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June 29, 2010

Ed Moore: What to do about the 4th?

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan noticed something new in their book “The Last Week”: the Roman calendar for Passover. They say that Jesus carefully designed and scripted his “Triumphal Entry” to make a point. He timed his entry into Jerusalem through the eastern gate, down from the Mount of Olives, to coincide with Pontius Pilate’s military procession from the west. There were two parades in town on the same day. Jesus was asking people to choose one or the other.

When a pastor presides in worship, she stands at the intersection of two parades: the catholic church’s sacred story and the local congregation’s history within its particular community. The pastor acts as translator-in-chief as she speaks and signs the church’s story in the dialect of the congregation. Jesus did likewise when he spoke to Galileans in metaphors of lost coins or sheep or of a prodigal child.

The ministry of translation is particularly difficult when secular culture’s “holy” days overlap the church’s gathering for worship, as will happen again July 4th. A local congregation’s traditions for this Sunday may run the gamut from the reasonably mild (red, white and blue floral arrangements in the sanctuary) to the affronting: an American flag draped over the Lord’s Table, the Pledge of Allegiance included in the liturgy, or the choir expecting to deliver a patriotic anthem.

Each of these is theologically problematic, the flag on the Lord’s Table perhaps the most egregious. A new pastor’s encountering any one of them the first day she presides, as will many United Methodist pastors in their first Sunday in a new appointment, creates extra challenges. The trappings of the state are Caesar’s attempt to co-opt the church’s sacred story. Their presence should not go unchallenged.

On the other hand, those red, white and blue flowers represent the congregation’s struggle to journey faithfully toward the New Jerusalem. They are a milepost at some point in the wilderness, an invitation to the pastor for authentic leadership.

In “The Worshiping Body: The Art of Leading Worship,” Kimberly Bracken Long recalls the 1984 film “Places in the Heart,” set in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1935. Its last few minutes depict a communion service in a small country church. The few folk in the sanctuary do their best to sing “Blessed Assurance” as they prepare to commune. But then something remarkable happens. As the bread and wine are passed we see that, somehow, there are now more people in the pews:

The bank president who tried to foreclose on a young widow; the white men who lynched a black boy after he mistakenly shot the town’s beloved sheriff; the players in the honky-tonk band and the floozies who followed them from dance to dance; Moze, the African American laborer who had helped the young widow bring in a prizewinning crop of cotton . . . and the Klansmen who drove him out of town; and, finally, the sheriff himself and the boy who had killed him. ‘The peace of Christ,’ the sheriff says to the boy as he shares the bread and wine. ‘The peace of Christ,’ the boy whispers in return.

“Here, at the Lord’s Table,” says Long, “life triumphs over death, love overcomes hatred, mercy overcomes guilt, and those who could not or would not live together in peace are reconciled in Christ’s name.” It is an eschatological vision of the communion of saints. We often name that sacred gathering in our Eucharistic liturgies, but we seldom explain it to our congregations.

The new pastor who finds the bread and wine covered by the flag on July 4th stands in a place of precarious privilege. She has been sent among people who are struggling to make a choice. Although it may be tempting to pronounce judgment upon the congregation’s traditions, the better pastoral choice is to recall the power of sacred sign. Beneath that fragile symbol of temporal power are the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. When the flag is set aside, the Feast of the Resurrection is revealed. If the communion of saints is powerfully preached, that eschatological sign itself will stand in judgment upon the wilderness, and those receiving bread and cup from their new pastor’s hand may well find themselves headed toward the New Jerusalem once more.

Ed Moore is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

25 Comments

Dr. Moore, Beautiful post. I

Dr. Moore,
Beautiful post. I love the grace that is found for both stories that are coming to a head this Sunday.
Last year I wrote something on my blog about pledging allegiance on this day to a flag. This week I've reposted it, but added this additional addendum to the end as a result of being in class with you. Perhaps this is the best compliment I can give, in that it shows I was paying attention :) Here is that addendum:

The above was a post I wrote last year in the week leading up to the July 4th celebrations. This year poses some even more interesting dynamics in that the 4th falls on the Lord’s Day. If that were not enough, as a Methodist, many of my colleagues in ministry around the nation will be taking the pulpit for the very first time in their newly assigned church this coming week. For them, and for many others, I would suggest not saying any of the above.

