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When Life Becomes Worship

August 25, 2014

“When Life Becomes Worship” Romans 12:1-21 © 8.24.14 Ordinary 21A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Every week at the end of the order of worship there is a little italicized note punctuated with an exclamation point which Rev. Heather or some other former pastor put in the bulletin. I’ve left it alone, because it’s true. Have you noticed it? It says “Our worship continues with service in life!”

Whoever first included that statement didn’t make it up off the top of her or his head. It came from Paul, who in turn got it from Jewish tradition. It’s a fundamental principle of Christian faith, namely, that when we hear the Word of God and know the grace of God, our lives will become worship. That’s what the “therefore” at the beginning of the morning’s text is all about. In view of God’s mercies, we present our bodies, our very selves, as a living sacrifice, a daily thank offering, to God. And by those same mercies, the gracious presence of his Spirit, we are enabled to be people who please God in what we do and say and think.

Ernst Kasemann, a scholar from the last century, once put our calling this way: “Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts…. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere” (Romans: 329). We engage in what someone has termed a “liturgy of righteous living” (Charles H. Talbert, Romans: 285), the true worship that embraces the whole of our lives day in and day out. Barbara Brown Taylor is a bit more picturesque. In her fine book An Altar in the World, she talks about the spiritual practice of “wearing skin” with gratitude, offering our bodies to God “to go on being useful to the world in ways both sublime and ridiculous” (38).

This way of living is not easy. Years ago, I saw a poster that told me “the trouble with a living sacrifice is that it’s always crawling off the altar.” So true! That’s why we offer these sacrifices that are our daily lives “by the mercies of God.” It’s God’s Spirit in you and me that keeps us from running away, strengthens our resolve to see this thing through, sends us out into the midst of the world to be both priest and offering in the liturgy of life.

So what are the elements of this liturgy? First, a sober and reasonable assessment of our gifts. Paul is not talking about general self-esteem issues here, though those are important. He has in mind a particular situation in which some in the Roman church were lording it over others in the congregation, claiming to be more blessed by God than the rest. We’ve seen this before in the Corinthian letters. Some had charismata—the Greek term for “gifts of grace”—that were spectacular and noisy, and thus called attention to those exercising them. Paul reminds those folks that whatever they have comes from God, and there is no reason to be proud and haughty. And to the ones who feel left out, as if they got nothing, the apostle says that everyone has an assigned responsibility, something good and useful to do for and in the community. That’s what he means by “measure of faith,” which is better translated here “the amount of responsibility” God has given, the trust God has in us.

So there are no small gifts. Instead, Paul commends a way of thinking about these God-given abilities that considers how they fit into the life and needs of the community of faith and the world around us. It’s the context, the situation, that determines whether and how a gift is important. Someone may be able to write an eloquent speech, but another can speak calming words to a crying and frightened child. One person can manage property and knows how to negotiate with vendors, while another believer can teach dance or pottery or painting. These have the resources to be generous or even graciously give sacrificially from their small income, while those can cast a broad and imaginative vision for the church and take the lead in fulfilling it. What skills and whose time and energy does the church need for this project, this concern, this situation? That is the question. It may be your talents and energy. It may be the person’s across the aisle from you or in the choir loft. But everyone is important and essential sometime, needed and gifted and called to rise to the occasion and offer what he or she has for God’s work.

So we offer our bodies as living sacrifices by humble and reasonable consideration of who we are and what we have to give by the grace of God. But next, we together seek to be and become a community of faith, hope, and love. Once again, thanks be to God for his Spirit at work, because that’s no easier than realistically assessing our individual gifts. We’ve all heard the saying “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” But in the church, we’re not allowed the luxury of generic loving of everybody. We’re called to concrete, embodied care of real folks. We’re patient and cheerfully compassionate with someone grieving a loss who tells us the same story for the umpteenth time, and we smile and respond as if we are hearing it afresh. We chuckle at each other’s personality quirks and try to keep a generous spirit. We don’t fake affection or approval; we’re authentic and open with each other. We love even that person whose opinions and actions make our blood boil. I thank God that this church is so hospitable and free of conflict, and we don’t have to pray as hard as other places for a spirit of forbearance and understanding. But just go to a surprising number of churches (note 1) or a presbytery meeting these days when some hot button issue is being debated, and that’s when you will see a community under stress and loving individuals in the body of Christ gets iffy.

The difficulty of its practice notwithstanding, and no matter how wide or narrow the gap between ideal and reality, Paul envisions the church as the body of Christ, where diversity is sought, welcomed, and celebrated; unity is valued and found without forcing anybody into a mold; and above all, love that comes from beyond ourselves binds everyone together. The church is made up of people with transformed minds and offered-up bodies, and the most important thing is discerning and doing the will of God.

