Ephesians 2:14-18, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:28-32
A former moderator of the Presbyterian Church came to Utica Presbytery, years ago. She preached at our meeting, critiquing the church. One example she used was the hymn, very familiar African American spiritual, that we will be singing later, “Let Us Break Bread Together.” Now, Vilia and I chose this hymn weeks ago – because it is familiar and, I think, beloved. But the moderator, an African American clergywoman, said that Presbyterians should not sing this hymn. She thundered, “It says, ‘let us break bread together – on our knees.’” She noted that our knees, our Presbyterian knees, showed that we never took this hymn seriously. We didn’t, we don’t, fall on our knees before God. We don’t live the faith that asks us to humble ourselves before God.
The suggested focus scripture for today is Ephesians 2:14-18, which tells us that Jesus the Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Paul was writing – at the time – about the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. We know in our world that there are numerous dividing walls. They exist within Christianity, within our culture, and across the world, setting nation against nation. It is no wonder that the scripture was chosen for this Sunday of World Communion when we focus on Peace and Global justice.
The lectionary epistle lesson for today is from Philippians. I thought about leaving it out and focusing only on the suggested text. However, it speaks of kneeling – and the issue of kneeling has become a great dividing wall in our nation today. We could say that it’s a coincidence that this is the lectionary text for today, but, to quote someone from the Iona Community in Scotland, “If you think that’s a coincidence, you deserve a dull life!”
Our former moderator was right. Presbyterians don’t have a tradition of kneeling – except in ordination and installation. We’re asked to kneel to acknowledge our humanity, our brokenness, our need for God as we undertake those particular roles to which we have been called by the church – the roles of ruling elders, deacons, and teaching elders. But, generally, we don’t kneel. I remember seeing kneelers in a church for the first time when I was nine. I was at my great uncle’s funeral – and his family was Episcopalian. I thought they had provided footrests until members of his extended family pulled them out and knelt.
But kneeling as a sign of respect has not been limited to the church. Those who are knighted kneel before royalty. Kneeling is, for many, an accepted and expected part of a marriage proposal. It’s romantic! – because it is also a sign of respect.
It has struck me as odd that kneeling has become such a divisive issue. How did it become, for many, a sign of disrespect?
The Washington Post had a wonderful article by Michael Frost titled “Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: a tale of two Christians on their knees.” Frost wrote, “They’re both Christian football players, and they’re both know for kneeling on the field, although for very different reasons. 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. Both have made a public display of their faith. Both are prayerful and devout.”
“Both are prayerful and devout.” Tebow, Frost notes, has become a symbol for many Christians because he has made his faith so public. He is acceptable –perhaps in part because, as Frost puts it, “He’s clean cut, polite, gentle, respectable.”
Kaepernick was given up for adoption by his single, white mother after his black father left before he was born. He was adopted by a white couple. He is not clean cut like Tebow. He is covered with tattoos – religious tattoos. He asserts that his faith undergirds his playing. It has also undergirded his approach to life. He became an activist and a philanthropist. Tebow did as well – but later. Kaepernick decided, last year, to sit or kneel, to protest, until, as he said, “[the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.” (First he sat. It was a veteran who suggested kneeling was more respectful.)
A blogger noted that people feel a need to critique our society, to protest its injustices. He also noted that the ways those critiques and protests have been made, recently, have been divisive. So, kneeling is out. Peaceful protests are out. “I’ll provide you with a list of acceptable ways to protest,” he wrote. He wanted to offer something to those who are frustrated – something that wouldn’t stir up the ire of others. So, he made a list – five ways to protest that wouldn’t offend.
But, The list was empty. It’s not possible to critique, to protest, without causing discomfort, without pricking the status quo and illuminating its flaws.
Too often we seek peace not as something that emerges from justice for all, but something that silences the injustice and ignores the pain. Then peace is an illusion because it is enforced by those who have power. Grayson Gilbert said, “Christians are far too easily distracted by things that don’t matter.” We get caught up in these cultural wars at a surface level and ignore the great needs which, if we claim to be God’s people, we are to see and address. How can we spend our time berating one another over “kneeling” when people are struggling to survive, in Puerto Rico, in the Virgin Islands, in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, in Mexico, in the face of escalating conflicts on the Korean Peninsula?
Frost suggested that Christianity is on its knees. He sees in Tebow and Kaepernick a division in Christianity itself. Tebow represents faith that “values personal piety, gentleness, respect of cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality.” The other approach “values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism. One version is kneeling 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 political and social transformation.”
Frost mourns this division in God’s church, this division among God’s people. It has left “the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the Biblical vision of the other.” He quotes Walter Brueggemann who said Christianity should be “awed to heaven, rooted in the earth.”
“For he is our peace,” it says in Ephesians. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Last Sunday Mark and I worshiped in a Presbyterian Church in Dublin, Ireland. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting – probably a very traditional service with very Irish looking folks – all befitting a beautiful, Gothic styled structure. Well, the order of service was fairly traditional. But, everything else was somewhat unexpected. The congregation was truly multi-cultural. The Abbey singers, their choir, were four black women whose accents indicated they were not natives. They sang African-American spirituals and African freedom hymns. Mark and I shared our pew with a 3 year old who “read” my Bible from back to front, muttering in some language—it may have been English, but I couldn’t understand a word until he got to the front and proudly declared, “The end!” The place was full of life – sometimes evidenced by the chaos. It was wonderful. We were warmly welcomed.
The sermon theme from that service is appropriate for today: Jesus is God’s hospitality in a hostile world – and—we are to extend that hospitality. It is not our place to judge or to label others. God has been hospitable to us. Now we share that hospitality.
That moderator who came to Utica Presbytery left the Presbyterian Church. She became disillusioned, perhaps because we, in the entire denomination, couldn’t find it in ourselves to fall on our knees before God and confess that we, too, are a part of the world’s brokenness. We had appropriated a wonderful spiritual – but we sang it without an awareness of the pain and suffering of those who wrote it, of those who had to rely on God to see them, to know them, to love them and value them. We were not hospitable to a voice that had a different story, to a voice that knew the realities of racism.
I told the pastor of that church in Dublin that I appreciated the diversity of his congregation – that such diversity is still a rarity in our country. He said, “It’s hard.” I respect the older members who were there who have been willing to share their space, and, perhaps, let go of their traditions to welcome, fully, people with a different background. It’s hard work to extend and receive God’s hospitality in a world that is too often hostile. It means we need to be humble in God’s presence. We need to be humble when we encounter those who have lived in a different world than the one we know. And some of those who have lived in that world are our neighbors.
Grayson concluded, “At the end, everyone will kneel. Not to a flag. Not to a president. Not to a tyrannical ruler – but to the Lord. There won’t be a debate over this; it will simply be a reality for all [people]. The wicked and redeemed alike shall bow before the righteous Judge of all the earth. In light of this, what have Christians to do with flags and football players taking the knee during the anthem?”
How easy it is to get caught up in the hostilities – to proclaim what is right and condemn those who see things differently and act accordingly. We, however, are God’s people. God, through Jesus, has been hospitable to us. We celebrate that hospitality as we come to the table. But, even as we come, we need to acknowledge that God’s table is bigger than we can imagine. God has broken down the dividing walls of hostility. So, this table is offered to the world, to all who hunger and thirst for that which God offers. God calls us to share in offering God’s hospitality, to work for a world of peace founded upon justice, to walk in the way of Jesus who humbled himself and “became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”