8 May 2005 06:34 PM


Sermon preached by Deacon Sue Mosher, 8 May 2005

The four of us driving up to Gettysburg last September did not know what to expect. The college art gallery we were going to visit had braced for the worst, hiring extra security guards and preparing for protests. The artist, John Sims, had played it safe and stayed away from the opening [1], which had taken place the evening before our visit. He had also withdrawn plans for a performance piece that would have taken place outside the gallery at Gettysburg College – the symbolic lynching of a Confederate battle flag.

And so, we were somewhat surprised – and relieved – to find that we didn’t have to walk a gantlet of Sons of Confederate Veterans to visit the exhibit titled “Recoloration Proclamation: The Gettysburg Redress.” [Lest you think that I have no sympathy for the Southern cause, I am proud to say that I am the great-granddaughter of a member of the 43rd Alabama Infantry, but that my greatgrandfather had the good sense to desert at the battle of Petersburg.]

It was a sobering exhibit, but not a quiet one. The background soundtrack blared a jazz remix of Dixie that reminded me more than anything else of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” And that was appropriate, because what John Sims had done was radical. He had taken the crossed “stars and bars” of the Confederate battle flag and done things with it that you could not help but find disturbing.

Each of the four of us reacted differently, but the tableaux that moved us most were these:

  • First, the holographic video of Confederate flag hanging from a noose on a scaffold, rotating to show us the scene from all angles.
  • Second, the real flag, again hanging from a noose in the corner of the room, dragging on the floor.
  • Third, the red, white, and blue flag recolored to black and white, a stark statement about the feelings that people of different races have about the Confederate flag.
  • And finally, the scene that affected me the most – the Floridian Rebel flag – again recolored, this time in tropical “tiki bar” colors hanging over three Florida voting booths, complete with ballots from the 2000 presidential election. You could pick out your own hanging chad.

Accompanying the exhibit was the artist’s statement – his “Gettysburg Redress”:

“Now we are engaged in a continued Great War of terrorism.... We are met on a great battlefield of symbols, where images, languages, and sounds are weaponized to protect ideology, to inspire identification, and [to] mark territory.... We are in a constant state of nervousness and numbness as we rationalize the lines between expression and terror, safety and militarism, heritage and disrespect. We have come to dedicate part of this field, this field of ideas to the examination of a process of survival through recoloration, resurrection, and remixing where death equals life, tradition loosens to growth, and history submits to the gravity of the future.”

The disquieting clash over symbols that seems to make the headlines every day is no new concept, no matter how much we moderns might want to pat ourselves on the back for our studies of semiotics and linguistics. Augustine and Aquinas were keenly aware of the power of symbols, Aquinas writing that “in Holy Scripture, spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things.” Augustine sagely observed that the realm of conventional signs – those formed by human-made convention – includes not just images, but words ... and not just metaphorical phrases, but every single word. Each word stands for something, and we might take a lifetime to figure out what.

Some particular words are at the center of the current battlefield of symbols, particularly those ten phrases from Exodus that begin with “Thou shalt.” During the recent arguments before the Supreme Court on the one of the cases involving the display of the Ten Commandments, David A. Friedman, general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, stated, “Symbols are subject to alternative interpretations, but text is not. Or text rarely is. ... When there is text involved, one presumes the display of text is an endorsement of the content of that text unless the content and the context make it clear that it is neutralizing.”

I disagree. Even texts, whether they are in black and white on a page or chiseled into stone, can take on the role of symbols and be subject to alternative interpretations.

Take, for example, what we say here. The Declaration of Faith that you heard at the beginning of the worship service makes some people uncomfortable. Others find it to be the anchor of their personal faith. To some, it is a closed door from another century; to others, an open invitation. Clearly, it symbolizes different things to different people. We are going to become engaged over the next few months in a discussion of what it means to us and what role it plays both in our worship service and in the shaping of our more private spiritual expressions. To begin, Rev. Morn will be preaching on it and other Universalist declarations later this month, and our “third Wednesday theology group” will be discussing it at their May meeting. Rather than upstage those events, I’ll just recall the words of our minister emeritus Bill Fox, from a sermon he preached here in 1997:

“... the purpose of a declaration of faith is not to define anything concretely for individuals. Rather, the purpose is to point the way of the soul, removing the possibility of theological chaos and the ecclesiastical danger of dancing too closely on the edge of ambiguity. Without some common vocabulary in a church, in a moment of clumsiness, many of us could not stand up around such a precipice for very long.”

Why is it so important that we engage in if not a battle, than at least an encounter over symbols? Much of what we do together as a religious community involves discernment and self-discovery through symbols. For example, we discuss the merits of different versions of hymns – and why a contemporary redaction might have exorcised images of light and dark as metaphors for good and evil in an attempt to be more fair to those with darker skins. And yet most of us do feel uplifted on a bright sunny day and do feel downhearted in the middle of a bleak, sleepless night. We can’t always deny the power that particular words and symbols have for us, deep in our bones.

Talking about symbols and their meaning is one way that we can share our beliefs without giving up the privacy that we cherish around our faith, especially those deepest beliefs that defy our efforts to express them in words. This exploration of a “common vocabulary,” as Bill Fox describes it, takes practice. We need to do more of it.

