The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
17th Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017
It’s the age old question in the Episcopal Church. The question that has plagued us for generations. This fight cuts closer to home than revising the Book of Common Prayer. It’s more important than who can be a priest or a bishop. This is the question that has torn congregations apart: at what temperature should we set the air conditioning?
Here at Holy Comforter this is an acute question. See, I have learned quite a bit about air conditioning in my five years here. First of all, I’ve learned that we do not have a system designed for churches; our system is designed for residential spaces. And as much as might like our church, no one lives here. Second, you can see that the air conditioning vents are not placed strategically in our space. Some people freeze, other people sweat depending on how close or far away from the aisle you happen to sit. The difference is minute – just one click, one degree means fanning yourself or grabbing a sweater. Creeds, sacraments, whatever – what we care about is the thermostat.
Well, there’s an old story about this, it might be legend, but it’s good story. There was a little congregation in England in the middle of the 1800s, and they were having a similar issue. One Sunday morning, while the priest was droning on and on about something or other, the people started to get a little hot. Imagine, those stuffy wool clothes, those tiny little pews, and on that day, the windows above the altar that were supposed to be open as the ventilation system happened to be closed. It was stifling. Eventually, the atmosphere in the church became so unbearable that one of the wardens, a leading layperson, took matters into his own hands. During the middle of the service, he marched right up to the front of the church, climbed on top the altar, and opened the windows high upon the wall. The priest was horrified.
This began what is commonly known as the Cambridge Movement; a movement within the Church to instill order, formality, and reverence into the worship services. It was because of the Cambridge Movement that we now have candles on the altar, it’s why we love Gothic architecture, and it’s why priests wear four layers of clothes on Sundays. When everybody else was kneeling, one man decided to stand, and the church noticed. Today it’s the other way around – some have decided to take a knee when others were standing, and we’ve all noticed.
Even if we don’t watch football or care about the NFL, we all have an opinion. But more than anything, what strikes me is how this conversation has been framed. It’s gone beyond civics, it’s now almost religious. As good Episcopalians, we know that standing and kneeling are religious postures. What we do with our bodies – stand, sit, kneel – expresses what we mean with our souls.
We sit to listen, to be inspired. We sit to hear the scriptures and the sermon. We stand to sing, to hear the gospel. We bend the knee to pray. We bend the knee to say our confession of sins. Many of us kneel to receive the Holy Communion. For the Christian, kneeling is the sign of ultimate respect and humility toward God. Whether we sit, stand, or kneel, we are making a religious statement.
Saint Paul was not an Episcopalian, but he understood the difference. In our reading from Philippians this morning he says, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth.” This phrase is part of what is called, “the Christ hymn.” What we read from Philippians this morning was most likely an ancient Christian hymn that was sung in churches two thousand years ago.
Jesus Christ emptied himself for us, poured himself out for us, and humbled himself. Even though he was God, Jesus Christ became one of us. He was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. He may have been treated as the lowest of the low while he hung on the cross, but now he is king of all. So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.
When faced with the reality of who God is, we can’t help but kneel in humility. Jesus Christ is so loving, so gracious, so merciful, that we are compelled to bend our knees and our hearts.
What we do with our bodies is a sign of what we mean with our hearts. The public maelstrom that is brewing over the NFL reveals something deep about the heart of our country. We are a people terribly uneasy with each other. We’re fighting over the cultural thermostat. For some of us, the temperature is quite cool, just fine. But for others, it’s stifling. Some cheered and some were horrified when that warden climbed the altar to open the window. Some will cheer, and some will be horrified this Sunday afternoon when the whole drama is played out again.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. Indeed, I am grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America. I am grateful to live in this country. I am grateful for the freedoms and liberties I enjoy. I am grateful for our leaders – both political leaders and military leaders. I am proud of my country. And honestly, I don’t even watch football. I take a nap on Sunday afternoons.
And maybe I have no more to say than I simply find it interesting – providential, perhaps – that our New Testament lesson was about kneeling, when all everybody is talking about is taking a knee. Saint Paul did not have the San Francisco 49ers in mind when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. If anything, it’s simply a lesson that what we do with our bodies says something about our souls. And the kneeling, the standing, the interlocking of arms at football games makes us uncomfortable because it is asking us to consider the soul of America. And if you’re anything like me, I don’t necessarily like examining my own soul, my own conscience. I’m afraid of what I might find there. The same goes for our society. The mirror can be a scary place.
I also understand that in this current environment, everything is heard as having a political bent. You may even think that I have gone too far in this sermon by bringing up this issue; that I have become too political. Be that as it may. I am first and foremost a disciple of Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, I bend the knee to the cross of Jesus Christ, because that is an indication of what I mean with my soul; a sign of reverence, of deep humility, a sure and certain knowledge of my own frailty. And I suppose this is a political statement, political insofar as I believe the Kingdom of God is just that, a Kingdom. A Kingdom in which the Lord is Jesus Christ, the same Jesus Christ who gave himself for me, and for you, and for everybody. The Kingdom that I want to belong to is the peaceable kingdom. The kingdom in which no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love. Along with everyone in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, I will bend the knee at the name of Jesus Christ. And all people, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or where they come from, are also welcome to bend the knee to Jesus Christ.
Saint Paul was not thinking about football players, but he was thinking about us; he’s writing to followers of Jesus. And if we think we live in troubling times, Paul did even more so. Those were times when Christians could be killed, literally killed, for not assuming the proper posture in reverence to the Roman Emperor. In a way, Saint Paul gets us. He understands that we will always be uneasy with each other. That we won’t always agree on the temperature. But that something more, something deeper must define who we are as a people. We must be a people of mercy because Jesus Christ is merciful. We must be a people of forgiveness, because Jesus Christ is forgiving. We must be a people of love, because Jesus Christ first loved us. And so to that fledgling Christian community in Philippi, Paul says:
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”