A couple of weeks ago, the NFL released a new policy about what its players are required to do during the national anthem. If you are just now catching up with the subject, a quick primer:
Over the last several months, there have been several NFL players, coaches, and even owners who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem as a way to protest racial inequity in our country. It became a pretty significant controversy and everyone got mad at everyone. Owners got mad at coaches for not making their players stand during the anthem. Some fans got mad at players and boycotted the game. Others cheered the players and blamed the NFL for censorship. The president even got involved and starting calling people names. It was a real mess.
So, the NFL a couple of weeks ago released a policy that suggested that if players want to protest during the anthem, they can do so by staying the locker room instead of coming out. If they come out during the anthem, they are required to stand. Not surprisingly, the reaction was mixed.
Some thought it was a brilliant compromise, so that it didn’t anger fans but gave players an outlet to protest.
Others were angry…they argue that it defeated the point of protest if now one sees them.
And while we fight about whether or not people we don’t know are standing or not during the anthem, the injustice that began it all continues.
I read a book over the last couple of weeks that tells the story of the civil rights movement. According to the author, the movement came in two parts. The first part came when the nation as a whole came to understand the significant violence done to people of color in the South. Jim Crow laws. Separate schools and bathrooms. Lynchings. America reacted with horror and swiftness and changed laws. The president signed the Voting Rights Act and together America stood against such violence.
But then, according to the book, a second phase of the movement began. The reality set in that for Blacks to become equal in the eyes of the country, then a lot more work had to be done. It meant that whites would have to give up some of the power in order to share with people of color. It meant that we would have to change some of the systems that create institutional racism. This second phase seemed too much for many, and those in power and those in privilege began to push back against the civil rights movement. They were OK fighting for change if it meant other people had to change, but when they themselves had to change attitudes and privilege, that’s a different story.
When I read this book, I got angry. I got angry that we didn’t go further when we had the momentum. I got angry at myself as a white male enjoying the privilege as the author states. I got angry that we still have so far to go: people of color still struggle to make as much money as their white counterparts, struggle to receive fair access to housing as their white counterparts, are arrested and convicted at higher rates nationally, and simply don’t receive the same benefit from the same amount of work.
But my greatest anger came from the fact that this book was the last one written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just a few months before his assassination. And the reality hit home that the America that we see today is in many ways not that different than the America he described fifty years ago. We have changed laws, but in so many ways, we have failed to change hearts. This quote is perhaps the most painful:
“The great majority of Americans are suspended between these opposing attitudes. They are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”
Yet. And we we fight over who is standing where in the moments before grown men throw and kick around a ball.
I see some pretty significant similarities with today’s Scripture passage. In today’s passage, Jesus gets angry. He and his disciples are wandering through a field of grain and they grab a few grains and rub them together and eat them. No harm, not foul, right? Except, they were doing it on the Sabbath – the day that God commanded that they rest. So, their plucking of grain constituted harvest and thus work and thus violated the Sabbath. The Pharisees, the church leaders, the keepers of the rules, the protectors of the status quo, were less than happy.
If that weren’t enough, also on the Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples went to the synagogue and a man with a withered hand was there. The Pharisees watched him to see if he would heal him, a clear violation of Sabbath rest, as healing required work.
When I was in high school, I remember clearly one day in Physics class an interaction between two of my friends, Phil and Jess. It was before class and the three of us were hanging out waiting and talking. I had some papers on my desk and Phil was standing up next to them talking and subconsciously reached down and took the papers and stacked them up and set them down, lined up with the corner of the desk, in neat fashion. As he kept talking, my other friend Jess caught my eye as if to say “watch this.” And she subtly took the papers and messed them up a little…put them back to slight disarray. As we watched, and as we continued to talk, Phil again subconsciously picked the papers up and re-stacked them, putting things back in order. This time, Jess got a devious look in her eye and once again, reached over and messed up the papers. This happened…another five times! Whether Phil ever realized that Jess was messing with him, I don’t know. And whether he would have continued doing this dance for hours if the bell had not rung, I don’t know either. But what I did know was that Jess saw it as her duty to mess with Phil. To mess with his presumption of order. To push back on his perfectionism a little bit. And she loved every minute of it.
I imagine a similar gleam in the eye of Jesus here at the beginning of Mark. Look at all of the times that he messes with the Pharisees. He messes up their order of things, throwing a little chaos into their minds and their lives. I think that Jesus is quite simply picking a fight. He and the disciples were not starving…they didn’t have to pluck those grains at that moment. And the man with a withered hand could have survived a few more hours until sundown…he didn’t need to be healed at that moment. But that wasn’t the point. The point is that Jesus was messing with them. Even in the story that he tells about Abiathar the priest, about how David went in and took some of the bread when he was hungry. Sounds like a great story, right? But it didn’t happen that way! According to the history, it wasn’t Abiathar, but his father Ahimelech who was priest when that happened. And maybe Mark just got it wrong. Or maybe Jesus didn’t know his history. Or maybe Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Anyone else ever purposefully do or say something a little off just to get the goat of someone that you know will have to correct it? I think that Jesus, with a gleam in his eye, was messing up the papers on the desk. He was pushing the boundaries on the rules because he knew it would mess with the Pharisees and that was his goal.
