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Sunday, July 02, 2006

"Do not fear, only believe"

“Do not fear, only believe.” Mark 5:21-43
IV Pentecost – July 2, 2006 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Today marks an important day in our calendar – for a variety of reasons. This is July 4th holiday weekend – the way we know it’s really REALLY summer. Backyard barbecue’s and family gatherings are the order of the day, as well as parades down Main Streets everywhere – complete with flag-waving retired soldiers in ill fitting uniforms marching to patriotic songs.

I want to talk this morning about the flag. Actually, I want to talk about two flags in particular: The American Flag and the Episcopal Flag – both of which will be processed into the church by two members of the Vestry during the offertory hymn, “My country ‘tis of thee.”

One of the first things I noticed when I walked into this church was the fact that there were no flags in the sanctuary. To be honest, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, good,” I thought, “there’s one argument we won’t be having.” I must admit, I was amazed that it took four years – four Veterans’ Days, Thanksgivings and July 4ths – before someone asked me about the flags. And, it wasn’t even a patriotic holiday. “Why are they in the Parish Hall?” someone asked, “Why aren’t they in the sanctuary? They’ve ALWAYS been in the sanctuary.”

“Ummm, actually, no they haven’t,” I replied, promising to discuss it with the Vestry. And, we did, agreeing that they should return today, July 4th. I also promised that I would think about these two symbols in light of the gospel. And, I have.

I have done so because, it seems to me, both flags – American and Episcopal – are under increasing attack these days. Indeed, I remember returning home from General Convention three years ago and learning that some churches had taken down the Episcopal flags and walked over them in procession. Others hung the Episcopal flags upside down in front of the church. I remember being mortified – and angry.

You may be curious: What exactly is the symbolism of The Episcopal flag? Well, a quick trip into the cyberspace page of The Episcopal Church Center yielded this information: On Oct. 16, 1940, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies adopted an official flag for the Episcopal Church. Interestingly enough, this was 251 years after General Convention ratified the Constitution and Canons and adopted the Book of Common Prayer. It was designed by William M. Baldwin (d. 1942), a member of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Long Island, New York.

The symbolism of the flag has been explained as follows: The white field represents the purity of the Christian religion. The red cross represents the sacrifice of Jesus and the blood of the martyrs. The red cross on a white field is the cross of Saint George, the patron saint of England, indicating our descent from the Church of England. The blue in the upper left-hand corner is the light blue of the sky, often used by artists for the clothing of the Blessed Virgin. It is called Madonna blue and represents the human nature of our Lord, which he received from his mother.

The nine white crosslets on the blue field represent the nine original dioceses of the Episcopal Church in America in 1789: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and South Carolina. They are arranged in the form of a St. Andrew's Cross to commemorate the fact that Samuel Seabury, the first American bishop, was consecrated in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Nov. 14, 1784. The colors red, white, and blue represent the United States and stand for the American branch of the Anglican Communion.

As for the American flag, AKA the “Stars and Stripes,” and “Old Glory,” what we know is this: it may or may not have been sewn by Betsey Ross, but it was designed, in fact, by Francis Hopkinson, a popular patriot, a lawyer, a Congressman from Bordentown, New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, poet, artist, and distinguished civil servant. He asked no compensation for his efforts, save “a quarter cask of public wine,” which was eventually granted him in 1780. Ah, a true Episcopalian! You know the old truism: “Wherever three or four Episcopalians have gathered, there’s always a ‘fifth’.”

Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, reporting to Congress on the Seal, stated: "The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valor, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice." Also this, from a book about the flag published in 1977 by the House of Representatives: "The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired.”

Well, that was a lovely little stroll down a quaint historic lane, wasn’t it? What in God’s name, you might be asking, has this got to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Well, if you listen to what Jesus has to say in the face of death – if you listen to the persistence of the woman who needed healing, you will hear an answer.

I’ve been thinking about being an American in these dark days after 9/11, and in the midst of what we now almost blithely call, “The War on Terrorism.” It’s really become “A War of Terrorism.”

Fear is thick in the air. It’s amazing how quickly we can surrender our rights – civil and ecclesiastical – in a climate of fear. And, the parallels between our church and the state of the Union have never been more closely drawn. Fear has brought us the Patriot Act as well as The Windsor Report. Fear always brings a need to more sharply draw circles around possessions and identity. In a climate of fear, rules become more rigid, speculation and prognostication – rather than fact and reason – reign supreme. Those who challenge the status quo are the first to go.

We can see that in today’s scripture. When Jesus overheard the people telling Jairus that his daughter had died, he said to him, “Do not fear, only believe.” It’s hard to hold onto your beliefs when you believe the life of someone you love is at risk, isn’t it? We know this in our own families. It is a human instinct, as old as time.

Our daughter Julie has been on a 5 week tour of Europe. It’s part of her job as Dean of External Affairs and Development at Fordham Law. I know. Tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. She wrote to us this week from Belfast, just before leaving for Dublin. “Mom, I’m afraid,” she wrote. “I was standing on the wrong side of the wall wearing my green sweater. The cab driver who had taken me to my appointment told me that he can’t go to certain pubs because they are known as Catholics and he is a Protestant. Catholics were green. Protestants wear orange. Wearing the wrong color, associated with the wrong flag, can get you killed.”

