“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?”
Here’s my sermon this Memorial Day weekend on the Sunday’s lection from Galatians 1.1-12.
When I returned initially from medical leave, I was so excited over coming back to work and I was happy because (most of) you all seemed excited to have me back at church. At least, I thought that was the case.
But then, one morning while I was unpacking and organizing my new office, I heard a soft rap on my door. I looked up and my illusions of happy homecoming burnt away like so much dross. There they were, Murice Kincannon and Marcie Bowker, with a question in their eyes so obvious it bore like a bullet hole straight through me.
“We were just discussing after our meditation group,” Marcie Bowker began “innocently,” “and we thought we’d ask you.”
“Ask me what?” I said as though I was curious but I could already smell sulfur in the air.
Marcie leaned in, wraith-like, through my doorframe and with a ghoulish smile she asked me: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with having an American flag in the sanctuary?”
And that’s when I knew not everyone was happy to have me back, at least not Marcie and Murice because why else would they have pulled the pin on a query like that and thrown it at my feet?
“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” That question- it’s like the theological equivalent to when your wife asks you “Does this dress make me look fat?”
There’s no good way to answer because you can tell from the way the question is put to you that there’s no way to slip loose of it without causing offense.
“Not that dress honey.”
There’s no good way to answer especially when you consider that, with Shirley Pitts’ passing, Murice Kincannon is now Aldersgate’s token liberal and Marcie Bowker is most definitely not so I felt trapped. Entrapped.
“Did the Bishop put you put to this?” I asked.
Murice and Marcie- they didn’t catch my meaning. They instead asked me their question again: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” At least, I think they asked me it again. It was like that scene in Teen Wolf when an underage Michael J. Fox tries to buy a keg of beer and the crotchety guy at the counter asks for his ID. All I could hear was my own heart beating in my forehead as I watched their lips forming the question.
It was like that scene where Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye send a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder crashing into a ravine and they see their entire future destroyed with it.
It’s the kind of question churches have split over, the kind of question theologian bloviate over, the kind of question that preachers get fired over and after my vacation called cancer I’m sort of attached to my health insurance.
So I didn’t answer their question.
Instead I did what I only do in the case of emergencies like when my wife asks me if this shade of makeup makes her look old or when son asks me if he can ask a girl out on a date. I just laughed this high-pitched, manic and hysterical, eye-twitching laugh like a Disney Store worker on an acid trip.
When I regained consciousness and picked myself up off the floor, Murice and Marcie had snuck away like ninja assassins presumably waiting, like the devil himself, for another opportune time to undo me.
So I never answered their question.
But I didn’t forget it.
I thought of their question again a few weeks later, a few weeks ago, when Ali and I took our boys to the Nationals Home Opener.
Before the game, the entire outfield was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. The colors were processed into the ballpark with priestly soberness. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung and silence for the fallen was observed. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes.
And it struck me that it felt like a kind of worship service. I mean, there was even organ music and a young family being shushed by an elderly curmudgeon, which is as close to a worship as you can get.
And that’s no great insight on my part because after the silence my oldest son, X, said to no one in particular “that was just like church.”
If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up might have been the only ones left in the stands.
It was a kind of liturgy in that we were celebrating what’s been done for us and offering gratitude. It was a kind of liturgy in that it was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular story. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if and when called upon.
To be honest, looking up at the scoreboard at the pictures of fallen men and women- kids really- I even had tears in my eyes. And here’s the rub- I don’t know that I’ve ever once teared up during a Christian liturgy. Realizing that in Section 136, I thought of Marcie’s and Murice’s question again.
Though we haven’t changed out the parament colors to observe it, Memorial Day is a delicate time for Christians. It’s a day that requires discretion not because the valor of fallen soldiers lacks honor- not at all- but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.
As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.
War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.
Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.
Now, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of the baseball park pageantry. I’m instead suggesting that, like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.
Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.
If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.
People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’
This is hardly the fault of our troops but why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?
When engaged couples tell me they plan to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions for which they might have to suffer.
How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?
But if what it means to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved how could our children ever make up their own minds, choose for themselves, until after they’ve apprenticed under Jesus?
Quite literally, they don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve had their minds shaped by Christ. I know my kids still don’t have minds worth making up for themselves.
Western culture teaches us to think we should get to choose our faith story for ourselves, but notice how that story (the story we should get to choose our faith story) is a story that which none of us got to choose.
Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.
It’s a lie that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’
And its just such nonsense that should make Christians wonder if the Church is really the who the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as our faith is relegated to the private then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord and King to Secretary of After Life Affairs.
And that’s no small thing, for as Paul argues angrily in our text from Galatians today to alter the Gospel is no Gospel, to revise the Gospel is to reverse the Gospel.
The Church is called to reframe everything in our lives in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Christ’ of course wasn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.
It was a political word.
It’s a title: King.
The King who elects.
To be a light not to our nation but to the nations.
And so on Memorial Day that call upon us- it doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of those who’ve laid their lives down for their friends.
It instead means we remember that that love is not how Jesus loves us. Jesus laid his life down not for his friends and countrymen but for sinners, for his enemies. For the ungodly, as Paul puts it.
Our call as Christians is to remember that it’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for us, we Christians, that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4).
That call upon us- it means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on our national calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen, though significant, was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”
The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death- it’s always good to point out- that was delivered up by the best and brightest of both Church and State.
The ultimate sacrifice, we proclaim, was made God.
For the ungodly.
Jesus made/Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice.
He is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including- in a way we don’t yet understand- the sacrifice of war), and Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.
Maybe that just sounds like a slight linguistic matter to you, but for Christians such matters matter, for as Paul warns us today in Galatians 1 to get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.
To get the world wrong, which correlatively is to get our nation wrong too. To get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.
So much so that even Paul says he should be accursed if he communicated any Gospel other than the Gospel of how Jesus Christ has freed us (past perfect tense) from the present (tense) evil age.
Such linguistic matters matter for Christians.
They do so because they help us answer questions like that question Marcie and Murice asked me: ‘Is there anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?’
Or rather, they help us to see that such a question is the wrong question. I mean, sure, if you’re more moved by the flag than you are by the cross or the cup then it might be an idol, but it’s still the wrong question.
The question about the flag is the wrong question because as Paul says here in Galatians the spatial metaphors the question relies upon (church vs. country, sanctuary vs. America)- the spatial, place-oriented categories get the Gospel wrong.
According to Paul, here in Galatians, if we’re going to remove anything from the sanctuary it should be the clock.
We should tear down the clocks in our sanctuaries.
Because according to Paul the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.
The trouble is so much of the world doesn’t yet know it’s been transitioned into a new time.
The dichotomy that matters for Christians, the dichotomy we should be concerned with, isn’t God or Country it’s Before and After.
Before and After- Between the old age and the new.
Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation.
Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time.
The New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And we can live according to that time in any place.
So don’t worry about the flag, get rid of that clock because it lures us into forgetting that Christians are called by God to be the People who know what time it is. It lures us into forgetting that the time we call the Kingdom isn’t something we await far off in the future. It’s now.
And it’s here whenever we gather together to do the things that Jesus did and to proclaim what God did through him.
And that’s why what Christians do in here is the most important thing to do on Memorial Day weekend. We worship the One who sits on the throne.
If the Gospel is true, if the old age has been invaded and destroyed, if we’ve been set free into a New Age then worship is the most important thing we can do because, if the Gospel is true, then that means what’s wrong with the world (the sin that leads to war that leads to Memorial Day) is that it fails to acknowledge that God is God.
The world doesn’t know what time it is, but we do. So come, let us worship God.