so engrossed in her work that her mother asked, “What are you drawing?” “Oh, it’s a picture of God,” said the youngster. “A picture of God?” “Darling, no one knows what God looks like!” “No,” said the little girl, “but they will when I get through.”

Even though we know, deep down, that God cannot be put in a box of our own devising – our own imagination – we will still try. However imperfect our efforts may be at explaining God — and imperfect they often are! — we live, like the little girl, with the confidence and sometimes arrogance that says: We know it all! I am in control! And that’s good, to a point.

But then we grow up and life happens — we suffer, we mourn, things don’t go according to our plan — and we question God’s very own existence. Usually, our response is very individualistic. When we struggle with end-of-life realities, for example, I often hear questions about whether or not “I” am worthy for heaven. And people struggle, sometimes on their death beds, with their own, individual, deserving, as if their salvation hangs on their own merit and achievements, or lack thereof.

First, let me say that challenging events in our life need not be signs of God’s displeasure –presuming God is out to get us for our misdeeds. Rather, challenging events are invitations to go deeper into the truth of life and death. And therein we discover the wonder of God and God’s loving stance towards us.

The church has always understood our rising and dying in Christ as a collective experience, not an individualistic enterprise. All Saints Sunday which we acknowledge today emphasizes ALL the SaintS (plural) — not just one or two. Moreover, every Sunday when we celebrate the sacrament of the table, we connect with the “communion of saints in heaven and on earth”. We are part of the Body of Christ, members of something larger than us, individually.

In the reading from Revelation (7:9-17) we hear about “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). As members of the body of Christ we are primarily a people, not individuals that can be counted or measured. This truth is not meant to diminish our individuality but to encourage us in faith.

I pondered a photo recently taken of my godparents standing with my twin brother around the very font I was baptized in with him on November 30, 1969, about a month after my birth. Looking at the faces of my 5 sponsors now in their senior years, I was struck by how at my baptism — even though I couldn’t make those promises by myself at that time — the communion of saints held me in my faith and belief. Even though there are times in my life when my faith is weak, by myself, I can rest in the faith expressed by the larger faith community which holds me in prayer and membership. And this, to me, is of great comfort and encouragement.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for us to understand such a mystical and communal truth, in a highly individualistic culture bent on individual achievement and autonomy. But a life of faith in Christ Jesus invites us to consider reality and truth in a paradoxical way: That the poor are blessed, and so are the peacemakers, and those who mourn. In a world that lifts up those who achieve individual success and power by their own merit, the Beatitudes introduce a way of life that sees God in precisely the kinds of circumstances and communal expressions we would rather avoid, deny or at best tolerate.

Some have compared the 8 Beatitudes with which, in Matthew’s gospel (5:1-12) Jesus begins his teaching — what is called the Sermon on the Mount — with the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament.

This is an interesting comparison, on many levels. Someone mentioned in the lectionary study this past Monday how little airtime the Beatitudes get in our churches of late; much more emphasis is on the 10 Commandments. They remembered a time decades ago when the Beatitudes where enshrined on church bookmarks, wall-hangings, posters, cards in the narthex. They were all over the place. But no longer.

I wonder, is it because in recent times, especially, we have downplayed the subtle, albeit unpopular, aspects of the faithful life. Is it because we are uncomfortable with the humble truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — who gave up his whole life on the cross for the sake of all people? This is the essence of the Gospel which is captured in the Beatitudes, a way of life that faces the challenges of life head on and embraces those struggles as integral to, as the fodder of, the faithful life.

Conversely, the 10 Commandments are easier to comprehend, rationalistically, aren’t they? After all, here a bunch of rules to follow. And rules are easier to grasp than paradoxical sayings. Rules have cut and dry consequences. Rules are wrapped up in rewards and punishment. And we get that. We live in a culture that is driven by meritocracy.

Maybe it’s time we take another look at the Beatitudes. Because life happens. And when it does, we have some choice and a responsibility in the matter of how we will respond. We don’t have to search out suffering for suffering’s sake. The tough times come. And when they do, what will we do? How will we respond?

By saying, “We don’t deserve this? It shouldn’t happen to us?”

We can only go so far with the 10 Commandments — and the ‘Law” for that matter. Because while the Law provides a good order for living, no one individual can fulfill the demands of the law perfectly. The function of the law is to drive us to the throne of grace — to lead us, in the words of Martin Luther — “as beggars”, to God who is the starting and ending point of our lives.

One of Martin Luther’s greatest contributions to theological thinking is a paradox: he said that we are simultaneously saint AND sinner. Now, you can’t rationalistically explain that ‘both/and’ formulation — just like you cannot easily explain other sayings of Jesus; like, in order to find your life you need to lose it; or, just like you cannot explain that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine; or, just like you cannot easily explain the mystery of the real presence of Jesus we may experience with God in the Holy Communion. That is why the prayer of the day for All Saints Sunday emphasizes ‘the mystical union’ we share with the whole body of Christ on earth and in heaven. These are all precious paradoxes that describe — like the Beatitudes do — the fundamentals of our faith.

The gift of the Beatitudes — these fundamental teachings of Jesus — lies in their promise to us. What are the promises to those who courageously follow in the often messy, inexplicable, uncertainty of Jesus’ way of the Cross?

Ours is the kingdom of God, we will inherit the earth, we will be filled, we will receive mercy, we will see God, we will be called children of God, and our reward will be great in heaven.

Here is a wonderful, true description of faith that is full of promise, not condemnation; that is about hope in the midst of despair, not a fearful avoidance of reality; that is about affirmation and encouragement, not judgement and punishment; that is about blessing with an eye to new life.