Flag from Ft. McHenry
TEXT: Psalm 65
There are times you have to just trust that the flag of God is still flying over your life.
It is an odd thing to be celebrating these days. We are at war. These are dark times for us as a nation. Each day we hear news of terror threats, we count the dead of the day, and we wonder if it is even possible to talk of a “solution” in Iraq. And we have worries and concerns here at home, even without leaving our own homes. Our times of sharing prayer concerns get quite heavy at times. It's hard to talk about giving thanks in such times.
That is why I chose to use our national anthem this morning. It will be our closing hymn. I don't bring it into church in a fit of patriotic fervor...there is enough Baptist left in me to be very nervous about crossing the church/state line, and some of you have read in my book that I’m not a fan of having flags in churches. So what am I doing pulling the Star-Spangled Banner into morning worship? I am using it because it is a song of thanksgiving to God, written in a time of war.
We normally sing only the first verse of the Star-Spangled Banner, but Francis Scott Key wrote four, the last of which reads: "Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand between their loved homes and the war's desolation! Blest with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto: "In God is our trust." And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
Our national anthem is a song of thanksgiving to God for deliverance during the War of 1812, after a bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore, Maryland. The first verse, the one we sing at the opening of sporting events and other occasions, talks about the descent into darkness. As the song begins, night is falling and we have one last glimpse of the flag "in the twilight's last gleaming." Then comes night--a night of fear and war and uncertainty. Is the flag still flying? Has the fort been taken? Don't know. It's dark. Can't see the flag. But every so often, there is a sudden glimpse of the flag still flying. How is it revealed? By the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air. Then it is darkness and uncertainty again. The end of the first verse is a question: "O say, DOES that Star-spangled banner yet wave?" No one will know for sure until morning comes.
I want to give you that picture from our history as a picture of our lives with God. There are times of peace and daylight when it takes no effort at all to see God waving freely in our lives. It is as obvious as the sunlight--we can count the stars and stripes on God's banner and know without a shadow of a doubt that God is in control and providing us with care, protection, and love. It is easy at those times to be thankful.
But then there are other times. Times when the enemy sneaks up the Potomac River and the day turns to twilight. We might get one more glimpse of God, and then nightfall comes and everything is dark. Is God still up there? Don't know. It's dark. Can't see. And in those times we get only quick glimpses of God. And we're not really sure we want those, because we only get those glimpses when bombs explode, and then we're plunged into darkness again. It is a night of fear, uncertainty, danger, and even death. It's not unwarranted fear. It's a real war. Real pain, real death. Real bombs are bursting, and it's too dark to see what's happening to anybody else but you. And there's nothing to do but wait it out and see if you live to see morning.
Now I want to leave Ft. McHenry hanging in the balance for a moment and jump to the end of Psalm 65--and you're going to have to trust me here that there is a connection. In verses 12 and 13, we are about as far from the pains of war as we can get. We have creation, shouting and singing together for joy. Nature is singing a song of thanksgiving. Some people see this as romanticism in poetry–giving human attributes to non-human things and imagining something as neutral as nature doing something it's really not capable of doing.
I see it as showing us the truth about what it means to be thankful. No, the word "thanks" is nowhere in the Psalm. But the whole psalm is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving for what God has done, and when it talks starting in verse 9 about how God cares for the earth, the earth responds in thankfulness with shouts and songs of joy. And the point I want to pull out of this is that the earth expresses its thanks to God by becoming what God intended for it to be. The pastures give thanks by overflowing, the meadows feed the flocks, the valleys produce grain. They give thanks to God by fulfilling their purpose and place in Creation.
I want to say that our thanksgiving should be no different. Yes, it's nice to SAY "thank you," and to express our thanks in various concrete ways. But I think that the truest form of thanksgiving isn’t about what we say or do so much as what we become. When we search out the purpose for which we were created, both generally as human beings and individually as the uniquely gifted people that we are, we are living our thankfulness. We respond to the gifts and the care of God by blossoming into our truest selves.
A lot of times we shake our heads or snicker at those who talk of trying to find themselves or who say they don't know who they are. Lots of insipid pop psychology and strange new-age rituals leap to mind. But I think the core question of "Who am I?" or with a theological spin, "Who has God created me to be?" is one of the core questions that has to be answered before we can fully live a life of faith. Our truest praise and thanksgiving to God is to find that answer and with God's help to become that person.
