(A sermon for Pentecost 24, Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21, also Veteran’s Day)
It’s hard to drive anywhere these days without seeing an American flag. Growing up in Virginia, I saw flags all over the place, but they were flags hung out in front of houses. We had one, too. In the morning I would help my daddy hang it in the special flag holder on our front porch, and when he came home in the afternoon, we would take it down, roll it up and put it safely in the vestibule in our old-fashioned umbrella stand. I learned early that how we handled the flag mattered, that our hands showed our respect, that our actions spoke of our loyalty. I learned how to be careful never to let the flag touch the ground or even the floor. I knew the flag should never be left outside after dark or hung in the rain. I was four years old, and I knew all these things, and I expected the rest of the world to know them, too.
It’s been a long time since those innocent days of 1965. I see the flag in magnet form on cars, in jewelry, embossed on the t-shirt of a statuary father outside Adorable Ballfield in City By the Sea, waving large and torn over car dealerships and topping buoys on a stormy day. And I’m sure everyone who uses or displays or wears the flag in such ways does it with a sense of respect and loyalty to someone or something.
But I’ve come to realize that w can no longer assume a collective understanding of our symbols or of our symbolic language.
It may be hard for us to put ourselves in the place of the Psalmist. We don’t live in a country with a king, so king is not a reality to us but a distant metaphor. When I think of a king, I think of tabloids at the grocery store, of embarrassing stories about the British Royal Family, not of a figure to be respected and feared, which is almost surely what the Psalmist meant.
We live in a literal-minded culture, in which anything announced with exciting bullet points is considered to be FACT, when often what we are seeing is simply OPINION.
As a slightly older little girl, I loved to visit the Smithsonian Institute, particularly the History and Technology Building. A multi-story entry way held the original Star-Spangled Banner, displayed on the wall, as well as a large pendulum that gradually moved around a circle over the course of a day, knocking over little markers on the circumference. I stood transfixed by its swing, and by the enormity of the flag.
I often use the idea of a pendulum to describe the way attitudes and beliefs seem to shift in our culture, swinging as widely as possible in an effort to change or to avoid change. As I said to a church member the other day, we are expected to reside on one side of the pendulum swing or the other, and if we dare to attempt the middle ground, we will nearly always find the pendulum bearing down, prepared to knock us out of the way.
But really, a pendulum describes a circle.
That pendulum at the Smithsonian was a Foucault pendulum, and it is true that it slowly circled around. It did not simply go back and forth. I hesitate to explain the science, since I didn’t even manage to do that correctly when preaching about a seesaw! But it’s my layperson’s understanding that at the North Pole, a pendulum would make a 360 degree circle every 24 hours. As you move south, the circle becomes slower, until at the equator, there is no circle being made. Below the equator, the circle begins again, but in the other direction.
It is the movement of the earth that creates the “circle.” The slow rotation of the earth makes things appear to change, just as the unfolding of time surely denotes changes in the human condition, in human understanding, in cultural norms and ready assumptions.
My children have not grown up with a flag hanging on the house. I fear that our increasingly literal way of looking at things has impoverished our symbols, and I don’t always want to be associated with what I sometimes see as “lesser” uses according to what I consider to be the high and noble understandings of my childhood.
Just as the flag has come to be used in different ways, language that employs the metaphors of war and royalty have been judged and eliminated from a lot of our Christian literature of the moderate to liberal schools of thought. You may not want to think of yourselves as liberals, but if you look at the arc described by the pendulum on a swing or two, you would find that our Congregational attachment to the individual’s thought process and our general willingness to agree to disagree on some things makes us pretty liberal in the greater scheme of things.
It’s not a straight line back and forth. Although you can still be knocked over in the middle if you don’t watch yourself.
My dad thought of himself as being in the middle, whenever it came to anything to do with Veterans. Despite the fact that he was 4-F, for being blind as a bat, he insisted his way into the Army Air Corps and learned, despite his decidedly non-technical mind, how to install radar in airplanes. He did not see action, and the closest he came to danger was being knocked out of bed by a bomb that fell near his camp in England. While I realize he may have been downplaying the risk when telling the story to me, I know his intention was not to sugarcoat war but to make it clear that others served differently, at least in his mind.
So when he went into politics, he never made a fuss about his service. He felt self-conscious about dressing up to be something he wasn’t. His desire to be in the military came not from some oversimplified love of country, but out of the grief of losing his two best friends very early in the war. He wanted to make a difference, and whether it was because he felt Pete and Charlie had, or because he felt Pete’s and Charlie’s lives had been wasted, I don’t know. I only know that he managed to convince someone that he could serve.
“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching *as* to war.” It’s a simile, the opening line of that famous hymn, one of my favorites, though I almost hate to admit it, being a person who resists war. I don’t believe in war as a solution, not even what some people would call “just war.” I want to think there are always other ways to do what needs to be done. But I do believe in passion, motivation and commitment, and I fear that in liberal Christianity’s rush to discard militaristic language, for good and heartfelt reasons, we may have lost some of the drive we need to be a faithful people of God.
A life of faith is not for the weak or the faint of heart.
“*Like* a mighty army moves the Church of God.” Can we sing a hymn with military overtones and remember that it was written not for soldiers but for Christians? Can we sing it remembering that there have been times and places, and are still places, where being Christian is worth your life? Can we sing it and find in it a passion for God that the Psalmist felt, and then work at imagining our own love for God in this time and place?
In our nation today, many people are trying to do just that. Many people, and I include myself, feel we cannot support this war, but at the same time we wholeheartedly support the men and women who are serving our country. There are those who would say the two are in conflict, but I want to say the two are in tension. It’s my prayer that as the pendulum circles, as the earth turns, as time passes, we will all learn to live with that tension.
And, it’s my hope that we can sing a rousing song, remembering that its intention is to prepare each and every one of us for the challenges of being a faithful person in a world that doesn’t pay much attention to God. The battles of life take place as we drive our cars to work, in our offices and schools, at the mall or at the dry cleaner. They take place in our families and with our friends, when our values and beliefs diverge, when grief or addiction or betrayal challenge the things we have always trusted.
Will we be faithful? Will we be true? Will we see the beauty that God has made and treasure it? Will we take time to pray, to contemplate, to meditate, to worship, no matter what else is happening in our lives? There is nothing soft or safe about undertaking these disciplines. They require belief in a God we cannot see, a God who is by no means viewed as King or Captain by the world at large. They require spiritual courage. They require a willingness to go deep and look honestly at whatever we may find.
Sometimes, when we see a change coming, we resist it with all the strength we have. But next time we see the pendulum swinging toward us, may we muster the flexibility and courage to take a step back and see how it circles. Amen.