Each church and each person who makes up that church have a history. They have a story that has brought them where they are and has made them who they are. It’s a story that needs to be honored and heard. We can invite people to switch stories, which is what I believe evangelism is about, but offering such an invitation on a person’s first Sunday is probably not very wise. It would be enough to use this time to humbly accept their invitation of us to be their servant-leader.

What is the best way we can honor each other’s stories? As I look out over my congregation on any given Sunday I see veterans (including myself), moms and dads and brothers and sisters who have lost loved ones to the madness of war, people who carry with them all sorts of stories, and pains, with them everywhere they go. I am struck by the certainty that though I love each of them, God loves them even more. And so this coming Lord’s Day I will invite all of them once again to our Lord’s table without a mention for or against the civil holiday occurring around us. Instead of a flag I will offer bread and wine. In place of asking for their pledge of allegiance I will remind them that through this cup, God has already pledged his allegiance to us.

http://chadholtz.net/?p=1344

Thanks for sharing this with us!

Thou shall have no other gods before me.

Thank you for the post. As a practicing pastor of a 3-point charge I find the following statement naive and dishonest:

"The new pastor who finds the bread and wine covered by the flag on July 4th stands in a place of precarious privilege. She has been sent among people who are struggling to make a choice."

Privilege I get. But the reality is that many people and many congregations are not struggling to choose, they are confusing and equating two entities that are not equal. The pastor has a pastoral role to stay with the people as they grapple with this sin. But the pastor must also do the tough love thing and that is to reveal the sin so that it can be dealt with. We are not allowed to let the pastoral role trump the prophetic one. For the sake of the integrity of the gospel, they must go hand-in-hand. If that means removing the flag, then so be it. We cannot serve two masters and at some point pastors have to have the cahones to speak the truth and invite people to worship the one true God.

Christopher, Perhaps. But as

Christopher,

Perhaps. But as Dr. Moore clearly states, a pastor who shows his or her "cahones" on their very first Sunday in a new charge will alienate everyone he or she has been charged to serve and lead them nowhere from there.

Next year, after the people know you care, take the flag away.

July 4

Christopher,

"Naive and dishonest?" Naive I get, but dishonest is a bit harsh. My interpretation of Crossan's and Borg's work for pastoral practice on July 4 acknowledges that a pastor is under responsibility to live and preach the Gospel, but in a way that honors the place to which the congregation's own journey has taken it. Didn't Jesus do the same? He met the Samaritan woman at the well, the very place her life's journey had led her. He spoke Truth to her there, honoring all the struggles and difficulties she had endured. Judging the well would have availed little; witnessing to the Samaritan woman there blessed her humanity and diminished the distance between her and Jesus. In the closure of that distance, discipleship could begin. And isn't the church's work the making of disciples for Jesus?
Peace, Ed Moore

I'm grateful for this kind of

I'm grateful for this kind of theological reflection at anytime but particularly headed into this Sunday. Reading this post brought to mind Sam Well's book "Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics." Following the example of God revealed in Christ who neither blocked nor accepted the world's evil/sinful offers we, His Body, must "overaccept" each other's stories in light of God's grander narrative. Indeed, what will God make of us and our smaller national stories as we break bread and share the cup this Sunday. I for one am looking forward to it!

I took great offense at this

I took great offense at this article. At my church we have covered the communion chalice and bread with the US flag for years on the first Sunday in July. Also, after the Doxoloy we immediately transition into the National Anthem. Without the Red, White and Blue we Christians would be having to worship in secret for fear of the Nazis!

Precarious Positions

This is transition Sunday for United Methodists, the day those who itinerate under appointment by their Bishop take their new pulpits. It is hard enough to move into an established social system and make new relationships without confronting cherished traditions in the first hours too.

My suggestion is especially for those aerving family churches (under 200 attending). Go slow and build the relationships first. Understand the traditions and hear the stories before making significant changes, at least in the first few weeks.

Yes, some (like the previous writer) hold church and state to be the same and will take personal affront to moving flags and things with brass plaques. I maintain that relationships are still more important for ministry than the short-lived points that may be made by theological authorities acting to purify their temples. Entering into the life of a congregation and community first, building trust by being trustworthy, living as a member of what some sociologists call a "folk society" will allow the loving conversations that can lead to real change.

Pulling the flag off the altar may be important to the new cleric but it is guaranteed to limit the length of effective ministry to the few hours between when the moving van left and the first worship starts.