Now take that question…who has God created me to be…and let's go back to Ft. McHenry. I don't know of anyone who has come to grips with that question without going through some form of that dark night of uncertainty and doubt. I have had many such, but the darkest was the three-year-long night that followed my divorce. And the deepest night of those was my first night alone in Atlanta as I waited to start seminary.
Dear friends had moved me up there, but they were on their way back home. I had no husband; I had no job. I had to give up my two dogs in order to move to the small apartment. I had to sell things that had been dear to me in order to make ends meet. The grand piano I had inherited from my Great Aunt, for whom I was named, and whom I had loved deeply. My French Horn that had traveled with me since Jr. High School and had propelled me to the principal chair of state bands and orchestras. I felt like I literally had sold the music out of my life.
I knew no one--a country girl in a strange city. I was surrounded by boxes with no help to unpack them, signing what was left of my life away to educational loans, and I spent that first night sobbing on an unmade mattress. I realized then that I had no idea who I was. All I had was the memory of the flag in the twilight's last gleaming--the memory that I had felt God's calling into the ministry. All I had was a memory of daylight, a recollection that once I could see God clearly and had a sense that God loved me and cared for me. But it was just memory, because now it was dark, and I couldn't see God or sense what was happening to anybody else but me. I went through the next two years of school hoping that flag was still there, only getting glimpses of it when bombs went off.
Morning came after that night, just as it does in the second verse of our national anthem: "On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep, where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes. What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep, as it fitfully blows, now conceals, now discloses? Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam, in full glory reflected now shines on the stream: ‘Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!"
The battle for our souls...the battle for who we are...is fought in the night. It is won or lost in the night. Daylight comes only to reveal what has been accomplished. Jesus fought the battle in the night of the Cross and the tomb. Easter morning merely revealed who had won. The banner of God flew high on Easter morning because Jesus was willing to persist in being who he truly was, even to the point of death. Jesus gave thanks by revealing the love of God, even in the darkest, most frightening circumstances. He loved in the daylight and he loved in the night, and when the world realized that God was willing to go through the night with us, nothing could stay the same.
As we approach Thanksgiving this week, our lives seem to beg the question, "How can we give thanks to God during the night?" When Thanksgiving comes in a time of darkness, how can we talk about thanking God? I think the answer is that we thank God by allowing our lives to become thanksgiving--that is to become who God created us to be, who God has called us to be as a grateful response to God's presence. But can I do that in the darkness? Yes. In fact, it may be that we do it most truly in the darkness. What is faith but a trust that God has provided a bridge when we can see none? It requires little faith to respond to God when it is daylight and God's presence is so unmistakable you can count the stars and stripes. But to respond to God in the darkness, when you're not really sure whose flag is flying over the fort? That's where our faith matters most.
Living out my call to preach is my way of thanking God. Some days I get up to preach God's love and feel God closer than my breathing. Other days I preach the goodness of God when it seems like the biggest lie I have ever told. Usually, I believe what I say; but sometimes I say things in order to help me believe them again. All of it is faith...it's just that some of it is faith in the daylight when all is clear, and some of it is faith in the darkness when all I can do is hope and pray that God's flag is still flying over the fort of my life.
That, to me, is thankfulness. I thank God by being what God has called me to be even at the times when it seems God just wanted a good joke. I will say that God is good; I will proclaim that God is love; I will entrust my life to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even in the red glare of the rockets of war. Why? Because I have seen clearly the banner of God, lifted high on a Cross. The stripes were unmistakable. He went into the night, for me and with me, and returned in full glory Easter morning. There is no other response for me but a life of faith that proclaims my thankfulness--nothing else to do but the work to which God calls me.
My challenge to you is not to remember to give thanks. It isn't even a challenge to say "thank you" to God when you don't feel the least bit thankful. It is a challenge to let your life become thanksgiving--to take the leap of faith that puts your whole life in God's hands even when the fight is perilous, the night is dark, and it seems like life in God's hands ought to be safer and more comfortable than this.
That is the thanks that God wants from us, the response of our lives that almost has to shout, "I trust You" so that it can be heard above the exploding bombs; the response that continues to proclaim "God is good," even while dodging bullets and hiding in foxholes; the life that continues to give in love even when the only response seems to be enemy fire. Thanksgiving in the darkness is thanksgiving at its best. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson