Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost Based on Philippians 2:1-13

Today I have no doubt that pastors throughout the country who follow the lectionary, as do we, are talking about knees. How could they not? How could the climactic verse of Philippians chapter 2 –itself quoted from an early Christian hymn–not command attention? “…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.”

Yes, today preachers are talking about “talking a knee.” We know the national furor this phrase has caused. We also know the symbolism of taking a knee first intended by a football player who is a confirmed Lutheran Christian and has the bible verse “rejoice in the Lord always” tattooed on his arm. He wanted to draw attention to a matter of his Christian faith and justice. The “knee” statement came after encouragement from a friend who is a Marine veteran. The gesture since then has been reframed, distorted, and debated, used purposively to divide a nation. We know, of course, that once something is brought into the world by artists, prophets, and parents, the product attains a life and meaning of its own or, all too often, is subjected to the rude and shrewd agendas of others.

I understand that. But it is disconcerting. When did “taking a knee” become a thing? Since when is kneeling wrong? Obviously, it all depends on context. It depends on the patterns of life we practice, the values we hold, intentionally or otherwise.

What are our most important values and how do the patterns of our lives reveal them? Getting up from bed and immediately turning on the tube and downing a pot of coffee . then showering, dressing, making the commute and running the race make a revealing pattern. Shooting off a couple of outraged tweets or FB posts while downing the coffee reveal more in the pattern. About this I am chief among sinners; been there and done that. But to begin the day with the sign of the cross and thanking God for what is ahead, praying for patience and resilience for what is ahead make another revealing and healing pattern.

Paul pleads with the Philippians to be very conscious about a pattern by which to live. He wrote to a young church steeped in the pattern and social values of Roman life. He tells them to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, living together in humility and unity, working out their salvation with fear and trembling. He is not saying that they must save themselves. No. That is already done forever for us by Christ. Paul rather tells them to show publicly the meaning of their faith with lives of humility. This is in direct contrast to the dominant value system of the day, what was called the cursus honorum, the course of honor, that prevailed with the aristocrats and was required by the needy ego of Caesar.

The pattern of life encouraged by Paul was not that culture’s way of selfish ambition, but humility; and not the humility of self-deprecation, but the humility which holds others higher, seen foremost in the life of Christ. The Christian pattern is not self-honor, but honoring others always; the Christian way is of stewarding one’s gifts, talents, and station for others first.

I am not sure that “taking a knee” is even adequate to this pattern, patterned after Christ. I do know that whether one, or none or many knees, values and idols are at play in one’s homage and outrage.

For a quite different example of the issue, I draw from science. For decades I’ve been intrigued by advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. I’ve followed developments for years, and not just by watching different iterations of Star Trek. Just this past week I read of one robotics scientist who is confident he and his team can create a new generation of robots that, as he said, “will be like gods” and will serve all our needs. Well, aside from the fact that he gets the idea of “gods” rather backward, his most original ambition (original like sin) is that robots will be better able to decide how to serve humans if the very thought patterns are uploaded into the robotic circuity. I’ll leave y’all to think and talk about the implications of that over happy hour! I’ll just note that this (tellingly for an atheist) is “original” in the very same sense that sin was “original” to the first parents when they went for the apple on the false promise that “you shall be like God.” It seems to me that the pattern of hubris here has trumped the pattern of service to others. As in the cultures of science, so also in humanity at large.

True humility is measured by demonstrable concern for others. This means too that true community–as with a congregation, or the Church, or a nation–requires the pattern that I “take two knees.”

We are in an urgent time, no doubt. Rulers rule haughtily by dividing. Selfishness looms as large as humanity has ever seen. As friends in military power places tell me, the snake is coiling to strike. Not that the snake will, but signs abound that the course of honor for the self above all is lobbied everywhere to the extreme. The existential question of justice and peace is on all our minds. How we answer it in the patterns of our lives is a first-order question. As one theologian (Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen) this past week put it in a jaw-dropping truth statement, “If you wondered what you would have done during slavery, the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights movement, you’re doing it now.”

What pattern will I resume? For me, it must start with two knees. I’ll take two knees because my citizenship first is in Christ’s kingdom. I’ll take two knees for Christ, who himself knelt to pray, stooped to heal, who emptied himself to death on a cross to honor me. I’ll take two knees in work for racial justice and care for the poor and care for you. I’ll take two knees in respectful grateful support for defenders and protectors who wear gray or white or camo or blue. Two knees, like those who saved and consoled flooded refugees, like a Puerto Rican mayor who wades through sewage to get water to the thirsty. Two knees bending, so to move about for God in God’s world and thereby showing the public what our eternal salvation means now. Two knees fully folded: reverently, passionately, allegiantly to Christ the King. Two knees surprised by the grace of Him who bends yet lower than me to heal and feed by his own hand of his own body and blood.

We take two knees before Christ and his mercy, confessing that here, only here, is the pattern by and in which we and the entire world have life abundant.

Duane Larson       Christ the King Lutheran Church   Houston, TX   October 1, 2017