But why? Was Jesus just a jerk and trying to drive the perfectionists crazy? Of course not. Always the teacher, he was teaching. He had a better way!
He was disrupting. Jesus had respect for the rules and knew that they had their place. But he always tried to teach that the rules were not the end, but merely the means to the end. The end was always restoration, reconciliation, and redemption. “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” This man deserved to be healed because that was the most important priority. People are always the most important priority. Not rules. Not perfectionism. Again, it isn’t that Jesus hates all the rules, that he is an anarchist. But he is not-so-subtly teaching that the rules only matter when they help other people. People are always the priority. Jesus was trying to disrupt the Pharisees, in order to get them to care more about people than rules.
And Mark tells us that their focus on the rules was not just frustrating to him, but it made him angry. Angry to see people chewed up by systems that would rather keep things the way that they are than help those in pain or suffering. Angry to see that the people of the faith were leading the way to protect the systems that chewed people up. Angry that people were maimed and poor and hungry and hurting and alone and afraid and all that the Pharisees could do was tell him that he would have to wait until 5.37 instead of 5.36 in order to heal this man.
Angry because there was a better way. A way that restored and supported and loved people. A way that transformed hurting hearts. A way that was communal and equal and fair for all of God’s children.
I love Wendy Farley’s description of what better way Jesus is up to:
“By refusing to observe conventions for honoring the Sabbath, Jesus invites us into a tarrying form of faith in which time-honored practices are relativized by healing power, compassion, and joy.…This conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees contrasts religion that hardens hearts with the gospel that opens hearts to the ubiquitous presence of God and gives birth to compassion and joy.”
It is that better way, that life of compassion and joy, that Jesus calls us to. Jesus doesn’t just mess with the Pharisees to take away their security blanket. He messes with them because he has a better, more courageous way to live! He wants them, and the disciples, and the bystanders, and the man with the withered hand, and ALL OF US to live according to this better way. And if our perfectionism and love for the status quo and rigidity keep us from that life, then it makes Jesus angry, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt it.
The man at the center of the NFL anthem firestorm is an above average quarterback by the name of Colin Kaepernick. He played for the San Francisco 49’ers and was one of the first people to protest during the anthem. As the story goes, Kaepernick is a sold-out, unapologetic Christian. He has a tattoo from the Psalms on his arm, with the phrase, “To God be the Glory.” He was raised Methodist, but ended up in a Baptist church by college. He is a disciple of Jesus. Because of his faith, Kaepernick felt that he could not watch the racial discrimination of this country and do nothing. He believed that all people are created by God, and the way that some were treated because of their skin color was sinful and fallen. So he began sitting down during the national anthem. It would be his way of bringing attention to the issue and inspiring others to consider his faith decision to care about others and their plight.
But then he met Nate Boyer. Boyer was a former Green Beret who saw what Kaepenick was doing and reached out to him. They began having conversations and listening to each other. As Boyer described it later, he as a white man learned a lot about what it was like in the shoes of a black man like Kaepernick. And Colin learned about what it was like in the boots of someone who fought on behalf of that flag. So, as a result of their conversations, Boyer suggested that he not sit, but kneel during the anthem. Kneeling is a posture of respect in the context of something not right. We kneel by our bedside to pray when a loved one is sick. Soldiers will kneel at the grave of a fallen comrade as a symbol of respect. Kneeling is a way to show respect for the flag, but yet acknowledge that something is not right in the country that it represents. And so he did. And others followed suit. And the firestorm erupted.
Now, I don’t care if you like the NFL’s stance or not. You may love it. You may hate it. You may see the need to debate it endlessly on Facebook whether or not this is a good policy.
But honestly, to me that seems kind of irrelevant. It seems like we are just like the Pharisees debating the rules instead of asking how can we be like Colin and Nate and stand for people? Colin didn’t stand for the anthem, but he stood for the military that protected it. He stood for the good cops whose names and reputations are drug down because with those who are practicing police brutality. He stood for people of color, for victims and their families. He stood for the people under the flag. Under the anthem. He asked “how can I be more like Jesus?”
I believe that God puts people into our lives to disrupt our status quo, to push us to a better way. The way of compassion and joy!
The last chapter of Dr. King’s book is one of hope. It is titled “A World House” and uses the metaphor of a huge house in which we all live. Just like people living together under one roof, we in our country, and even in the world, need to learn to live with each other, to see everyone as a child of God. The actions that we take and the sacrifices that we make help to care for others in the house.
When I read the chapter, I thought immediately of an old Audio Adrenaline song from my growing up years: Big House. Like King, the song sings about a place where we all come together in community and praise and worship of God. The song was probably written about after this life, about heaven, but like King and others suggest, that if we mean the prayer “on earth as it is in heaven,” then our goals and our actions are to create a house on earth like it is in heaven. To usher in God’s community and compassion and joy.
That is my goal. That is my hope. That is why I preach good news and I work to address the bad news of this world. That is why I stand up here every Sunday and go off to school to learn to do it better. That is why I read my Bible and pray and go to four hour city council meetings, with the hope that one day, the words of the song will be true:
Come and go with me, to my Father’s house.
Come and go with me, to my Father’s house.
It’s a big, big house, with lots and lots of room.
It’s a big, big table, with lots and lots of food.
It’s a big, big yard, where we can play football.
It’s a big, big house. It’s my Father’s house.