Monday, June 28, 2010

Reflections on Connections

I want to start this post by thanking those at WPC who are responsible for giving me the $75 for Greek School Textbooks. Such a gift is a very generous recognition of the time I spent both leading their youth groups two summers ago and the time I've spent in the Disconnects Band helping to lead their contemporary service for the past year even though I am a member of First Presbyterian Church of Morganton. To have the church acknowledge that they value these gifts is a humbling affirmation, and the support as I continue my Theological Education is very much appreciated.

I was recently invited to preach at the CONNECTIONS Service at Waldensian Presbyterian Church in Valdese, NC. I have been volunteering my time for their 8:30 service over the course of the past year, playing guitar in their praise band.

The service was started, as I understand it, as an outreach to the community which might not always identify with the liturgy of a traditional service. The stand up/sit down/sing/responsive reading/preacher lectures for 20 minutes/go home model doesn't resonate with everyone. However, due to force of habit, a minister who is already running around taking care of everything a church that size needs, and a lack of experience with non-traditional worship styles, the service kind of became a traditional format with a Powerpoint presentation instead of a bulletin and music that wasn't always out of the hymnbook.

Since I have attended and helped lead non-traditional services over the years, I expressed my desire to help organize a service to try and break this rut and help return CONNECTIONS to the outreach vision which is so important to the life of the Church.

So the session approved me as a supply preacher for the CONNECTIONS service, but I wanted to do more than give that twenty minute lecture that is well known and effective in a traditional service. I wanted to start from the ground up and really shake people out of their comfort zones and show them what was possible.

When I took Introduction to Christian Education with Dr. (then Mrs.) Felicia Douglas we covered the importance of arrangement of space in creating the atmosphere of worship, or sunday school, or any number of other uses for a room. When chairs are set up in rows with a podium (or lectern) at the front the room lends itself well towards lectures and note-taking, but does not do so well for discussion. Likewise, arranging people around tables makes for great small group projects, but is lousy for lecturing.

In a traditional service, the room is arranged for a lecture, the people sit in rows, the action of the service happens in the Chancel area. People also have a tendency to sit in the back row. I wanted to avoid that, so I set the room up in a circle. I moved the Disconnects Praise Band from the front, which mirrors a choir in the chancel, to the back. That prevented people from sitting in the "back row." I wanted people to be pushed forward so they would feel connected to the service, and so that they would get involved.

I also used a "worship center" model for the Prayer of Confession. As soon as people entered the room, they were asked to sit at a table and write down a worry that had been holding them back over the course of the previous week. They were then asked to place the post-it on which they had written their worry on the front of the Communion Table. These worries were referenced again in the Prayer of Confession that was read aloud later in the service and were eventually removed and placed in the offering plate, as a symbol of both our confession of trying to control our own lives and giving that control up to God.

The music and liturgy were all pretty basic, I didn't change much from what we normally do in CONNECTIONS. Where the traditional service used the NRSV translation of Psalm 77 for the Call to Worship, I borrowed from The Message paraphrase of that same Psalm.

When it came to the Affirmation of Faith, I did something very different. Rather than having the congregants read the Apostle's Creed, or another familiar excerpt from the Book of Confessions, I instead showed a YouTube video:

But that still didn't cover the actual presentation and explanation of the Word. The scripture passage for the day was Psalm 77. I took that and did a Lectio Divina reading with it, which is actually a devotional tool that is designed to take an hour by itself. I adapted it to an abbreviated discussion based model so that it would work well in a worship format. The congregation participated very well and had an excellent discussion. All I needed to do was moderate the discussion so that those that wanted a turn could all speak, and to encourage those who were a little more timid about sharing what jumped out at them from the text. I didn't take notes during the discussion, so I'm not prepared to share details about it, but I will say that Waldensian Presbyterian Church is full of a variety of views on scripture and are willing to talk about it. I was very pleased with the way the discussion went, especially as it was the first time it had been done. I'd predict that with some practice at this kind of thing it would be harder to limit the discussion to the time allotted than to motivate people to talk.

