(Take time first to read Psalm 33)

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are… (I Corinthians 1:25-28 ESV)

I find it fascinating that in God’s providence, this year September 11th and the first full day of NFL games fall on the same day – today.  Today is the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack and pretty much everyone who is above the age of 21 no doubt remembers just where they were and what they were doing on this date 15 years ago.  When we say the phrase “9/11,” everyone knows what is being referred to – it is now part of who we are.

By the time the NFL kickoffs happen today, on 9/11 most of the worst had happened:

  • at 8:46 a.m. American Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center;
  • at 9:03 a.m. United Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center;
  • at 9:40 a.m. American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon;
  • at 9:59 a.m. the South tower of the World Trade Center collapsed;
  • at 10:07 a.m. United Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania;
  • at 10:28 a.m. the North tower of World Trade Center collapsed.

I expect that today the 9/11 remembrances may conflict somewhat however with the actions of some of the players in the NFL as they refuse to stand for the singing of the National Anthem.  San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began something of a movement among the NFL players recently when he refused during pre-season games to stand for the playing of the national anthem in protest of what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.  He told NFL Media reporter Steve Wyche, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” 

The 49ers issued a statement in response to Kaepernick’s decision: “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

There has been much banter back and forth about this in the news and I am somewhat hesitant to wade into this swamp of opinions – so I will simply say that I think both Kaepernick and those who support him as well as those like the 49ers and others who are neutral or oppose the protest – have it wrong at least as it relates to our National Anthem.

I would like to take a quick look with you today at our National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, but to do so properly we must pay attention to all the words – to all the verses.  “All the verses?” you might ask.  Yes, all the verses.  We all know the words of the first verse of this song – but few realize that our National Anthem is made up of multiple verses – that verse by verse this song tells a story important in our national history – and that the climax of the song comes not in the first verse but in the final verse.  Here’s the backstory about the writing of our National Anthem.

In 1812, while the British were at war with the French, war also broke out with the U.S. over Britain’s attempt to regulate American shipping and other activities.  British ships had entered the Chesapeake Bay on August 19, 1814 and by August 24th British troops had overrun Washington, D.C.  The flames coming from the White House and the Capitol Building could be seen in Baltimore – 40 miles away.

Earlier during the summer of 1813, when it was clear that an attack would soon come, the commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armisted, asked for a flag so big, “that the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance.”  They commissioned Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore to create that flag and it met the Major’s specifications – when finished it was 30 feet tall and 42 feet wide.  The stars were two feet from point to point.  The Stripes were two feet wide and 42 feet long.  This was the flag that was flying on September 13th when the British began their assault on Fort McHenry.  Over a period of 25 hours the British bombardment was carried out.  They fired at the fort some 1500 bombshells which weighed as much as 220 pounds each.  These bombshells had lighted fuses that were meant to allow the bombshells to explode upon reaching the target.  But they were not very dependable and the bombs had a tendency to burst in the air.  They also fired their new Congrove missiles from small boats in the bay – they were a type of rocket that left behind a characteristic red flaming glare across the sky.  (“Rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air” – sound familiar?)

Watching with apprehension aboard the British ship the HMS Surprise was an American doctor, William Beans, who had been captured during the raid on Washington.  With him were Col. John Skinner and a Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key.  Skinner and Key had come to arrange for a prisoner exchange to free Dr. Beans and it had been agreed upon – but they were being kept prisoner on the British ship, at least for that night, because they had seen and heard too much about the preparations for the attack on Baltimore.  So from the deck of the HMS Surprise they were able to see the huge flag flying at Fort McHenry.  They had watched it all through the afternoon until the dark of night hid it from their view.

The battle began in earnest at 1 A.M.  Throughout the night they knew that the flag must still be flying because the bombardment continued.  Then suddenly and mysteriously all became silent and they did not know what had happened.  Was the flag still flying?  Or had defeat come?  Had their hopes been dashed?  The three men watched and waited with anxiety as they strained their eyes looking for that flag.  In the early dawn they thought they could see it as the wind whipped it back and forth – but was it really there?  Then, suddenly, as the sun’s first beam of light came across the horizon they saw that indeed, the flag was still flying.  The British had abandoned their attack, retreating, evidently deciding that Baltimore was too costly a prize.

Francis Scott Key took an envelope that was in his pocket, and began to write his verse on its back (the verse was originally entitled Defense of Fort McHenry.)  Have you ever noticed the punctuation of the first verse – the verse we routinely sing?  This first verse is not a statement – it is a question.  It is a question filled with all the anxiety and apprehension of a man who had seen the horror of battle and then felt the strange quiet that followed.  But in the pre-dawn light he could not see if the flag and thus his country were still there – and so he asked: “O say – does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave – o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave??”

They will sing the National Anthem in many places today – for sure at every NFL stadium – but my guess is that all of those who have been asked to sing, as they end this first verse, will make it sound like an affirmation – that the flag is still flying over the land of the free and the home of the brave – even though that is not the way it was written – it is a question – Key and those with him really did not know.  This first verse is a question full of fear and wonder and concern.  The answer then comes in verses two, three and four.  The verses we never hear and probably have never read (though in the movie The Sum of All Fears, it is the final verse that is sung as the National Anthem in the scene at the NFL stadium).

The second verse tells us about how the coming of the dawn.   The sun was coming up over the horizon, and yes, yes there they could see it:  “On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep, where the foes haughty host in dread silence reposes.  What is that which the breeze over the towering steep as it fitfully blows now conceals, now discloses?”

They are looking and wondering through the morning mist – is that really it?  Is it the flag that they can see?  Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, In full glory reflected now shines on the stream: ‘Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

But what of the enemy they wonder?  Why did the shelling stop?  The third verse first raises this question:  “And where is that band who so vauntingly swore that the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion a home and a country should leave us no more?” 

