Word of the Week

So what are we doing church for anyway?

Romans 12:1-8

Sermon Preached at: Federated Church, Weatherford, OK

I grew up in a very Christian family—a very Southern Baptist family, in fact in the state of Tennessee. I grew up in the kind of home that had a careful watch on my moral choices; whether or not my friends had Christian values too, and of course what kind of media that I consumed.

Therefore when the junior high I was to attend seemed to be “going bad” with a greater gang presence, I was shipped off downtown to a Christian school in the 7th grade. I eventually graduated from the same school.

Part of our course curriculum included Bible classes and lots of required scripture memory for tests. Every Friday in Bible class, we’d be asked to write by memory that week’s passage.

I remember the week in 9th grade when we were asked to memorize the first two verses of our text before us this morning. They were familiar to me because I’d heard countless talks in youth group from pastors on Romans 12. Let’s see if I can still remember….

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

As I’ve grown up and had time for theological reflection on my experiences at home and the Christian school, I can understand why Romans 12 was often placed before us.

We were young. We were in impressionable. We could so easily get in trouble and “ruin” our lives by one poor choice, so thought our parents, our youth pastors and school administrators.

We needed to be talked to straight. We needed to understand that God required of us great sacrifice. We need not mess up the good thing we had going with God in exchange for more of the world’s pleasures.

Or in other words, don’t be like the cool kids who party on the weekends. Do the hard work with God. You’ll thank us later.

But is this really what this section of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome was all about? Don’t party too much with those non-Christians . . . Don’t make bad choices on Saturday night that you will never forgive yourself for . . . Remember following Jesus is all about resistance, determination and most of all no fun?

My guess is probably not.

And while before us this morning is a complex passage, I believe what Paul is most trying to give us in Romans 12 is not another page in a playbook of how to life a moral life that pleases God. But, rather, an explanation of why our coming together as the body of Christ matters.

As we arrive in Romans 12, we need to remember that we are in the middle of the letter. For the past 11 chapters, Paul has given his readers a theological explanation of the gospel—in particular what it meant for him to make the transition from a strict follower of the Jewish law to a Jew who also happened to be a Christian too.

Answering questions like: Who was God to him now? What did the life and ministry of Jesus really mean? How did Jesus take care of sin’s role in the human story?

(And just as a pastoral public service announcement—this is why the book of Romans is called on the densest books in the Bible. It’s a hard one to just pick up and read without time for careful study. Paul saved all the tough conversation for the Romans).

But as chapter 12:1 rolls around, Paul is shifting gears. He’s imagining the community gathered around this theological foundation. He’s giving his answer to the question countless of Christians have asked through the centuries, “How now shall I live?”

Or more loosely, “Ok, I am going to be a Christian, what then?”

And Paul had an answer. It was the formation of the church—a collection of Christ followers coming together to be disciples alongside one another. And only a metaphor would work to explain it, so Paul gave one. The church, he said, was like the human body.

Our human body has many parts—parts like the eyes, the ears, the hands, and the heart. While all parts are lovely, none work on their own. They need each other to survive and thrive. Right?

In the same way, Paul says, though we are many people, together we form one body in Christ Jesus and each of us who want to be members belong to one another.

How Paul got to this way of explaining things that has stuck with us for centuries, we aren’t sure, but this week theologian Alyce McKenize muses on her blog as to why. She writes:

I wonder what made Paul think of this body metaphor . . . Maybe it was his awareness of how fragile the body was in his first-century context.

Maybe he woke up one day grateful that he had made it this far. [Maybe he said to himself]

"The body is a fragile thing. I am so lucky that I was not one of the 25 percent of infants who died before age one.

Or the 50 percent of children who died before age ten.

I am lucky I haven't lived in a city my whole life but have traveled in the open air, because cities are a breeding ground for disease. I am fortunate that I haven't come under the care of a quack doctor whose home remedies made from herbs and leaves often do more harm than good."[1]

And how much sense this makes! Paul embodied a fragile world.

And though modern medicine keeps so many of us ticking after times of major trauma, our world now is fragile too. Watch the news any this week? Tanks through Missouri streets, persecution of Christians in Iraq, and Russians who just want to Ukraine at any cost . . . Recently I’ve felt that my TV just needs some band aid. What about you?

