September 27, 2020
I’m Number Three! – September 27, 2020
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I’m coming to you from my deck this morning on Day 6 of COVID quarantine. I don’t have the virus, thanks be to God, but I’m home out of an abundance of caution through the rest of the 14-day incubation period.
And though I’m very grateful that my test was negative, I have to say that it took a little while for me to get to a point of gratitude this week. It’s not that I mind being at home. What pushed my buttons this week was being told that I have to be at home. It meant I had to change plans and cancel things. It put extra stress on the other clergy and staff. It shut me off from my wife. It meant having a whole lot more attention focused on me, personally, than I like. So, this week wasn’t my best moment. I was frustrated and angry that my freedom was being limited this way when I hadn’t done anything to deserve it.
Well, who would have thought that an antidote to my frustration would come from the news, pretty much our least likely source of inner peace these days? Now, there was plenty in the news this week to stoke frustration, with word coming of the absence of charges in Breonna Taylor’s shooting in Louisville. As the Kentucky attorney general said, the law was followed; and the rule of law is what we follow in this country. But, once again, the effect is that a Black life seems not to matter as much in the eyes of the system as that life matters in the eyes of God. But alongside that story in Wednesday’s news was word of the death of a former football player – Kansas standout and NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. And that’s where my peace came from.
Now, Gale Sayers played before I was old enough to pay attention to football. But hearing of his death took be back to the library at John J. Pershing Elementary School in Springfield, Missouri. On its shelves was a book called I Am Third – Gale Sayers’ own story of football but, more important, his story of friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo. If you read the book or saw the movie, you know Sayers was Black and Piccolo was White; and they were the first interracial teammates to share a room when the team traveled. You’ll also remember the deep pathos of their friendship, with Piccolo dying young of metastatic cancer.
So, why did the memory of this book help heal my anger and frustration about my COVID quarantine? It’s the book’s title and its message: I Am Third.
As Gale Sayers tells the story, his track coach at KU had a sign on his desk that read, “I am third.” Sayers asked him about it, and the coach said it was short for: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” Well, in his second year with the Chicago Bears, Sayers decided he wanted to wear a medallion with something meaningful written on it. So, he chose, “I am third,” and he wore it always. Sayers wrote, “I don’t consider myself a very religious person…. But I do think about God, and I try to say my prayers every night. And I thought this saying made sense: The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third…. If you think about it, it is a good philosophy of life. I try to live by it. Sometimes it’s hard. I don’t live by it all the time, I know, but keeping that saying close to me helps bring me back….”1
You know, I think there’s great hope in that – and, as our sermon series this fall reminds us, “Living Hope” is both our promise and our call as followers of Jesus. In fact, Gale Sayers was channeling this kind of hope – hope we heard about today in the reading from the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
It’s important to remember that Paul was writing this letter from prison. We don’t know which imprisonment it was, but Paul was held by the Romans; and his life was on the line. Now, Paul was a Roman citizen, and he was supposed to have certain rights because of his citizenship – but justice didn’t always play out the way it was supposed to in real life. Fast-forward a few years from the time this letter was written, and we find that Paul was executed, most likely caught up in Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians as scapegoats for Rome’s great fire in the year 64. So, Paul wasn’t just marking time in prison. As we heard in the reading last week, he didn’t know whether he would live or die.
So, sitting there in the emperor’s prison, Paul might reasonably have focused on his own problems. Instead, what we hear in the Letter to the Philippians, over and over again, is the word “joy.” Paul finds joy in his relationship with the Christians in Philippi, with whom he’s very close. He finds joy in the fact that some of the guards are listening to his story of faith and hope. And he finds joy in the last place we might expect to find it – in recognizing, like Gale Sayers, that he is third.
As Paul writes to the folks in Philippi, “Be of the same mind…. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus….” (2:2,3,5). Then he quotes what scholars think is an ancient hymn honoring the stunning paradox of Jesus’ journey on earth: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” humbling himself and becoming “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (2:6-8).
Now, stop a second, and just open yourself to this deepest mystery of all mysteries. God, in human flesh, chose to be a servant. In fact, in Greek, the word is “slave.” God chose to be a slave. Jesus emptied himself of his divine status and power and dominion, instead humbling himself and choosing death, even the worst kind of death the Romans could dish out. That’s what it looks like when God comes to be one of us.
Of course, that’s also not the end of the story. Our hope comes from the fact that, in God’s economy, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Our hope comes from the fact that our true emperor isn’t the one with the keys to the prison but the one who frees us from every chain. Jesus rises from death and receives “the name that is above every name,” the name to which all creation bows down, the name “Lord” (Philippians 2:9,11). The word for “Lord” that Paul uses, the Greek word kyrios, had a wide-ranging meaning, everything from “sir” to what it means in today’s reading, which is “emperor.” Caesar used that term, kyrios, to describe himself. So, sitting in Caesar’s prison, Paul was writing holy sedition – that the true kyrios isn’t the one on the throne in Rome but the One on the throne in heaven. And what brought the true king to that throne was the path of self-emptying, of humility, of humiliation – of setting aside his status now to receive his exaltation later.
That’s our call, too. You can phrase it as, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). You can phrase it as, “I am third.” You can phrase it as, “Wear a mask.” You can phrase it as, “Quarantine, whether you like it or not.” If you look like me, you can phrase it as, “Black lives matter just as much as mine.” Or, you can phrase it as, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s all about emptying ourselves. And when we empty ourselves, we join in with every tongue – “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10) – in confessing the truth that Jesus Christ is the one who’s Lord. Because when we say that we are third, we’re following in the footsteps of our kyrios, our emperor.
So, there’s eternal hope in that for us, but being third also gives us hope in the here and now. Our Scripture and tradition teach us that practicing our faith boils down to this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. The Lord is first, others are second, and we are third. And I believe there’s a healing balm in that formula for us, even in these excruciatingly divided times. Just among our church family – to say nothing of our nation – we see policy and politics so differently. And you know, that’s just fine. It’s been true of our nation, and our Anglican tradition, for centuries now. It’s even just fine in God’s eyes. In this letter to his friends in Philippi, Paul doesn’t tell them they all have to all have the same opinions. He says they have to “be of the same mind” (2:2) – in fact, “the same mind … that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). When we do that, when we share the same mind that “I am third,” we immediately find the thing we’re lacking most right now, and that’s common ground. I don’t care what might be the specifics of our political or social beliefs, if we all put ourselves third, we find ourselves on common ground.
So, say it loud and say it proud: In a world that honors the victors, “I’m number three!”
1. Sayers, Gale, and Al Silverman. I Am Third. New York: Bantam, 1970. 43.