Sermon preached at Goodwin House Alexandria in Alexandria, VA on August 27, 2017
12th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16) Year A, RCL: Isaiah 51:1-6; Ps. 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.
Last Monday, I think we may have shared an experience, even as I was almost 500 miles away in Irmo, South Carolina, and you were here on the rooftop of Goodwin House in Alexandria, VA. How many of you experienced the Solar Eclipse of 2017? [a show of hands?] Do you still have your special glasses to gaze at the sun? I still have mine. I hope to use them again in 7 years when the next opportunity to watch the celestial dance of God’s creation unfolds above us. If you haven’t already, mark your calendars for April 8, 2024, when14 states between Mexico and Canada will witness the next solar eclipse.
I think you saw much of it here, but I caught ALL OF IT there, having driven south to be somewhere in ‘the 70-mile wide, 2,500-mile-long path of totality that the eclipse traced over the course of 90 minutes from Oregon on the West Coast to South Carolina’ in the East. And isn’t it curious to see how something so marvelous can quiet our heads while filling our hearts and sending our spirits soaring! Mother Nature called so many together over a rare event that caused us to briefly blot out and not be concerned with the troubles of our lives and this nation or the worries of the world. The last time I remember something like this was in July 1969 when the United States sent three men into space, landed two on the surface of the moon, and then safely returned them all back to earth.
The interesting thing about these glasses is they serve a sole, but extremely important, function: To protect our eyesight while looking directly at the sun. They allowed us to watch an amazing show that multitudes throughout our nation and across the northern continent could witness. But when you look anywhere else, you see nothing (or at least very little). These ISO certified ‘sunglasses’ are not the sort made for everyday use.
The perspective that these events provided gifted us with a reminder, if we take time to reflect upon it, of our tiny stature and brief sojourn upon this planet against the backdrop of Creation’s majesty. None of us controls this, or owns any part of it, but many of us experienced it together, uniting us in our life here on this blue jewel of a planet, this Earth, our island home.
This week’s lectionary brings us the first part of Chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. It is good, here and now, to consider together what the Spirit might be saying to us through the appeals of Paul.
Appropriately, Paul anchors his appeals in the mercy of God, which he has spent the first two-thirds of his letter reviewing for the benefit of the church in Rome. Paul speaks from a place of personal, intimate knowledge of the grace upon which he himself rests. God’s mercy is the majestic ground on which we all stand. The grace extended to us all in and through Christ is what unites us. Losing sight of this truth has always caused us to veer off course.
Grounded in knowledge of the grace we have been offered, Paul names our proper response: “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” The whole of our living selves—the what and way of the food we eat, the money we earn and how we spend it, our sexuality, where we spend our time, how we raise our young people and treat our aging parents, what we dream of and long for, how we are with others—all is offered in glad sacrifice to the God we meet in Jesus, that the chaff in it, as determined by Christ, may be burned away and the holy seed of our true selves may rise in new life. Here, the age to come of God’s kingdom fully realized, inaugurated in our Lord and Savior, meets us in this present age, calling us to live this future life, now.
This reformation of ourselves is not, as we know, an easy thing to achieve or maintain. It is one reason we gather together as church, that we might mutually help one another, with humble gentleness, to conform now to Christ’s age to come. It is also, thank goodness, the work of the Holy Spirit in and around us.
But, Paul warns, to live now in the present as in the age to come, we cannot be conformed to the here and now. The present age has often become a stumbling block for many of us in mainline religions. Things as they are now are not how they could or should be.
At a weekly clergy breakfast, a friend expressed frustrations with trying to minister to a congregation conformed to the present age, for whom Sunday worship is often just the opening show to the main event: Brunch. My friend shared, how clergy, they refused to engage in some conversations people wanted to have, because the influence of this world meant their talk was, shall we say, less than Christian. And yet, my friend clearly acknowledges that they are where God is calling them to be. This priest has witnessed some conversions: a couple now attends Bible studies and prayer gatherings. My friend considers this the “miracle of stones turning into disciples” happening before their very eyes. And humbly, they admit that this was all God’s doing. Keep Hope Alive!
Becoming transformed that we might conform to Christ’s reign is supported, as Paul points out, by the renewing of our minds, that together we might perceive what is the will of God. Christians are to be thinking people, not a “go with the flow” community. We cannot think in the way that the world thinks, yet neither are we always to ‘buck the system.’ We must wade into deeper water than the shallow confines of North American liberals and conservatives, progressives and right-wingers. Discernment in and with Christ is necessary.
And then Paul, just in time, issues another warning. Clarifying that he speaks by the grace given to him, as one who once thought too highly of himself before being confronted by the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, Paul tells us to think with sober judgement, in humility, and with an awareness of our need for both God and one another.
The image of the church as one body in Christ with many members is, for me, a splendid one:
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12: 4-5)
Here our individual God-given gifts are woven together. The one body overcomes the tyranny of the individualistic culture we live in, while importance of the individual and the individual’s contributions to the one body are maintained.
Sometimes I find it helpful to hear scripture from something other than the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) we commonly use in The Episcopal Church. In fact, my ‘go-to’ version is Eugene Peterson’s The Message. I tell my bible study groups “The Message” is more like an interpretation of scripture rather than a translation. Please relax and hear Romans 12:1-8 a new way:
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for [God]. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what [God] does for us, not by what we are and what we do for [God].
In this way, we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.
If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.”
We all live on this same Earth, under the same Sun and Moon, stars, planets and galaxies. And whether we need or use special glasses enabling us to see into the wonders of creation safely, or if the world just seems to momentarily grow dim, but not fully dark, it is in our worship together as church, God’s Church, to become more of what we receive at this table, the Body of Christ, where these sensibilities are offered and transformed. When we read Scripture together; share our own pain and joy and the world’s pains and joys with one another; pray, praise God and sing together; discerning in community; and sharing fellowship at table and in spirit with one another, we allow ourselves to be formed into a people that God can use for the sake of the world that God so loves.
In response to God’s merciful activity, we offer worship by living holistic, God-pleasing lives. Our values and viewpoints are not molded by this age, but are transformed by the Spirit’s renewing work. God’s grace empowers different forms of service among Christians, but all forms of ministry function to build up the body of Christ.
May it be so. AMEN.