So what are we doing church for anyway?
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. 2 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."
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 model 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.
God Calls You to Take Care of Yourself
I Corinthians 6:11-20
Today we begin a series of messages in this season of Epiphany all about God's calling to us.
It's the time of year that the Christian calendar asks us to do some consideration again about this life of faith that we've committed to live in. It's the time of year for us to hear from scripture again some of Jesus' hopes for our becoming as people called the Body of Christ. And, today's "God Calls You" blank inserts the words "To Take Care of Yourself."
It seems we tow a good line as leaders and faith seekers in Christian community on the topics of self-sacrifice, selflessness and extending beyond the bounds of our own natural abilities so that God can work mightily through us, but rare it seems that we ever talk about care of self.
While we are eager to talk about becoming something "more:" more loving, more giving, more serving, more faithful, it is rare that we talk about the physicality of a body from which all of the loving, giving serving and faithfulness comes or do we ever talk about our limits of care.
I don't know why this is, other than generations of doctrine and preaching and study has seemed to do a great job disconnecting the body and the soul.
Because of humankind's fall in Genesis 3, we learn we're condemned to a sentence of bodily suffering, pain. The body is bad and will die while the soul is good and will abide in the presence of God forever, if redeemed. Yet, we have forgotten that God previously said over the words of our birth that we were made in God's very own image and called "very good."
As a result of all of this confusion, we easily think us regular church going people, what's the point when it comes to our own health and well-being?
If we really need rest or a day of solitude and someone from the church calls us to do something, then the "godly" choice is always to say yes to others and to the church.
Furthermore, if we want our lives to be pleasing to God, then we've got to learn to give up beauty, give up pleasure, or even lay our own medical problems on the altar of denial, so we have time for everyone else other than us. Though we are taught all along about love and grace and all that jazz, we believe the only way God will REALLY love us is we die to self by putting ourselves last.
I remember my father saying to the children in Vacation Bible School once that "If you really want to be happy in life, you'll learn to love Jesus more than anyone else, even yourself."
As I grew older and had the ability to consider the deeper meaning of this saying I saw so regularly, I doubted the claim of "I wasn't really loving Jesus if I was loving myself."
Did Jesus never eat, sleep, take retreats or be quiet from time to time? But, Christian culture seem to teach me and my peers-- loving yourself was a bad thing. It you took a mental health or catch up on your sleep day, you just didn't talk about it.
We find our lection for this morning found smack dab in the middle of a long series of instructional teaching from Paul to the church in Corinth, a church we know that Paul helped to found and nurture in its infancy.
Paul sought to teach this gathered community-- new coverts to the way of Christ-- what living out their baptism (as we were talking about last week) would look like in the practical every day issues in a particular context.
(As an aside, this is often why, we as modern readers have a hard time with the epistle scriptures. While there is much to learn from the "big ideas" of these letters, we often reach dead ends of frustrating fundamentalism when we take the directives of Paul too literally).
In the verses previous to and after our lection we hear Paul describing his concerns for order in the church, legal matters, marriage and the process of worship.
So, with this understanding, it seems less random these verses about sexual morality and food before us today which say in verse 13: "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food" or in verse 18: "Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself."
It's like we are listening into a thousand plus year old conversation, though one-way, about food and sex morality's place in the life of faith. Paul wanted the church at Corinth to know that even as he taught much about "freedom in Christ" and the truth that being in Christ meant they were no longer bound to laws about this and that behavior-- still limits existed. "All things are lawful for me," Paul reminds them but adds, "not all things are beneficial."
It's his way of saying, in the story of Christ's grace, we are not left out of the family of God for what we do and our actions do not change the way God looks at us or thinks of us, BUT freedom in Christ has limits. The limits are meant for our good.
Like a young child who will not take instructions without their parent or caregiver answering their thousand, "Why?" questions, Paul gives the whys for his considerations for this particular community about how they partner sexually and what food they put in their mouths.
Their bodies are not bad. Their bodies are not just flesh and bones with nothing to do with their souls. Their bodies gave life and thus were a part of God's very own Self. Therefore, a call resounds to care for their bodies.
I wonder how many of us in this room made New Year's Resolutions? And, among all of you who made resolutions, I wonder how many of your stated intentions related in some way to your body or health. (Any brave souls to raise your hands?)