4th of July

The United Methodist Church continues its slide toward progressivism with this sort of thinking and yet they wonder why the membership continues to decline. I am now searching for a church that loves our God and our Country. I am now part of the continuing membership decline of the UMC.

I read with interest the blog

I read with interest the blog and responses; the subject is certainly one that evokes strong feelings at both ends of the spectrum. I suspect a community must first discuss what the nation's flag symbolizes to them.

Later this year I will retire after 21 years of service as a military chaplain. I plan to have my retirement ceremony in the church I attend for worship. The ceremony will include such military traditions as saluting the flag during the singing of 'National Anthem' as well as a flag folding ceremony and my receiving that flag for my service in the military.

I would recommend reading one or both of the following books: "Violence Unveiled" by Gil Bailie and/or "The Gospel of Mark and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark" by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly. The following quote from Hamerton-Kelly might wet the appetite, "There is, therefore, a political issue at stake in the reading I propose. If the gospel is what I say it is, then Christianity must sustain a searching criticism of all ethnic and nationalist claims, whether made in the name of Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or self-determination, or ethnic pride, or patriotism, or whatever other ideology is made to serve as a veil for violence, in the name of the universal eccentricity of the gospel"(p 3).

It may well be true that if our nation had not fought for freedom and our way of life we would not today have the freedom to freely worship and live as we do; on the other hand, this truth does not necessarily justify our nation's wars and it certainly does not allign Christianity with the use of violence for any reason. It has been my belief that some wars are necessary but as a christian I am not sure I could ever say they are 'just' wars. It is my feeling that as a Christian I must faithfully follow Jesus and where I fall short acknowledge honestly my sinfulness like Peter and others for not following. Although our nation cannot claim to be Christian or any other religious faith, the individual Christian citizen must, I believe, have as Hamerton-Kelly states, a "searching criticism" of our secular ideologies in light of the gospel.

I realize my reflections above do not answer the liturgical issues at hand for the upcoming holiday; however, I will relate two stories. As a newly ordained Roman Catholic priest in my first parish I removed the flag from the sanctuary according to liturgical norms. Later that day an elderly parishioner who fought in WWII and saw numerous buddies die on the beach called and told me he felt like I had stabbed him in the back and that I had somehow belittled the sacrifice his buddies made by giving their lives for that flag. I was naive as to the power of the symbolism held in that flag that is why I feel any faith community would do well to discuss what the flag symbolizes to them and what any action they take will mean to them. The second story is of a Marine I buried--this Marine was a driver for Admiral Nimitz during part of his time in the Marine Corps. When Hank's body was brought to the chapel we reverently folded the flag and placed the white funeral pall on his casket which symbolic of his baptism and his being clothed in Christ. After the service, the pall was removed and the flag was once again placed over the casket and military honors were rendered. It is my belief that respect for both our faith and our nation can be given when the people of the community are informed and intentional about their actions. Independence Day is a time to reflect on the freedoms we enjoy through our inter-dependence on one another as human beings and our dependence on the love and grace of God that is extended to all peoples and nations without boundaries.

Ed, Calling you dishonest

Ed, Calling you dishonest was indeed too harsh and for that I apologize. I projected on to you frustration I am experiencing in one of my congregations.

I regret not nipping this matter in the bud when I first arrived at my charge. Four years later, despite all the pastoral caring I have done, it is still an issue. It reared its ugly head on Memorial Day weekend, and I am dreading this Sunday. Back in spring, I planned on preaching on 'freedom in Christ' on this Sunday. Little did I anticipate this tension. Now I have to address the fact that this church does not understand the first commandment. Looking back, I know I should not have taken the polite route, but should have gone for truthfulness, even if it meant losing parishioners.

Navigating Between Blasphemy and Heresy on Independence Day

I appreciate this article, but I think it speaks mostly to one danger and does not speak strongly enough against another tendency as we think theologically about patriotism.

I have posted my response to this article and comments in a reflection: .

I wonder if others here have thought about this second concern I mention, and how they are navigating between these two shoal waters in their parish.

Navigating Between Blasphemy and Heresy on Independence Day

(The spam filter removed my link to my response, so I am posting it below)

This weekend we celebrate the birthday of our nation. Independence Day is one of two major feast days on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church associated with uniquely American historical events. (Can you name the other?) Saturday night, at 6:00 p.m., my parish will give thanks for the founding of our nation with an "Evening of Patriotic Hymns." Frankly, I look forward to singing old favorites I first learned in kindergarten, with our wonderful organ filling the church with sounds of joy. But I must confess that I've been praying that we will be able to celebrate Independence Day without surrendering either to the temptation to blaspheme or the neo-gnostic temptation to deny our particularity as Americans.

