July 23, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
More Than Winning
(sixth in the series Church and State)
In this letter to the early Christians in Rome, Paul thrills in describing the new age that is about to swoop in and take over the current age. (Actually, the taking over is already underway!) In the new age, all creation will be set free to give glory to God. Paul writes: “We know that all creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait…” (Romans 8:22-23a).
Only thing is, before the new age fully takes over and God’s kin-dom comes to life on earth as it is in heaven, we live in this world, Paul. For the early Christians and for us, we live in this world, in this age. Say what you will about the glory of the coming of the kin-dom, this is the day it can be hard to believe in the power of God.
So Paul takes a step back. It’s as though he says to these Christians and to us: “You’re right. You’re also not the first people to struggle with believing in the power of God.”
Right in the scripture we hear today, Paul quotes a snippet from Psalm Forty-Four, the same Psalm we spoke in our Call to Worship. See in this poem, the people are having it out with God. This time, they didn’t fail in their faithfulness. They remembered God; they prayed, and trusted, and believed. And God did not come through. “Because of you, we are being killed all day long and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Wake up! Why do you sleep O Lord…” (Psalm 44:22-23a).
If you ask me, this is a prayer we can understand. How can we keep putting our faith in the power of God when it really does happen, that prayers can go unanswered… Recently, several news networks have been airing the dashcam video of Diamond Reynolds, the partner of Philando Castile. She is sitting in the backseat of the squad car, with her four-year-old daughter, pleading with God to give her a sign that Philando is all right. And you know he’s not. If you watch her in this anguish you will hear yourself pray: O God you have to help her!
Now we have not all been in her position. Still. We do know what it is to plead with God. We have done this, and still the one we love got arrested and convicted. Still the job was offered to someone else. Still the cancer spread… And we’re supposed to go on believing in God’s power?
I imagine the early Christians bringing this question to Paul because it’s what he answers in our scripture. His response begins how you might expect: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God,” says Paul. Come on, God knows what she’s doing. Paul continues, “If God is for us, who could be against us?” (Romans 8:31). If God is the one who saves, who could possibly condemn us? God’s power overrules that of any human judge, and if God has given his own Son to save us, you’ve got to believe, he will not forsake us.
Okay, but really? We’ve heard this promise before. God’s love for you will prevail. God’s power will win. And just when this is getting difficult to believe, there is a twist in our scripture, and Paul holds out a promise to us that is even better than the triumph of God’s power. As though the gospel is more than winning.
Today we’re continuing the series on Church and State. When it comes to believing in the power of God, we might expect Paul to implore that we put our allegiance in Christ instead of in the powers of the empire. So in recent years, in this country, there has developed a debate over whether it is appropriate for churches to display the U.S. flag in their sanctuaries. Five years ago, the magazine Christianity Today featured three articles with opposing viewpoints, and I’ll include the link in my manuscript on our church website, so you can read it if you’d like.
Like us, many mainline churches keep a U.S. flag in the sanctuary; and this practice has a checkered history. On the ugly side, about one hundred years ago, it’s been reported that the Ku Klux Klan launched an anti-immigrant crusade which bullied churches into flying the U.S. flag during worship. Similarly, during World War I, the climate was hostile to all things German. It was reported that several German pastors were forced to bow down to the U.S. flag and kiss it as a sign of loyalty. On a less ugly note, during World War II, some German Lutheran churches voluntarily displayed the U.S. flag to make clear that their churches did not stand with the Third Reich.
These days, the debate over flags in church pretty much comes down to two conflicting perspectives which we’ve heard about before. According to the first one, there is room in the chancel for both the cross and the flag in the same way that there is room in our lives for our Christian faith and our patriotism. In fact, our allegiance to one can support our allegiance to the other. Not unlike the cross, the flag of the United States holds sacred meaning. It stirs up feelings of sacrifice, and honor, and respect for those who have served, so why can’t the flag be present in church…
Now on the other side, there are those who argue it does not work to place the cross and the flag side-by-side and claim that one symbol supports the other. It’s not that attempting this is bad or wrong; it’s that it simply does not work. Christ transcends loyalty to any nation, so as Christians, our faith in Christ is more important than our faith in this country. The church is for the cross, not any nation’s flag.
So there’s the flag debate in a nutshell. It’s about competing symbols of power. I am guessing that in this room, there are people on both sides of this debate, and probably folks in the middle. I am also guessing that the question of whether this flag should be here is not keeping you up at night, at least I hope it’s not.
The deeper question of power is where we started: how can we put our faith in the power of God when people are praying and their prayers seem to evaporate? A mother and daughter were in the back seat of a police car pleading with God, and in that moment, it sure seems like our God was shamefully silent.
This is the question that was in front of Paul, so I’m reading this expecting him to say the right words that prove the triumph of God. “Let there be no doubt,” he might thunder. “God’s power wins every time!” Bring it to us, Paul.
Instead, there is a twist. It happens when he says this: “So who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (Romans 8:35) or (we could add) racism, or gun violence, or prison, or cancer…”
It’s not that God obliterates every bad thing with a laser from heaven. It’s that the power of God is, she goes with us; he goes with us. As Paul continues, “In all these [terrible] things, we are more than conquerers through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). This is different from the promise: God always wins. It means Jesus really can show up next to us, in the backseat, on the worst day of our lives, because who could separate us from his love. This is more than conquering, more than winning.
But here’s the thing, seeing how Christ goes with us changes how we see the world; it changes how we see everything. And it makes sense that this happens. Actually walking next to someone allows us to perceive the world the way they do. You know this if you’ve ever tried walking anyplace with a two-year-old. Or a blind person.
Now the demand is not that we force ourselves to believe in the power of God, as though we even could. Now the question before us goes: If Christ is going with us, how can we see things the way he does? It makes me remember the quote by CS Lewis who says, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
And so it is, as a congregation we are deciding to have the flag of the United States in our church sanctuary. But what if there is not really a contest between the flag and the cross? Just because the flag is standing here, that does not mean we are worshiping the flag. I mean, in a few minutes we will be placing plates of money on the altar, and nobody’s suggesting that we should worship money.
Instead, if we come here to practice seeing the world through the eyes of Christ, we have to consider, how does Jesus see this flag? More than patriotism or pride, what if we could look at the flag and share Christ’s concern for those who are most vulnerable…
We could look at our money with Christ’s compassion. We could look at the person who’s sitting in front of us with Christ’s compassion. In this sanctuary, we can look at ourselves with the compassion of Jesus Christ, so that how we look at things in here, will change how we look at the world out there —that broken up, broken down, broken-bodied world so loved by God.
And so we have been warned. As Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, [nor patriotism], nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Amen.