When I was in elementary school I had one of the coolest experiences of my life: I had the privilege to be a ball boy for the OU basketball team. Ball boys are those kids who sit right behind the goal and wipe up sweat from the floor. We helped with warmups; to this day I still brag about helping now Mr. Thunder himself Nick Collison when he was at Kansas. I remember when Hollis Price hit a game winner against Texas Tech. Once our center Kevin Bookout dove for a ball that was going out of bounds, and all 260+ pounds of him landed square on me, causing Bob Berry on the radio to exclaim, “That poor ball boy may never get back up from being flattened.”
The games themselves were always fun, but it was the pregame rituals that I’ll never forget. The ballboys were supposed to get to the arena at least two hours prior to tip off, and if I close my eyes I can remember walking down the empty tunnel onto the Lloyd Noble court, only the court spot lights on, darkness surrounding arena. During these quiet moments the ballboys could shoot, and as a third grader it was kinda hard to even get the ball up to the basket, but it felt like a sports movie, just me in the arena putting shots up in the dim light of an empty arena.
Then, as players came out and the students were arriving, you’d have to go to work, getting rebounds for the players and handing out water and towels. You’d get special handshakes with some of the players, the coaches would ask how school was going, and you’d take pictures with the cheerleaders and the band. And this whole pre-game ritual was capped off by the ballboys lining up along the scorer’s table as the entire arena stood and sang the OU chant. And if you’ve ever been to an OU game, during the OU chant everyone puts their 1’s in the air, and I took great pride in standing on the court with my index finger raised…until one of the ballboys said I couldn’t do that. I looked around and noticed that only a few of the ballboys had their fingers raised. Apparently there was a disagreement on whether or not I could participate in the saluting of the chant if I hadn’t graduated from the school.
Now, I distinctly remember my dad proudly telling all his friends that his son was one of the few ballboys who would raise his hand during the chant, that at a young age I knew the words and how to properly react, and so it shook me when I was told that I was responding incorrectly, that I wasn’t allowed to tell the world that OU was number one!
That was my first encounter with wanting to respond or engage with a collective, communal action that proclaimed alliance, and being told that the way I was doing it was wrong. The second came in high school. Raise your hand if at your high school they’d play the pledge of the allegiance every morning over the speakers and everyone would automatically stand with your right hand over your heart and recite the pledge. Yeah, they’d do that at my high school too, and during my junior year I decided I wasn’t going to stand, and, if you don’t know, I’m a very passionate kinda guy, and when I buy into something, I really buy into it. So it was around 2008, and I was a junior in high school, and I was experiencing the existential angst that some high schoolers encounter. You know that angst of wanting to challenge any and all authority, wanting to spread your wings and declare independence.
While most kids my age were raised watching certain things on TV, I was raised on John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and I think the nation as a whole was starting to realize the mess that was our wars in the Middle East, and this was kinda my entrance into rebelling against the man. It was this growing awareness that the powers and principalities of the world weren’t fair or equitable, and if I had been a little older and living on the East Coast then maybe I would’ve been part of the Occupy movement, so I began to express my displeasure stemming from this existential awakening by not standing for the pledge of allegiance. Edgy, I know.
Y’all may have had someone in your class who wouldn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance either. And they probably fit some kind of basic stereotype of this disgruntled, anti-establishment outsider kinda kid. And those were the people sitting with me during the pledge, but the thing was, I wasn’t “like” them. My “protest,” if you can even call it a protest, wasn’t necessarily grounded in political ideology, but from my faith. I had just read this book called Jesus for President, which is simultaneously as radical and obnoxious as it sounds, and it told me that I could either pledge my allegiance to Jesus or to my country, and because I was a teenager and didn’t understand nuance I obviously chose to pledge allegiance to Jesus.
And I found myself caught in this weird position, because all my Christian friends thought it was strange that I wasn’t standing, and all my friends who sat during the pledge thought it was strange that I was a Christian, and all I was trying to do was differentiate myself while my brain was developing.
I give these two examples because it seems like our news and social media and entertainment is enamored with the question of “What should our response be during the pledge of allegiance, and how should we react and think about those who respond differently from us.” And I wasn’t even planning on talking about this until I read our epistle reading in the lectionary that Paul says in verse 10, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend,” and then I look on twitter and see the hashtag “Take A Knee” trending and thought, “Well, it looks like the Spirit is calling us to talk about this.” What does it mean to take a knee as a Christian?
This whole national debate over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem happened way before last week. It actually started over a year ago when the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem of a preseason football game. And he wasn’t being showy about it or making it a big deal, but just quietly sat, so quietly in fact that it took three games before anyone even noticed. When asked about it, Colin had this to say: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Colin was advocating for what he believes is a social justice issue, that people of color in America aren’t treated the same as white people.