Our bodies in this world are also fragile. If this church’s prayer list is any indication, we all know persons who are struggling right now with physical health. We intimately know at least somebody who needs bodily healing, if that person is not ourselves. We all could be in good health today and breathing our last tomorrow. We never know.

And according to Paul, the church—known as the gathering of Christ followers-- was just as fragile as our human bodies.

BUT that was ok. In letters to other churches like that of the church in Corinth, Paul who go on to describe Christians as “treasure in jars of clay” who “show that this all-surpassing power [of Jesus] is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Our fragile world, our fragile calling asks that we band together and not stay going about our own business in our own houses alone. We are asked to gather in regular patterns to do life together—with no one member of our family lording over the other as if one of us has the greatest value of all.

And, in our needing of one another, it is ok. It’s ok that none of us on would be in the running for wonder woman or super man of the year. Because if we were, would our lives merely point to ourselves and not Jesus!

Maybe this is why Paul in verse 5 says, “we who are many” are asked “to form one body and “each member belongs to all the others?”

You see, the world sees more of Jesus when our diversity does not keep us in our own camps—when we realize that something beautiful happens in our togetherness. For being a disciple of Jesus means we must engage in the hard work of being the church.

So, we are not called to just be more morale.

We are not called to preserve our church building itself for next generation.

And we are not called to ONLY the warm and fuzzy feelings that singing hymns together on Sunday morning can provide.

No, we do the hard work of being church so that Jesus can be known in our communities. Period.

Yes, we are fragile. Yes, we aren’t as strong as we might want to be as a church. Yes, we fight from time to time and get irritated. But we stick together no matter what. We seek to learn from each other. We all do our share without complaining that somebody else is not doing enough of their share.

When my husband, Kevin and I were going through pre-marital counseling the summer before we got married, I got what was some of the best advice I think I’ve ever heard about marriage.

Jim Sommerville, the pastor meeting with us said, “Everybody thinks that marriage is all about compromise and giving 50/50. One partner gives their share. And the other partner gives his or her equal share too. And in doing so it’s a recipe for life long happiness.”

But then he went onto to say that “this way of doing marriage rarely works for anybody.”

“How so?” we wanted to know.

“The problem,” Pastor Jim said, “with the 50/50 model is that one person is often resentful that the other person is not living up to their share. . . . A better modelphoto is this: before you get married, Kevin and Elizabeth, commit to always giving 110% to the other. Give and give. Put the other’s needs above your own. And in doing so, what you’ll find is the joy feeling valued and appreciated for many years to come.”

And I have to say that I’ve found the 110% suggestion to be ever so true. The times in our marriage when Kevin and I have faced hardships often have come when we were not looking out for the other’s interests as much as our own.

And the same is true, according to Paul in the body of Christ. And I dare say that the membership of few churches these days live even by the 50/50 rule.

You know the popular statement about churches—20% of the members do 80% of the work and the giving and visa versa. Of course such is not true here at all, right?

But this is exactly why Paul exhorts us to reconsider this business of what we are doing in this thing called church. Paul wants to use to reconsider our relationship to words like: sacrifice, selflessness and valuing the gifts of all persons because this is how the embodiment of Jesus Christ is going to go forth on this earth.

The sentence I just shared with you in a pretty one isn’t it?

Paul wants to use to reconsider our relationship to words like: sacrifice, selflessness and valuing the gifts of all persons because this is how the embodiment of Jesus Christ is going to go forth on this earth.

But doing it is so much harder.

To not consider ourselves more highly than we ought comes into practice-

When someone new teaches our Sunday School class and we don’t care for much the tone of their voice

When someone makes a decision about the mission offering that does not include the charity we deem most in need

When someone steps into a new leadership role that we think already does too much around here.

When we see the faces of brown children stuck on the US border with nowhere to go.

All of these situations and so many more is where the hard stuff of being the church comes into play.

Tyler Edwards in his book Zombie Christians: Breathing Life Back Into the Body of Christ, writes this: “The problem that we are facing in the church today is that we have so many Christians who have made a decision to believe in Jesus but not a commitment to follow Him. We have people who are planning to, meaning to, trying to, wanting to, going to, we just don't have people who are doing it.”

So I ask you today, are you interested in actually doing this thing called church?

Are you interested in the high calling of making Jesus known in Weatherford, OK by living out what you say you believe—not just speaking it on Sunday mornings?

If your answer is yes, I can’t be more grateful for the fact that scripture not only gave us a metaphor of the body but gave us a ritual of the remembering the actual body of our Lord.

