Evocations: A Lectionary Blog
The Rev. Leslie M. St. Louis
It has been an interesting week to ponder the lections in the midst of life. I began the week thinking about returnings. The return of the children to my school, the return of members back to church, how nice it feels to return to a more normal schedule. All of these musings set in the midst of our lections for this week. If you are following track two, as my church is, the place of entry is the lesson from Deuteronomy in which Moses sets before him the words the Lord has given him: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”
It would seem to be a pretty easy task to obey the commandments of the Lord. Yet we only have to read a little further in the Old Testament to find the next bit of “wandering astray” that God’s people get into. A habit, of course, that we can track throughout the path of human history.
We move on in our lections from Moses and the Israelites to Paul and his letter to Philemon. Paul is begging Philemon. Begging him to do what? Well, to put it bluntly, to really follow the commandments. Paul wants Philemon to return Onesimus to the status of a free man, someone who holds the very same stature as Paul.
Finally, we find our way to Luke’s gospel in which Jesus rather strongly insists to his followers that they can only have one loyalty, and their loyalty can be only to God if they/we are going to be his followers. Loyalty to the one God who gave those commandments oh-so-long-ago in a land so very far away to a people so unlike us.
What was it Moses said God said? “Here” he said, “I set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity if you obey my commandments.” How intriguing to have these lessons rattling around in my being while encountering the events of this week. On the one end, Colin Kaepernick’s sitting silently on the sidelines as the National Anthem played, a stoic witness to the places where he believes America falls short of the ideals that our constitution proclaims and the flag symbolizes. Then, in the middle of the week, Georgetown University announced that it will treat descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold to save the university from bankruptcy with the same preferential status as large donors and alumni families, attempting to recognize its history with slavery and to begin to make reparations for the damages caused. I wondered as I watched the news if the President of Georgetown had read Paul’s letter to Philemon; I wondered if he felt it had been written directly to him.
It occurred to me that both Colin Kaepernick and Georgetown chose to speak of returning something, healing something, amending something in the midst of a climate that seems to be bent on tearing apart. I wondered what it meant for each of them to take a stand to encounter the oppressed and actively seek to end their oppression, to lend their voices to the song of equality.
I am as patriotic as the next one. In fact, it is not uncommon for me to actually get choked up at the trooping of the colors and the singing of the National Anthem. I stand and belt it out as loudly as I can even if I can’t hit the high notes any longer. But I began to wonder this week about what the flag means to other people and to realize, for perhaps the first time, that it may not mean the same thing for everyone who encounters it. You know, I think most of us associate (at least I do) the Confederate flag with slavery, but this week it occurred to me to think about the long history this country has with slavery. The first slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619, so the flag they would have known first was the British flag. I wonder what they thought of it? One hundred and fifty-eight years later those slaves who were in the thirteen colonies would have encountered the new flag, the Stars and Stripes flying over a nation seeking freedom from the oppression of the British crown. Not until 1861 would the Confederate Flag begin to fly, and only in opposition to that Confederate Flag would the American flag have begun to be viewed as a symbol of freedom from oppression, emancipation and a new identity as a free person.
I wonder what it means to have your status as a free person taken away? I wonder what that does to one’s sense of being? And I wonder what it means to have your status as a free person returned to you? Does simply saying you are free now take away all that has changed over the years you have been enslaved? I wonder for all of our brothers and sisters whose heritage includes bondage what they would say, and what they would ask for in the returning?
I walk with these wonderings a lot as I wander the grounds of Holy Trinity, an institution whose history is just as steeped in the institution of slavery as is Georgetown. They ride with me as I drive through Levitt Bowie a community that was originally built on the ideal of segregation. What is it that we have to atone for? What offer of returning do we have to make? How do we begin to engage the conversation with our brothers and sisters who find in the flag not the same symbol we have come to adore? How through the focal point of the cross do we choose life and length of days.