The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017
This week a seminarian and I took an afternoon to review the 9 o’clock customary. If you serve in the acolyte corps, you already know that the customary is a document that lists in detail what we do in the liturgy, with step by step instructions--what each person does, where she or he moves, what comes next--that sort of thing. It’s detailed. The customary for the 11am Solemn High Mass runs over 70 pages at present. It’s a valuable document, important mostly for training new acolytes, but also for making sure the celebrant doesn’t just wander about aimlessly. It tells us all where to be next. Every now and again, however, the customary has to be reviewed--to make sure it still matches what we’re actually doing in the liturgy. To add anything that might have been missed in previous editions. To make sure it remains a living, useful document.
Some of the things we looked at in the customary this week were the moments when the celebrant and sacred ministers bow after the words of institution, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” At the nine o’clock service we bow, because, truthfully, it would be hard to genuflect, or kneel on one knee, behind the altar. It just looks funny. And so we bow at that moment.
We do lots of bowing around here. We bow our heads at the name of Jesus. We might bow or genuflect before the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We may bow or genuflect at the mention of the incarnation, as in the creed, “[Jesus] came down from heaven…by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man…” We may even kneel during the canon of the mass, the portion of the Eucharistic prayer when we pray that the bread and wine may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ--that his real presence might be made known in the gifts of Bread and Wine.
All of this bowing and genuflecting and kneeling is designed to do one thing--to show reverence, respect, to the presence of Christ in the world around us. It’s designed to show us in our bodies as well as our minds that we put Christ first in all things. That we confess with our whole selves that “Jesus Christ is Lord…” as the epistle reading says.
I love that we genuflect here, that we bow, that we kneel--that we use our whole bodies, not just our minds, to pray. When I was growing up the only time that I thought about kneeling was when I watched a period film and characters were genuflecting to a monarch--or when a coach said to a high school football team, “Take a knee.” That usually meant he wanted to tell them something--and wanted the players to be quiet and listen.
With the start of football season again this year, lots of players have been taking a knee--not just football players, but lots of people--in what’s become a surprisingly controversial gesture. If you follow football at all, or if you read the news, or if you’re on Twitter, you already know what all this is about. Almost a year ago now a player for the San Francisco 49’ers called Colin Kaepernick, during a pre-season game. Kaepernick remained on the bench while other players stood. Kaepernick sat out the National Anthem as a form of protest, as a way of making a statement publically repudiating systemic cultural racism, protesting the racist treatment of African Americans and people of color in our society. A few games later, Kaepernick shifted to kneeling during the national anthem before games as a way of maintaining his protest while also honoring the service of men and women in our armed forces. A way of showing love and respect for our nation and her people, while still calling it and us to account for the racism that’s a part of our shared lives together. By the time our President called on the NFL to fire players who didn’t stand for the National Anthem, the idea of taking a knee during the National Anthem had apparently become a subject of national debate, with passionate feelings on both the standing and kneeling sides of things. This week at the New Haven Symphony’s opening night of its season, as the conductor walked on stage at Woolsey Hall to lead the stirring strains of our National Anthem, the woman in front of me knelt down in her row, and later the conductor made a comment about making it through the National Anthem “without incident.” Wherever I go, I can’t seem to get away from this issue of kneeling and the National Anthem.
Now, I suppose Christians of good conscience can hold different opinions about Mr Kaepernick’s action. The irony is not lost on me that what this It strikes me that taking a knee looks an awful lot like genuflecting to me, like a posture of deep respect. But others see it as an affront to the flag, the nation, or the National Anthem itself. Mr Kaepernick has made public statements about both his love for our country and also about his concern about how our country treats people of color. I don’t think, as Christians, we can ignore the overwhelming evidence of systemic and ever-present racism in our culture that seeks to oppress African Americans and other people of color. We can’t ignore statistics that show that the US locks away in prison a far higher percentage of its citizens than most of the rest of the industrialized world--and that a tremendously disproportionate number of those prisoners are black. We can’t ignore our history of racial injustice, from Jim Crow to slavery itself. We can’t ignore that some people in our country owned other people, and that our entire economic system, at its founding, benefitted from slave labor. It’s worth taking a knee to lament, to mourn, those injustices.
But if in Mr Kaepernick’s action we find critique and rebuke, I also find invitation and hope in the idea of taking a knee. I’m not suggesting anyone should or shouldn’t fall down the next time the National Anthem is played. But I am suggesting that the one we are called to kneel before, the one at whose name “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 this one, Jesus Christ, gives us a way forward. Even when the whole world, when all of our civil society, seems divided, when there seems no way forward together, no hope, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us hope for reconciliation. Hope for healing. Hope for tomorrow. I find hope in the gospel lesson—the story of the son that shows up to work in the vineyard.