The service went, in my mind, very well. I would recommend that a Worship Team be formed to help take some of the pressure of planning this service off of the Minister and the Disconnects' Bandleader. Such a team could be tasked with exploring other possible methods of worship and would allow for more preparation time for the service. I would certainly put the Minister and Bandleader on this team, but having others to help them would certainly make both their busy lives easier and the service more vibrant. It has been my pleasure to help lead worship for the past year, and I hope that it continues to grow and provide the outreach ministry to the fullest of WPC's potential.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Knowledge and Power

Knowledge and power:

2nd Samuel 11: 1-15
Psalm 14
Ephesians 3: 14-21
John 6: 1-21

This sermon was originally preached at First Presbyterian Church of Morganton in July of 2009. It's an older sermon, but I've gotten a lot of positive feedback about it.

We live a world of skepticism. We have movies like Miracle, which tells the story of a hockey victory. Miracle on 43th Street, a beloved Christmas story, portrays the miracle of someone believing in Santa Claus and proving that he is who he says he is. We use the word miracle in order to sell something, like a “Miracle Epoxy Putty” That will repair your broken coffee mug, end the leak under your sink, completely replace your broken shower rod, and do a virus scan on your computer. Brand Name miracles such as these make us very doubtful when we hear of someone miraculously getting better in a hospital. But who knows, maybe God does work through construction adhesives.

Way back before my father was born, when historical characters like Geoffrey Chaucer were wandering around, when people heard about miracles, they saw that as meaning something, they accepted it completely, and acted accordingly. They saw nothing illogical about God being directly active in their lives, Joan of Arc, for example, wasn’t burnt at the stake for hearing voices, she was burnt at the stake for wearing pants. The Roman Catholic Church maintained a huge amount of political power because, the belief was, the Pope had a direct line to God and spoke on God’s behalf. People just accepted these things because that’s the way they saw the world. God takes an integral and visible part in God’s creation. If they didn’t understand something, it’s very easy to fill in the gaps with God. They filled in their lack of knowledge with God’s power.

However, we understand now that the lightning that struck the weaponsmith’s house and burned it to the ground wasn’t God striking him down for some unknown sin, it’s just that the discharge of static electricity was attracted to the antenna-like metal weapons stacked against the wall, which then started the fire.

We know this because the modern world wants to have an answer for everything. Ever since the scientific revolution, our curiosity has led us less to God and more to logic. We want to know everything. Even the miracle of birth has become something observable and explainable each step of the way. I think, however, the deep-seated need to explain everything around us is something that is shifting along generational lines. My Grandfather, who is an elder at his church and knows the bible better than anyone I’ve ever met, is about the most perfect picture of a self made man you can get. He started from less than nothing and eventually founded the South Carolina Neurological Society and was listed in Time magazine as one of the best Doctors in the country. He naturally credits God with a lot of his success, but he will also tell you that while God provided the ability and the opportunity, he did the work to get where he is today. His quest to better himself is a manifestation of his thirst for knowledge, his desire to explain everything in his world.

It’s also an example of his generation’s desire to have control. They say that knowledge is power. Knowing how a disease functions gives one the power to cure it. Knowing how the economy works gives one the power to profit from it. Knowing how people work gives one the power to help them. The knowledge my grandparents an their peers sought gave them the power to build great things. My grandfather’s generation rebuilt Europe and Japan after World War II. They looked at the mystery of space and built what they needed to go there. They took a depression and built a nation. Their knowledge of how the world worked gave them the power they needed to build themselves up into what Tom Brokaw calls the greatest generation. They worked miracles in this world. However, they were miracles that they could understand. They were miracles that they controlled. God is active in the actions and people of this world, calling them to act. Granddaddy knows that.

They could explain those miracles though. Their knowledge gave them the power to do these things. That doesn’t make their achievements any less amazing, at least not to me. But the culture it created took the story of the feeding of the Five Thousand and explained it saying: the people responded to Jesus’s actions with the young boy’s gift and began to take out their own food and share it so that everyone had their fill. God is still active, it’s still a miracle, but it’s an explainable one. It wasn’t a magic basket that kept refilling itself; God’s spirit moved within the people and caused them all to share equally what they had to build a feast from what was initially a snack.

That explanation never really satisfied me. Of course, that could have been exactly the way it happened, the text doesn’t really tell us either way. It just says that from what once was not enough food there was then an abundance. I kind of like the magic basket interpretation, where no matter how much of the food people need or take, there is always food left over for the next person. Had I paid more attention in my Chemistry classes back at PC I could tell you which law of thermodynamics says that matter cannot be created from nothing, but I didn’t, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s one of them. However, in my experience, God doesn’t always follow the rules as we understand them.

