Proper 16 – 8/23/2020 – St. Paul’s
I had this man in one of the churches I previously served frequently greeting me at the end of the service by thrusting into my hand some newspaper article, usually from the Wall Street Journal, which he thought to be of help in his never-ending battle to educate his preacher.
One Sunday, he gave me an article by a national columnist, in which the columnist described how a young woman had been indicted in Chicago after her baby was found to have died from complications brought on by malnutrition and infection from rat bites. Why give me such an article? I found out at the end, when the columnist said, I wish these preachers, who are always talking about what ought to be done on issues like abortion, would get out of their ivory towers and into the real world. Then they might see things differently.
You have heard this argument before, not only applied to preachers, but Christians in general. The argument goes that if we Christians could only learn to accept the real world and face facts we would see things differently:
But such a demand of Christians begs the real question: Where is this real world to which we are to adjust? Who defines what is real? Is the real world one in which a baby dies in a Chicago tenement house from malnutrition and rat bites? That’s the world to which we are to adjust?
In a world of lies and falsehood, when we gather here in our church, despite the beautiful music and the charming building, there will be an inevitable hard edge to what we do here. Sometimes you may be uncomfortable. That’s the tension of confrontation, the experience of being caught in the crossfire of a debate over what is real.
By the mercies of God… present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Rom. 12:1-2).
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice… do not be conformed to this [unreal world in which we live] but be transformed [to the real world now that Christ has come]. There is our text. Right up front, let’s be honest and admit that we are all gathered here in church on this end-of-summer Sunday to engage in a debate over what’s real and what’s normal.
I am here this morning, and most other Sundays, to convert you, to take as my modest aim, by the end of the service, to get you lay yourself upon that altar up there, to invite you to make a sacrifice to God that is yourself—body, soul, and mind—not by putting a dollar in the plate, but by putting your body up on that altar—in short, to get you to worship.
Of course, much of the rest of the world also wants to convert you. The purpose of advertisements, the State of the Union address, Hollywood, MSNBC, and Fox News is to convert you to their reality. The only difference is that I will tell you what I plan to do whereas most of the rest of the world acts as if it doesn’t care whether or not you subscribe to the world’s view of reality.
All of us have got to find a way to live from some philosophical standpoint, some assumption about what is true and good. The trouble is that most of the world hasn’t a clue about what its guiding assumptions are. Even when the world says it’s not trying to put the make on you, it’s trying to pull you in to the conventional, worldly sense of what’s what. Even the conventional wisdom, think for yourself and make up your own mind is itself a philosophy of life that you didn’t come up with on your own. Someone had to convert you to that point of view.
Against our self-assured, conventional, socially acceptable definitions of normality, in coming to worship in this church you expose yourself to a counter-cultural definition of what’s what, to an iconoclastic power, simply because it is true while other powers are not. We are talking about God. God has flipped the old world on its head in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Something decisive has been worked by God in the cosmos through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul announces that a powerless young Jew set the world’s abnormality on its ear. Before the self-serving spirit of a world come of age, Jesus countered, If you would find your life, you must first lose it. The way to love God is just to let go and let God love you. Forgive your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!
And then he proceeded to go about in such a disconcertingly normal way—healing those who were ill, telling truth, feeding the hungry, raising the dead, stampeding swine—that systemic abnormality simply had to put him away, as they thought, for keeps. For a time, it seemed as if the facts of life had won, namely, that death had triumphed. And yet, among his paralyzed followers who were clinging to themselves around a simple table, he returned in power, having walked into the jaws of abnormality, having pulled its teeth, having subverted the old order.
His once disheartened band of disciples exploded forth into the whole world saying, It’s a whole new world! Wake up! God wins! When the power of life appears in this Jew from Nazareth, systemic abnormality—to which we are always in danger of becoming accustomed and conformed—is thrown in disarray.
This is the reality, the power let loose here on Sunday morning. It is the power that summons every one of us to submit to transformation. In the Sunday presence of this power, our fingers are one-by-one pried loose from their tight grip upon the status quo and we are wrenched away from the world as it is so that we might embrace the world that is to be. Now knowing that because of Christ it’s a whole new world, we are free to live like it.
The usual questions asked of Christians by officially sanctioned, conventional abnormality are, Will it work? Is it conformed to what nine-out-of-ten folks think? That is, is this course of life practical, reasonable, possible, and above all, can this be had without risk or cost?
To those who have been ravished by the divine normality called the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the questions raised by the world’s abnormality are quite beside the point. We have not gathered primarily to address the issues as the world has identified them, but rather to upend and subvert terrestrial abnormality which maims and kills everything it touches. Christ did not offer better answers to the social, religious, political issues of his time or ours. Rather, he trampled death, the supreme Lord of
Abnormality, and gave life to those entombed, death always being the first choice of abnormality, every time we’ve had a chance to choose.
We have demonstrated that there is virtually nothing which we will not transmute into life’s antithesis. Food to weapons, aid into coercion, justice into terrorism, love into libido, liberation into tyranny, education into rationalization. In the church’s two-thousand-year pilgrimage, we have learned that all the money, power, and good intentions which systemic abnormality musters can never change this viciousness into virtue, abnormality into normality. Nor can we by our own efforts. Systemic abnormality has a hideous strength, and it is dangerous to underestimate its power to eat one alive.
