Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The flag in church...

When I was a seminarian in New York back in 1981, I took the train out to a suburb in New Jersey to meet an Episcopal priest who was thinking of taking me on as his intern. It was a fine, sunny day and as I approached the church, which was built in the glory days of the 1950’s, I noticed how impressive the steeple was, and how proud and bright it looked against the blue sky.

It wasn’t until I stepped inside the church that I saw some storm clouds. The church was empty, as far as I could tell – there was no receptionist to greet me, no one around except this older priest – well, he was probably younger than I am now - who was alone in his rather dark and dreary office. Right away I noticed the rings under his eyes and a tendency to sigh rather deeply, and often.

We were only a few minutes into our interview when he launched into a long story about the battle he had been having with his congregation for the past five years: which was over the fact that he had removed the American flag from the sanctuary.

His view was that there was no place for the flag in church. The battles over the Vietnam War were still fresh in his memory, and that experience had taught him that the mission of the church was to always stand ready to speak prophetically against its nation. He talked about St. Paul, about how in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. He said, “When we enter that sanctuary, we leave our national identity behind. Our only citizenship is in the kingdom of God.”

He spoke with this weary but still passionate conviction about the danger of becoming a cult of the nation, and of slipping into idolatry. He talked about patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel – and apparently there had been more than a few scoundrels in his parish, who, he said, were trying to use patriotism in order to suppress the prophetic voice of the church.

I found that I had great sympathy for his argument, but I also remember walking away from that church deciding two things: first, that I did not want to work for him; and second, that if I ever became a priest, I would try to find a more satisfying method of resolving conflicts in the parish. I just didn’t want to end up looking like him.

But the other thing I learned is just how powerful this issue can be for us – because we feel so strongly about our identities as Christians and as Americans – and because things with symbolic value – like flags – carry such power for us.


Sermon preached July 3, 2011

What with the 4th of July upon us, I've been thinking a lot about this idea of freedom. What does freedom mean to you?

I grew up in the 1960’s, when freedom everywhere I looked, people were risking life and limb for freedom.

My father was flying down to Selma and Birmingham to help out Dr. King and the civil rights workers. He himself didn’t face many dangers, personally, but he came home with incredible stories about ordinary people, no different from you or me, willing to be attacked by police dogs, slammed to the ground by fire hoses, and taken in the middle of the night by men in white hoods just so they could enjoy the simple freedoms we took for granted.

A few years later, my brother was fighting to not be drafted into a war that he considered to be a war crime. Meanwhile, some of his friends – white, middle-class kids like him – were in San Francisco, insisting on the freedom to drop acid and make love in the middle of Golden Gate Park.

These days, “freedom” is still a confusing and deeply charged word.
To some of us, freedom means personal freedom: the freedom to be oneself, do whatever you want to do. If we’re a teenager, chafing under our parents’ rules, freedom means getting to decide for yourself what time you’ll go to bed. We dream of the day when we’ll get to go to college and decide for ourselves when to work, and when to play, and when to sleep.

If we’re a libertarian, freedom means something similar, except on a bigger scale: freedom means the right to be left alone, free from government intrusion. Ron Paul, the leading libertarian voice of our time, says heroin and crack cocaine should be legal, because we don’t need the government telling us how to live our lives.
For others, freedom doesn’t mean freedom from government so much as the freedoms protected by our government: freedom to worship, freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom from tyrants and dictators; freedom of the weak to be protected from the strong.

If you’re one of the thousands of political prisoners sitting in jail right now throughout the Middle East, that’s a very real dream right now, something worth dying for. Those of you who fought in World War II risked your lives for that kind of freedom. None of us would be in this room, freely worshiping the god of our choosing, if it weren’t for the sacrifices of that generation, and so many generations that have gone before. For you, freedom means sacrifice.

And freedom in that sense of the word is, for many of us, also a religious idea. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” So there’s a spiritual connection there: somehow these freedoms that we claim are not just the natural rights of man, but rather a right endowed by our Creator.