The philosopher Ken Wilber talks about the difference between translation and transformation. Both are functions of faith. “Translation” here does not mean rendering a text into a different language, but interpreting the significance, the meaning of an event. It’s putting things in simpler, understandable form. This function of religion enables us to gain a different perspective on our lives, seeing hardship as blessing, for example. We learn and tell stories, participate in rituals, experience revivals in which we make sense of the difficulties of life. Translation strengthens our sense of self, promising us salvation if we can but live by these new, upside-down values.

Transformation, which is what Paul is after for individuals and entire communities, does not console or strengthen, according to Wilber. Instead, we are opened up in a radical way to deeper reality. We are called to be reshaped, molded into authentic people who let ourselves be looked into, challenged, and changed. The apostle tells us that such transformation is not the way of the world; instead, conformity is. But when the Spirit changes our minds, and in, with, by, and through us, our community of faith, we discern the will of God (note 2).

The bottom line is that people who live in community go beyond themselves to touch the lives of others who also are in the process of transformation. John Stott, one of the great evangelical teachers of the last century, sums up what community can and should look like. When we present our bodies to God, “then our feet will walk in his paths, our lips will speak the truth…our hands will lift up those who have fallen, and perform many mundane tasks as well…our arms will embrace the lonely and unloved, our ears will listen to the cries of the distressed, and our eyes will look humbly and patiently towards God” (quoted in Charles Talbert, Romans: 283).

So, life becomes worship when we engage in sober self-assessment and when we seek to become together a community of faith, hope, and love. But finally, we present living sacrifices acceptable to God when we seek to be and become a community of witness. This is an even more difficult task than living with each other in the sacred sphere of the church. Paul expects believers to be living sacrifices in the day to day world, where most likely revenge, competition, disharmony, arrogance, and even persecution are the norm. We see all of that played out to an astounding and disturbing degree at any point during the 24/7 news cycle. Just pick a place from Missouri to the Middle East, and there you will find them.

If we struggle to make sense of the mayhem and malaise, we need but to listen to scholar Walter Brueggemann. We all live by a script, he says, whoever we are, whatever our politics. He means we tell each other stories, which become normative and trusted. He said in a recent video that the consumerist mindset tells us that we are all designed for self-sufficiency, with success defined as getting the most goods. Everyone else is a competitor, rival or threat to our well-being. But the gospel, he observes, provides a counter-script that says we begin not in self-sufficiency, but in giftedness from God which leads us into community with others. And along the way, those whom we encounter are not rivals or threats, but neighbors (note 3).

Paul, in different language, bids us live out this counter-script. He knows we are not in control of what other people do, so he qualifies his comments with phrases like “if it is possible” and “so far as it depends on you.” In other words, we have no choice about how other people act from the conversation around the dinner table to the highway to the world stage, but we can make choices about how we respond. When others are living out base and vulgar instincts, we can choose to rise above and live noble values. We can refuse to be baited or to return insult with insult. Whether in microcosm in the lives of individual Christians or writ large as an institution, the Church is called to be different, to do all it can to break the cycle of violence, to act out a different script. We demonstrate in our behavior, words, and thoughts the power and truth of the gospel.

By the grace of God, we have gifts to offer each other, the church, and the world. And God wants and accepts them, even as he empowers us to use them: our hands that can reach out to another in friendship and support; our feet that can take us to the home of a newcomer or to do mission; our shoulders that can help bear the burden of the sorrowing and troubled; our youth that can bring enthusiasm and challenging new ideas or our age that can offer experience and wisdom; our family, ethnic, and regional backgrounds, as distinctive and different as our accents and food, yet all given by God; our gender, our perspectives as women and men; our sexuality, offered in faithfulness, responsibility, and celebration; our work, done as a vocation, a calling from God; our leisure, used not as if it were another sort of work, but for renewal and re-creation; our spending and our investment of time, presented to God in gratitude; our hearts, full of zeal for the cause of the kingdom; and our minds, renewed and open to truth from many sources. If I’ve missed anything, you fill in the blanks.

John Chrysostom, the early church father, offers a fitting summary to close our reflection: “And how is the body, it may be said, to become a sacrifice? Let the eye look at no evil thing, and it has become a sacrifice; let thy tongue speak nothing filthy, and it has become an offering; let thine hand do no lawless deed, and it has become a whole burnt offering (Talbert, Romans: 284).

May God grant that our whole lives, our whole life long, may become worship!

________________

Note 1: http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/sites/all/themes/factzen4/files/InsightsIntoCongregationalConflict.pdf

Note 2: I have by no means done justice to Wilber here, and may not even have understood him. For his paper, go to http://www.kenwilber.com/Writings/PDF/ASpiritualitythatTransforms_GENERAL_b42000.pdf. See also the brief treatment in Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark: 86-88.

Note 3: http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/scripts.

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