Saturday, June 27, 2015

Waving Hello and Goodbye

Waving Hello and Goodbye                           6/28/15
4th sermon in Praise the Lord with Symbols series
Hebrews 11:8-10, Revelation 5:9-10

This summer, we have been joining with various symbols to give praise to the Lord.  Symbols are visible signs of something invisible.  Bread and Wine are a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and also of his presence at the table.  The sanctuary is a symbol of the house of God.  Letters, like IHS, are symbolic of the name of Jesus, and the power of that name.  Today, we look to the flags which wave in our sanctuary.

Like a warm greeting we receive from someone as we walk along the street, flags greet with their symbol and send us away with their message.  They are a symbol of something greater, something invisible.   For nations, they embody the most enduring and endearing values, as well as the power of a nation’s story.

In many sanctuaries throughout our land, there are two flags, a flag of the United States of America, and a Christian Flag.  This might come as a surprise to you, but flags in the sanctuary have evoked a wide variety of responses among believers and literally decades of debate.   In a sentence, this is because there is a complex relationship between faith and state.  But, being a pastor, we can’t simply leave this at one sentence.  What are some of the dynamics as to why flags would evoke such strong passion and emotion?
   --The strange bedfellows of church and state, co-existing in the first amendment to the constitution
   --the history and foundation of our countries forefathers: were they Christian? Judeo-Christian? 
      Moral?  Religious?

   --the sins committed throughout history, both American and world sins, whenever government and
     religion confused their roles and partnered in various endeavors

   --the temporal and eternal nature of government (God rules forever, every other kingdom does not)

   --war and peace

   --right and wrong done by nations

   --Generational differences, which I will speak to in a moment

   --the feelings we have regarding how consistent the nation’s values and government’s actions are.

   --the historical idea of Manifest Destiny, which I also will speak to in a moment

   --the power of the word Allegiance

   --the many examples where Christian and American values overlap

   --our citizenship on earth and in heaven  (news flash:  we won’t be separated by national
      boundaries in heaven)

   --For Titusville, there is also the dynamic of how close we are to one of the most famous events of
    the Revolution, and how that event solidified the efforts of a young nation

   --For Americans, these last 10 days of intensified the debate over the Confederate Flag

 In short, flags evoke strong emotions because it speaks to who we are, and who God is.  If we dig deep enough, the question always becomes:  Who is in charge?  And for the Christian, the answer is simple, even if our practice isn’t so simple: God is in charge.  He is owed our ultimate allegiance.

At the end of the day, I would contend that our faith identity should be more important than our national identity.  Being Christian is more important than being American.

Now, before you reach for your cell phone to dial Joseph McCarthy, this doesn’t mean it isn’t a blessing to be an American, a gift from God, and something that personally, I treasure.  I prove this each November by voting, and 4 times a year, sending in my taxes.  I prove this singing God bless America whenever I watch a ball game, and by praying for our leaders, as Scripture commands us to.  I proved this when teaching history to the best of my ability, not resorting to revisionist history, and teaching students that rights should always be married to responsibilities.

This God and country dynamic is where Manifest Destiny is so interesting.  When we see prosperity and growth, is the author of that God?  In 1845, the United States was growing.  You could look out and see the evidence:  Numerical growth, fueled by immigration, economic growth and the growth of vision for what the nation could become.  John O’Sullivan, a newspaper editor, coined a term:  Manifest Destiny.  The term implied a mission for the citizens, that Providence had blessed them, and it was their duty to be responsible with that blessing, even to the point of securing land from sea to shining sea.  It was this spirit that justified the War with Mexico from 1845-1848.  And, if you are someone who looks for results, the results of growing American prosperity were hard to argue with.  America was on its way to becoming a world power.  Surely, God must have wanted that, proponents suggested.

 Although the term was debated and discussed from its inception, and struggled to be totally embraced by the population, the spirit of manifest destiny was alive.  In many ways, it stills lives today.  We too struggle with the relationship of success and providence.

In 1897, a Sunday School teacher didn’t show up for his job at Coney Island, and the substitute brought forth his idea that there should be a flag for the Christian Faith.  Within the next decade, this idea grew in popularity. In fact, by 1942, the flag was endorsed by the World Council of Churches.  The Christian Flag also was red, white and blue.  White stood for purity, and some even suggested that just as a white flag was waived to surrender, that Jesus surrendered his life on the cross.  Blue stood for faithfulness, and for some, the waters of baptism.  The red cross stood for the sacrifice of Jesus.  And just like the American flag, the Christian flag had a pledge associated with it.  Penned by Methodist minister Lynn Hough:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Saviour for whose kingdom it stands; one brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and in love

But getting back to the American flag, an important dynamic in how people perceive the flag is found in generational differences.  As with all generational differences, we need to step back and put ourselves in the other’s shoes.  For there is usually a story and always a cultural context that serves as the basis for why ideas and feelings emerge:

If you are 90 years old, you were born in 1925, and were a young adult during WWII.  You might have even served in that war, or in war efforts.  Your background is that before you was the greatest threat western civilization had seen:  Fascism and Nazism.  Fighting for victory and the need to win created the greatest generation.

If you are 80 years old, you were a child during WWII.  And you probably have memories of what life was like during the war.  This includes the personal sacrifices that you and your neighbors had to make, in order to move the cause forward.

If you are 70 years old, you were born at the end of WWII, though you grew up during the beginnings of the Cold War, and the threat of Communism.

