“Signs of the Times Part III:
Flags in the Cemetery”
I Samuel 8:4-22; Matthew 18:1-4
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
May 28, 2017
It has been a year filled with signs. Last summer and fall, they were campaign signs, plastering walls, stuck in lawns and held on street corners. After the election they switched to protest signs–carried with passion at marches and rallies all over the nation.
The messages on the signs inspired my sermon series, “Signs of the Times.” Three weeks ago, my sermon drew upon the sign I held at the Science march in Boston. Last week I reflected on the lawn sign gracing my front yard. This week, as we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, I selected a series of signs that have no words: hundreds of thousands of flags that have been freshly placed on the graves of veterans who have died after serving our country.
The flags mean different things to different people, and surely they represent something different at each of the graves. In some cases, they honor a courageous choice to fight for deeply-held principles. Some rest on the graves of people compelled to risk their lives for a cause they questioned. Some flags are a reminder of the pain of post-traumatic stress; others are an expression of our most noble human capacity to sacrifice for a greater good. In every case, they are placed on the graves with gratitude for service to our nation.
This year, the flags speak especially powerfully–signs that challenge us as we respond what is happening around us. We live in times that tempt us to new heights of cynicism. The election last year revealed the depths of division in our nation. The growth of social media that has meant more people’s voices can be heard has also led to the spread of lies that leave us despairing of ever knowing the truth. Revelations about Russia’s hacking have caused us to question our electoral process. And, almost every day over the last few weeks, we have learned of yet another scandal unfolding. Words like obstruction of justice and impeachment are all over the news. The appointment of a special prosecutor feels like a positive step, but it doesn’t do much to counter the sense that our government is far from being, as Lincoln so eloquently said, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
In these times, the flags in our cemeteries serve as a powerful reminder of how high the stakes really are. Each flag represents someone who, for better or for worse, risked their well-being and sometimes gave their lives in defense of our nation and the principles on which is it founded. We dishonor their sacrifice when we allow our cynicism to shape our response to what is happening. We honor their sacrifice when we fight for our democracy, when we reaffirm the principles on which our nation was founded, even as we acknowledge how imperfectly we have lived out those principles.
How does our Christian faith speak to the challenges these flags hold for us? The Bible doesn’t give us direct guidance–there are no examples of secular democracy in our scripture. The Bible does, though, offer wisdom about the realities of human nature and power and governance.
Our Hebrew Bible lesson describes a crucial moment of transition in the governance of the Jewish people. When Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt, he was their undisputed leader. While they grumbled occasionally and in one instant baldly ignored his commands, the people otherwise followed him because they believed he was called by God. During the long journey through the wilderness, Moses appointed judges to help him govern.
The system of judges continued long after the people settled in the promised land. It was by no means democracy, but it was de-centralized power. The judges were closer to the people they governed and presumably more attuned to their needs. The system even, on occasion, broke through deeply rooted social norms, with a female judge, Deborah.
The Jewish people, though, were surrounded by nations that were governed by kings–power consolidated in one person. Accurately or not, the people perceived those nations to be better able to defend themselves against external threats. They began clamoring for a king, asking God to anoint one. Speaking through the prophets, God said no, over and over again.
In today’s reading, God finally relented–but with a stern warning about the dangers of concentrated power. The king, God said through Samuel, will take your sons as soldiers and your daughters as perfumers. He will take the best of your vineyards and flocks and make you essentially slaves. Still the people insisted: they wanted a king who would fight their battles and keep them safe.
And so Samuel, with God’s begrudging assent, appointed Saul as king. Saul soon fell from favor and David took his place. Even David, who is lifted up as the greatest king in their history, abused his power, sending Uriah to certain death in battle in order to take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his own.
Eventually, in response to the ways the kings consistently forgot their responsibility to God and the people, a sacred system of de-facto checks and balances emerged. God anointed kings as political leaders and priests to oversee the religious life of the people, and God also called prophets who challenged the kings and the priests whenever they ignored God’s will.
It proved to be an imperfect system of checks and balances. Sometimes the king listened to the prophets and the priests. Sometimes he didn’t: the prophet Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern. Sometimes false prophets rose up, seduced by the benefits they got from proclaiming that everything was fine with it wasn’t.
If the Hebrew Bible text warns of our potential to abuse power, Jesus takes things a step further, turning our notions of power upside down. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. In God’s kin-dom, he says, whoever would be greatest must be as humble as a child. Jesus confounded his disciples in his refusal to use his power as a charismatic leader to protect his own life or to drive out the Romans. At the same time he threatened the political and religious leaders because he proclaimed there was a power much greater than theirs at work in the world.
The worlds in which Samuel prophesied and Jesus taught are very different than our modern-day world. We don’t have a king anointed by God. We are not occupied by a foreign nation. Still, these biblical stories offer us wisdom to help us respond faithfully to the threats facing our democracy.
The biblical stories remind us that power is real, and we need to pay attention to it. Power can be necessary–the people clamoring for a king were right that it takes strong leadership to address the dangers that lurk inside and outside the borders of a nation. Power can be seductive–for it tends to lead to the desire for more power, which often spills over into the abuse of power. Power, Jesus adds, can be deceptive–for we mistakingly equate it with the ability to use force rather than the ability to open ourselves to the ultimate source of power, God’s love.
Because power is necessary, seductive and deceptive, we will always need systems of checks and balances. Biblical history reminds us that every system of checks and balances is imperfect. Times change, and a system that worked effectively a generation ago may need adjusting. Even as we seek to address the immediate crisis in our nation, we are called to look at the bigger picture. How does social media change the way the press functions as a check to the government’s power? How do we uphold the ways the three branches of our government are meant to balance each other without ending up with gridlock? What do we do about the role of money in our elections? There are no perfect answers to these questions, but we need to keep asking them and keep searching for ways to restore balance.
The role of the prophet in biblical history seems especially relevant to us today as a church. The prophet in the Hebrew Bible was called to speak unpopular truths–to call the king and the people back to the ways of God. Often, that meant lifting up God’s particular concern for the most vulnerable people in the community. Perhaps today the prophet is also charged to create space in which voices that have previously been silenced can be heard. What does it mean for us, as Christians, to claim the ancient calling of prophet?
Jesus’ perplexing upside-down words lift up a crucial truth for these times. No matter how powerful human institutions may become, Jesus reminds us that there is something more powerful: the kin-dom of God, which breaks in any time we live out God’s love through our care for our neighbor. That truth does not give us permission to disengage from human political processes; instead it calls us to engage and question and challenge our political institutions to reflect the values of compassion and human dignity.
Jesus reminds us that we do not have to pretend to know everything in order to transform our world. In fact, true greatness in God’s kin-dom comes when we are humble as a child, recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, acknowledging our need for one another. We are part of the kin-dom of God when we speak out on behalf of those whose voices are not being heard. We usher in the kin-dom when we try to listen to people whose views we may abhor, when we choose compassion over fear, when we hold out hope in the face of cynicism.
Flags in the cemetery–sign that challenge us to decide how we will live in these times. Let us rise to the challenge–with wisdom about the realities of human power, with courage to speak the truth boldly, with humility and compassion and hope. Amen.