A recent article about our New Year's Resolution practices in one US city[i] states that the top five resolutions made this year included to:
1. Spend more time with friends and family
2. Become fit in fitness
3. Lose Weight and tame the bulge
4. Quit Smoking
5. Quit Drinking
No matter that social studies say that 80% of New Year's Resolutions fail by January 20th (that's only 5 days away in fact), there seems to be a compulsion in most of us to improve our satisfaction with our bodies and an equally strong compulsion to not.
According the National Center for Heath and Disease Control, nearly 2/3 of adults and children in the United States are overweight; nearly 1/3 are obese. And, if we single out the church going crowd the statistics are worse. A recent study by a Purdue University sociologist "found that religious participation in the United States specially, participation in the Christian denominations (for which the Baptist church was highlighted as a chief offender)-- correlates with status as overweight or obesity.[ii]
Have you been to a church dinner lately? Have you met a group of pastors lately? Though our church and its leaders might be able to say that we've cared for the sick and dying and we've given good weddings and funerals, when it comes to taking care of our own health, our own well-being, and our own mental peace, we do a really lousy job of it.
We don't really think our bodies matter that much.
I can't tell you how many times I've been at clergy gatherings where fellow colleagues have boasted of "never taking their vacation" or "working from sun up from sun down."
I can't tell you how many pastoral encounters I've had in homes when a piece of cake or pie has been shoved on me though I really keep saying, "I'm full." I can't tell you how many times the sin of gluttony has been ignored in church life as if it is ok to eat and eat and eat some more and the sin of lust has been ignored and we all know what happens when that comes out . . . We as the church global have problems with God's call to care for our bodies.
All of this talk this morning is not meant to knock those of us who in the midst of a life-long struggle with body image, time management and finding ways to love exercise (though we hate it so), but it is this text that asks us to stop and ponder what IS God's calling to our bodies again. It's our time now to ask us what God's calling to "glorify God in our bodies" looks like?
In my early years of faith, I heard a lot about salvation as the process of being made right with God.
Salvation as making a stated confession to a community of my sin, repentance and faith in God. Salvation amounted to a prayer of confession and a lifetime of service in the church, hoping to lead as many others as possible in this prayer of confession too.
It was such a big deal that people would ask, "What was the day that you came to Christ?" And, when you appropriately answered, your salvation story was complete.
But, even as my understand of salvation began to change over the years, a class during my 3rd year of seminary, shifted my theology in a completely different direction.
Salvation was not, as Dr. Esther Acolotse, put it in pastoral care class one afternoon about a moment or a limited engagement experience. Salvation, she suggested was about become a human being-- the human being God designed each of us to be at creation. Salvation was about a journey to be made whole.
Such words lingered with me long that day after class and have stuck with me until now. That, yes, God calls us to take care of ourselves because our salvation depends on it.
But, what does this look like, you might wonder? I'm still trying to figure it out, of course, but what I've learned is that there is no way that I can act on God's calling for care of self if my schedule is out of balance.
If we try to over work or under work, if we say "yes" when we should be saying "no," we wind up cranky, drinking too much caffeine, and eventually physically ill.
But, if we remember when we look at the week ahead that it is good to care of ourselves-- the time we need to cook meals at home, the time we need to go on walks, the time we need to decompress-- as much as we say "yes" to other things, a funny thing happens.
We feel better. We might just sleep better. We enjoy my life more, and we exude the joy of being exactly the person God created us to be. And, sure there are always times in your life and mine when we need to go more than others, but afterwards we always must remember to take a step back and not let this constant rush be our norm.
The stakes are high with this calling, my friends, for you and I get into more trouble than we can ever know now if we don't live into this. Not only what we first might think-- facing life with preventable health concerns dragging us down-- but in our community relations with one another. If we are ever going to be the presence of God to one another as other callings upon our life will ask of us-- we must first start with ourselves.
After all St. Teresa of Avila once said to her community:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.
So, what are you going to do to care for yours? AMEN
[i] Top Ten New Years Resolutions. Albrecht Powell. http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/holidays/tp/resolutions.htm
[ii]Mary Louise Bringle. "Eating Well: Seven Paradoxes of Plenty." http://www.baylor.edu/christianethics/HealthArticleBringle.pdf