For in the communion meal we are about to partake, we have the opportunity to touch and feel and see with our own hands, eyes and mouth that we who are many are a part of one body. And our one Lord, spared nothing when he allowed his body to be broken so that we many be included in his family.

So, what are we doing church for anyway?

We are doing it for one reason and one reason only that Jesus may be known in fragile little us.

[1] (Read more: http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Many-Members-Alyce-McKenzie-08-18-2014#ixzz3B9epyp7r)

urlI grew up in an evangelical, Bible-belt household.

I was taught that females shouldn't lead churches (though being international missionaries was ok-- out of sight out of mind).

I was taught that being gay was a sin. I was taught that the Bible was the infallible word of God. To be angry with how Paul referred to women  was disrespectful.

To be a good Christian, I needed form myself into this mold. And who doesn't want to be good?

Being a good Christian was about following rules. Being a good Christian was about doing good to others, especially those who had not yet prayed the sinner's prayer of forgiveness (because maybe one day you could lead them to faith). Being a good Christian was about keeping your life close to those who believed just like you-- for to spend too much time with those who were not Christians could pollute your own relationship with Jesus.

For many years, I did well at this gold star obtaining way of faith. I read my Bible a lot. I went to church a lot. And I even tried to evangelize my unsaved friends (you know who you are).

But what happens when a girl like this grows up and begins to ask questions?

What happens when a girl like this has a moment one day on a mission trip wondering what in the heck she is doing trying to force a 7-year-old in a park to ask for forgiveness of sins?

What happens when a girl like this has a calling to actually LEAD a church (and the gifts and education to do so)?

What happens when a girl like this meets some of the most Jesus loving people she's ever met who happen to be gay too?

I guess there were two choices.

1) Become disillusioned to the whole Jesus thing saying Christians were stupid and I wanted no part.

2) Seek out a path of different kind of Christianity, even if it might leaving behind the church that raised me and my most familiar tradition behind.

Obviously I chose the second path.

Without shame, I took preaching classes at seminary, sought out a job that would allow me to preach and became ordained.

I read scripture with an open mind and have continued to do so.

I led a church that welcomed all kinds of people-- those in AA, those with criminal records, those who were gay, soccer moms with drug problems and even me, a pastor with more questions than answers. (Because we are all really broken in some way).

And here's my current challenge: I find myself as a "Preacher on the Plaza" (i.e. a pastor without a church) where the powers that be around me would love me to bow down and become more "that kind of Christian."

Don't I know my place? Couldn't I be more submissive? Shouldn't I be more accepting of those who who might just need more time to be more loving?

I can't, my friends. I can't.

I can't because I believe the love of God is wider than we could ever imagine.

I can't because I believe this world needs voices louder those of Christian majority-- voices that embrace before they judge.

I can't because I believe that revelation of God is finished; we're all a part of a living and active story.

The best is yet to be! And I want to be a part of it. I want to be a pastor to those who have been hurt by the church and its messages the most.

So, here I stand as not that kind of Christian. But a Christian nonetheless.

I Want to Know Christ
Philippians 3:7-11
Preached: August 11, 2013, Martin Luther King Christian Church, Reston, VA

I always knew when I was younger that one day I’d want to be married. I would want to have a life partner—someone in whom I could share in all of life’s most memorable moments with and one day grow old beside.

By my teenaged years, I had expectations on how this might happen—mostly coming from the stories I’d heard from how my parents met.

From the time that I was small, when my sister and I would ask my mom about how she met my dad, she’d tell us about the day that she stood in registration line on her first day at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. As she waited her turn to sign up for her classes, her last name was Duncan and my father to-be was Evans, so naturally they found themselves in the same line—the D-E’s. And there they struck up a conversation and the beginnings of a friendship that led to a marriage began.

So, I too thought if I wanted to get married, all I’d have to do was go to college. And there on the first week would I meet the man who would make me his Mrs.

I’d arrive at college and bam! I’d walk on campus and say “Hello fine young men!” And, he’d be there.

Well— you can imagine how great this “bright” plan of mine worked out!

I was shy at the time and really didn’t like going out of my comfort zone of who invited me to tag along with them. I saturated myself in an all-girlfriend kind of community—eating, studying and going to the movies with girlfriends, not boys. I guess it kept me out of trouble, but that was about it.

