There is a flag in the corner of the auditorium.
Every Sunday morning it waves while we convert a school auditorium into a house of worship. I turn a table onto its side to kick out the legs. John and I shuffle the school musical props behind a black velvet curtain, and I turn on the second and third row of lights. The flag stays—it is too high to reach.
A lot of churches have an American flag somewhere in the sanctuary. Some have argued whether it should be there or not. One elder removes the flag thinking symbols of empire do not have a place in worship. Someone else places it back in the pewter stand on stage thinking the congregation ought to be grateful for the one nation under God in which we can worship freely. I have my own opinion on patriotism in the church until a woman who lost a son in Iraq shares hers, and it becomes obvious that any conversation about the flag in the church isn’t really about the flag in the church.
The flag in the corner of the auditorium is the school’s, so it stays. There is no arguing. We couldn’t remove it if we wanted to. Somehow it makes it into all of the pictures I take. I try to snap a shot of the band with the lamps set just behind them. When I look back at my photos, the flag has photobombed every shot.
One week, I preached on Jesus’ command to forgive 490 times. It’s an absurd and impractical command. “But,” I said in my sermon, “Jesus didn’t call his followers to be practical.” I am the last to leave that day, so I go into the auditorium to grab my jacket. As I leave, I see the flag. It reminds me that I am not returning to a world that forgives. I am walking back into a world with a three-strike rule. Not 490, the flag winks. Three. Three strikes and then you are doing life behind bars. Much more effective. But keep preaching the good news, preacher. Keep preaching the good news.
Another Sunday I preached on Isaiah, and the vision God gives to him of a day when weapons are beat into farm tools. “This is the vision that we ought to strive to make a reality,” I urged. I preached with fervor the good news of a world where weapons are laid down. I try to convince myself and the good people of Grace Chicago that a day of non-violence could be real, even on our streets. The stripes on the flag bend slightly, the stars are eyes watching over me. Preach on, good preacher. Someday, maybe, but not today.
Each week when we gather for worship, we pledge our allegiance to another kingdom. But the flag in the corner stands watch. It reminds me, though it’s hard to admit, that I wouldn’t trade its security and comfort for the Lord’s in a hundred years. It knows where my allegiance lies. If not to the flag, to something that it created. Childhood nostalgia, Americana. We thank it for our freedom, for our security, for our comfort. My happiness was purchased by the blood that was shed for me; my security was bought with bodies broken for me. I may cringe when patriotic songs sound in the sanctuary, but I know where my bread is buttered. The flag stands by, unthreatened by my worship.
In the beginning, there was a flag in the corner of the early church. A Jewish flag hung always in the mind of Peter, James, and John. All things happened under the watchful eye of that flag. Though the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brought everything under the reign of his Lordship, in the first years of the church, converts to Christianity came not only under the Lordship of Christ but under the watchful eye of the flag in the corner. Until slowly, the apostles began to realize that God shows no partiality. Over time, that flag in the corner was taken down.
The early church learns that their worship will be an act of treason against their former religion. It will be an act of treason against Rome. And soon, they will be murdered for it.
At communion each week, I commit an act of treason.
While the flag stands watch in the corner, I pledge my allegiance to a kingdom whose bottom line isn’t power, whose form isn’t control, whose borders are blurred by hospitality.
The flag doesn’t know it, but each week during this act of treason at Christ’s table, His Spirit draws me up into the heavenly places where I taste my true citizenship, and there is no flag.