Sermon preached August 24, 2014
Texts: Romans 12:1-8
Sly and the Family Stone, “I Want To Take You Higher” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDjnB_61k58
Like the style of that song or not, there is something very biblical, very Christian about it. “I Want to Take You Higher.” That’s what Jesus is about. That’s what’s at the heart of the Christian faith. Theologian and biblical scholar Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, writes, “the Christian life… is about ‘being born again’ and the ‘kingdom of God” (126). These are “two transformations at the heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the communal-social-political” (103).
Jesus wants to take you higher. God’s Spirit wants to transform your life. Every Bible ought to come with a warning label – “If God’s Spirit speaks to you through these words, you will be changed.” Every worship service ought to come with a cautionary note, “God’s Spirit transforms lives – watch out!”
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2a). We have already encountered some other renderings of this passage. Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within (Phillips). Do not become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out (The Message).
So what’s so wrong with the world that we need to be taken higher, transformed? The thing I really appreciate about the alternative renderings of Romans 12:2a is that they don’t assume that the world and the culture are without value. But they do assume that there are some concerns, that fitting in without thinking is a problem, that being squeezed into the mold of the surround culture squeezes something important out of us.
During our vacation, I came across these words, written by Lin Yutang (1875-1976), a Chinese writer, inventor and translator. They were written in the mid-Twentieth Century. The three great American vices seem to be efficiency, punctuality, and the desire for achievement and success. They are the things that make Americans so unhappy and so nervous.
Seriously?! Our vices are efficiency, punctuality and the desire for achievement or success? I want to do well. I don’t really like waiting. If things can be done more efficiently, why not? It saves time and money. But step back a bit. Do you remember a time when you pulled into a gas station and someone actually came out to fill your gas tank, and wash your windows? Now I can fill up my car and not even talk to anybody, but what happened to those jobs? We can go to the grocery store, and never have a cashier check us out. It can be efficient, but what will it do for employment? Do we even stop and wonder if there can be something to consider other than efficiency? Do our lives ever become too governed by the clock? Have you ever encountered someone who was a success by most standards, but wished they had been less of a success and a better parent or spouse or friend?
Being different from the world does not mean rejecting the beauty and goodness we see in our culture, but it asks us to see the darker sides as well. It asks us to look at the ways we remain caught in issues we would just as soon be over. Ferguson, Missouri reminds us again that there remains deep fissures in our society based on our history of race relations. I have a pretty high trust level in police officers. They are there to enforce the laws, and they are often put in difficult situations to do just that. Might my feelings toward law enforcement be different if in the not too distant past the laws that were being enforced were laws that systematically discriminated against members of my family, laws that made me drink at separate fountains, sit in separate places, attend different schools. It takes time to heal deep wounds, but we Americans are not really that fond of history – get over it, man up, move on. Working with our difficult history – personally and socially, can take time and be more complex. That work is not always “efficient.”
The Spirit of God wants to take us higher, to be different. Don’t be squeezed into the mold of the world. Don’t fit into the surrounding culture without even thinking about it. The entire chapter 12 in Romans explores some of these significant transformations, and we will be looking at this chapter this week and next.
Jesus wants to take us higher. We are invited to be different, but let’s be honest about the difficulty of that. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them” (in Anne Lamott, Stitches, 56).
So let me, in the last few minutes of this sermon, look at one way we are invited to be different, to be transformed. I want to again hear from that significant theologian, Sly Stone. Sly and the Family Stone, “Everybody is a Star” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m29F4FtVo-U
Everybody is a star. “We have gifts differing according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6a). You are gifted. Now that may not seem very counter cultural, but I think it is. We often refer to those who are gifted as persons with very special talents. That’s o.k., but not all of us necessarily have those kinds of extraordinary talents that others would call “gifted.” We are almost encouraged to envy those who are so gifted, ignoring the ways each of us is gifted. Someone writing about Romans 12 penned these wise words. Our society is desperately searching for people with a sense of adventure and Hilarity, those who feel good about themselves and delight in their own capabilities and visions and gifts (Truly the Community, 69-70).
Is that us? Do we really believe this about ourselves, that we are gifted? Earlier this week I came across these word of Joan Chittister in a devotional. We are full of the riches of a life-time – the experiences we’ve had and the wisdom that has come from them; the dreams we’ve had and the things that obstructed them; the hurts we’ve had and the things that cured them. (Living Well, 105) No one else has had your experiences, and the wisdom you’ve derived from them. No one else has dreamed your dreams, and worked with them. No one else has suffered your hurts, and dealt with them. You are gifted. You have gifts. If you want to explore one way to look at those gifts, I would invite you to take a spiritual gifts inventory (http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/spiritual-gifts-online-assessment) and I will put a link on our Facebook page for that, and it will be in this sermon when it gets posted on our web site later this week.
Do we believe we are gifted, that we have gifts? Maybe the best we can do is believe it sometimes, but that in itself, is a gift.
But here’s another part of this whole idea of gifts that is different from what we often encounter in the world around us. We have gifts, but they are different gifts, and because we do not have the same gifts, we need each other in some fundamental way. Paul uses the image of the body. Each part of the body needs the other parts. We need each other. Part of our transformation happens when we are together in community.
And here is yet another part of this whole idea of gifts that is also different from what we often encounter in the world around us. We are to develop and use our gifts in such a way that we contribute to a larger good. Our gifts are less about self-aggrandizement than about enriching the world, helping transform the world just as we are being transformed by God’s Spirit and the love of Jesus.
I want to wrap up this morning with a quote and two brief stories that speak to me about the kind of transformation God is working in our lives. In all honesty, I think I have shared these before, but they are some of my favorites.
I used a longer version of this last week, but this line is a good reminder to us of our gifts and the right use of our gifts. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet (Frederich Buechner, Wishful Thinking) Your deep gladness is a clue to your giftedness, and those gifts are to be used to meet some of the deep hungers of the world.
Rabbi Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me “Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, 2)
A brother asked one of the elders, “What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby?” The old man said, “God alone knows what is good: Yet I have heard that one of the Fathers questioned the great abbot Nistero, who was a friend of Anthony, saying, ‘What good work shall I do?’ and Nistero replied, ‘All works are not the same. The Scriptures say that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. And Elijah loved quiet, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. What therefore you find your soul drawn to and desiring in following God, do it, and keep your heart and know peace therein.’” (The Desert Fathers, 5; The Desert Fathers, (Waddell) 68; Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, 25-26)
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Jesus wants to take you higher.
Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within (Phillips). Jesus wants to take you higher.
Do not become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out (The Message). Jesus wants to take you higher.
You are gifted. You are a star. Don’t let the world tell you differently.
You have gifts that can help heal a broken world. Don’t live in the world without out remembering that.
We need the gifts each other offer here. Don’t let the world squeeze that truth out of you.
The Spirit is taking us higher. Amen.