I’m actually pretty comfortable with that idea. Part of the great thing about having a degree in English is that you’re allowed to break the rules when it helps you to get the point across better. Winston Churchill was practicing a speech when an aide famously corrected his grammar, telling him that it was improper to end a sentence with a preposition. Churchill then replied, “That is something up with which I will not put.” Now, I’m not saying that Churchill is to grammar as God is to creation, but it seems to me like God acts in ways that are beyond anything we could understand so that we will be still and know that God is.

In our passage this morning, John tells the story of two miracles: The feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on water. In the days in which people like Jesus and John were walking around, miracles were proof of something. The pre-modern word, which is what a historian will call anything before the enlightenment, saw power as a source of knowledge. Theirs was a God of the Gaps, where God took the place of what they didn’t already know. God existed at the fringes of their understanding and worked to the inside where they lived.

As the world came of age and began to learn and explore, it no longer needed a God of the gaps to fill in where they did not yet understand. It needed a Christ at the center, a figure calling the action and demanding a relationship and a response. For this modern world, knowledge is power. Christ gives the calling to act, but our knowledge gives the power to effect change in this world. That’s the world in which Grandaddy lives. God is not going to do it for us, God is present in our actions, but we have got to respond in faith in order to get anything done.

One of the legacies that the Protestant Reformation left us is the high regard we have for scripture. Go just a few miles up highway 70 and you’ll meet descendants of people who memorized entire books of the Bible because it was so important to them to know the Bible in their own language. In spite of the persecution they faced the Waldenses recognized the importance of being able to relate to scripture, rather than having it related to them. However, sometimes our tradition of elevating scripture causes us to lose sight of its role as a statement of faith. The miracle stories were a way to inspire people to do more, to be more, and to strengthen the faith of those who heard it. It was a way to share the knowledge of a powerful God who could create something out of nothing, and a loving God who cared enough to act and to feed the hungry with that creation.

My generation sees what those who came before have built and we see a statement of faith as clear as the stories in the scripture we read. We see it as a testament to the faith of our fathers and the faithfulness of our mothers. We see it and we know that there is something bigger than our experience in this world. We need these testaments to remind us what that something is, because everything around us is showing us the brokenness in the world. The facts that whirl around us are all too often grim reminders of the challenges our generation is already facing. We see a world that is desperate for something more than it has; as Christians, we have seen the Word active in the world and are driven to share those experiences.

About ten years ago when I was undergoing the confirmation class at this church, I submitted a statement of faith to the session. In that statement a point that was at that time very important to me about the Bible. I said that it was a book written by flawed human humans and therefore was not always accurate, but it was the best thing we had. I was on to something, but I didn’t quite have it right at that time. I was saying that the Bible does not contain all the answers, all the facts, and all the knowledge.

In my survey of the Old Testament course at PC, I got the other half of what I was approaching then. At the beginning of the first lecture, our professor brought in a Bible, threw in on the ground, and proceeded to jump up and down on it, proclaiming: “This is just a book.” The Bible is not a magical tome with all the answers to life’s persistent question. The Bible is not something to be worshipped. The Bible is a book. In that book, there is truth. He then drew a distinction between facts and truth, facts are scientific, measurable, and the Bible is not very good at them. We spent the rest of the class going through and finding places where the “facts” in the Bible break down, like the two creation stories, the two accounts of Noah gathering animals into the ark, and the description of rabbits as chewing their cud, which they don’t.

Truth, on the other hand, is something the Bible does very well. Truth is something larger than can be proven. Truth is something that comes from something bigger than our experience, and is much more important than just facts.

The debate I shared earlier about whether the miracle was that the people shared their own food or if there was a magic basket is completely irrelevant. Just so the debate over whether or not God created the world in seven 24 hour days or if the writers of genesis allegorized what happen because they couldn’t understand the way God showed it to them. Just as the debate that raged, literally, for centuries over whether or not Jesus owned his own robes is irrelevant. All of these debates are based on knowledge of facts. The great theologian G.I. Joe tells us that knowing is half the battle, but we’re not fighting a battle.

The battle is already won. God wins. So while prominent figures debate over facts and knowledge, the power to act comes from understanding the truth. The Truth is that God loves us enough to send Christ to this world in order to save it from itself. The Truth is that Jesus cared enough to act when he saw people who were sick, when he saw people who were hungry, when he saw people who were hurting. The facts of how the five thousand were fed pales in comparison with the truth of a God who cares enough to feed them. The facts of how Jesus walked on water are nothing compared to the truth of a God who wants to be with us when we are worried and afraid.