The third verse then continues and answers that question.  What happened to those who were trying to destroy our way of life? — Our home? – Our country?  “Their blood has wiped out their foul footsteps’ pollution.  No refuge can save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight – or the gloom of the grave.”

They were either dead or they had run.   “And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

What then you might wonder came to the mind of young Francis Scot Key?  What words of rejoicing and thanksgiving?  What shout of victory does he begin to lift in verse four as the climax of his poem that would later be put to music and become our national song?  Was it our “patriotic” chant of “U-S-A – U-S-A – U-S-A?”  Nope!

Instead he begins in effect to sing: “G-O-D, G-O-D, G-O-D!”  “O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand – between their loved homes and the war’s desolation;” When free men stand up with courage and bravery. “Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land – praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation!” Although he recognizes the courage of those at the Fort, his ultimate praise goes to God who has rescued us – who has made and preserved the nation.

“Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just; And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’” (This line is where we get the “In God We Trust” that is on our currency.)  Only now do we get to sing the last line of the song as an affirmation – only after we realize that God is the one who has preserved us and is the one in whom we must ultimately trust.

“And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave – o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

It seems to me that what has gotten us through the tough times in this nation – what has consoled us and strengthened us in times of terrible questions – of pain and hurt – is our roots – not simply the roots of democracy – or the roots of freedom – or the roots of patriotism.    Above everything else it has been the roots of faith.  The roots that Francis Scott Key wrote about – in this heaven rescued land where we can praise the power that hath made and preserved us as a nation – the roots of faith.  And as long as we are going forth with honesty and integrity – with our motto being – In God is our Trust – he says the Star-Spangled banner forever shall wave – o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

In other words, that flag waves because faith has been strong and God has been faithful – and this is not something that we should just take for granted!!

Don’t misunderstand me – this country was not perfect at its founding – nor is it perfect today.  Some of the nation’s sins have brought about a great price – and continue to do so.  Although as early as the 17th century the Quakers and a number of evangelical Protestants had condemned slavery as un-Christian, and the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s had included an abolitionist thrust as a part of its call for spiritual renewal, still the roots of forced slavery had taken deep root and cost many lives and much pain before slavery was formally outlawed.  We are still dealing with the ongoing attitudes of prejudice and racism in far too many quarters today.   It is encouraging to see that many of those engaged in the NFL protest have also been willing to write checks and give leadership and support to organizations whose goal is the betterment of lives in the minority community and beyond.

We are now more than 200 years removed from the writing of the Star Spangled Banner.  During those years this song has come to represent many things other than Francis Scott Key originally intended.  Some seem think that its purpose is to honor our military – others believe it stands for a country in which they see injustice running rampant.  But, at least in its origin, it stands instead as an affirmation of God’s providence – and with it His call upon us for the United States, in gratitude, to be faithful to Him and His precepts.  When we sing only the first verse – and when we sing it as though it ends in an exclamation point (!) instead of a question mark (?) we miss the point of the song.

Francis Scott Key was a man of deep faith, though like all people he had his flaws.  As a deeply committed layman in the Protestant Episcopal Church, he held a lay reader’s license, and for many years read the service and visited the sick. One of the greatest contributions he made to America was the advancement of the Sunday school. Not only did he teach a Sunday school class at his church, Key also served as manager and vice president of the American Sunday School Union from its inception in 1824 until his death in 1843. The American Sunday School Union was responsible for establishing thousands of churches across America. Many churches and cemeteries today bear the name “Union” because of their origin in the American Sunday School Union.  He also penned several hymns as an expression of his faith.

Perhaps we as a people are so filled with questions and doubt and anxiety and stress because we have not spent as much time with the last verse of our national anthem as we have with the first verse.  Perhaps we have forgotten from whence (from Who) our strength is ultimately to come.

As you prepare to hear the words of the National Anthem sung later today, take some time now to read again the words of  Psalm 33 – we need to be reminded again that:

The Lord foils the plans of the nations – he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.  But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever – the purposes of His heart through all generations.  Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.  From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind, from his dwelling place he sees all who live on earth.  No king is saved by the size of his army, no warrior escapes by his great strength; a horse is a vain hope for deliverance despite all its great strength it cannot save.  But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him – on those whose hope is in His unfailing love – to deliver them from death and keep them alive.  We wait in hope for the Lord – He is our hope and shield.  In Him our hearts rejoice – for we trust in His holy name.  May your unfailing love rest upon us O Lord even as we put our hope in you!! 

It seems to me that when we hear the words of the National Anthem we are neither declaring our country perfect and thus deserving of our honor, nor is the primary focus on honoring those who have served in the nation’s military, some of whom have fought and died for this country (we celebrate those folks on Memorial Day and Veterans Day).  In the vision of its author, we are celebrating the God who in His providence has continued to bless this country often in spite of us and despite us.  In the freedom that is ours we have the right to stand, to sing, to sit, to kneel, to protest, to pray, etc., while the Anthem is sung – but above all else perhaps it would be best if our actions acknowledge the One from Whom all blessings flow.

It is my prayer that we might all go back to the roots – the roots of faith in a God Who is with us – a God Who brings us hope even in the face of injustice – Who is our refuge in times of trouble – and Whose plans stand firm forever.  Today is not just the anniversary of 9/11, nor is it only the full blown beginning of the NFL season – it is also Sunday, the Lord’s Day.  May we find our hope in Him, our service in following His precepts, and our Glory in His Name.  (SDG).

(Note:  there are those who point to what they call “racist” references in the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner as it speaks about “the hireling and slave.”  Others disagree with this as a description of what Key meant in this stanza.  The Snopes website touches on this matter here.)