July 2, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Meditation Part One: Whom Do You Serve?
(third in the series Church and State)
In this letter to the Romans, Paul puts it like this: “Thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart… and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18).
Surely the kingdom of God promises liberation, not slavery. But it helps me to remember that, for Paul, the question is not whether or not we humans will be slaves. Of course, we’re all enslaved to someone or something; the question is, who’s it going to be?
It helps me listen to Bob Dylan who puts it like this:
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…
They say, if you’re not sure whom you serve, go look at your calendar, then look at your bank statement. Who gets your time? Who gets your money? Whom do you serve? And whom do you mean to serve…
In our scripture today, Paul urges believers to quit serving sin and begin serving righteousness. But why do we need to make this choice, some might ask, if God’s grace cancels out all our sin? If we’re going to be forgiven anyway, why can’t we go on sinning? In this passage from Romans, you can practically hear Paul’s forehead bang into his hands: “What then?” he asks, “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:15)
Paul is making the case that God’s grace comes first. Thanks to Christ, we already have the impulse for grace imbued in our being. It’s true, we all have to make our own choices. But we all have it in us to make choices that delight God, and this comes from grace. Now our choices are not about avoiding a penalty; far more important, our choices are led by a yearning toward love and life.
This problem is this could sound so easy. Serving sin leads to death; serving God leads to life. Stop choosing sin, start choosing righteousness. What’s so difficult? Only everything. Absolutely everything. And so Paul’s invitation for us to choose whom we serve provokes this question: What happens when you choose to serve Christ, and I choose to serve Christ, but our choices collide?
Today, in place of a traditional sermon, I will be lifting up several examples of people who are wrestling with these questions of conscience. Everybody I’ll mention is led by an impulse to “do the right thing.” But what happens when these grace-charged impulses lead us in opposite directions…
In two thousand seven, film makers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg released a documentary called Soldiers of Conscience. It follows four soldiers who each decide to apply for the official status of Conscientious Objector after serving in the Iraq War. Several had their petitions granted; several had their petitions denied and served time in prison. All of them wrestled with the morality of killing in war.
Joshua Casteel was an Evangelical Christian from Iowa. Hearing his story, you can understand exactly why he applied to West Point and why he was admitted. It’s like his life trajectory was set on course for him to become an officer in the Army, but all along the way, he kept bumping into contradictions between his relationship with Christ and the requirements of the military.
The turning moment for him came from a conversation with a Saudi Prisoner of War whom he was interrogating at Abu Ghraib. The man described his own faith in Allah then invited him to consider: What does your faith teach? 
This question won’t go away: how can I serve in combat and be faithful to my conscience at the same time? Some say, I will continue to serve with my unit, but I will not carry a weapon or take another person’s life.
But there is another side to this, of course. For some individuals, probably for some of us in this room, enlisting in the military is an act of conscience. Some say, my problem is not what might happen in battle; my problem is sitting home while my best friends are risking their lives. Some say, I don’t want to kill; but if someone has to kill, shouldn’t it be me? If I refuse, doesn’t that mean the ugly, terrible work will become the burden of my sisters and brothers? Maybe carrying the guilt of killing is part of the responsibility of serving our country. And maybe that’s heroic, or maybe that’s a problem…
What has become clear to me, is that no one gets to serve our nation without facing these deep questions of conscience. Is there room in the Body of Christ for all these conflicting commitments? If one person kills, we are all affected. If one person refuses, we are all affected. How can we keep making room in the Body of Christ for all of us to engage in soul-searching struggle…
May God give blessing and light to all our struggle and discernment.
Meditation Part Two: Opting Out, Speaking Up
For this second meditation, I will share two vignettes.
First is the story of two eighth grade girls: The first girl was active in her church. She was confirmed in the summer after seventh grade, went to church camp that summer, and by the beginning of eighth grade, she was newly aware of a variety of Christian perspectives which left her trying to sort out her own beliefs.
On the first day of school, her homeroom class stood up to say I pledge allegiance / to the flag / of the United States of America… and she thought, Wait. Do I? She wrestled with whether she could give her allegiance both to Christ and to the flag and the country, and decided that she could not.
The next day, when her homeroom class stood up to say the pledge, she did not.
The day after that, the homeroom teacher informed her that the matter had been discussed. The school policy is that all students must stand for the pledge, but no student shall be compelled to say the words. The girl thought through this for a minute and determined that this was fine. It was the promise, not the standing up, that conflicted with her faith.
Later that day in gym class, a girl from homeroom confronted her. “Why do you think it’s okay to not say the pledge?” she asked. The first girl said something like, “It’s just not what I believe.”
“Saying the pledge is saying you believe in America! If you don’t want to be an American, why don’t you go to Canada.” Then she said this: “People died, you know. People died and you can’t even say the pledge.”
Now what I find fascinating about this conflict between these eighth graders is that neither of them are taking an entirely unique position. The first girl is not the only person who has ever declined to say the pledge. And the second girls is voicing several arguments that she did not invent herself. For her, the pledge was not a perfunctory ritual. People died for our nation. Chances are, she knows somebody who died. She wasn’t just picking on the first girl; she was taking offense on behalf of her community.
Whether or not you agree with either of them, there’s something in seeing that both of these eighth graders were acting from a place of deep conviction —one staying quiet because her conscience demands it, one speaking up because her conscience demands it.
The second story. (And this is not about a church where I was a pastor.) One Christmas Eve, a man in his late fifties was visiting extended family. They all went to church together as families do on Christmas Eve, but this man did not feel entirely at home in this Protestant worship service. He had been raised in a Protestant household, but his journey led him into Roman Catholicism for a season, into Judaism for a season, into searching and claiming no religion for a season…
On this Christmas Eve, it was fine to go to church with his family, he reasoned. It’s singing the standard carols and hearing the standard story, and it’s not like this church was going to have an altar call where people were expected to make a public declaration of their faith in Christ.
Indeed, through most of the service, he was fine. But this church, like our church, has the practice of celebrating communion on Christmas Eve. When the trays were passed through his pew, the man simply declined and passed the tray to the next person. When the pastor said “Take and eat” then “Take and drink” the man sat with his head bowed.
After the service, his mother said to him with a sigh, “I just don’t understand why you couldn’t take communion!”
And maybe she was criticizing him for not going along with the group. Or maybe her distress was something deeper —like disappointment that he didn’t feel welcome. Or maybe he didn’t feel worthy, and something in that was breaking her heart.
The man replied to her, also with a sigh. He said something like, “I felt that communion meant something important for the people, and I just wasn’t there with them. I couldn’t do it.”
What I notice is that in his decision to opt out, this man was actually calling attention to the holy quality of communion. So it’s not “just do what is printed in the bulletin;” it’s consider your own faithful response.
And so it is that these actions of staying quiet during the pledge or sitting out during communion are individual expressions of conscience. But as this eighth grade girl and this middle-age man discovered, a simple act of conscience can impact everyone around us.
We’re all affected when one person speaks up and takes a stand. We’re all affected when one person goes quiet or stays seated. And maybe that is offensive. And maybe that is important. And you know, the body of Christ might really have enough room for all our protest and all our participation.
Thanks be to God. Amen.