E-pistle July 3

Are Red, White and Blue Liturgical Colors?

I'm looking forward to worship on Sunday.  Part of the service will be given over to a "Celebration for the Gift of the Nation."  We will hear excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech.  We will sing familiar national hymns that should stir our hearts. And I say, "Of, course, wear your red, white and blue." 

While respecting those Christian traditions that prefer that a safer distance be kept between church and state, with a bit of fear and trembling, I think it wise that we allow a celebration like Sunday's from time to time. But it will be a bounded celebration. You will notice in the order of worship that the center of the service will be, properly, the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Lord's Table. In the call to worship, the Psalmist will remind us that, "The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save," an important reminder in a world where we tend to trust foolishly the state's power to make right what has gone wrong or to change the nature of human persons or human history. In our time of confession we will admit national sins and humbly ask that God "mend our every flaw."

So why this prologue to a service that maybe ought to just be fun? Because both Scripture and the church's experience counsel caution. Our text for the day will be Micah 6:6-8, but we would be wise to be aware of what follows in verses 9-16. The God who is Judge of the nations does not deal lightly with nations whose people are violent, deceitful and unjust. Even the chosen people of Judah. America, for all its wonders and blessings, in not immune from sin. 

One of the documents in our Book of Confessions is the Theological Declaration of Barmen, written in 1933 during  the dark days of Hitler's growing domination of all of Germany's life, including the life of her church.  We know that the largest portion of the German church would become a complicit partner in Nazi atrocities. At Barmen, faithful Christians saw what was about to happen. The Declaration follows a pattern of listening to Scripture, offering a comment on the Scripture, and stating the false doctrine that it rejects as it listens to the Word. 

This is the fifth of the six assertions of the Theological Declaration of Barmen: 

5. "Fear God. Honour the emperor." (1 Pet 2.17)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the state has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfils this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the kingdom of God, God's commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the state, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church's vocation as well.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the state, thus itself becoming an organ of the state.

Red, white and blue together are not liturgical colors and we must be very careful about the temptation to make them so. But the nation, our nation, is a part of God's ordering of things. On Sunday we will acknowledge God's sovereign ordering of, and demand upon, our national life "in gratitude and reverence before him."  

So, wear your red, white and blue. Let your heart be stirred by patriots' words and the national hymns. But remember, too, what he requires of us: the doing of justice, the love of mercy and a humble walk with him. And then come to the Table where the one who has given us freedom by his death on the cross invites us to feast with him.