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.

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