A new series! I anticipated a small turnout on Labor Day weekend, so I’ll be introducing the series in a different way next Sunday.
Exodus 3:1-15 ; Romans 12:9-21
As I explained in my article for September’s Spire, I am starting a series this month on spiritual growth. Next week I’ll be making available something I call a “spiritual inventory.” The inventory will ask you to rate yourself on four areas that describe what it means to have a rich and fulfilling participation of our spiritual life in church: Do you engage in regular spiritual practices? Do you have a set of religious beliefs that make sense to you and help your orient your life to God? Do you feel fully integrated into the spiritual fellowship of this church? And, are you meaningfully involved in the church’s mission life? If you feel like you are coming up short in one or more of those areas—and who here gets four A plusses?—then maybe there are some steps you can take to enrich your spiritual growth in these areas. But I’m not putting this all on you. Maybe there is more I can do and the church can do to build you up in the faith. The purpose of this inventory is simply to give us an opportunity to reflect and to hold ourselves accountable as a church, you for yourself, me and the church leadership for your spiritual needs and the good of the whole body. We are all going to feel stretched, and it is a good feeling. (If you choose to participate, that is.)
But I worry that some of you are going to have an immediate reaction against all this. “My spiritual life is nobody’s business but my own,” you might find yourself saying. “I’m perfectly satisfied with my participation in the church and my relation to God, thank you. And where do you get off telling me what constitutes ‘a rich and fulfilling participation in the spiritual life of the church’? (In other words,) “Who are you to tell me what being a good Christian looks like?” Are you feeling that reaction? Just a little twinge? It’s all right. These are good questions, if a little testy, which get us right to the critical issue of authority, and I’ll say more about that below. For now, I’m going to answer it by saying, I’m just doing what Paul is doing in our reading today. He is describing what a rich and vibrant Christian life in community looks like. Paul is doing what our church leaders today have perhaps failed to do: to press us to be a real community where we together become transformed into God’s image for us, as opposed to being a place where you sit near other people (mostly in the back) but you are left alone, a place where even God leaves you alone; and that is no real community at all.
It is not a personal failure when we see ourselves as private individuals, especially when it comes to things spiritual. It is not your fault. This is New England, after all. One does not wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Moreover, the secularism of our culture has encouraged the view that religion is a purely private affair; we did not get this idea from the Bible.
But our own Protestantism bears some of the responsibility for this problem of a purely private faith. (Now, this is a great time to revisit our Protestant heritage; Luther started the whole thing 500 years ago this October 31, according to legend.) We Protestants have greatly emphasized God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. As if the only thing God wants from us is to accept forgiveness. But asking for and accepting forgiveness is only opening the door to the kingdom. What about coming inside, and learning what the living arrangements are, and getting to know the people you’ll be sharing this kingdom with? What about joining the party? Instead, many imagine that I confess my sins in the privacy of my heart, and then I’m good. I got what I came for.
I don’t think that’s a complete picture. The whole NT, like the OT, is strongly concerned with us being a joyful people who celebrate together (that’s why we have communion at the climax of our worship today), and being a holy people together, a people set apart by God for God’s purposes. Some of you will recall my sermon from mid-August, when I suggested that we need to become more Jewish, more like a people set apart by a common way of life.
Now, we Protestants hesitate before this idea of a common way of life, because it seems to demand a strong sense of authority. It sounds like someone is going to try to tell us exactly how to live this common way of life. And that kind of authority has been abused in the past, as Luther knew; church authority especially has been tyrannical and idolatrous, confusing human authority with divine. And not just in the past: our evangelical sisters and brothers often claim some sort of direct divine authority that we rightly find troubling and even idolatrous. Our Protestant discomfort with authority is redoubled by our secular culture, for which the very idea of religious authority makes no sense. Religion is all a matter of opinion, right? So, many of us conclude that there is no authority in religion. You can only listen to your own heart and experience, not to any one else.
Now, I am placed in an awkward position by this resistance to authority. On one hand, I have no interest in being the authority. I’m personally inclined to resist authority. (And in fact I find myself resisting myself, oddly.) But if there is anyone here who is supposed to be a religious authority, it’s me.
Now, I have very little to complain about. I have felt very respected by this church. Our leadership listens carefully to me, and many of you have trusted me with personal concerns and exciting personal stories of faith and growth. I am so honored by this. But some of you respect me too much. Perhaps you think it would be rude to disagree with me directly, or you might feel intimidated to do so. After all, I got all this learning, the “Ph.D.” after my name, and I’m back in my sleek, Matrixy robe and all. /
Let’s be honest: This is a very odd thing that I am doing—up here on this raised dais, right now, in the middle of our service. I am standing up here and saying whatever I think is right. I don’t run a draft by anyone, don’t seek prior approval of my message. Following custom, I don’t allow for questions or discussion or alternative viewpoints after the sermon, though I wish I could. In fact, I found out recently that our Puritan ancestors used to have a lay member offer a response after the sermon, which is really cool. But the way we do things today is very undemocratic. When else do you go somewhere, sit quietly, and passively let someone else tell you what is supposedly right? It would be more normal if I was trying to sell you something, or if I was after your vote (although you have the authority to fire me), or if I was going to award you with a grade or some kind of certification. Instead, you are getting nothing out of this except some word of, what, truth? (Aren’t we post-truth now?)