As Martin Luther noted, to blaspheme is to lie and assert under God's name something that is not so. It is speech or symbolic action that justifies our lies by invoking God's name. A classic example of blasphemy is the patch on the uniforms of Nazi soldiers with the phrase "God with us," as though God sanctioned the atrocities of the German nation in WWII. Whenever a healthy sense of our identity as a people gives way to a nationalism that conflates our faith in God with our patriotism and elevates our nation to our ultimate concern, we veer into blasphemy and idolatry.

It is easy, when we live in a country so abundantly blessed, to confuse our patriotism and religious faith. A friend reminded me that Roman Catholic novelist Walker Percy captures this tendency in his Love in the Ruins: "The American Catholic Church, which emphasizes property rights and the integrity of neighborhoods, retained the Latin Mass and plays The Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation." The truth is that at many Protestant and Catholic parishes across the land, the altar will be draped with the Stars and Stripes and the national anthem will be sung after the doxology. And those symbolic actions echo in a worrisome way the liturgies of the Roman imperial cult. Theologians rightly remind us to be clear in the meanings we convey in our worship on Independence Day lest we veer into blasphemy.

Yet we can just as easily err in the other direction. Some Christians are so fearful that we will lose ourselves in the virulent nationalism that pervades our culture that they would have us ignore this major feast day of the Church altogether. But it is just as surely error to deny the importance of our identity as Christians who are American.

"American" describes our social identity, an identity that is given as gift. There are those who think being a Christian means relinquishing our social identities, but, at least until the fulfillment of time, that is theologically wrong. In order to be an "I" there must be a "thou". There is in history a recurring sentimental desire for a universal identity, but no such thing exists. God has blessed us with neighborly identities. We share "our" daily bread, by which we imply that it is essential that there be a local "us" that is flesh and bones and not merely some gnostic spiritual oneness that is pure abstraction. We are blessed with a belongingness that we live out as part of a particular people. We belong to each other in a special way that is not the basis of our unity - for Christ is - but is nonetheless essential to our vocation as Christians.

To be an American is to be part of a people who say Yes to certain things and No to others in ways that have made and will make us a distinctive people. That means there is something about us that makes us American and not French or Chinese, and that distinctiveness is to be received as providential gift, a context for our particular journeys to the New Jerusalem. Because of our neighborly identities, our stories about God are unique even as they are enfolded into the grand drama of Jesus Christ, whose body we are becoming.

There is much cause for us to pause to remember our founding as a particular people. We are not yet that ideal city on a hill that serves as a beacon to all the nations. Yet that is our vision. The gaps we see are cause for prayer on our birthday this weekend. But just as surely, there is much cause for thanksgiving. For we are a people in whom are found the firstfruits of many virtues - liberty, equality, fraternity, education, democracy, human rights - that spring from the love of Christ. As with other nations, these virtues are seen in us only in a fragmentary way, as through a glass darkly. Yet they are present among us and are inseparable from the abundance we imperfectly share. As such, we are able to say that, as American Christians, we participate in and are trying to herald the Good News on the way.

And that, I submit, is why we ought to celebrate this Independence Day with a hearty thanks to God. Let us celebrate joyfully our neighborly identity, for it is a means of grace.

What to do about the 4th?

I was checking to see whether the UMC was concerned at all about the gross violation of the Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20: 17) by our current "Spread the Wealth" President and Congress when I ran across this unnecessary question. Why would someone even ask such a question? It not only smacks of ultra political correctness but total submission to the misreading of Jefferson's 1-1-1801 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut. The answer, of course, is that you do with the 4th of July like the Founding Fathers did who worshipped God, namely: pray for our country. The Continental Congress had Reverend Duche, rector of Christ's Church, read the 85th Psalm.

God Save the United States of America.

Your Forgot the UMC Cozying up to Caesar (Obama)

Ed,

There is some truth to what you say, but why did you not address the UMC falling all over itself to cozy up to the Obama regime and ingratiate itself to all manner of Socialist causes?