Thus, Paul urges us to not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Thus, this Sunday morning, I have beckoned you to come away, to stand apart, to look odd, abnormal, for the supreme end that you may be embraced by divine normality. True,
God-given, gospel normality can only be restored when we are given eyes to see what is, and when we offer ourselves to it, reality has a name, a face: Jesus Christ.
And thus Paul urges, By the mercies of God,… present ourselves as a living sacrifice,… to God. That’s true worship.
‘Having been nursed on abnormality for so long, there is no way for us to be weaned except by drastic alteration of minds and hearts so that reality is perceived in new and unforgettable ways. Transformation occurs when we are addressed by something which offers us a way to give up ourselves so that we might find ourselves. Churchill calls for blood, sweat and tears in adversity. Martin Luther King Jr. tells of a dream. Jesus Christ says, Follow me!
Minds are changed when imaginations are freed by giving human emotion a massive dose of normality. There is nothing easy about it. It takes hard work, weekly, every Sunday work, yes, and suffering. It costs lives. Sunday is dangerous.
Is that why Paul uses the image of sacrifice?
I believe so because, Paul says, sacrifice is at the heart of being a Christian. Nobody comes to God without cost. That sacrifice being laid upon the bloody altar was first and finally God’s own self by God’s own Son.
In this church the motivation for right living, orthopraxy, flows from right worship, orthodoxy. How we live Monday through Saturday flows from how we have worshipped here on Sunday, from this collision in which we have participated, this collision between abnormality and normality, between true and false.
When someone obeys Christ and forgives an enemy or loves the poor or speaks up for the voiceless, are they going against what’s real or showing the world what things look like when someone conforms to the new reality offered in Christ?
In this mornings gospel, Jesus is asking an existential question. Who am I to you? Where do I fit into your life? Does our relationship define who you are at your very core. By looking at Jesus’ presence in Peter’s life over the course of his life — all the biographical details that we 21st century Christians have the privilege to know and ponder — I’m stunned by the answers that Peter must have lived into as time went on — answers he never could have articulated in the early years of discipleship. Who do you say that I am? You are the one who found me in a fishing boat and gave me a new vocation. You’re the one who healed my mother-in-law. You’re the one who said, “Yes, walk on water.” You’re the one who caught me before I drowned. You’re the one who glowed on a mountaintop while I babbled nonsense. You’re the one who washed my feet while I squirmed in shame. You’re the one who told me — accurately — that I’d be a coward on the very night you needed me to be brave. You’re the one I denied three times to save my skin. You’re the one who looked into my eyes with pain and pity when the cock crowed. You’re the one who fed me breakfast on a beach and spoke love and fresh purpose into my humiliation. You’re the one who gave me the courage to preach to three thousand people on Pentecost. You’re the one who taught me that I must not call unclean what you have pronounced clean. You are the one who stayed by my side through insults, beatings, and imprisonments. You are the one I followed into martyrdom. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. To put this another way, Jesus asked, Who do you say that I am? Peter answered, You are the one who loves me. And you’ve given me the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven: The power to love.
Just as we have done in Peter’s life just now, each of us must answer these questions in our spiritual journey…. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who has he been to you in the past? Who is he now? Who do you hope he will be in the future?
So, this morning, Paul urges the church to be more than simply good. Paul urges nothing less than worship, mind-blowing opening of the eyes that leads to life-changing nonconformity.
Here is reality, to lay ourselves on that altar.
For the hard truth is not if you will give your life, but to whom you will give it! Many of us are offering up ourselves on lesser altars, before smaller gods.
I close with what we have been saying in our Eucharistic prayer since Pentecost: Now gathered at your table, O God of all creation, and remembering Christ, crucified and risen, who was and is and is to come, we offer to you our gifts of bread and wine, and ourselves, a living sacrifice. Amen+………..
Let us pray:
give us eyes to see your new reality breaking in among us.
Open our minds to your subversive truth
that often turns our assumptions upside down and sets us right side up.
Forgive us when we conform to the ways of the world
and simply go with the flow rather than allow ourselves to be transformed
by your Holy Spirit working in us.
May we, in the church’s time of worship, have our eyes opened, our spirits attuned, and our hearts inclined to the coming of your rule in our midst.
And then give us the grace and the courage to become nonconformists in your name.
You are the body of Christ.
May you have the heart of Christ,
tender for mercy.
May you have the eyes of Christ
to see a world in need.
May you have the feet of Christ
to bring good news
Invitation to the Offering
Giving is not a casual act—it relates God’s work to our work. Peter writes: “as each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace, that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Let us give as people whose work is inextricably linked to God’s great works of creation, redemption and empowerment.
God of abundant mercy, you have fed us with the bread of redemption and set us free to share our lives with the world for Jesus’ sake. Therefore we dedicate the offering we have presented, and the gifts we share, for the sake of your service. Through our lives, may we make your promises real and offer your hope to all, to the glory of your name. Amen.