Year A, Proper 16 August 27, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of yours minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…”
Good morning, everyone. It is still good to be back from sabbatical! We have some really amazing people here who have taken real responsibility for this community. Bless you all.
St. Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome is the first letter that we come to in the Bible. Actually, though, Romans is the last one he wrote, at least it is the last one that no one really disputes that he wrote. This letter is a culmination of Paul’s thought, of what his faith in Jesus Christ and his ministry to spread that faith revealed to him over years of trials and tribulations. This letter is taken by some to be Paul’s sort of theological last will and testament, it contains the core of his teachings.
We don’t, well, let me use “I” statements, I don’t spend enough time with St. Paul, either in my own practice or in my preaching ministry with you all. I don’t and I apologize for that. That has been a disservice. Part of it is that Paul can be hard to read. He can be anachronistic. His world was a very different place than we ours in some important ways. Some of his points can be offensive. Sometimes he can be flat out wrong, certainly when read in our modern, Western/liberal context. Based on experiences in my own life and on what I know of Jesus Christ, I can’t abide in some of what he writes so I sometimes throw out the Pauline baby with the bathwater. That is just immature of me. We had our 11th anniversary yesterday, and I know that if we (of course I mean her, Windy) threw people out because they have some major character flaw we’d all be alone! Like we said last week, nothing is pure. But Paul is challenging and he is wrong about some things and that can make him hard to read.
Another reason that I don’t spend as much time with Paul as I might is that Paul is hard to read. He is hard to understand. The sentences are long, the language can seem archaic and opaque. His vocabulary is laden, just burdened with meaning. It takes a lot of time to make sense of it, flipping through Biblical dictionaries and other resources, and then the reward for close reading can often be demands or exhortations that you might not really be looking for. Maybe sin is not what you want to be thinking much about. And Paul reveals the beating heart of Jesus Christ in ways that we must not ignore, as uncomfortable as some of it is. Neither Paul nor Jesus promise us a rose garden.
I encountered a model for reading the Bible recently that has me really intrigued. The idea is that you can look at it in terms of: What? So What? And Now What? Hove you heard that before? What? – What are you talking about. What is the issue at hand. So what? – Who cares? Why does it matter? And then Now What? – What do you do about it? What should you do now?
Chapter 12 of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans might be read as the Now What of Paul’s core teaching, that theological last will and testament. It is about living the way of Jesus Christ. This chapter is all about how we love God and love our neighbor… that’s the way of Jesus Christ, right? The Great Commandment. Verses 1-8, today’s reading, is about how we love God, how we actually do that, how we love God not just feel love for God. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” “…think with sober judgment each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” These are all about how to live in relation to God. Next week we have the second half of the chapter, the loving neighbor potion of Paul’s instruction on living the Way of Jesus. This is the “what now.” This is the ‘what are we supposed to do?’ the ‘how are we supposed to live?’ which is the most important thing. Our faith en-fleshed, given hands and feet in the world, not just sentiment stuck in our hearts and minds. “Faith without works is dead,” writes St. James. And that is true and if you are going to err, err on practice not belief, on being kind not just thinking kindly thoughts.
That is not enough, though. We also need to figure out, to discern, to learn, to be instructed in the Christian traditions of why we should be and do what we should be and do. Why? Why is big. I reflected a lot during my sabbatical, and I am seeing that too often I skip over the why, the deep whys of the world. I skip too many of the “What’s?” and the “So what’s?” and jump right to the practical moral theology of “now what?” We might largely agree that x, y or z is wrong, by why is it wrong? What holy writ is violated, what ethical standard is breached, what moral principle is corrupted? Those questions are all very, very important if we are to understand our place in relation to God, to each other, and to the world.
For example, even that word “world” needs theological unpacking. For most of us, “world” is the natural world, the creation, all the stuff we are engaged with. But Paul, when he uses “world,” he usually means something very different. He is referring to our corporate or collective being or self, and it is pejorative. The world that we are not to conform to is our corporate false self. It is not conforming to conventional wisdom that is in fact not wise at all. It is what Dorothy Day called the “dirty, rotten system” or what John Paul II meant when he made the liberation theology idea of “structural sin” a teaching of the church. Big difference there, no?
