Two of my most favouritest topics clashed this past week: politics and professional sports. You have probably heard the drama around this “taking a knee” or something movement that is happening within the NFL, where players have been kneeling during the singing of the national anthem before games, instead of standing with a hand over their heart as has been done always since dinosaurs roamed the earth. In case you didn’t get a chance to look it up like I did all week, the protest or movement or demonstration or whatever you want to call it, started a bit over a year ago, when the then San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick decided to sit through the singing of the national anthem before a preseason game, in support of the #blacklivesmatter movement. That sitting evolved into kneeling because it isn’t supposed to be about disrespecting the flag per se, but rather to show reverence to those of colour who were senselessly killed by police. Kaepernick stated that he couldn’t stand and feel pride in a flag that has come to represent justifying racism and profiling. His protest essentially cost him his career, but he didn’t give up. One might say this is a noble cause, but it didn’t really gain as much popularity as it did this past week.
Why? Well, because President Trump decided to say something about it, of course. He said some pretty nasty things too, essentially saying that the whole movement is a disgrace to the flag and anyone participating should be fired for treason. And we all know whenever the president touches something, the media goes nuts. This gave the movement a whole bunch of ground, so much so that even a huge sports fan like me who never heard of this take a knee thing suddenly can’t get three clicks of my mouse in before I see something pop up on my browser about it.
There are people on both sides of the whole thing, those who take the side of the NFL players and those who take the side of the president. And honestly, with this thing I can completely understand both sides and why it can be so polarizing. On the one hand, human dignity and rights are being considered, the good of all people fighting for equality, justice, respect. But on the other hand, you have the opinion of president of the United States on your side. This guy is supposedly the most powerful person on earth, so you’d think he’d know what he’s talking about. You’d think, at least. But even if he didn’t, can you really go wrong with taking his side? Before I hear a resounding “yes”, consider this: the office of president is larger than life, backed by the secret service, the US marines, and a giant payload of nuclear weapons. It is full of power, strength, and authority. And this authority gives confidence to those who side with him, because this kind of power has influence, good or bad.
But those NFL players? What authority do they have? They are among the least paid in local professional sports, second only to CFL which is like the lowest in the world. While people love to watch the game, unless you’re huge like Tom Brady or Brett Favre or Dan Marino, chances are only the most loyal of fans would even know who you are. And I only know those three because of Family Guy, Something About Mary, and Ace Ventura. No, professional athletes might have influence on the youth of today in the clothes they wear, but in the great grand scheme of things, they don’t have a whole lot of authority.
So which authority would you follow? I mean, aside from the current president, would you generally rather follow one of almost unlimited power, bone-crushing might, and what should be global respect, or one of general obscurity, relative poverty, and a very small circle of influence? I know it might depend on what you’re following into, but there is something to be said about the rich and powerful.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” The chief priests and religious leaders ask Jesus this in regards to him overturning the tables of the money changers and merchants in the temple. In doing so, Jesus basically spat in the face of years and years of tradition and custom. It is how things were done to properly respect and worship God. How dare he just waltz in here and overturn these tables, disrupt these religious lives, disrespect this authority? This guy doesn’t know who he’s messing with. So they want to get to the bottom of this and show him what’s up.
But Jesus doesn’t answer them the way they want him to. Instead he gives them a riddle, which they refuse to answer, because I think they largely misunderstand the question, and so Jesus explains with the parable of the two brothers. One brother is a jerk but dutiful, the other is a nice guy but unreliable, of which of these two does the father love more?
Wait, which the father loves more? Jesus asks who did the will of the father, not which the father loves more. Why would I very intentionally change Jesus’ words like that?
Well, isn’t that why we do what we do? Don’t we think about what others would think about our actions before we do them? Don’t we think about the approval we might get or not get for doing what we do? Aren’t we concerned with how God regards us so we act in a way that would make us, at very least, look like Christians? Essentially, don’t we give the authority to choose what we do to those whom we want the most love from?
That is what seems like is going on with the religious leaders questioning Jesus’ actions, or with the two brothers in the parable, and with those who voice such disapproval over someone not standing during a song and facing a piece of fabric. We do what we do in hopes of garnering that approval, that respect, that love from others. And this longing is a powerful thing. It leads us to compromise our principles, water down our ethics, and even hold these redundant rallies to drum up a fan base that really doesn’t make any sense at all.
By what authority do you do these things?
The question asked by the religious leaders was valid. They were acting out of the authority of God as they saw it, hoping to stay in God’s good books and fearing being left behind. And so they refuse to answer Jesus’ question about John because they thought the answers around authority could only be from power and fear. But Jesus was trying to show them another answer, an answer around a gracious love, a love from a God in which we can freely worship, pray, and serve, and a love for all people which includes the poor, the hungry, and the outcast. Jesus is saying that we act, that we move, that we follow the authority of this love, being informed by what is good and right and true, and empowered by the Spirit of God and community. We needn’t go searching for this love, we don’t have to compromise or manipulate to get it, we don’t need the longing for this love to be our authority in decision making. Rather, we can rest assured that we have this love regardless, and we can act and move and be free in knowing that we are ruled by grace and mercy.
So which of the two brothers did the father love the most? Truth is, the father loves both of them the same. But one of them was changed by that love, and acted accordingly, following the authority of the Spirit in him, moving him to put aside personal desire and greed and work for the good of all people.
As it is with us, as we are all dearly and equally loved by God, may that love move us, empower us, and inform us of life and faith, that we may work together for the good of all people for the sake of the good news that we have received from Jesus our Lord.
As we move into this fall season, and hear the presentation of L’arche after the service, may we see how God is moving and acting in and around our community and world, that we may see the authority of God’s love in us and others, changing and empowering us to act and live as God’s beloved children. Thanks be to God. Amen.