Knowledge of the facts may give one the ability to make a decision, but an understanding of the truth gives one the power to act out the gospel.

You have heard it said that Knowledge is Power. I think that Knowledge is about facts. Understanding is about truth. We are not called to have power. God has plenty of that. The truth has set us free. It is not a freedom from what held us back, it’s a freedom to act. God calls us to act. God wants those actions to be a testament to who we are as God’s children, and to who Christ is as the way, the truth, and the light.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Just for the Taste of it...

Just for the Taste of it

1 Kings 21:1-21A
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Of all the beverages that God has seen fit to allow humanity to blend, the one to which I am most attached is Diet Coke. As someone who has spent his entire life as tall and skinny, I often get questions as to why I choose diet when Dr. Pepper, or Mountain Dew, or Pepsi or any other assortment of chemical compounds are, at least in the questioners mind, much more attractive options for quenching my thirst on a hot summer day.

I’ve come up with dozens of responses over the years to deflect the question with humor, such as “I’m watching my girlish figure,” which summoned a laugh from the gas station attendant as paid for my snack on the way home from my Construction site employment, smelling very much like a boy and having not shaved in at least a week. Another classic is the “I drink diet coke so I can eat regular oreos.” Oreos, that great tempter of junk food, are a weakness of mine and have been known to “evaporate” in my presence. Other times I relate a more honest answer citing a preference in taste, and that I find regular Coca-Cola to be too sweet. While this is true, it doesn’t explain why I prefer Diet Coke to Diet Pepsi. While one can be substituted for another in a pinch, to me it’s like eating a storebought cake instead of a homemade one. You’re grateful for the gift, and it still tastes fine, but one can tell the difference.

The reason I drink Diet Coke is because my Grandfather was a diabetic. Therefore he drank Diet Coke rather than regular. Which means that my mother grew up drinking Diet Coke. When she bought soft drinks, she always reached for Diet Coke first. Since that’s what was in the house, that’s what I acquired a taste for.

Those who work in Counseling, whether in a clinical setting or a pastoral setting, are trained to look for these kinds of patterns of behavior. Obviously the behaviors in which Counselors are interested are more influential than soda preference, but tracing these behaviors back to their origin can reveal a lot about a person. Where we came from is a large part of who we are.

In our scripture this morning, Naboth refuses to part with his ancestral inheritance, as this was forbidden by Jewish Law. Such a law seems unreasonable to a Capitalist society such as ours. The King’s offer of “Name Your Price” seems to be more than fair. Ahab just wants the vineyard because it is conveniently located, and is willing to give Naboth a vinyard that is even better if he so chooses. That seems like a good idea to me. I don’t own a home, but if someone offered me a brand new car of my choice in exchange for my 2000 Ford Taurus it wouldn’t take me long to decide. An upgrade is a good thing, and there’s no reason to keep any kind of emotional attachment to something like a car, or in Naboth’s case, a vineyard. Especially when one’s king is asking for it, and offering a better one.

However, for the ancient Israelites, land was very much important, it signified that they were chosen by God and were given a piece of the Promised Land that was designated for them specifically. Their ancestral inheritance wasn’t just a real estate deal in the making, it was a slice of God’s creation that they were caring for on God’s behalf. It wasn’t the land that was important, it was the connection to his ancestors that Naboth was refusing to part with. It wasn’t the vines that he valued, it was his part of the promise God made to his people that Naboth wanted to maintain.

As someone who shares a name with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, I can certainly understand wanting to maintain a connection to a rich family history. I’d imagine that this church values its history just as much as I value mine, and treasures every connection it has with the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us. The joke I grew up with is “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? Change? My Grandmother donated that lightbulb!”

However, as rich as that history is, it’s not what sets us apart. Paul writes in our Galatians passage, “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile Sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Paul had that rich history, and could probably trace his family lineage all the way back to Egypt. He knew the law, and followed it as closely as he could, so much so that he persecuted the biggest threat to his faith and heritage that he saw during his lifetime: Christianity. Paul eventually converted to Christianity in the well-known story of the Damascus Road experience. He eventually went out and ministered to the Gentiles, when Christianity had previously been a sect of Judaism. Did he abandon the history he had previously held so dear? By no means. Paul recognizes that his background played an important part in history, and in the redemption of the world. God gave us the Law so that we would realize we need God.

