A sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
I like to describe the context of the readings that I am preaching on. With many of Paul’s letters, we can uncover elements of his relationship with the church that he is addressing, he knows the people there and the problems that have emerged. But in the case of his letter to the church of Rome, Paul had never been to Rome. He only had vague ideas of what was going on there, and a few acquaintances among people he had met in his travels. This letter is an introduction of himself and his teaching to a place where he hopes to travel. So he is addressing Christians who he has not yet met. In other words, he may as well be speaking directly to us: “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
The appeal is to you, no less than to any other Christian who ever lived. Being a Christian is serious business, and it’s not just optional. Living a Christian life, means living in the service of the compassion of God, the source of all things, the source of all value. God is love, and to live as if love, compassion, and sacrifice for the good of others are not essential will destroy the fabric of society.
Paul continues: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed in your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The world here is what’s a given. It is not in its essence evil, but if we look around, we find it is the context in which evil occurs. The glories of creation and of loving and noble people are indeed in the world, as well as lives of sharing and mutual support. But this world is also a place where fear and hatred exist and all the evils that we see. But let’s leave those things aside for a moment. When Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world,” I believe he’s referring to things where people usually say, “that’s just the way the world is.” Things that we think of as facts or principles—and that some then assert are neutral and value-free.
Self-interest is a given among human beings. People look out for themselves and their own interests, or the interests of their families. Anyone who claims to not ever act out of self-interest is simply not telling the truth. One of the reasons that religious people fall into disrepute is that some make elaborate claims of being holy and righteous in their actions, while it is apparent to anyone observing them that those actions are entirely self-interested. “Just send a check for a hundred dollars to our ministry and put your hand on the radio, and you will be cured.”
Self-interest is the way of the world. And the way in which you approach it is not value free. When people form their life around self-interest and self-interested goals, they create an isolated society, and a society of exploitation. For instance, there is good evidence that the origins of our modern views of race emerge from the financial interests of those people who needed a reliable and cheap source of labor for the colonial plantations of the 1600s and 1700s. Permanently enslaving a group of people could only be justified by arguing that those persons were either essentially designed to be owned or that they were intrinsically inferior. Somehow those evaluations of people from Africa seemed particularly convenient to people who had an economic self-interest in owning slaves. A compelling self-interest has resulted in demeaning the dignity of other human beings in a way that has produced a fissure and illness in our society.
If human beings are formed into the characteristics of this world, they will fall into traps like this, sometimes less dramatic, yet nonetheless pushed in whatever direction: to be pure consumers, of whatever consumer society has on offer; or to join whatever clique seems most popular, regardless of one’s personal interests; or even to become a nationalistic sycophant, seeking power for one’s own group regardless of the consequences. It is not so much that the world is evil, per se, but it has no values—and if we are conformed to no values, we quickly find that we are of no value and there is no value.
Paul then says, rather than being CONformed to the world, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The will of God is in the image of Christ.
Our minds are transformed by following Jesus, by seeking his way: the will of God as a life of compassion, of moral honesty, of courage. This is not to say that we should present ourselves as people who have achieved these things, or that we are above self-interest. Quite the opposite. It’s essential that we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, who we are and where our self-interest lies, what directions the world is pushing us. In knowing those things, we can continually present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, to be transformed, every day into the love of Christ. Paul points out that we are all different, we have many functions, many talents and gifts that differ from one another. The way in which each of is called to present herself or himself is distinct, and in that is the beauty of God’s creation.
But we’re here to seek God’s will, not the choices that the success of the world presents, but the challenges of the compassion of God, the will of God. As Paul said, “I appeal to you sisters and brothers to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
From our Psalm today:
Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;
he perceives the haughty from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;
You stretch for your hand against the fury of my enemies;
Your right hand shall save me.
The Lord will make good his purpose for me;
O Lord, your love endures for ever;
Do not abandon the works of your hands.