The Cross & The Flag

This an excerpt from my sermon on Sept 11, 2016 at Concord UMC titled “We, The People of God,”.  The full sermon can be found at concordumc.com

As Christians, we are citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the earthly kingdom where we reside which for me has always been the United States of America.  Since the advent of Christianity, followers of Christ have struggled with how to be faithful citizens of two kingdoms simultaneously.

Jesus addressed the issue directly when he said “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  Since, Jesus also taught that the primary task of his followers was to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves, I interpret his words about God and Caesar to mean that our allegiance to our country is always subordinate to our allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

We may stand out of respect for the flag, but we kneel in worship and adoration before the cross.

Last Saturday, I attended the Battle at Bristol.  The largest ever college football game between the Tennessee Vols & Virginia Tech Hokies at Bristol Motor Speedway.  Before the game, I stood to sing the national anthem along with 155,000 other voices.  It was as powerful a display of patriotism as I can ever remember experiencing.  The experience caused me to think through what I was doing by standing for the national anthem in more depth than I had ever done before.

Recently, many within our country have been talking about what it means to stand for the national anthem.  This conversation began a couple weeks ago when Colin Kaepernick, a professional QB in the NFL chose not to stand during the anthem as a way of calling attention to racial inequality in our country.  While I choose to stand to for the anthem, I’m thankful for the conversation he has started.

This conversation has led us to recognize some of the historical ambiguity surrounding the national anthem we hold so dear.  While our national anthem is a beautiful articulation of the longing of the human heart for freedom and the desire for a government that is truly of the people and for the people, it also has a lesser known long since discarded verse that celebrates the institution of slavery.   All this was going through my mind, as I stood for the anthem beside 155,000 others who endured the heat and the traffic to be at an unforgettable event.

Some people say that standing for the anthem is all about showing respect for those who died so that we can enjoy freedoms that many people throughout history could never even fathom: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to pursue happiness.  For me, it is about showing respect for our military and veterans, but it is more than that.  It is also about me showing my commitment to do whatever I can to help us become a more perfect union where everyone enjoys the same freedoms I do.

As I look at the history of our country, America is about a lot more than a uniquely powerful democracy that arose out of the socio-political whirlwind of the 18th Century.  America is a dream that has always been bigger than its dreamers.

Our forefathers and foremothers who first articulated the dream could not yet themselves grasp its implications.  Even so, there words have guided us into an age of freedom, equality, and blessing that they never could have imagined.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and lived in a society where women where second class citizens and those who did not own property could not vote.  Still he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”  From the pen of a privileged white male landowner and slave owner came words that would one day set slaves free and call our nation to give our daughters the right to pursue happiness just like our sons.”

As a Christian whose primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, I hope that even with all my unconscious biases and prejudices I can be a blessing to my earthly kingdom.  I hope that in some small way I can help us continue dreaming a great dream that no doubt has consequences that I cannot fathom and that hopefully my great grandchildren will take for granted.

Last Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  Of all the haunting images from that day, the one that touches me the most is one that no camera was able to catch: the firefighters running up the stairs of the twin towers while others were running down.

It occurs to me that those firefighters knew very well that they would mostly like go down with the ship.  They would never see their families and loved ones again, but still they ran up in hopes that through their efforts more people could get out alive.  As those firefighters ran into the flames, it did not matter to them whether the people they were saving were black or white, Republican or Democrat, American or Asian or Middle Eastern, male or female, Christian or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Hindu, or whether they stand or sit for the national anthem.  In those crucial moments, it just mattered that they were people.

I know from my limited perspective that I cannot grasp all that it means to be a faithful Christian and a faithful citizen in today’s political divisive and racially charged atmosphere.  But I do believe being a Christian whose primary allegiance is to God’s Kingdom and a citizen committed to working for a more perfect union means that I respect, refuse to demonize, and seek to learn from the opinions of those people that the heroes of 9-11 died to save.

If we can do that, then I believe we can look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we allowed God to use us to help our earthly kingdom dream a heavenly dream.

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