I saw something pretty cool at the beach last week. No, I’m not talking about the 8-foot hammerhead shark that came within ten feet of my boat (although that was awesome!). I’m talking about a display that the line of “Surf Rescue Technicians” (that’s the new name for ‘lifeguard’, by the way) put on as they began their day. All up and down the beach, they stood on their platforms and held out small flags, waving them in such a fashion as to communicate via semaphore the fact that the beach was now officially open for business.
That, in turn, got me to thinking about flags. Did you know that people have been using flags for more than 4,000 years? Pretty much as far back as anyone can tell, folks have been taking little bits of cloth or some other material and holding it up in order to communicate information to someone else.
In the middle ages, for instance, all the knights looked alike when they wore their armor, so the flags helped them know who was fighting whom. Flags have been used to instill fear in people, to assert dominance over someone or something, and to rally folks in times of crisis. Flags are wonderful and powerful symbols.
And, as you know, flags have been in the news lately. A lot. Whether we’re talking about the battle flag of the Confederacy, the rainbow flag symbolizing gay and lesbian pride, the stark black and white banner of the Islamic State, the “white-power” insignia of the KKK, or even the old stars and stripes of the United States – the display of flags and the way that we treat them reveals a great deal about the things that we believe, respect, fear, and hope.
Perhaps the most powerful conversation I’ve ever had about a flag was with a friend who has since passed away. We were talking about the appropriate manner in which the US flag should be displayed, and he told me through angry tears of his three friends on Clairtonica Street, “boys who went into the South Pacific and onto the beach at Normandy and who gave their lives for that flag!”
Literally, of course, that was not true. Those men did not sacrifice themselves for a piece of fabric – they died because they believed that the things that flag represented in their lives and in their world – justice, freedom, hope, independence – were worth dying for. The flag about which my friend and I talked was a symbol for those things, right?
All of this leads me to ask you on this Fourth of July weekend, “what is the relationship between flags and faith?” As we consider that question, I’d like to turn to our brother, Paul, and the way in which he lived his life.
In the reading we have from Galatians, we see that Paul – a man, who, by the way, took his various identities quite seriously – emphasized the fact that when it comes to children of God, our history, tradition, ideology, political views, ethnicity, or gender identity is not the most important thing about us. “Some of you are all of these things,” he says, “but that’s not the core of your self. You are BAPTIZED. You belong to Jesus. You are his. After that, you might be slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek. But all of those things are secondary to your identity in Christ and all that entails.”
Many of you know my friend Saleem, who described for me a worship service to which he had been invited in another city. He said that the congregation was friendly and the Scripture was proclaimed in a language the people could understand. The singing was fine, and the sanctuary was beautiful. At the front of the sanctuary was a large cross – Saleem said that it was clearly the focal point of the architecture in the room – all eyes were directed towards the empty cross – the symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the new life we’ve been given in his name.
Near the end of the service, the organ started playing a patriotic tune, and as the people rose to sing the song of their country, that nation’s flag was slowly unfurled from the rafters of the church. It was, Saleem said, a beautiful flag. And it was huge. And it filled the front of the sanctuary. The problem, however, was that the flag blocked Saleem’s view of the cross. Here, in a service of Christian worship, the national flag obscured the view of the cross of Jesus Christ.
Beloved in the Lord, when any flag, from any nation or any interest group ever gets in the way of you being able to see Jesus – that flag is simply flying too high. Any flag that impedes our ability to see Christ is a flag that is in the wrong place.
But we love our flags, don’t we? Oh, we don’t all love the same one, but we all love some of them. And yet the Gospel calls us to love Jesus more.
Here’s a little experiment I devised. Check out these two images – one of a US flag being desecrated and disrespected, the other of an African-American church that has been torched. Ask yourself: which image provokes a more visceral reaction for you? Are you more disgusted by the sight of someone burning the stars and stripes, or by the thought of a person hatefully destroying the house of God?
Oh, they’re both merely symbols, we know that. One of them is a piece of colored cloth. The other is a building used for meetings – meetings which many of you have freely described to me as “boring”. But oh, the power of those symbols! If Paul is right about our identity in Christ, we ought to be more angered by the desecration of a church than by the desecration of a national symbol. My primary loyalty, says Paul, is not to a government, a history, or a piece of land – but to the One who empowers governments, who directs history, and who created all lands. That’s not to say that it’s ok to burn a US flag, or to cheapen its symbolism – rather, I’m trying to emphasize the fact that as strongly as we feel about that symbol, our connection to the people of God is deeper and more powerful – or at least it should be.
So be careful, beloved, as you wave your flags. Send your messages. Communicate. But be sure that you don’t love that flag – any flag – more than you love the One who invented meaning and purpose and, in fact, you.
Having said that, the fact remains that we live here. Many of you, like me, are people who left home today and had your US flag flying. It’s Independence Day. We want to celebrate the fact that this is our home. Most, if not all of us in the room today are citizens of the richest, most powerful civilization to ever populate the earth. What does it mean to be a Christian and an American? Does our citizenship impact our discipleship, or vice-versa?
Again, I’d like to take a glance at Paul’s life. Although he wasn’t an American, his passport was the gold standard in his day. He was born as a citizen of the Roman Empire, which bestowed upon him great privilege around the world at that time. In addition, he was raised as a Jew, and understood the practice of his faith to be central to his identity. He became a scholar’s scholar – multilingual, well-traveled, widely-respected…and then he met Jesus.
In that weekend, Paul’s whole life and sense of self changed. His view of the world, the lens through which he saw everything – was adjusted because of his faith in Jesus. Instead of seeing his citizenship as a right to be grasped or a privilege to be exploited, he sought to use his place in the Roman Empire to further the cause of reconciliation in Christ Jesus.
Our reading from Acts, for instance, describes how Paul showed up in Philippi and began moving among the people talking about Jesus. He was attacked and beaten – and, apparently, said not a word. They imprisoned him, and he spent the night in the jail singing and praying.
And then the earthquake hit, and Paul and the other prisoners were free. The first thing that he did was to save the jailer’s life. The jailer took Paul and Silas to his own home, where he first washed their wounds, and then they shared with him the cleansing waters of baptism.
I want you to note that to this point in the story, even though Paul is a natural-born citizen of the Roman Empire who is traveling through and then experiencing significant pain in one of the leading colonies of that empire, he has not said anything about his nationality. It is only when they ask him to leave that he brings this up. Why? Why do it then?
Well, look at what he does: he approaches the Roman Magistrate and says, “I’m a citizen of the Roman Empire who has been publicly beaten and jailed without a trial – and now you want me just to slink out of town?” The magistrates had broken the law when they treated Paul in this manner, and he had them over a barrel. He demanded that he be escorted publicly to the edge of town.
Only that’s not where they go – at least at first – is it? No. They stop at Lydia’s place and greet the church that is there. A church that is not comprised of citizens of the Empire. A church that has watched followers of Jesus be beaten to within an inch of their lives. And now Paul and Silas say to the police in that town, “Look, we’re leaving, and we’re not going to make trouble for you even though you beat us. But these people? They are our friends. And we’re going to be watching you. We care for them…nothing should happen to them.”
Paul used his Roman Citizenship all right – but not as a badge of honor or a status symbol, rather as a blessing to other people and a means to stand with the marginalized.
When I read of Paul’s visit to Lydia in the sight of those who bore great power to hurt and destroy, I had a flashback to my recent visit to South Sudan, a nation torn by civil war and atrocity and violence and every manner of evil.
I had gone with my team to a restaurant on the Nile River in Juba. It was to have been a day off, and we were dressed casually, laughing and joking. An armored vehicle drove up, and a huge man bristling with weaponry and accompanied by six or eight soldiers strode to an adjacent table. He was a fascinating man…and as I stared, I realized that I recognized him from somewhere…but where?
I asked one of my South Sudanese hosts who he was, and he sat up and said, “Him? Oh – that is ___________.” Of course it was. This man is a butcher – he has led in the burning of towns, the raping of women, the abduction of child soldiers, the destruction of property… by all accounts, he is a horrible person. As I reflected on what it meant to be sharing space with that man, I could see the wheels turning in my friend’s head, and he turned to me suddenly. “Will you take a photo with him? You and the team?”
I was flabbergasted. Before I knew what was happening, my host was at this man’s table, saying something like, “Sir, we have a group of friends from the United States who care about us and they have come to make sure we’re all right. They’ve heard about our troubles here and have just made a visit to emphasize peace. Would you take a photo with them?” And that’s how I wound up posing for a photo with a man who could, and perhaps should be on trial for war crimes some day.
Do you see? It’s not about him being a celebrity. I have come to understand that in some way, this was an invitation to use whatever influence, authority, or status we have as citizens of the world’s most powerful nation to help shield our friends in South Sudan. Because now in addition to me having a photo with this man, he has a photo of me, given to him by a pastor who said, “These people are from the USA, and they are watching us. They care for us. They will notice if something happens to us…”
It wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t plan it, but if my small effort to stand publicly with someone in harm’s way may wind up protecting that person or his family, it may be the single best thing I’ve ever done as a citizen of the United States of America. I was in a position to respond to an invitation to use any status or rank that I have on behalf of someone who has neither status nor rank. And, thankfully, I did, just as our brother Paul did when he took the soldiers to Lydia’s place.
It’s the Fourth of July. Watch the fireworks. Have a hot dog. Yippee. Celebrate your independence and your rights. Have a blast.
But what are you doing with that gift? How do you understand the power that your citizenship carries as you seek to love your neighbor in Jesus Christ?
Will you take the time to be informed about issues and then communicate with your elected officials, advocating for those on the fringes? Will you care about the neighborhood in which you live, and seek to treat all who are there as Christ has treated you? Can you be bothered to cast your vote in various elections, remembering that the people who win elections write the budgets, and the people who write the budgets determine the priorities of the nation?
Many of my friends approach this most patriotic of holidays as a Holy Day of sorts, in which they are eager to name all of the rights that they have inherited as citizens of the United States: we can own all the guns we want, we can fly whatever flag we choose, we get cheap gasoline, we can worship where and when and how we choose, and my internet better work when I want it to.
Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point.
This is my passport – stamped with the seal and flag of the United States of America. It is an incredible tool, and, frankly, I’m pretty proud of it. It guarantees me some freedom. And it gives me great power.
And this is the font that holds the water in which I was baptized. It is at this font that I learn who I am and who I will be, and how I am called to use every gift, all my powers, all I am or hope to be – for the service of Christ and the love of my neighbors.
Please, beloved, don’t let me ever, ever, get these two confused. If I start to think that my baptism is a tool that gets me into a club that carries certain privileges and gives me great benefit, and that my passport is the place where I learn my true identity and who I really am, bad things will happen. Thanks be to the God who calls us – from all flags and all places – to wade in the waters of baptism and celebrate the power of Christ. Amen.