Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Taking a knee

Philippians 2: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 1, 2017 – World Communion Sunday

Stand by Sitting by Androo

         You’d think with all the media attention, Colin Kaepernick is the first black athlete to protest during the national anthem. Not so. On the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, track medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists during the Star Spangled Banner. They were suspended and sent home.
Four years later at the Munich games, two other track medalists Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews unceremoniously stood on the podium with their backs to the flag. They were barred from Olympic competition by the US Olympic Committee because “they insulted the American flag.” Twenty years later in an interview, Collett said this about it: “I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.”

         America’s relationship to black athletes has been one of love/hate from the very beginning. The first African-American to play major league baseball, Jackie Robinson received death threats.

In 1969 Curt Flood did not accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, stating that he was not a piece of property to be bought and sold, and lost his suit against Major League Baseball. Eventually it led to the union to bargain for binding arbitration for grievances. This allowed baseball players to be free agents, but it cost Flood his career and his health.

         Female black athletes have also used their sport as a protest platform but for the most part receive less attention than their male counterparts. Olympic sprint champion Wilma Rudolph insisted that her hometown parade be integrated. Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, who catch hell for being strong black women, have fought for equal pay at Wimbledon.

         Perhaps one of the first black athlete activists was Octavius Catto. Just after the Civil War, he founded and was captain of the Pythians, an all-black team in Philadelphia.

An educator, writer, orator, activist and athlete, Catto was something of a Renaissance man. Along with his fiancée Caroline Le Count, Catto worked to get black voters to the polls and successfully integrated Philly’s trolley cars. But tensions were high between the city’s Irish and black populations. On Election Day in 1871, at the age of 32, Catto was shot by Frank Kelly, an Irish political operative. Kelly was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

         Earlier this week on public radio a caller responded to Kaepernick’s protest with these words: Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s right to do it.

Not unlike Paul’s teaching moment to the church in Corinth when he says, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” But he follows that up with something that sounds a lot like his letter to the Philippians: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

         Paul appeals to the church in Philippi that they live in unity with each other, having the same love, sharing the same mind as Christ.

This requires not just regarding each other as equals but regarding others as better, as Christ emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Unity requires humility, servanthood. If we are to live together in unity we cannot claim for ourselves that which we would not claim for everyone else.

         We cannot claim affordable healthcare for ourselves and not for others and call this community.  We cannot claim outstanding education for ourselves
and not for others and call this community.  We cannot claim a living wage for ourselves and not for others and call this community. We cannot declare our right to exist and to be safe in public space and not guarantee the same for everyone and call this community. We human beings can be selfish and selfless but only the imbalance of one more than the other leads to unity. The other imbalance leads to supremacy, privilege, and empire.

         Protest is not selfish; it’s costly and dangerous.  Protest is the imbalance necessary when one group asserts their own advantage at the cost of others’ rights,
when they regard themselves as better or more important or more worthy than others, when people exploit their privilege at the expense of others. A Facebook friend and theologian, Lee Wyatt, posted this: “Protest over race cannot divide us. That has already happened. Protest keeps us from ignoring that division.” But we have been ignoring that division for more than two centuries because we don’t like the protest, because we don’t want to regard others as better, because we are afraid.

         It is time we all took a knee and humbled our pride, our nationalism, and our sense of entitlement and the need to be right.  And this Table requires our humility if it is to have any
power in our lives and in our life together. In more liturgical churches, the Eucharist or the Communion elements are received while kneeling. On this World Communion Sunday how will we approach this Table in humility? Where in our lives do we regard ourselves as better than others? How are we being called to empty ourselves, to reject the exploitation of any life, to look to the interests of others, especially the most vulnerable? How can we claim this Table as exclusively Christian when the unlimited, unconditional grace it affords is for everyone?

         Paul advised the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, that is, how we live out our salvation, the saving unlimited, unconditional grace of God, here and now in the world. There is a selfless power at work in this world and we are its hands and feet, its heart and its agent.

         And we are its knees. Amen.

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