Paul’s understanding of the law is what gives him the tools he needs to understand the importance of God’s Grace through Christ. In last week’s Galatian’s passage, Paul described how he was set aside before he was even born, called through God’s Grace. His past wasn’t something to be hidden, or resisted, it’s what made him who he was. It’s what gave him the lens he needed to interpret God’s word and spread the Gospel to Europe, moving Christianity from the attics of Jerusalem to the world.

Back in the vineyard, Naboth is centuries away from knowing how all of this would transpire. But he does know that he too is set aside, although he doesn’t know for what. By selling his land, he’s giving up on his part of the promised land, his part of God’s covenant, his identity as a member of God’s chose people, and Naboth is not for sale.

It costs him his life.

There’s really no happy ending to this story. Naboth isn’t raised up to twice what he lost, as is the case with Job. There’s no raising from the dead, like what happened to the widow’s son in last week’s story involving Elijah. Naboth is killed on the grounds of some false charges, all because he wouldn’t sell himself out.

Germany during the 1930s was wild with public favor for their new leader, even the German Church united behind him and his promise to return Germany to its former glory. However, one group of churches and ministers rejected the idea that this new leader should be their first allegiance. The Confessing Church risked persecution by the Third Reich for insisting that Jesus alone was Lord. They valued their identity as Christians, their ancestral inheritance, too much to leave it on the altar of nationalism. One of their members, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was involved with a plot to remove this new ruler during World War II. Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite historical figures of the twentieth century. His reading of the New Testament led him to a belief in pacifism, but he could not see a solution that did not involve the assassination of Hitler, so he joined the plot, trusting in the grace of God to fill in the gaps that his limited self could not cover. He called his actions sinful, but couldn’t see any other way to protect the Church he loved, to maintain the faith that was so central to his identity, to keep the vineyard that God had given him in the face of a ruler who wanted to turn it into a vegetable garden. Bonhoeffer was captured while trying to gain international recognition for the new German government that would be established after the assassination. He died in a concentration camp.

Bonhoeffer’s situation is more similar to Naboth’s than we might realize. Ahab’s desire to turn the vineyard into a vegetable garden would resonate with a Jewish audience, it carries certain connotations that we simply don’t get. Deuteronomy 11:10 describes Egypt as a vegetable garden, indicating, at least symbolically, that King Ahab wants to take the Promised Land and turn it from a land of Milk and Honey into a land of Bondage. Bonhoeffer, likewise, was facing a state that wanted to make the church subservient to its ends, rather than those of God.

Today we are not facing an Ahab who is willing to have us killed to get his way. But we are surrounded by competing sources who are trying to tell us who we are. They tell us these things so that they can buy our ancestral inheritance and shape it in their image, so that they can control us. Like Ahab, they offer us money, power, the newest car or house, even a “new you” that won’t have any of the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. All they ask in return is something that cost us nothing. Sometimes they offer us victory over an adversary, or an advancement for which we feel we’re due, or security in an uncertain time. Sometimes we’ll finally get that girl to like us, or that boy to ask us out on a date. All that it will cost us is a vineyard that we may not even want, a vineyard that has been passed down from those who came before us.

All it will cost us is what makes us different from the rest of the world. The idea of people wearing masks to cover up who they really are permeates our society, probably because it is such a common problem. It shows up on the Billy Joel album as “The Stranger” and traces back at least as far as William Shakespeare, who criticized those who wore makeup saying “God gives you one face and you paint yourselves another,” which is ironic because the character saying this would be wearing thick stage makeup, and would have assumed another identity for the duration of the play.

Identity is an important theme through literature because it is something that cannot be defined by a culture. It is something that each individual must discover on their own. The ancestral inheritances that get passed down help to make us who we are, or as my High School History teacher would tell us, “We cannot know where we are unless we know where we have been.”

God has not gathered us together haphazardly, God has shaped our lives and set us aside since before we were even born. God has called us by name with a firmer grasp of our identity than we could ever have of ourselves, and yet somehow in spite of the immeasurable love that God displays by his willingness to be in relationship with each of us, we are willing to lay down the person that God loves and sacrificed himself for something else. Something a small as money, power, or a new image that looks more like it belongs in a magazine. Something as petty as a victory, or a promotion, or an earthly sense of security that just means we’ve made the illusion of control over our lives that much more convincing.

