For over a decade, agents and volunteers from a local real estate firm have placed small U.S. flags along the streets of Starkville to mark Independence Day. Most of them stay put, but some fall over.

One such forlorn flag could have been rescued by a young man I recently saw leaving his apartment as I drove past. The Stars and Stripes lay partly in the wet grass, partly on the sidewalk. Rather than pick up the emblem and replant it, the man stepped on it, not even aware of its presence. His disrespect arose not from intention, but from a lack of mindfulness. Still, the effect was the same.

The incident reminded me of the trashing of another symbol some years ago by people who should have known better. My wife and I were cleaning out cabinets in the ladies’ parlor at our church when we discovered under the sink a small vintage silver chalice stuffed with dirty rags. “Horrified” does not begin to describe our reaction. How could anyone in a church have taken a vessel from the Eucharist and treated it so badly? Or even if they did not have liturgical sensitivity, how could they trash an object from the history of the congregation? I have an unsubstantiated but reasonable theory: somebody had given new, finer Communion ware, and the old cup became an embarrassment to be relegated to being a receptacle for a cleaning cloth. I guess nobody thought of donating the chalice to some other, needier church or placing it in a display case.

Somebody may ask: “What’s the big deal? It’s only a symbol.” But such a person fundamentally misunderstands symbols. They are embodied, visual metaphors, a kind of shorthand for something that could take thousands of words to explain or is beyond speaking at all. If I remember Tillich correctly, they “participate” in the reality to which they point.

So the flag reminds us of all that makes America and Americans great when we are at our best: freedom of choice, a readiness to assist those in need, a fierce devotion to and defense of the rights given in the First Amendment. Would we let such things “fall to the ground” (in the biblical phrase from 1 Samuel), that is, become ineffective or irrelevant? Why then let the flag, however small, languish on the wet grass and dirty sidewalk?

The blessed and lifted chalice invites us to reflect both on the far reach of God’s love and the human capacity for self-sacrifice (“my blood of the new covenant, shed for many”). It points us to the possibility of forgiveness, even for the worst offenders (“drink it, all of you”); the power of memory to form and sustain community (“in remembrance of me”); and the persistence of hope (“I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” [Matthew 26:29]). Even a plain and inexpensive vessel—or perhaps especially such a cup—speaks to us of such transcendent realities. Would we dismiss them as nothing more than garbage? How then can we treat their symbol with such disrespect?

Instead of disregarding, discounting or mistreating symbols, let them move us to action. That’s their ultimate purpose. For example, we show our allegiance to the flag and all that it stands for by defending our neighbor’s rights as much as our own or celebrating the realization of someone’s dream of prosperity and freedom. We honor the chalice when we demonstrate compassion and live with generosity and justice or welcome the stranger with genuine hospitality. And in doing so, we are transformed into living symbols, pointing to a reality beyond ourselves, for which we wait and work and hope.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham