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Whose Side Are We On?


Pastor James Clarke’s sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016.

Have you ever wondered why so many/most states have two primary state sponsored institutions of higher learning? I’m talking about the University of Washington and WSU, Oregon and Oregon State, Idaho and Idaho State, Montana and Montana State, Colorado and Colorado State, and so on. What’s up with that?

There are states that don’t have two, like Nebraska, which parenthetically is, I think, the only state with a unicameral legislature. I think this whole thing may make Nebraskans a little neurotic, as if there’s only one thing to care about in Nebraska. But I digress.

I think there is something in our psychology, our nature, that needs rivals. We need to have two so we can choose sides. We like to choose sides.

I watched a table tennis match in the Olympics between a man from Kazakhstan and another from New Zealand. And I found that I couldn’t simply remain neutral. I started to root for the guy from New Zealand for no reason that I discerned. And then I started to worry about whether is was an expression of my subconscious bias. Like I was being racist. So I turned of the TV

Even this past week, I was watching college football; Texas vs. Notre Dame. I don’t like either of them. Notre Dame because it’s kind of the Yankees of college football with their NBC contract. And I don’t like Texas because… well, it’s Texas.

Even so, I guess I don’t like Texas less ‘cuz I started to root for them. Why did I need to take a side? I think this is a cultural habit. We like sides.

Not all cultures are this way… Can we imagine what someone from Bhutan would think of college football, or more, the anger we often express while watching it?

I read recently that in the Tibetan language they don’t say, “I’m angry,” which the author says makes anger a part of who I am. And when I AM these feelings, it’s very hard to let go of them. Rather they simply say, “Anger is happening,” recognizing that anger is not who we are, which makes it easer to let go of. Speak a different language. Become a different you

Is it just random that our political system in America is a two party system? I read a commentary recently about the 1850s when the Whig party dissolved – it led to a kind of chaos and internal angst. And eventually it led to the rise of the Republican Party. We just could not stand not being able to choose sides.

And what does it mean to be a member of the Community party in China when that’s the only choice? Might as well move to Nebraska!

We have two party hearts and bicameral minds. It seems to be ingrained in us that there are two sides to everything, and we have to choose which side to be on. Not many sides… just two. And eventually what happens is that we see the world as “us vs. them” aAnd then we easily demonize the “them”. I hate the (Oregon) Ducks!

When I first saw that we would have a 9-11 Sunday this year, I felt uneasy. Do I say anything about 9-11? OK, I will… In the wake of 9-11, I perceived a great opportunity. The world was with us. They felt compassion for us. We had what I call “relational capital”.

I believe there are all kinds of capital, not just financial capital. Social capital. Intellectual capital. Spiritual capital. We had relational capital – we had the world with us.

And I envisioned us reaching out to the world… An opportunity to use this relational capital to bring peoples together in the world. Calling for more talks with Israel and Palestine. Recognizing our ignorance of Islam and reaching out to Islamic countries to create dialogue and invest in real relationships. Investing financial capital in foreign language, particularly languages like Arabic and Farsi, and thereby invest more in relational capital.

We could ask people around the world, why did this happen? We could listen and try to work together for peace. Call for a special summit.

I think it was the right thing to t go after Osama bin-Laden. But then we invaded Iraq and we created “us and them” and incited previously existing sides. It was perhaps the greatest political blunder in American history. In a moment we lost all that relational capital.

Why do we always have to choose sides? Why do there always have to be “sides” in our minds? Why always, “us and them?” Why the bicameral hearts?

Jim Wallis believes that God has God’s own side. In his book we are reading for Adult Sunday School entitled, God’s Side (Be there…. 10:00 am on Sunday mornings)

He says that the greatest danger with taking sides – America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War; Protestant and Catholic in Ireland; Muslim and Hindu during the partition of India; and even Democrat and Republican in our world – is when we claim that God is on our side…

The biggest problem with religion is that people, groups, institutions, nations, and all of our human sides sometimes try to bring God onto our side…. Divine claims of righteousness for very human behavior – and often very brutal behavior – have always undermined the integrity and credibility of religion.  The much harder task, and the more important one, is to ask how to be on God’s side.

I think we have seen many times when words slip into the mouths of politicians, leaders and even sports heroes that implicate God as one on our side. What do baseball players want to communicate when they point to the sky after hitting a home run that it is somehow related to God’s intent and how could this be possible with the Yankees?

These words spilled out of many during the Iraq war. Even the word “crusade!” Remember the cry of the Crusaders? “God wills it!”

One of my favorite prophets has always been 2nd Isaiah, that is chapters 40-55, written at the time of the end of the Exile in Babylon.        The remnant of the people had been in Babylon for 70 years until Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and set the Israelites free to return to Jerusalem. Usually they would simply remain slaves in Babylon.

II Isaiah viewed this action as the work of God. He even refers to Cyrus as God’s anointed, which means Messiah. The only time in the Old Testament when a foreigner is referred to as God’s messiah (chapter 45).

Throughout the witness of II Isaiah the prophet speaks of God as the God of all nations. This was different for the Israelites in captivity. Even though they were captives, they held onto the idea that God was still on their side.

But II Isaiah is saying NO…. God is not exclusively on Israel’s side. God is much bigger than that. Yahweh is the God of all nations. God is above the will and wants of any one nation. God has God’s own side.

And II Isaiah speaks of Israel having an important role to play in the world as a “light to the nations” so that other nations could also know God. So people in other nations could choose to be on God’s side, too. This was a tremendous transformation in how the people of Israel understood God. For God there can never be “us and them”

The extreme of believing that God is on one’s side is clearly those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. And today, ISIS. And that is witness to just how dangerous this idea is. And we can have no part of it.

For Jim Wallis, God’s side can be found in the “common good”

We need Practical vision.  What are the essential elements of life in the kingdom that affect the society n which its believers live – and therefore make a difference for what we now call “the common good”?

 This is what he discusses in the book and what we will be discussing on Sunday mornings. How do we discern what is the common good? How do we choose to be on God’s side?

The first step, obviously, is to understand and accept that God is above any one side. Something the Israelites were struggling with in the 5th Century BCE

These are the sorts of questions we as people of God, related to God through Jesus Christ, must ask. Ask: What does God will? Above and beyond what we will and want. What does God intend? What is the momentum of God’s spirit in the world? For all people? For the common good?

It’s hard not to choose sides in sports, be you a Husky, Cougar, Beaver or…. Even a Duck, and not feeling or even standing up and shouting at the TV, “God wills it!” But Paul makes clear in Romans. “God shows not partiality” (2:11). “…there is no distinction.” (3:22).

We don’t have to start with our team rivalries. But if it’s Texas and Notre Dame… try not to… choose sides as a spiritual discipline. And remember given the violence and danger of football, if we were on God’s side there may not be a game at all.

The first thing is this to let go of “us and them”. Then we search the witness of God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to discern God’s side.

The gospel lesson for today is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. A little more simple and harsher with the woes. But it gives a glimpse of what God’s side is:

Blessed are you who are poor

          Blessed are you who are hungry now

          Blessed are you who weep now

           And also…. Woe to you who are rich…

 God is not on the side of Republicans or Democrats, but on the side of anyone who helps the poor, the hungry and the hurting. For example, the losers….

The gospel asks us to change the way we see the world and the way we think. It’s like learning and speaking a different language. And essential to it is to discard “us and them” thinking altogether.

To understand that if God could anoint Cyrus of Persia, God can anoint many other foreigners today, even a Muslim. The bigger battle is to let go of our side. Try to discern God’s side and search for the common good.



VBS Ph0t0 2016

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