Are we really willing to throw away the person God has claimed since the beginning for something that short-sighted?

It may cost us dearly, but it is better to be rejected as who we truly are than to be loved as someone we are not. Naboth died because he would not sell his vineyard, and I would say that if God loves us enough to die himself on our behalf, that we are not for sale. God has already purchased us at a high price from our own sinfulness. That beloved child of God that each of us are is the kind of person worth being. It’s the kind of history worth remembering. That’s the kind of identity worth celebrating. Our vineyard is not for sale, because we are not the owners, we are merely taking care of what is God’s.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

With God On Our Side

1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 146
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

This sermon shares its title with a song by Bob Dylan. Those of us who are familiar with Dylan know that his music is very much politically charged. The song “With God on our side” questions the morality of using God to justify our wars. Dylan looked at the world around him and saw hypocrisy, senseless violence, a world in turmoil. I don’t remember what I was doing when this song was released in 1964, but the world around Bob Dylan saw of the beginnings of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. It saw the deaths of twenty-one civilians and four soldiers in an armed clash between locals around the Panama Canal and the US Army. The US military also renewed its commitment to aiding South Vietnam as they fought Communist insurgents. Later that year the first major marches opposing the Vietnam war were held. A Military coup happened in Brazil that started 21 years of military dictatorship. The Civil Rights act was signed, but that didn’t stop race riots from breaking out in various places around the country throughout the year. It was a confusing time, and Dylan’s cynicism towards those who claimed that God was on their side is certainly understandable, as such claims were being used by everyone who wanted to justify their actions, whether godly or ungodly.

We live in a fallen, broken world, and we are a fallen, broken people. When we look around at the world it is almost expected that we will despair. Even the prophet Elijah in our lesson from 1 Kings was confused and worried about God’s presence in the world and asks God, “have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” On the other end of the spectrum, we see Christ bringing life to one who had died. Those who see Christ’s transformative power say “God has looked favorably on his people.”

I’ve never met anyone who has been raised from the dead, and I’d imagine that most people here would say the same. Perhaps we know someone who was resuscitated or brought back from the edge of death through the intervention of medical professionals, but we don’t see people getting up out of coffins at just a word from a prophet anymore.

Without the miraculous raising of the dead, just saying “Don’t worry, God’s on our side” is not much comfort to a grieving widow, or widower. The truth is, when someone is hurting, even though everything will be alright later, but it’s not alright now. Right now, it hurts. Our world is full of suffering. When a sinkhole appears in the middle of Guatemala City that is 60 feet wide and roughly 30 stories deep, people look at a world that they do not understand and worry if instead of an empty factory the next one will swallow the home in which they raise their children. When a ship sinks and leaves two halves of a broken country at each others throats we see that the veneer of peace we call a cease-fire is as easy to rip off as a bandaid covering a gaping wound. When fishermen who long to teach their children to work a rod and reel in the same waters in which their fathers taught them see the oceans threatened by a gushing stain of oil that no one can seem to contain, it’s no wonder they are scared and angry for their future. When Israelis and Palestinians strike at one other because they don’t know any other way to relate to one another besides fighting, that is a world that’s still in need of its savior.

These people are suffering. This world is suffering. Is God not on their side?

So we come back to Bob Dylan, and his objection to using God as a reason why we should we go to war. The final words of his lyric are “If God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war.” Since that song has been released, there have been wars, there have been attacks, there has even been mass genocide. God did not stop these things from happening, where is the dependable deity the Psalmist talks about?

I think God weeps alongside every widow made by those wars. I think God bears the pain of those scarred by accidents and disasters. I think God is on our side and chose, through Christ, not to prevent us from suffering, but to suffer with us. I think God chooses that suffering still. God being on our side doesn’t mean God will do our work for us. It means that God is there with us while we are working, working both with us and through us.

God is on our side. The question then becomes, how big is “our.” God is on the side of St. John’s Methodist Church. But God is bigger than those who come together within these walls. God is on the side of Blacksburg. But God is more than can be bounded by city limits and town councilors. God is on the side of the United States, but the rights named in our Declaration of Independence were given to us by a God who cannot be defined on paper. God is on the side of Christians worldwide, but we cannot hope to spread God to new parts of world when God has already seen it and been actively creating those parts since the beginning.

