Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Sept. 21, 2014
Audio not available for this sermon.
For the past several evenings I have found myself glued to PBS for two hours watching the Ken Burns’ series on The Roosevelts. When I first heard about it, I wasn’t sure I’d be too interested, but most everything Ken Burns does is worth watching, so I tuned in the first evening, and I was hooked. The three Roosevelts Burns focuses on – Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor – all face incredible trials in their lives, trials that would probably make some people just want to lie down and die. All three tended towards depression anyway, and then added to that was the death of Teddy’s wife in the early years of their marriage, Franklin’s paralysis as a result of polio, and Eleanor’s fearful nature and conviction that she was deep down simply unloveable.
But instead of succumbing to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Shakespeare might have called these challenges, each one responded positively and in a way that not only allowed him or her to succeed on the world stage, but also to be of great service to their country and to other people. Quite amazing, really. It took incredible concentration, energy, dedication, and persistence to overcome their personal demons. It required self-sacrifice and pain. But they never gave up – came close a few times – but they never gave up.
That kind of concentrated effort is similar to what Paul speaks about in his letter to the Romans where he stresses the importance of Christians focusing their minds, bodies, and spirits on one thing, to present ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.” And to do this, he challenges, “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.”
Being a Christian isn’t easy. It is one of the hardest things anyone can want to do. Will Willimon has written that the stumbling block for many people “isn’t that we’ve listened to Jesus and found him incomprehensible. It is that we’ve listened to him and found him darn difficult.”[i]
Why is Jesus so difficult? Why is living the Christian life such a challenge, the challenge of a lifetime? It is in part, perhaps, because life puts many obstacles in our path and encourages us to take the path of least resistance, often the most obvious and most approved and most popular. The “real world” as we like to all it, presents us with a version of reality that is far different from the reality of God’s kingdom as Jesus describes it. The “real world” calls us to conformity, calls us to go with the flow, with whatever everyone else is thinking, doing, or saying. It tells us that achievement lies in security and, happiness in having control of our lives, and success is gaining approval and being popular with the majority.
The difficulty comes because Paul tells us that we are to present ourselves as living sacrifices, and somehow that phrase “living sacrifices” doesn’t sound much like our desired goals of security, control, or popularity. Naturally enough we don’t like it; we get defensive; we get anxious. We want to be free to do whatever we choose, whenever we choose. We treat our lives as our own possessions, doing with them as we see fit. But as followers of Christ, our lives are to become instruments of God, used by God for God’s purposes whenever God sees fit. Letting go of all the things we thought we had to have in order to be content is the transformation that Paul describes as the “renewing of our minds.” It is truly beginning again at square one, erasing all the old files, rebooting, starting over, starting fresh, without judgment, without prejudice, without assumptions, but with an open mind, emptied of all the impediments.
In speaking of this process, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty. . . . As Christians we must never surrender our supreme loyalty to any time-bound custom or earth-bound idea, for at the heart of our universe is a higher reality—God and [God’s] kingdom of love—to which we must be conformed.”[ii]
Another problem with being a living sacrifice, of course, is that unlike the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament where animals were killed before they were given to God as offerings, the Christian who offers himself or herself to God is free to move about, and hence is sometimes quick to jump off an altar. Especially when the going gets tough; when the heat rises and threatens to consume. Perseverance is not our strong suit. People who designate themselves as Christian have about the same habits of those who do not so identify – watch the same TV shows, go to the same movies, read the same books, give about the same percentage of income to charity, face the same temptations and disappointments, and have children who get in the same kinds of trouble as other children, as those who do not claim the name. The worldly pursuit of power and status, wealth and comfort lure those who like to think of themselves as following Jesus far from his path, to an altar where they unknowingly wind up offering themselves up “on lesser altars before smaller gods.”[iii]
It happened even to the disciples. Maybe you remember how Peter was very quick to identify Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” when he assumed that Jesus would defeat the Romans and bring back local Jewish control; when he assumed he’d be on the side of the majority, and he’d be one of the ones to benefit from association with this powerful Messiah. But when Jesus told him what it meant for him to be the Messiah, that he would “go to Jerusalem, undergo suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” Peter didn’t want any part of that. “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you!” he said to Jesus. But Jesus tells him if any want to become his followers, then they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. And that somehow, crazy as it sounds, if we work too hard to save and protect our life, we lose the life that really is life in the process. But if we are willing to give that all up, lose that false life for his sake, then we will find the real life.
There is always a great temptation to prefer comfort to transformation, to prefer the seductive language of some popular theologies that tell us God wants us to be rich, and God is happy when we are happy; theologies that erase from their vocabulary any reference to surrender, loss of privilege, or non-conformity; to standing against the status quo, or seeking transformation of the systems that foster one privileged group over another. Theologies, according to Dr. King, that “sacrifice truth on the altar of self-interest” rather than requiring the sacrifice of self in the interest of others.[iv]
There is also the great temptation simply to stop during the first part of transformation, stop at standing against the status quo, shaking our fist at the evils of the world, criticizing and condemning behaviors that are unworthy – pointing out scornfully the evils of materialism, nationalism, racism, sexism, elitism, all those other –isms that seek to hold one group down to favor another.There are those who spend their lives being angry, caustic and critical, disdainful and judgmental.
It is relatively easy to tear down; there is so much material to work with. Everywhere we look there is something that could be better, something that’s not working. And it is relatively easy to get stuck there. The challenge is to move from this first necessary part – standing up to and identifying and calling out the wrong in the world, to the second and even more necessary part, offering solutions and being part of the solution. Dr. King has a wonderful statement in his sermon entitled “The Transformed Non-Conformist.” He writes, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”[v]
There is a big difference between being destructively maladjusted and being creatively maladjusted. Creative maladjustment requires living sacrifice, requires being individually uncomfortable first for the sake of greater comfort for more later. Dr. King referred to having to endure his six year old daughter’s question, “Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?”[vi] For us as individuals and as a church it requires living sacrifice as well; not only pointing out the problems, but also finding ways to be a part of the solution, even when we don’t feel like it; even when it means risk; even when it means cost both in terms of time and treasure.
In these last weeks and months, we have been introduced to many examples of where work needs to be done, where things aren’t the best they can be, where suffering or want exists that is not being addressed adequately. But we cannot waste precious time in time in anger, or criticism, or blame. Nor can we afford to become depressed and overwhelmed by the vastness and variety of the problems we have encountered. These reactions wouldn’t do anybody any good. Instead, we are called to be creatively maladjusted, identifying issues and situations where we can make a difference and then becoming part of a transformative effort. It won’t be easy; it will involve risk and sacrifice on our part.
However, in whatever actions we choose to participate, either as individuals or as a church, we can take heart from the example of Christ, who, scripture tells us, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.” And perhaps we will find for ourselves as well, that we don’t give up joy or happiness in our lives when we deny ourselves, take up our own cross and become living sacrifices; it is, in fact in that commitment that we discover what true joy is really all about.
[i] Will Willimon, “Who Do you Say that I Am?”, Duke Chapel, august 22, 1999.
[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Transformed Non-Conformist,” Strength to Love, 1968, 11.
[iii] Robert A. Bryant, “Romans 12:1-8,” Interpretation, Vol. 58, No.3, July 2004, 288.
[iv] King, 15.
[v] King, 17.
[vi] King, 18.