I made lots of mistakes in my four years as the pastor of a church. I have lots of regrets, lots of things I wish I did and didn’t say, people I wish I loved better, teenagers I wish I had been a better mentor for. I have lots of things I think I did right, people I loved well, sermons I considered well, though too.
One of the things I do not regret at all, not in the least, the most courageous and responsible thing I did, took place two years ago on a Sunday morning on the eve of Memorial Day. On that Sunday, many churches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia were engaging in singing patriotic songs like “My Country Tis’ of Thee” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” with their hands over the heart, while some had some song speaking of freedom with American flags rippling on the screen behind the projected words, finishing with a virtual flyover by some F-14s. Because of those ridiculous displays of idolatry, and the twisted idea of a freedom to fight and die for rather than a freedom that leads you to lay down your life and die for your enemies and your friends, I felt a responsibility to distinguish what it meant to be Christian on that Sunday, and why we were different than our other American brothers and sisters.
I handed out a paper that had my words verbatim on the sheet, I prefaced my comments by telling persons if they disagreed with me or were frustrated or angry, that they had the words I was about to say in front of them, and I would love to speak with them in their homes. Midway through my short talk, one couple got up and left (and afterwards, vowed they would not ever be at a worship gathering led by me again), others became angry, and several people’s relationship with me became fundamentally different that day.
After reflection, I’m convinced that was the most courageous day of my life, that I did the right thing, that the anger of others was the conviction of Jesus confronting their idolatry, and that my relationship with those who left allowed me to practice loving my enemies. The words I spoke that morning are quoted below:
We will not be focusing on the cultural holiday of Memorial Day in worship today, and I want to tell you why.
The kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God are not the same. The kingdom of the United States is a kingdom of the world with different purposes than the kingdom of God, and it is not the center of what God is doing in the world. Now I’m not isolating the United States as being the only nation that is not the center of what God is doing in the world, because every kingdom of this world, all around the world, is not equal to the kingdom of God. If we are willing to look beyond our cultural and national boundaries to the world as God sees it, we come to an understanding very quickly that the people group God is most concerned about in the world are His faithful people.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he wrote, (11-13, 19-22)
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ… Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
We are fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household. If we are fellow citizens as disciples of Jesus, what are we citizens of? (Israel, not the modern kind, but the faithful people of God; God’s kingdom). We are centrally citizens of God’s kingdom. And when we read today Paul writing to Gentiles who are no longer foreigners and strangers, but united as citizens of one kingdom, who is he writing to? (those all over the world who have become disciples of Jesus, people who now are fellow citizens of the same nation, the same people).
What that means practically is that Christians in South Africa are not South African Christians, but just Christians living in South Africa, those in Britain are not British Christians, but Christians living in Britain, those in the United States are not American Christians, but Christians living in the United States, and those living in China are not Chinese Christians, but Christians living in China. In all of these places, their primary citizenship is not the country they live in, but the kingdom of God’s people.
This is not something we can argue over. It is not an opinion, it is fact. And everyone here should know how careful I am when I speak to say most of what I say is my perspective on the truth. But this is not my perspective. It is the truth. If we are Christians, we are primarily citizens of God’s global kingdom.
And all of these countries have their own cultural holidays, and all of the Christians living in those countries have to be able to separate between which holidays to focus on and which not to. In regards to Memorial Day, if we’re asking whether God has ever used the United States in military action to accomplish his purposes, the answer is yes. But the same answer would be given to all the other countries across the world as well. If we’re asking, has the United States in military action ever committed evil acts? The answer is yes. And the same answer would be given to all the other countries across the world as well.
What should be troubling to us is the blank check that many Christians in America give to military action. We are all over the board in this room on whether military action is ever justified to accomplish God’s purposes, and when we wrestle with this question, our perspectives must be rooted in the Scriptures. But one thing we all can agree on is that military action is not justified in all circumstances at all times. If it is true that the unjust loss of life has taken place at the military’s hands, which it is, the military has acted in opposition then to the kingdom of God.
As we discern which cultural holidays to focus on a bit and which not, this is a consideration that should guide our worship. We are members of a global kingdom that does not see boundaries the way other persons do; we do not fragment the world into little pieces like other people do. We are different. We are Christians.
This is why Memorial Day is not appropriate for Christian worship because it focuses on America at the exclusion of the rest of world. Because America is not the center of God’s world, it is not appropriate for it to be the focus of our worship.