U2’s Grammy Award winning song “Vertigo” ends with Bono repeating this line.
“Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”
Now given the fact that this is a rock-n-roll song it’s fair to say that this line could mean any number of things. On one hand, it could refer to a relationship that’s gone bad, brought you to your knees, and left you pleading that this person would mercifully just get out of your life. That’s a possibility, but since this is a line written by Bono, it’s also fair to hear this lyric as a call to consider love’s higher nature, love’s ability to humble us—to turn us away from pride and selfish ambition—to teach us, with a clean heart and a new and right spirit, how to kneel.
To be loved humbles us by reminding us that being in relationship with even those who know us best requires grace, forgiveness, and kindness. In fact, being in relationship especially with those who know us best requires grace, forgiveness, and kindness.
In a very real sense, to be loved is to be known intimately—to remove, perhaps with a bit of trepidation, the masks of pride or pretense behind which we all live and to find in that moment of vulnerability, acceptance not rejection.
Writer Andrew Sullivan tells an inspiring story about the moment when he came out of the closet as a gay man to his parents. When Sullivan’s father heard the news he immediately doubled over and, with his face in his hands, began to sob. Unsure of what exactly these tears meant, Andrew pleaded with his father to say something, to tell him why he was crying. Finally, his father lifted his head, looked his son in the eye, and said, “I’m crying because of everything you must have gone through when you were growing up, and I never did anything to help you.”
Years later, Sullivan tearfully remembers these as some of the most beautiful words ever spoken to him, a true moment of grace. And we, as people of faith, see in a father’s love for his son, an echo, an imprint of our Heavenly Father’s love for each of us, love that teaches us how to kneel.
Parents’ love for their children, the love shared among close friends, the love between a couple whose relationship has been seasoned by years of joy and sorrow—I hope that there’s someone in your life to whom you can say, “I don’t know why you put up with me, but I’m so glad you do because your love makes all the difference to me.”
As Christians, there’s a word we can use to describe loving relationships like these. We can say that they are sacramental relationships, which means that our experience of them reveals an even deeper more profound reality and truth—in this case, the reality and truth about God’s love each of us.
This morning, then, we gather together as a community of Jesus’ disciples shaped by the truth that God’s love for us—revealed perfectly in Christ’s cross—has humbled us (has taught us how to kneel), and in doing so, has shown us how to live faithfully before God and honorably among our neighbors.
A parable about prayer taken from the eighteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel is our point of contact with this Good News today, and just in case there was any doubt regarding its meaning, Luke clears things up straightaway.
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…Arrogant, proud, self-centered, conceited people, people who are compelled to belittle their neighbors in order to inflate their own egos—two thousand years later we feel as though we have a pretty sharp picture of the crowd to whom Jesus told a story about a religious leader and a social outcast who went to God’s Temple to pray.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee (that’s the religious fellow) and the other a tax-collector (an often despised profession, especially, frowned upon by many pious folks in ancient Israel because of the cooperation with the Roman Imperial government it required). The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”Then Jesus made his point.
I tell you, this [tax-collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.Like the lyrics to a good song, there are many points that we can draw from this parable.
Here, Jesus teaches us not to presume to know the contents of our neighbor’s heart.
He warns against trusting in mere outward appearances if we’re looking for the true saints in our midst.
And he cautions us not to believe everything we’ve heard about Pharisees and tax-collectors because reputations don’t always square with reality.
Certainly these are truthful lessons we can draw from the parable, but it’s Jesus’ own concluding remarks that deserve our closest attention.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.As God’s love incarnate, Jesus called for disciples who aspired to humbly bend their knees in confession and who recognized the folly of trying to lift themselves up by treading their neighbor’s dignity beneath their feet.
Said another way, C.S. Lewis wrote this on the subject.
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you're not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.“[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” And the truth about us is that we were in the audience.
Jesus preached a parable about a Pharisee and a tax-collector to reveal our conceit and to show us a better way.
Jesus—The Lover of our Souls—is teaching us how to kneel.
This is why what Luke says happened next is so important.
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’In his time, given the prevailing attitudes regarding children, attitudes that saw them as little more than property—Jesus’ welcoming gesture was radical. Good religious leaders didn’t usually welcome children into their circle. His insistence, then, that his disciples emulate the little children was nearly scandalous. In essence, though, his actions underscored his message.
Just as Jesus invited the children to come unto him—you stand, I stand, we stand humbly before God because of the grace he has given us, not because of anything that we, in our pride, have either earned of taken from him.
God’s love is teaching us how to kneel.
Shaped by love, then, we are empowered to love in God’s name, and loving in God’s name will bring us into relationships with people like outcast tax-collectors and disenfranchised children.
Those who humbly kneel before God will get up to serve him among the world’s lonely, last, lost.
“Who is the person we are concerned about?” my beloved teacher Peter Storey once asked.
The person we exist to serve? For Jesus there was no question. In the Kingdom, the humble are lifted high and the most vulnerable have pride of place.This morning we gather together as a community of Jesus’ disciples shaped by the truth that God’s love for us—revealed perfectly in Christ’s cross—has humbled us (has taught us how to kneel), and in doing so, has shown us how to live faithfully before God and honorably among our neighbors.
Those who humbly kneel before God will get up to serve him among the world’s lonely, last, lost and that is why we call this message of grace and acceptance, forgiveness and mercy, Good News for all people. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Image: Man in Prayer