But these discussions among ourselves may be just a training ground for a bigger combat zone. Artist John Sims put his finger on it: We’re nervous. We’re numb. And we don’t know how to stand up to those who claim exclusive jurisdiction over religious symbols in their pursuit of moral policies that would seem to deny the power of the God of all compassion whom we proclaim here.

In the realm of image, we have no surer guide than Jesus, that master of the parable. One of his more subtle teachings is that a lifetime of metaphors cannot suffice to reveal the whole truth about the God whom we can come to know as the protector of the lilies of the field, the ruler of a great realm that grows from a tiny mustard seed, or even a bear whose fur can shelter us. As the apostle Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

How then, shall we deal with that ultimate Christian symbol, the cross? It looms larger now in this period after Easter than perhaps at any other time of the year. Marcus Borg, in his book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” which our theology group discussed last month, argues that for Christians, the image of Jesus shapes their idea of what the Christian life of faith should be. Someone who perceives that Jesus’ main purpose and message was about himself and his identity as the Son of God, may conceive of the Christian life as one where strict tenets of belief are central. Someone who hears from Jesus the message that “the kingdom of God is at hand” or “the kingdom of God is within you” may understand the Christian life to be one where God offers the opportunity for each person to be in close relationship with the divine, to a lesser degree perhaps but in the same way that Jesus was connected with God.

I would take that one step further and suggest that the image of the cross itself colors our image of Jesus and the life of faith, both for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Carved in stone, set into the wall in front of a glittering Tiffany mosaic, the cross seems more decorative than dogmatic. But what if it were freestanding in front of you, rough hewn, life size, soaked with sweat and blood?

No wonder Paul called it “a stumbling block to the Jews and to the Gentiles, foolishness.” Would you run in the other direction? If you did, you’d probably find me matching your pace, step by step.

But those two images of the cross – the literal and the ornamental – are not the only ones available. The cross is one of the most ancient symbols of all, its vertical and horizontal members forming the junction where heaven and earth meet in one infinitely unmeasurable point of contact. In Celtic crosses like the one in our chancel, the central circle adds another layer of symbolism. Is it an image of the infinite? Of the sun, left over from pagan cultures. Of the interdependence of the web of life?

The philosopher Alan Watts was not only one of the foremost interpreters of Eastern thought for Western audiences during the middle of the 20th century, but he also thought deeply about the mythological significance of Christian ritual and symbols. In his book “Myth and Ritual in Christianity,” he lists many cultures where the sacrificial tree plays a key role. Often, he says, this same tree serves as the axis mundi, the center of the world. In medieval times, when religious emotion infused daily life in a way that I’m afraid we might find all too recognizable, a popular legend held that the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion was cut from the same tree that stood at the center of the Garden of Eden – the one that we heard about in the reading from Genesis. And where did that tree stand in that garden? At the head of four rivers. And so we find at the very beginning of the bible, a four-fold flow of rivers, at the nexus of the world, under the tree, thriving in that place that God endowed with abundant life.

How fortunate, too, are we that we can understand the cross through the eyes of Ron Heifetz, on an autumn afternoon in the English countryside, knowing that Jesus experienced deepest doubt and overwhelming compassion all at the same time and resisted the temptation to close his heart to either one. Just as the immensity of God can be expressed in manifold metaphors – and still not encompass the whole -- so the significance of the cross simply can’t be confined to the literal death of one person.

Part of our work as spiritual people is to strive to understand the meaning that the cross, the Ten Commandments, the Star of David, the flaming chalice, the Bodhi Tree, the hejira, and other symbols have for us and for the others who walk with us on our life’s journey. The sacred heart that Ron Heifetz describes can give us strength when that work gets difficult: We can “remain connected to people and to the sources of [our] most profound purposes.”

We choose symbols deliberately to use in our worship. We choose others to help us advance the causes that our life of faith calls us to. And sometimes, we put symbols away. It seemed appropriate to me to be preaching about symbolism on Mother’s Day, because my earliest memory of symbols – aside from Santa Claus – involved going to church with my family, all of us wearing red carnations because our mothers were still living. I mentioned that to a couple of people in the congregation, and they said they’d find that custom difficult, because they’d be obliged to wear white carnations, their mothers having passed away. And so as I look out among you, I see that only two people have honored that tradition. What seemed a common practice in the sixties is more rarely followed today.

So, yes, we sometimes put symbols away. When they no longer carry the meaning they once held, when we hang onto them with mostly sentimental attachment, we can find them a place of honor and move on. For this was the final message from artist John Sims’ “Gettysburg Redress,” as he acknowledged that the Confederate flag is held in esteem by many and has earned a place in our history. “Let us retire this flag,” he urged. “Let us ... search within our creative structures for new symbols that both celebrate and honor our common heritage.”

Pope Paul VI wrote 30 years ago that, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” The symbols we lift up are our silent witnesses. Who will listen to us if we do not choose our symbols wisely and cultivate an articulate courage to talk about what they mean to us? Let us join together in an endeavor of recoloration to find new ways to brightly and boldly proclaim the good news that we have heard – of God’s love for all. Amen.

[1] Professor Sims explained to me later that it was the college who played it safe and told him that he could not mount the gallows piece "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag" outside. In response, he boycotted the opening as a protest to highlight the importance of freedom of expression.


Psalm 98
Genesis 2:8-17
“Sacred Heart” from Leadership on the Line by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

Posted by Sue Mosher at May 8, 2005 06:34 PM
Posted to Sermons