I am sorry that I have not spent enough time on why, on the “what” and the “so what” as I think we probably need to, particularly in confusing and tumultuous times such as these. Coming off of sabbatical, my plan is to try to preach more radically, that is more back to the roots of our faith, exploring the traditional doctrine and teachings of the church and her prophets and apostles so that we, you, are better equipped to figure out the now what as an individual Christian and a member of a Christian community. Sound OK?
So what is Paul’s deal? What is the what that leads us to the now what Way of Jesus? What is the starting point of Paul’s ministry? Any guesses? __ You have sinned. We have sinned. We are distant from God. And we do things because we are distant from God and those wicked things we do keep us distant from God. That’s the starting point of Paul, our fall. For some reason, deep in our core, we are broken, fallen. And because of that brokenness, that fallen-ness, we too often do things we know we should not do and we too often don’t do things that we know we should do. All of us. Your life experience is proof of that. None of us are as good as we could be. None of us are a kind as we should be. With very little provocation, we are capable of inflicting horrendous evil on our fellow human beings and on the creation. It doesn’t mean that we are all bad all the time, not even the worst of us, but it does mean that we all have a tremendous amount of work to do to be the people God made us to be before something happened that distorted the reflection of the divine perfection in whose image we were created. That’s the what.
You’re a sinner and you need to repent, you need to change your ways. And??? So what? Thanks for pointing out the root of all of my personal failures as a spouse, a parent, a friend, a human being! However, that’s not the end of the story, that’s what. You are not alone in this, you are not the only one making bad decisions, being less than you should be, less than you could be. That’s what. And by grace alone, God offers us love and forgiveness and the gift of faith. That’s Paul. He points us towards the revelation of Jesus that we not defined only by our sinfulness and that we have done nothing to earn God’s grace. In Romans it is tied up in the language of circumcision or un-circumcision. That is all about whether you follow the law, religious law or not. The point is, that following custom, doing the sacraments, the law, that’s not going to earn God’s favor. It might change you, and hence your ability to accept God’s love, but it won’t make God do anything different, we can’t earn God’s favor. We are justified by our faith, by the content of our heart and our character, not on how observant we might be. That’s grace, and in that grace we are offered forgiveness and better yet, reconciliation with God. Everyone. And we are called to respond to God’s grace through a life lived with love, sanctified love, and joyfully so. We should be filled with joy. “May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Nothing can separate us from this love, from God, and these promises are forever and they are offered for all people. That is some good news. No matter how bad it seems, how badly you have failed, no matter what you have done, no matter how you are right now, no matter how far you have gone down any rabbit hole you can turn your life around, you can repent, you can change your ways. You do not have to feel alienated, or alone, or powerless, worthless, addicted, stuck, mean, whatever terrible feelings you have. There is another path. That’s the so what. That’s the first 11 chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
That’s great news, but now what? That brings us back to chapter 12. Offer yourself as a living sacrifice. Living? That means being engaged, being active, being, umm, alive. Sacrifice? He means a gift to God. Being a living sacrifice means living your life as the gift to God that you truly are. The old sacrifices, yes, it was honoring God with the best you have, the first fruits, but it ended there. A living sacrifice is a gift that keeps on giving, keeps on loving and serving as God desires us to do. That kind of engaged life is our spiritual worship, says Paul. That is not just an activity, a liturgy, it is a way of life. It is praying ceaselessly. What we are doing right here, right now is a reminder, a refresher for the rest of our week lived in relationship with God and everything. Does that make sense?
Then he goes on about not being conformed to the world, don’t be enamored or encumbered by the way things are, don’t conflate society’s values with the values of Jesus Christ. We need to renew our minds, to practice, to pray, to empty ourselves, to learn ways to realign our souls, so that the will of God may be revealed and along with it our path forward.
And he gets very specific about how we value ourselves in relation to others. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to measure of faith that God has assigned.” Why do we take it for granted that someone who makes investment decisions is valued exponentially higher in our society than someone who cares for children, or elderly folks, or who cleans up after us? It takes a multiplicity of gifts to make the world work in the way God intends it to work. We’d all be better off surrounded by kind or generous people than we would by simply smart or worldly successful ones. Who do you spend your time with? How does their company make you feel? Are you closer to God for their presence in your life? There is so much there.
What? So What? Our biblical inheritance, two thousand years of Christian tradition, your own personal piety and religious practice and experience… The resources we have available to lead us to the “now what” are vast and deep and powerful. I look forward to plumbing those depths together. Oh the places we’ll go! AMEN