And there’s yet another kind of freedom; a freedom that also has a spiritual dimension. If you’re an alcoholic or struggle with some other addiction, freedom means freedom from our own personal demons. Our reading from St. Paul expresses this kind of longing. We don’t know what it was that Paul was struggling with, but it sure sounds like some kind of addiction:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

For Paul, this is a deeply spiritual issue – it’s a war going on inside him between the desires of the flesh, which he is a slave to, and the law of God, which leads him into freedom in Christ. “Wretched man that I am!” he cries, “Who will free me from this body of death?”

For Paul, as for the practitioners of 12-step programs, that kind of personal freedom only comes when we admit that we are slaves – Paul says “Slave to sin,” while an alcoholic might say we are powerless over our addiction; and our only hope is to turn our lives over to a Higher Power.

So for Paul, as well as for the alcoholic, we are never completely free. It’s more of a trade-off: we give up our slavery to the bottle, and exchange it, if you will, for what Paul calls a slavery to Christ.

And that’s what trips up so many addicts, and so many Christians, of course – because we think freedom should be without any strings attached. We want perfect free-agency; we want to be beholden to no one; we don’t God telling us what to do any more than we want the bottle telling us what to do.

For Paul, that’s a fantasy. The only way out of this slavery to sin is through slavery to Christ. For those with an addictive personality, there is no such thing as perfect freedom – because as soon as you start choosing purely for yourself, you’re back on the bottle.

For those of us who are not addicts, this is a deeply offensive idea – especially in the United States of America. We are raised on the mother’s milk of freedom, and we’ve taken that to mean complete freedom. We are a nation of individualists; my home is my castle; I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.

But in Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus also using the image of bondage. “Take my yoke upon you,” he says. And he’s not just talking to addicts; he’s talking to all of us.

And so it is that we come up against the choice: do we give our lives over to Christ, or do we continue to insist that we are our own masters; that we choose our own destinies.

The Episcopal Church is probably the softest of all the Christian denominations when it comes to this issue. We don’t believe in a coercive church; we don’t center our worship around altar calls, which has the explicit purpose of giving your life over to God. We let each person find their own way toward that choice. For many of us who are not addicts, being our own masters has worked out pretty well; we’ve managed to eke out a living; care for our children… Most of us don’t give up control – even to God – unless we’re really up against a wall, desperate, ready to try anything.

But for all of us, that day eventually comes. We catch a disease; we lose our job; we find ourselves in a foxhole during a mortar attack… and then we’re ready to make a deal. “Okay, God, you got me now. Ok, I’ll give my life to you – I’ll do anything you want. Just get me out of this.”

And for some of us, that formula works out. We make a deal; like General Motors, we accept obedience in exchange for a bail-out.

But for a lot of us, we come to learn, too late, that it doesn’t work like that. God is not Santa Claus, or Monty Hall in “Let’s Make a Deal.” God doesn’t invite us into obedience in exchange for never getting cancer, or never going into bankruptcy. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” He offers us a relationship not unlike that between a student and a teacher. In the classroom, there are certain rules; sleeping, chewing gum, throwing spit balls are generally frowned upon. A disciple is a student, literally; and what a student learns is discipline. The Christian way is a way of discipleship; which means that to be a Christian is to enter into a discipline – a discipline that will give you skills, such as how to pray, and how to love, and how to live with a sense of ultimate purpose.

The church is a school, if you will. A lot of times, school is a total drag; it makes us get up in the morning when we’d rather sleep in; it makes us do homework. When we’re adolescents we can’t wait for the day when we don’t have to go.

But at some point, when we’ve put away childish things, we realize that learning is a joy; and that in exchange for the discipline of learning, we gain new freedoms. Students who submit to their teachers gain the freedom to read and write and calculate; the dance students gain the freedom to pirouette; cello students, the freedom to play a Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Cello; and for spiritual students who submit to Christ, we gain freedoms we never imagined: the freedom to love more than we ever thought possible, even our enemies; the freedom to live without fear of death; the freedom to suffer with sober joy; the freedom to praise God in every situation; the freedom to forgive and be released from bitterness and hatred; the freedom, finally, of eternal life.

So, next time you hear someone say they’re spiritual but not religious, tell them, “Yeah, that’s like saying you believe in learning, but not in schools. Or like you believe in healing, but not in hospitals.”

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus says. “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We take on this obedience with our whole selves; we give ourselves to God completely; and we discover, in the process, a freedom of infinite delight, which is freedom in Christ.