Killed. Because of the color of a flag. Killed. In the name of the Father. Killed. In the name of God. What in the name of God are we doing? There is a wall in Ireland, separating one people of God from another. The same is happening in Israel. The same is happening in this country between Mexico and the US Border. The same happened in Germany.

Have we learned no lesson from history? Is it always doomed to repeat itself? I suspect, human nature being what it is, human fear being what it is, it always will. Truth be told, this is precisely why I was glad not to have the flags in the sanctuary. Let’s keep them out of here. Let this be a sanctuary – in the full meaning of that word. Sanctuary. A place of safety and shelter where the fears of the world can not penetrate. A place where Jesus says to us, “Do not fear, only believe.”

I love being an Episcopalian who happens to be an Anglican. And, I suppose the Episcopal flag has come to symbolize that love I have for my religion. My heart is broken by what the so-called ‘orthodox’ in our church – what the evangelical/charismatic/neo-puritans have done to the good name of being an Episcopalian.

This morning’s New York Times carried the headline: “Episcopalians Shaken by Division in Church.” Episcopalians, shaken? Never! Like a good Episcopal martini, we are stirred, never shaken!

I love the story that gets told about the framers of the United States government who by day wrote the Constitution and by night walked down the streets in Philadelphia to Christ Episcopal Church to write the Constitution and Canons of what was then known as the Protestant Episcopal Church, USA. In many ways, being an Episcopalian is one of a same piece with being an American – like a marriage – “for better or for worse” – and I can’t imagine things being much worse in our country or our church right now.

So I’m thinking that perhaps because of this moment in our history, this is, in fact, a good time to bring the two flags back into church today – not out of nostalgia for our history, or jingoistic arrogance about our sense of national superiority.

Rather, let us bring these two flags into this sanctuary this morning as a reminder of the hopes and dreams they embody – the aspirations to which they point us – the ideals to which they call us: purity, vigilance, sacrifice, justice – the remembrance of the history of our identity as followers of Christ. Let the stars in the flags continue to be a symbol of the divine goal to which we aspire: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Let us remember and never, ever, forget that one of the foundational blocks of this country is religious freedom.

Let us be as persistent as the woman with the 12 year hemorrhage – pushing past the cultural expectations of who people thought she was and who she knew herself to be. Let us seek the healing of Jesus for ourselves and our daughters and sons first, before we succumb to fear. Let us tremble only before God, and not the false gods we make of independence and union.

When you look upon these flags, I urge you to consider the fear that is bred in our culture and in our church and what that fear can create in us. I beg you, from my heart, to consider what horrendous acts that fear can compel us to do. Consider this well, my friends. Consider this well.

My prayer is that these flags may be for us reminders of what it is we say we believe. May they be part of our offering of our time and talent and treasure to God – in all humility and humble service. May they point us to perfect love, which casts out all fear. If they don’t fulfill that purpose, then perhaps they need to be back in the Parish Hall. But for now, for this moment in our history as a nation and a church, it is important to look upon them, here in this sanctuary from the rest of the world, and hear the words which Jesus spoke to Jairus: “Do not fear, only believe.”



Pilgrim Presbyter said...

Elizabeth--On the last day of GC you were outside writing at a table and you gave me a very nice smile, a genuine, true smile, not just a polite smile. Your photo on the sidebar doesn't do you justice.

Now I read your angry near-description of me in a sermon yet: "My heart is broken by what the so-called ‘orthodox’ in our church – what the evangelical/ charismatic/ neo-puritans have done to the good name of being an Episcopalian."

You are a "name" in one wing of the Episcopal Church. Be bigger than this name-calling. Do you really want to lump all evangelicals and charismatics together like that? I really doubt that you do.

Oh and thanks for the thoughts on the flag. I'm going to have ours brought out of the closet.

Kelly James

Lisa Fox said...

WOW! What a sermon! Thanks for sharing it.

I'll confess: It always makes me uneasy when I walk into an Episcopal church that has the U.S. flag displayed. Partly that's because of the reminder that we are to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," and my spiritual life does not belong to Caesar or George Bush. But mostly it's because of that "jingoistic arrogance about ... our national superiority" you mention, which too often [I have assumed "always"] undergirds those displays.

Your reflection brought this whole thing to a deeper understanding for me. Now ... will you post a notice in the narthex for future visitors so they'll understand too? ;-)

Lisa Fox said...

Pilgrim, it's certainly not my job to respond to your comment, but I can't resist.

There are charismatic and evangelical people of integrity in this church of ours, who are struggling toward the Truth to which we all aspire, and whose companionship on the journey I need and treasure. But I believe there are also a group (loosely and often termed "neo-puritans") who are bent on power and control, not on truth, and who are out only to control or destroy The Episcopal Church. I expect it's the latter group to which Elizabeth+ was referring.