Even still, I thought without any work, effort or sacrifice Mr. Right would make himself known to me: the man I most wanted to know and marry one day. In my head, I imagined he’d just knock on my door one day, introduce himself, we’d date and then we could just get on with our really happy lives.

Yes, I said I wanted to be in a relationship. But, no, I didn’t try to get to know any new young men.

Well—you know how that went. I didn’t really date anyone for the next four years.

When many of us think of our relationship with Christ, we approach it in a similar way that I did with dating in college. We say that we want to grow.

We say that we want to have a relationship with Christ that is vibrant.

But, we get stuck.

We get stuck in a version of faith that closely models what we were taught in children’s Sunday School back in 2nd grade children’s church.

We get stuck on the faith we observed in our grandparents but never truly made our own.

We get stuck when the most difficult life situations find us—throwing in all our cards and say, “Well, there must not really be a God. Because if there was a God this bad situation would not be happening to me!”

We get stuck even though most all of us understand this basic truth:

To be a Christian is to what? Follow Christ.

But we equate knowing Christ with church membership—showing up regularly on Sundays.

We equate knowing Christ with having hope of eternal life—resting on the fact that we know where we’ll go one day when we die.

We equate knowing Christ with doing unto others as we would have it done unto us—being a good person because that is how Jesus showed us to live when he was on earth.

And, while all of this is well and good and there’s noting wrong with any of these things, faith of that depends only on these sort of things becomes a sideline only type of faith. Yes, we say with our lips that we are a Christian but there’s no movement in our lives toward the direction of who Jesus actually was.

We say we are following Jesus but our life looks nothing like His did.

The apostle Paul has a few words to share with us about this found in his letter to the Philippian church. It’s a book of Paul clearly laying his feelings about how much this congregation meant to him and what he wanted Christ to be in his life.

It’s a book that Paul wrote from jail—during what was most likely the end of his life, a time when we was saying the things that he most wanted to say.

In fact, scholars feel that the book of Philippians is in fact that the book the one they are most sure that Paul wrote by hand. Put simply, Philippians is Paul’s heart put to paper.

And within this context we hear the Apostle Paul say, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” And then he goes on to say in verse 10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death.”

These are familiar words. If we’ve been around church awhile, we’ve heard them a lot. We may just gloss over them with our ears thinking we understand already what they mean. Following Jesus is about death and resurrection . . . Ok, preacher, I’ve got that.

But pause with me for a moment.

Paul is elevating the supremacy of Christ by saying “whatever was to his profit (as we know from his life story that he used to be a very righteous law-abiding Jew), he now considers loss for the sake of Christ.”

But not only this, Paul says that he wants to know Christ in two particular ways.

The first is that he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. And the second, is that Paul wants the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.

(Have congregation REPEAT).

Do you hear what we just said?

Paul says to know Christ is not what most of us think knowing Christ is about.

I heard nothing about joining a church. I heard nothing about having correct theology. I heard nothing about reading the Bible and praying so many hours a week. Or any sort of easy or straight forward task that any of us could just snap our fingers and achieve.

Paul says, “I want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection” and “ I want the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”

I’ve been struck by the simplicity and the profound nature of these two qualifiers over the past couple of weeks.

Paul tells us it is only about two things: resurrection and suffering. But, these aren’t small things . . .

Let’s start with resurrection. Resurrection is the word that most of us associate with the Easter season, isn’t it?

On Easter Sunday morning we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Up from the Grave He Arose” and we talk about how almost and amazing it is that Christ defeated the powers of sin and death and so we too can live forever more. It’s a happy day isn’t it? Full of bright flower dresses and new hats and lots of joy . . .

So following Jesus about resurrection—that might sound easy enough, right? We just have to show up in our Sunday best! Huh? Wrong!

Do we not remember all the stories that followed that bright Easter morning?

The stories of the men afraid in their scandals hiding in the upper room not believing the news that the women brought them about the empty tomb.

The stories of women like Mary finding Jesus in the garden outside the tomb holding so tightly on to Jesus that Jesus had to reprimand her saying: “Don’t cling to me.”

The stories of the disciples like Peter, filled with shame and grief having to have a conversation over and over again with Jesus about what he needed to do going forward at the seashore.

Resurrection is not about instant beauty or perfect circumstances. Resurrection is a process. Resurrection is a slow transformative process.