If you are going to criticize one side, you are being intellectually dishonest with equally criticizing the other. Additionally, your swipe at the sheriff and the boy receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion is judgmental in a way that Jesus would not condone. The sacraments are a means of grace. Perhaps these sinners in your story may receive this grace, repent, and then "go and sin no more."

I think you should close the shutters over the glass windows in your house before you go around throwing any more stones.

I think it's safe to say that

I think it's safe to say that the degree to which one is offended by Dr. Moore's post is the same degree to which nationalism has become an idol for said person.

http://chadholtz.net/?p=1344

Cozying up?

I wonder, Dan, if you had the same concern for the church "cozying up" to Bush (W), which I saw rampant during Bush's two terms. My guess is that you were not. I hope I'm wrong. But you see the problem here? It's like there's more "Democrat" or "Republican" slant here than there is a distinctive look at the theology of the body of Christ, which knows no other allegiance other than to the Kingdom of God.

Excellent post

Ed,

What a great post. And how revealing it was to see the nationalism you caution against rear its troll-ish head in the comments by many of our fellow UMC-ers. The opportunity you identified for communion to be "unveiled" as the "actual reality" beneath the "false hope" of the flag (these were my "adjective phrases" taken from your message; it's what I heard you saying, and I thought it extremely appropriate)

Dale

On the Triumphal Entry

This comment pertains to the introductory paragraph on the triumphal entry.

[Borg and Crossan] say that Jesus ... timed his entry into Jerusalem ... to coincide with Pontius Pilate’s military procession ....

Even if true (and I don't know how an honest scholar could qualify that as anything other than an interesting conjecture), the canonical gospels display absolutely no interest in it. In fact, if it happened as Borg and Crossan claim, the fact that the evangelists (or the gospel tradition on which they relied) omitted that aspect of the story would seem to suggest that they and the early church saw Jesus as something other than the anti-Caesar.

On Triumphal Entry

Mitch,
Maybe. However, 2000 years removed from the scene we have to assume that the people of the day were well enough aware of the cultural norms for certain festivals just as we are today. Today, I don't need to explain what happens of the 4th of July (such as parades, fireworks, etc), anymore than Mark needs to explain what is happening at Passover in Jerusalem.

Also, the NT is full of anti-Caesar language. To say (or write) "Jesus is Lord" is a smack in the face of Roman custom.

"Cozying Up"?

Dale,

I am no great fan of any political slant within church. I am pointing out the mote in the eye of what the UMC traditionally does, while it rails at the specks it sees in people like our previous president. The history of the UMC is replete with Socialists and Communists influencing church policy under the guise of social gospel.

Jim Winkler and the GBCS are no more than a political lobby using the 501c3 cover of the church. Whenever we venture out into the political landscape and attempt to connect the moral authority of the church to a political aim, we enter dangerous territory. I mean really, is membership in the RCRC something the UMC should be touting?

Quite a Conversation

I love this conversation. I believe it to be one of the most important for Christians to be having these days. And the example of the flag on the altar makes the issue practical. It's a hard question.

I cannot help but be stuck on Jesus' words to Pilate that his, "kingdom is not of this world". If this is true, then I believe worship should not be "of this world". It should be something bigger, something beyond, what this world knows. With this in mind, I believe no worship service anywhere should reflect any one nation, even the nation in which it lives, so as not to domesticate Jesus- the Messiah, who came for all. It is okay to pray for your nation, and even give it thanks for its freedom, but remember that the freedom we enjoy is not just a freedom to worship God, it is also a freedom to not worship him.

It is my dream that the sanctuary becomes almost a nation unto itself, one where all tribes, nations and people shed their colors to become one otherworldly nation bowing to its creator. You see, "here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Colossians 3:11)

with all that in mind, check out Greg Boyd's book, "They Myth of a Christian Nation".

Navigating between blasphemy

I was reminded of the following quote after reading Craig David Uffman's reflection:

"You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
Anne Lamott

Faith

Human experience of meals like celebrating birthdays, family gathering during christmas and celebrating of feast, a gathering for word and meal, resonates with Eucharistic meaning. There is a rich tapestry of symbolism that comes to us from many sources about this Christian sacred meal.

People like you trouble me.

People like you trouble me. You want to trample on our rights because in this instance you think it's the right thing to do. You don't seem to comprehend that if one loses it all do. Next it will be you and something you believe in. Don't be such a fascist tool.

Exactly how

Exactly how does it trample on your "rights" for a Christian minister to wrestle with what to do about nationalism in the church?

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