October 1, 2017
Whether on TV sports programs or facebook or sports radio or even network news, the big discussion item this week has been NFL players standing, or sitting or kneeling or staying in the locker room for the National anthem. It is definitely an issue I don't want to get into. In fact I had another sermon well underway but a small still voice was whispering in my ear...so I'm going to take some time to consider what we, as Christian citizens might think about it.
My gut reaction every time is anger. It makes me angry that a relatively few players have kind of hijacked this pregame tradition. My gut feeling is that most of us gathered here today feel the same way. But one of the “problems” of being a Christian is that we are called to go beyond our gut reactions, our ingrained attitudes and examine all issues in light of the gospel. So that's what I'm going to try to do today; not to settle the issue but try to bring Jesus into the discussion.
A disclaimer I must make—I'm not naturally a protester, I’m not a revolutionary. If I were around 250 years ago and it were up to my natural inclinations...we would still be British subjects! I'm not going to go out and block a freeway when a decision is reached that I don't like or even if I see it as unfair. So I come at this very much as a person who would not protest in such a way. But I also come at it as a disciple of Jesus Christ and know that he was a revolutionary. He wasn't about government or politics or the flag, but he was about people and how we treat each other.
The NFL players are mostly millionaires making a living playing a game, and perhaps that's why we struggle to find the root of the protests. They are not protesting for themselves, which is commendable. They are protesting for the victims of police brutality and prejudice and economic inequalities. And I'm afraid it is awfully easy to sit here in our community and say it isn't that serious; but we've never been presumed guilty just because of the color of our skin.
Julie and I have been watching a TV series called “This Is Us”. One of the characters is a very successful African American. His father comes to live with him; his father who was active in the civil rights movement. They have a moment where the son feels his father is disrespecting him because he isn't fighting back against prejudice. Randall tells his father that he is discriminated against every day...but just because he chooses to ignore it, to avoid confrontation doesn't mean he isn't aware of it. It can be awfully easy for us in rural Minnesota to ignore the issues of race, of income inequality, of police brutality.
And sometimes we are guilty of seeing a successful African American and saying, “see, he can do it. Why not everyone?” It's the old “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”. And many do, but many come from such dysfunctional families; from gang societies; from so far behind the eight-ball that things are stacked against them. We here haven't faced the disadvantages they do. That is just a fact. And we are all wired differently. While some, of every race and situation, are motivated to do well in this life, there are others who are beaten down and give up. It is part of human nature, we are not the same from the womb. And so I offer up the old adage that we not judge until we've walked a mile in their shoes.
In our gospel today, Jesus was teaching. And we know from studying the bible, that his teaching was generally not in support of the status quo. As he challenged the people to live renewed lives of love, the church leaders asked him from where he got his authority. Jesus, as usual, directs the question back to them by challenging their rejection of John the Baptist. But that authority question fits in to this discussion I think. From where do the football player get their authority to protest? They have that authority because our founding fathers saw fit to include freedom of speech in the Constitution. And it is because our military men and women have sacrificed their lives to uphold our freedoms. So in a way they are protesting the very thing that gives them the freedom to protest. But they will be quick to point out they aren't protesting the flag or our military, but the problems minorities face in our country. They are doing what they believe is their duty.
The second part of the gospel compares two sons. One says he will do what he is asked and doesn't; the other says we won't but does. This story reminds me of an issue with my brother Doug from years ago. We were given instructions from Mom to go in the garden and pull the weeds in her flowers. We went, but he didn't like pulling so he got the hoe and hacked away and when Mom came out, she pointed out (rather strongly) that he'd hoed out all her moss roses! I think that kind of fits. But the message can also speak to us as Christians. We do well to obey the Christian’s call to gather together and worship. But is that enough; is that fulfilling the Father's requests? Jesus is clear that working for justice in this world is very high on his priority list. If we don't take seriously issues of justice, even issues we don't understand or don't agree with, we are not obeying the Father. Matthew quotes Isaiah in chapter 12 of his gospel, “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice.” And when Jesus discovers that the Jewish leaders are not working for justice, he calls them hypocrites and white washed tombs and says this, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” I want to reiterate the list of Presbyterian priorities for justice I read last Sunday: “Protect children from all forms of abuse; End human trafficking; Amplify the voices of those society marginalizes, Challenge systems of oppression and discrimination; Stand with those who seek livable wages.”
So my call for us this morning is to study the weighty matter of justice, mercy and faith; even when it is uncomfortable and even when it makes us angry. Try to study the issues despite the polarization, then work in your corner of the world to love your neighbor and serve your God.
Polarization, it is not fun to think about or talk about. Jesus said he came and his words would bring division. But on the night he was betrayed, he prayed for unity for his followers. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 18)
And you all know what else happened that night he was betrayed, a sacrament of unity was instituted. Today we join Christians from every country around the world in Celebrating World Communion Sunday. On this day there is a universality to the Lord's Supper that we don't get every Sunday. Picture it, Christians on every continent, in churches large and small, gathering as brothers and sisters in Christ to share the bread and the cup. A great diversity, people who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum-- the ones who support the protesting, the ones more like me who are distressed by the protests. But today, around this table, sharing the bread and the cup, we are all one in Christ. We remember the blood shed, the body broken. We remember our own unworthiness...not the unworthiness of our brothers and sisters, our own unworthiness. But as we learned last week in the parable of the workers; we are all offered the gift of grace despite our unworthiness. For the sacrifice of Jesus covers all our sins and we are one in Christ and one with the Father and one with our brothers and sisters.
We are reminded today of our differences...but more importantly, our unity in Christ. As we heard in Paul's letter concerning Jesus, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, (we are reminded that bending the knee is also a sign of honor and respect), 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.” That is our authority, this is whom we obey, Jesus Christ the Lord. Paul goes on to tell us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you.” Work out...that means study and think and listen and pray for wisdom and understanding.
Thursday Night football had the Packers playing...but Aaron Rogers had some good things to say about the issue of protesting the national anthem. The team all linked arms and invited the stadium to as well. He called it “a demonstration of love and solidarity, a call to connect and to starting a conversation.” We as Christians are called to no less. Open your hearts and minds under the direction of the Holy Spirit, be willing to engage in conversation. And remember our connection with our brothers and sisters throughout the world as we are linked by the sacrament; the bread and the cup, the body of Christ. Amen.
Hymn: In Christ there is No East or West 439 PH