And while yes, resurrection is about new life and hope; its birth is not an easy process. Resurrection rattles of the foundations of what is normal, what is comfortable and most certainly what we might have expected before it comes.

It’s the power that dismantles every other power in our life that controls us, keeps us in bondage, or has any pull at all over our lives.

To want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection is much like a story that author Annie Dillard tells.

When speaking of the resurrection power of our Lord, she gives this advice:

“It is madness [for} ladies’ [to wear] straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. [Instead of passing out bulletins,] Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
To say that you want to know Christ is to be ready for resurrection power to shake your life upside down.

And in the same way, Paul also says that he wants to share in the fellowship of his Christ’s sufferings. To know Christ is to know Christ’s sufferings.

Sufferings . . . if you are like me, it’s never good when a sentence starts with this word is it? I hate suffering, what about you?

Suffering involves change not only in the way that resurrection is about change, but it is about pain and how pain changes us. Blood, sweat and tears as the saying goes. . . .

To know Christ, Paul says, we have to be ready to suffer.

To follow Christ is not to sign up for a ticket to life happiness (as some tv preachers—you know who they are might tell you) but it is to accept that in life, no matter how good we think we are, difficult situations are going to find us.

And in fact, the particular the MORE we begin to align our lives in the direction of Christ’s teachings, then the more we are going to get push back from the world.

It is as if Paul is saying, start following Christ and then get ready, because pain is going to come!

It’s going to be pain you or I didn’t ask for, didn’t make happen, or even is not the fault of our poor choices.

May I just take liberty to say that following Jesus sometimes means somebody is going to tell lies about us, somebody whom we love might leave us, or maybe even one day we are going to wake up and realize that our life has to take a completely different life path with some really hard choices.

And it’s going to hurt!

Even more so, people might just steal our clothes, spit on us, speak all kinds of ill against us, and our stands for Jesus might even cost us our very lives. If it happened to Jesus, then why do we think it won’t happen to us?

Suffering is just part of the commitment.

I ask you church, do you still want to know Christ?

I began my sermon with this morning telling you that as a child I dreamed of getting married one day.

Well when I was in seminary, God answer such a prayer and brought into my life an amazing life partner named Kevin Hagan who would be God’s instrument of love, challenge and encouragement to me for all that lied ahead.

And all was well and great and all—you know things were going fine. A year and a half ago, Kevin was working on the leadership team of a non-profit in Alexandria and I was happy over there at Washington Plaza—until Kevin got a call one day that would lead to another call and then a visit and then another visit where he would be named the President of Feed The Children that just so happened to be in Oklahoma.

And you can imagine as excited as I was for this opportunity for Kevin, how I felt about that—Oklahoma.

I told Kevin, “They don’t like my kind of outspoken female pastor-ness out there.” His optimist self said, “Give it a try.”

And now after I’ve been out there part-time for 6 months I can say indeed my assumptions were right. They don’t like my kind. And Oklahoma is a 22 hour drive away from here. It can feel very lonely. And there have been many tears in our household as much as there have been celebratory moments of all the new experiences.

We have to be careful what we pray for.

Sometimes God’s biggest blessings to us can also come with pain. Sometimes God’s biggest blessings can involve resurrection that forces our world-view upside down.

And it is a process.

Notice with me that Paul said, “I want to know Christ.”

NOT, “I know Christ” or “I know Christ already.”

Paul is exhorting us by example to A PROCESS of knowing the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.

Even for Paul it was never something he achieved or arrived at, it was about a relationship of wanting to know Christ more every day.

The last time I did a class preparing persons for baptism. I started the session by asking them if they were ready to die? “Have you lost your mind, Pastor?” their eyes said back to me in response.

And no, it wasn’t some sort of “hell fire and brimstone” are you sure you are saved sort of line of questioning. And no I had not lost my mind. I was serious. Were they ready to die?

Because as baptized believers who are desiring to know Christ, what we believe being immersed under the water and then coming back up symbolize the fact that we are dying to ourselves and being raised to a new kind of life.

The Christian life—at least as the Apostle Paul saw it was about death to our normal human experience. It was about the power of resurrection and sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.

So I ask you church today, do you want to know Christ?

Do you want to walk in Jesus’ footsteps?

If you answer is yes, then I say, hold on for the ride of your life—for it will be a journey filled with the power of the resurrection AND the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

For those who commit afresh today to this way of dying to self and living for Christ, let the church say (AMEN).