But the narrative of why he was sitting during the pledge was quickly spun into him disrespecting the military, which Colin wasn’t even talking about, and so he sat down with this guy named Nate Boyer, a former NFL player who also served as a Green Beret in the Army, and they talked about why Colin was protesting and why people were reacting as they were and what they could do from that point on to most effectively communicate their beliefs and hopes. Nate Boyer said this about their meeting, “”We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer says. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to show respect. When we’re on a patrol and we go into a security halt, we take a knee.” Colin and Nate compromised on kneeling as a way to show respect in peaceful protest while still highlighting that change in America was needed and to help bring about a conversation. Even though Nate Boyer said kneeling isn’t something he’d do, he supported and encouraged Colin’s act of kneeling.
And I think this discussion between Colin Kaepernick and Nate Boyer and the power of kneeling strikes at part of the beauty of our scripture reading for this evening in Philippians 2. Colin and Nate coming together in their differences and similarities embodies the beginning of chapter two, an often-quoted piece of scripture, the idea of being of the same mind, same love, full accord and of one mind. What a great goal, an aspiration we should all strive for, even as lofty as it is. But also, being of one mind, doesn’t it feel like a seemingly impossible goal, to agree on everything and to think as of one mind.
Philippians 2 is often talked about as unity in Christ, and unity is great in ideal, but in practice, well, just look at how many denominations of Christianity there are just in Edmond alone and you can see how hard unity is in practice. And, maybe unity shouldn’t even be the goal, unity as understood as sameness, which requires assimilation in some ways. I’m fine with unity, as long as you become like me, but when it comes to me having to be like you, well wait a minute then.
Unity can feel disingenuous sometimes, almost like a covering up of differences, and so instead I think a better word for what Paul is talking about here is harmony. Harmony isn’t where we are all the same, but a state where our differences are held in an environment of mutual respect. That which makes us unique is cherished and there is a state of peace. To achieve harmony, slights and injustices are not ignored or simply apologized for, but as the new Lecrae songs states, reconciliation requires defrauded parties to be made whole. Harmony acknowledges pain and constitutes reparations are instituted. Peace isn’t simply the absence of tension, but the presence of harmony.
A narrow or shallow view of unity inevitably leads to marginalized or hurt individuals or parties to bend to the standard of power, whereas harmony advocates for the restoration of status, freedom, and dignity to those who have been hurt, dominated, and exploited. Such a mission is incarnated in the person of Jesus, as Paul tells us in verses 3 and 4 that we are to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of us look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others; this is the mind of Jesus. Such a way of life, Paul says, would make his joy complete, requiring us to ask, “Are our joys similar? Does living a life that strives for harmony, does that complete our joy?”
This state of harmony that Paul writes about associates comprehensive and corporate salvation, well-being, wholeness, health, security, and it is only God who can grant real and lasting peace, it is only through God that harmony is possible. In my youth group growing up, we would end every meeting with this reminder, reciting the common scripture, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” This blessing tells us the truth that being in Christ is what establishes such a blessing, such peace, such harmony, that it is God’s presence in our lives and in the world that ushers in peace and harmony.
Verse 13 reinforces this reality, that it is God who enables, telling us that we need God and the message of Jesus to be in our thoughts, our conversations, and our actions if we hope to see harmony. We know this because Paul specifically tells us that our power to transform and achieve harmony comes from having the same mind as Christ Jesus. And that’s a high standard, a standard that we all often fall short off. And so when we do, the historically liturgical standard of seeking repentance of when we fall short is embodied in the act of kneeling. In the United Methodist Church, we most often kneel when following communion, and it’s where we confess to God our sins, where in our lives we need God’s presence and healing mercies.
I saw this story of Facebook story this week of an 8 year old girl named Molly, and Molly plays several sports, and when she was asked what it means when they take a knee, when they kneel, on the field, she said, “Kneeling is what you are supposed to do when someone is hurt. It shows that you care, and that you want them to get better, or be okay.”
She was then asked what it meant when she saw football players kneeling during the national anthem before the flag. She answered, “I guess they think that our country is hurt, and they are hoping that it will get better.” Maybe one of our problems is we want unity, when in fact we need harmony. Maybe what it means to kneel is to say that our country and our people are hurting and when we kneel we are placing a profound hope that it gets better. We kneel when we pray to God, when we seek God’s presence, wisdom, comfort, courage in our lives. Kneeling is a profound act of hope, hope that another way is possible. If we didn’t have hope, we’d never kneel.
So maybe that’s what the Spirit is calling forth from us today as She chose Paul’s words in Philippians 2 as the epistle reading for this Sunday. Perhaps when we kneel at the name of Jesus, we are acknowledging the brokenness of our lives and our world, coming to God with our pain and our hurt, and we are placing a profound hope that we would all have the mind of Jesus, that we would do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility we would regard others before ourselves, not looking to our own interests but to the interests of others. Maybe we can’t all agree on some specifics, like Colin and Nate; Nate aint kneeling during the anthem. But they coexist in harmony, having the same care for those being forgotten in the world.
So may we strive for all having the mind of Christ, the care of Christ, and when we fall short and when the world falls short, may we all take a knee in the name of Christ, for the Gospel pursuit of harmony in our lives in heaven and on earth and under earth, and we liturgically kneel as we approach the holy communion table.