We had something of a similar story in my family growing up. Every Christmas my grandmother would host a big gathering for all of her family. It was a big enough family, five four children and their spouses, twelve grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, and a few crying great-grandchildren sprinkled in for good measure. And so this gathering was pot luck. Folks would volunteer to bring something--a meat, a side, a dessert. And every year my aunt Rachel would promise to bring asparagus casserole for thirty people, for example, and then flake out and bring dinner rolls instead. My aunt Sarah, however, would always over-prepare. She’d say she was bringing a ham, but she’d really show up with a ham, a turkey, sweet potato casserole, and asparagus casserole for thirty--because she knew her sister-in-law was going to forget. Now, the dynamics of all of this are fraught, to be sure, but the point is that we learned to rely on my aunt. We loved both Aunt Rachel who brought the rolls and Aunt Sarah who over-functioned and brought enough food to feed an army. But we could COUNT on Sarah. We knew, no matter what was said, that Sarah would come through. That she’d make sure everything was okay.
The gospel today has a story a bit like that. A father has two sons, and he asks them to go work in his vineyard. One son says he’s not coming, don’t count on him, he just can’t make it. And yet he shows up, he puts in his time, he helps out and gets the job done. The other says that, sure, he’ll work in the vineyard. He has the best of intentions. But who knows, maybe he overslept, or maybe he just needed to get a little work done at home, or maybe he just wasn’t feeling well. He doesn’t show. It sounded right, but he never delivers. It’s the brother that shows up, the one that changes his mind, that actually ends up doing the thing his father asks.
The brothers are both from the same family. But only one shows up in the vineyard. We know that Matthew’s story, this tale in the gospel, is designed as an invitation to Matthew’s community, to his brothers and sisters, an invitation to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, to follow him. But the verses that follow make it clear that whatever the community has believed, whatever has come before, all are welcome in the vineyard.
The prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom before the religious authorities, Jesus says. Because nothing that has come before is beyond redeeming. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
How can our society, so deeply divided -- divided by racism, by ideology, by hurtful words and hurtful policies and hurtful disregard for one another -- how can we move forward? How can we live together, in the legacy of racism and slavery that divides us? That oppresses so many of our brothers and sisters, that tears our society apart?
This story of the son who changes his mind, who ends up doing the thing that his father asks even when he said he wouldn’t--this story gives me hope for our country, our society. This story of God’s grace gives me hope for change, for healing, for reconciliation and wholeness.
In Ezekiel today we hear the proverb, “‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” (Ez 18.1b-3) God, speaking through the prophet, proclaims a different reality--a reality in which change is possible. A reality in which future generations can live differently. “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” (31-32)
When we realize the great sacrifice that Christ has made--how much God has loved each of us, how much God wants to be in relationship with us--how much God wants us to be whole, to be the people that God has created us to be--when we realize that, how can we but help to love God and love one another in return. How can we but help to turn and live--to do whatever it takes to change our lives, our systems, our culture so that every person is valued, every person is respected, every person is treated with dignity. So that every person is loved.
We have an example in Christ Jesus ,who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.” (Phillipians 2.5-8). Not only do we have an example in Jesus, but we have an invitation--an invitation to participate in his death and resurrection. An invitation to be freed by him from the bonds of sin and shame. An invitation to turn and live. An invitation into new life, into the hope, the joy, of resurrection and wholeness.
Not merely an example, a pattern, but a whole new way of being. We have died with Christ, and we have risen with Christ. We are incorporated into his new resurrection life.
In the days that follow, can we take a knee? Can we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, his life, death, and resurrection--his invitation to new life--as the governing principle of our own lives? Can we love as Jesus has loved us? Can we love one another as he has loved us? Can we trust in his redeeming power?
Through God’s grace we can. May we claim the liberation, the freedom, that Jesus promises. May we change the things in ourselves and in our society that separate and divide, that oppress and subjugate, so that all may live. In the love of Christ, through his redemption, may it be so.
 Steve Wyche, Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem.” nfl.com, 8/27/2016. Retrieved 9/30/2017 at http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-protest-of-national-anthem.
 Billy Witz, ”This time, Colin Kaepernick takes a stand by kneeling during anthem.” The New York Times,September 1, 2016, p. B11. Accessed online 9/30/2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/02/sports/football/colin-kaepernick-kneels-national-anthem-protest.html.
 https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/911655987857281024 (accessed 9/30/2017).