If you are 60 years old, you were born in 1955, when secret missions were being conducted in Vietnam, even if our official entrance into the war did not yet begin.  You were a teenager when America officially enters the War in Vietnam.  Society had to deal with the difficulty of how this war felt different than WWII.  Large pockets of people had questions.  Protests rocked towns and arguments took place at the dinner table.

If you are 50 years old, you were almost in double digits when the war in Vietnam ended. 

If you are 40 years old, you were born when Vietnam ended.  The first war that America participated in that you remember was the first war with Iraq.

If you are 30 years old, you were a teenager during September 11th.

If you are 20 years old, you were in 1st grade when September 11th occurred.
More of your life has occurred while at war with Afghanistan than not.

We’ve heard the stories of the sacrifices that were made during WWII by individuals and families.  But the world had changed. During the war with Afghanistan, many people worried more about the recession and their cell phone packages than the war.  There was a disconnect that our 80 year olds might have been shocked by. 

In many ways, the story of America is so fascinating.  Our story is perhaps the greatest success story of constitutional representative government in the history of the world.  America is a story of freedom, and prosperity, and goodness to neighbors throughout the world, rising up in the darkest of times to be a beacon of light.  Yet America is also a story for some throughout the generations of slavery, of survival, and the complexity of our relationship with other nations.  In this sense, America is a paradox.  And the American Flag engages the emotions of all its citizens, and ultimately, all people throughout the earth.  We’ll conclude our sermon in a few minutes with what to do with these flags that make home in this sanctuary.

But first, we should look at our morning Scriptures to remind us of the truth that God loves humanity.  God is in the business of blessing nations while building a trans-national being:  the kingdom of God.  The church has been called to be the primary speaker for announcing this kingdom.  The Bible is a story of two covenants:  one with a nation, Israel.  The New Covenant is with believers.  

With today’s theme of flags, and their symbolic praise to the Lord, there are no mentions of flags in the Scripture, though we come close with the idea of banners.  In Exodus, Moses calls God, The LORD is My Banner, after God helps Israel overcome battle with the Amalekites.  In the Song of Solomon, the woman speaks of her husband:  His banner over me is love.  Yes, the song we’ve taught our children is inspired by a romance story of biblical proportions.  And so we look to the message of the banners, that God protects his people, and that God is in love with his creation.

In Hebrews, we see the example of Abraham, whose faith justified him before God.  He understood the complexity of how this world is our home while we await our true, everlasting home.  For us, America is our home, while we wait for the eternal home of heaven. Abraham journeyed to a land that God had promised him.  He had faith in uncertain times.  Yet, he was never fully comfortable in this world, and considered himself a stranger even while entering the promise God had given him.  He chose a tent-dwelling life while future city life filled his mind.  He was an heir of a promise, and waited upon that promise by faith.  Even throughout all of Abraham’s prosperity, he looked to the city whose architectural plans were established by Almighty God.  God is architect and builder.

In Revelation, the heavenly scene is filled with living creatures, the Elders and the angels.  A new song gives praise to Jesus Christ, that lamb of God who was worthy to take God’s scroll and open it.  He had been slain and his blood redeemed us for his heavenly Father.  Who are the recipients of this gift of redemption, according to the song:  People from every tribe and language and people and nation.

It is this offer to all people that ultimately makes the redeemed into a kingdom, and into priests who serve the Lord and who reign on the earth.  We have a good future because we belong to Christ, and will join with brothers and sisters from throughout the world in our praise to the Lord.

My word of caution is this:  we should have a deeper love for our brothers and sisters throughout the world who claim faith in Jesus Christ than we should fellow citizens of a nation.  Is this true for you?  Do you have more comfort with a godless neighbor than you do a family member of a different tongue or skin color who you will sing alongside for eternity?

So what do we do with these flags?  Both of them lift up great values, and remind us of shortcomings.   These flags join in praise to the Lord.  Just like the bread and juice praise the Lord, and this sanctuary space praises the Lord, and the letters on our paramounts praise the Lord, these flags do as well.  The United States flag is referenced as a living entity, if it is, it must speak some praise to the Lord.

Like that wave you receive from a neighbor as you walk down the street, these flags wave to us a welcome:  they speak of values and goodness and ideals.  When we look at the flag, we should think of greetings and prayers we can send forth:

·         We pray for our nation, its leaders and citizens

·         We ask for humility as a nation, for wisdom and grace, for forgiveness and mercy.

·         We thank God for how we have experienced freedom that millions throughout the world crave and many throughout history craved.

·         We give thanks to God for all the blessings we know and the abundance we experience

·         We pray for the generations to come, and for a good way of life.


When we look at the Christian Flag, it also welcomes us:

  • To pray for our brothers and sisters throughout the world
  • To thank God for our good future in his kingdom
  • To bless the Lord for his plan, his surprises that await us, and his wonder that will fill all the redeemed.
  • To pray for peace, justice, food, clean water, and blessing for humanity.
  • To give our utmost allegiance to God
The Flags greet us, and they also wave goodbye to us:  As we go into the world, Christians living in America should remember to be good, model citizens, to be leaders in our realms and to be our best for our neighbors.  We should participate in the ways of constitutional representative government, but to do so differently, not feeling that our ultimate hope comes from any temporal government, but from the Lord of All, the King of the nations, The Redeemer of peoples from all tribes and languages, and peoples and nations.  We give our praise first to God.  Everything else, including our way of life in America, should be shaped by praise to God.  As Jesus Christ the Lord, our Savior, teaches us, “Seek first the kingdom of God”.

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