To make matters worse, I’m up here talking about God; and not just lecturing about God, I’m trying to explain to you what God is saying to you. And I’m not just bringing you some message, some insight, but at the same time I am calling you—sometimes, like today—to repent! Turn your life around. Don’t just listen to God or think about God, change your life as God would have it be. This is what I am doing. I am—let’s just be really honest and admit this to ourselves, as uncomfortable as we both are with it—I am speaking for God. (No lightening strike.) It is what it is. I can soften it up by telling a lot of jokes. I can recite feel-good stories. I can throw in some quotes from great thinkers, or some fancy scholarship in Greek, or wow you with historical exegesis; I could do that, except by now I know that scholarly showboating really does not go over well here. (And I’m glad it doesn’t.) / Or, feeling awkward about speaking for God, I can stick to a message that sounds very comfortable, very familiar, that doesn’t push you beyond any boundaries. And then we both have to ask ourselves, what kind of God are we talking about who can only make us comfortable, who fits so smartly into the little box we label “God” and store in our closet full of comforters and other cozy items? Is that the God Moses encountered?
In all these ways we can try to take this very odd thing called a “sermon” and make it safely entertaining, boringly comfortable, utterly unsurprising—as easy to slip on and off as an old sweater. But I don’t think that is going to get us to the real God. In fact I am sure of it, because I know we will never truly and fully understand God. We are here on holy ground, awkwardly taking our shoes off, trying to place ourselves where Moses found himself, without asking for it to happen, before some something or someone we call God, who sounded familiar to Moses because he or she or it mentioned the familiar names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then said to him, I am what I am. When Moses asked this stranger, this God, for something as familiar and comfortable as a name, that is what he gets: “Tell the Israelites, ‘“I AM” sent me.’ Is that what you were looking for, Moses?” There should be something deeply comforting for us about being in the presence of God, but something also deeply troubling. I think Moses got his share of the deeply troubling part.
Now, I am supposed to facilitate this comforting trouble, this troubling comfort, of encountering God. I am supposed to be the midwife at this painful, joyful birth. Every week. Imagine going through birth every week. It’s a very weird job. (That’s why I love it.) We are not going to be able to deal with this odd “service” I am providing you in a polite, courteous, familiar, predictable, peaceful way. I need you—God needs you (remember I’m speaking for God)—to be very comfortable disagreeing with me and telling me so. (Now don’t disagree with what I say and only complain to your friend. That’s not going to do it. Tell me.) I don’t want to be, nor do I believe in, the kind of religious authority where you just shut up and accept what I say. In the very least, I want you to be able to say, “Pastor, I disagree with what you said today.” Maybe you are not yet sure why. I won’t take issue with you. Take some time, re-read my sermon on my blog or ask me for a printed version. When you are ready, come talk to me about it. And those of you who have done this will testify, I hope, that I’m not going to use my fancy learning to bludgeon you over the head and force you into submission. For one thing, I know how to work with you where you are, and you are all welcome here wherever you are. I also know and believe that when it comes to God, one way of putting things or one way of seeing things is never enough. And I know and believe that each of you has a valid experience of God in your life (even if you don’t think you do). But that doesn’t mean I’m going to just leave you where you are. My job is, like Paul, I think, to press you to grow. And I won’t say it will always be “fun,” although often it will be, but it will be very real. You don’t forget those moments in your life when you and someone you trust really tried to draw closer to God.
Paul is pressing the Romans to grow. Earlier in chapter 12 is this classic verse: “Do not be conformed to this world (or age), 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.” He is not just looking for individual growth here. He says in verse 5: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually are members one of another.”
And then in our passage, he describes what the Christian life should look like. Some of his points pertain to what on the spiritual inventory I’ll call “spiritual practices”: “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good…. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” There is not much in this passage about what the inventory will label beliefs, but Paul has spent the whole first 8 chapters on what Christians should believe. Many points here do pertain to what the inventory will call “spiritual fellowship:” “Let love be genuine… Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. … Live in harmony with one another. Associate with the lowly [so important]. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. [Good advice!] Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Amen. Again, Paul is not talking only about individual spiritual growth. And finally much of what Paul says pertains to mission: “Contribute to the needs of the saints [which is roughly equivalent to our denomination and the worldwide church], extend hospitality to strangers. …If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” Here Paul is talking about the world outside the church, and he recognizes that we will not always be able to fit in and live peaceably, but we should try. And when that fails, he says: “Bless those who persecute you…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” How’s that for a mission statement? We won’t completely agree on what is evil in our world, but we can agree on how to overcome it.
This is Paul’s version of the law; and it is something I think we need more of. But notice that this is not the dour, nay-saying, oppressive law that Christians caricature. There are no “Thou shalt nots.” Some of what Paul is saying is really vague: “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” “Be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord.” But just the same, his description of the Christian life is open-ended and limitless.
And there are no threats or promises in what Paul is saying. He does not say, “Do these things or you’re going to hell!” Nor does he say, “If you want God to give you good things, you’d better follow the rules.” In fact, he hardly uses the imperative form: Do this, don’t do that. In Greek (hey, check out my Greek, everybody!), most of Paul’s verbs are participles: hating, holding fast, not lagging, serving, rejoicing, being patient, etc. There’s no threat here, not even much commanding going on. Not much direct authority from Paul. He’s just describing what Christians do, what a good Christian life and community looks like, and inviting us to let it be so. Because Paul knows that finally nothing is up to us. The good Christian life is not the result of a brave and noble decision. God has chosen the good in Christ. We, his body, simply have to let this be.
Paul wrote this to the Romans, not to all Christians everywhere. How we describe what being the Body of Christ looks like may differ. We must figure it out together. And then we allow Christ live among us. I hope the spiritual inventory will help let this happen. It’s going to be fun!… Well, it’s going to be real.