God is on the side of those whom God has redeemed. It’s not a number, it’s not a closed border, it’s a personal invitation. We are called by name. God is on our side. The “we’s” and “our’s” are bigger than the limited minds of humanity can begin to understand.

God being on our side means that Christ has freed us from death, not just a death that results from sickness, or war, or accidents, but also the spiritual death that happens when we resign ourselves to what this world has to offer us. When we give up who God created us to be so that we can meet with the world’s expectations, we are just as dead as the men in our scripture readings.

We all know people who have died this way. They have settled for a life of quiet desperation, oppressing themselves, hungry for something of meaning in their lives. They are prisoners of their circumstances and blind to the beauty of God’s work around them. They are bowed down under the weight of their worries and responsibilities.

Or they are strangers in their own community, because they’re afraid people won’t love them for who they really are, choosing to be liked for the mask they wear rather than seen as the beloved child of God they really are. They are unprotected and uncared for, like an orphan left on the streets, or a widow trying to keep a home together in the absence of who she sees as her other half, and feeling lost every time she looks at a well-worn but empty chair.

They are us. At some point in our lives we have all been one of those people. Some of us are at that point now, and feel trapped in a way that we cannot explain. God is still on our side even then, no, especially then.

Well that’s all great, but that doesn’t change the fact that we feel empty now. It doesn’t change the fact that we are hurt, angry, and feel abandoned by those to whom we are closest. It doesn’t change the fact that when we think God might be watching we worry, like Elijah’s hostess, that it will be our innumerable sins that will be remembered, because it’s all we can remember about ourselves. We worry that the vengeful judging God might look at us and be as disgusted with us as we are with ourselves, that we have somehow set ourselves at odds with God and will suffer his wrath.

The Holy Spirit is often referred to as the Advocate. It moves through us and does God’s work even when we feel empty. It’s a demonstration of God’s power that God doesn’t even need us to be aware of God’s presence, and it’s a demonstration of God’s love that God doesn’t leave us even when we feel most alone. The truth is that we, as sinners, consistently put ourselves at odds with God. Before we rebel God is on our side. While we are rebelling, God is on our side. Once we have opposed God’s will for ourselves like a petulant teenager who says “There’s no way I’m going to do what you want, just because you want it,” God is on our side.

God is on our side as an Advocate, and does whatever God can do to defend us from those who would harm us. God is also our Judge, and sees all of our shortcomings, even those of which we are unaware. The verdict, for all of us, is guilty. The penalty, for all of us, is death. Each of us deserves that punishment, and there’s nothing we can do to avoid it, no amount of repentance can undo our past. There is not a balance where we can earn more “good” points than we do “bad” points. We are sinners and deserve our fate. The verdict is guilty, and the penalty is death.

But the price has already been paid. Through no merit of our own, God has chosen to love us enough to die for every one of us. What can we do in the face of such love? Paul, in Galatians, tells us how he went through exactly this experience. Paul says that God set him apart before he was even born, and called him through God’s grace. Paul responded to having God on his side by answering his call as best he understood it. He didn’t always get it right, but he went to the Gentiles, that’s us, and spread the word that God had called them by name as well as the Jews. The one who was persecuting Christians began proclaiming the faith he once sought to destroy.

Bob Dylan says that when we go to war, we might use God as a banner, but God is not on our side. I would say that when we go to war, whether it’s a war of nation against nation, a war of democrat against republican, a war of old against young, or a war of brother against sister, God is on our side. But God is also on the side of those with whom we are at war, mourning the senselessness of our worldly conflicts when, through Christ, we can have something that is so much more than our petty arguments.

Having God on our side doesn’t mean that we will conquer all of our enemies. Having God on our side means that we have the ability to turn our enemies into our friends. Having God on our side doesn’t mean that we will always get what we want, it means that we are called to give up what we want and work towards what God wants. Having God on our side doesn’t mean we are better than others, it means that God loves us, and wants us to be better than we have been in the past. Having God on our side doesn’t mean that we don’t have to strive for a more whole understand of who God is and what God wants. It means that when we fail and turn back to our old ways, God still loves us. Having God on our side means that God will not give up on us. God claims us as his own before we can even respond in faith. Now that we can respond in gratitude and faith for what God has done for us, for what is doing for us let us remember that having God on our side means that we are not our own. We are God’s. Therefore let us live for God, rather than ourselves.