Here it is! The final sermon in the series.Also, get the audio here!
Romans 12: 1-8
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. Do not be conformed to this world, 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.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers
At the beginning of March, at our coffee house worship, Susan Chew brought for our worship experience a story loom. She instructed the 30 or so of us in attendance to take a piece of fabric, and add it to the loom. It was to create a larger fabric that was built by our community. Well, after that night, there were still a lot of spaces. Susan asked if she could leave the loom in the fellowship hall, because she was going to use it a few more times, for the Sunday School class, for the youth group, and finally, for our final Wednesday Lenten service this past week. When I went into fellowship hall to grab the loom from our service, I was amazed at how full it looked. I even had to ask Susan when she got here if we needed to make room so that people could continue to add to the loom.
The loom, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, is over here, to the side of the Sanctuary, awaiting the final additions, sitting practically full, but I promise if we wanted to add more to it, we’d have no trouble. It is, after all of these weeks, a sign of our community. It holds the pieces of fabrics that the many of us who have participated in its production have given, have carefully weaved through the different threads.
We have in Paul today, another passage about the many gifts. About the ways in which communities share together, so that a wide and broad and diverse collections of abilities and spiritual talents become part of the whole of our community, so that we cannot say we are just a church of singers, or we are just a church of youth leaders, or that we are just a church of those who care about our world, who care about welcoming all, or that we are just a church who shows up for worship every Sunday. We share these gifts together so that we can be a church of all of those things. That we are a church of all our gifts together.
But there’s more the loom teaches us, something that has been central to Paul’s teachings throughout Romans. In the middle of the loom, there is a red thread. You see, the loom doesn’t just represent our community, as much as it’s supposed to represent ourselves, as individuals. And so the red thread is just that. It is us, as individuals. Susan has explained it to us throughout these weeks, saying that each beam in the loom represents another aspect of our selves, so that one of the side support beams is the being stick, and the other side is the doing stick; so that the cross beams at the top are the speaking and the listening sticks, so that the very top beam is the God stick. And so God speaks, and we listen and then we do.
And all along, that little read thread represents us. And it’s surrounded now, it’s made up, of what? Of all the pieces our community has offered. Of the gifts we share together. Of the relationships we form. They are not just the things that are happening around us; they are us. We are them.
Because for Paul, the world is changing, God is acting in the world, and now we need to come together, to form new communities of new individuals, not defined by the old rules, but rather defined by the continual gift of Jesus Christ in our world. And if we’re going to go out into the world and form community with the people that used to not belong, that need to be welcomed into this new thing we are doing, well, then we are going to be changed by it.
This is the point in Romans that has a passage that looks a lot like passages found in other letters of Paul, like Thessalonians and Philippians. It’s the part where he stresses that the community needs to treat its members better. He writes “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” It happens in all of his letters. Because these new communities, if they’re going to be a force for transformation in the world, are going to have to be different, run on different rules, follow different goals. and those goals are going to be driven by love, shared by all. Do not be conformed to this world; rather be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
What does a community that has been changed by the work of Christ in the world do? We begin to participate in that change, in that transformation, remember that it has always been God who has acted first, but that we are called to respond. As we have been changed, as we have grown, we share that message with the world, and things change.
Listen now to the second half of our scripture, which perhaps shows that change. We are no longer, Paul seems to think, bound by retributive violence, by the need to turn to war and violent struggle. We are now freed, by the work of Christ, to pursue peace among all people.
Hear these words, also from the 12th Chapter of Romans:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the 1950’s, right around the time when the brand new People’s Republic of China was developing the Atom Bomb, there were rumors that the United States Government was planning to attack, to start a war in the newly minted “Cold War.” Not much more than 10 years removed from World War II, Christian peace activists obviously worried that this would become a reality, that a war would break out between two nuclear states; a war that would immediate include a sizable percentage of the world’s population.
And so, 10’s of Thousands of peace activists sent bags of rice with the words from Romans 12 on them: If you enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” China at the time had entered into a massive drought. It was devastating the country, leading to the starvation of millions. And so Christians sent these bags of rice to the White house.
The sort of lore that goes with this story is that in a White House briefing, when encouraged by his military council to begin a war with China, President Eisenhower tossed a bag of rice on the desk, and stated that if thousands of Americans continued to send in the bags encouraging the country to avoid war, then there was no way he was going to attack China.
What are the lessons here? That, as Margaret Mead famously said “never underestimate the power of a small group of concerned citizens to change the world; indeed, it’s the only things that ever has.” This is surely part of it. After all, a small group of several thousand citizens concerned about the U.S.’ growing military prevented the country from entering into a massive war.
While I don’t doubt this fact, there’s even more going on here than concerned citizens. There’s a small change that over time grows into larger change, even when we don’t see it. The people sending the bags of rice, after all, send a bag of rice. They attach they’re message from Roman’s twelve, they put some postage on it, and they give it to the mail man to be delivered. And that’s the last they hear of it. They know nothing of what happens to their actions, how it would influence the country.
This is Paul’s message, throughout Romans. Things are changing because Christ is working in the world. We are becoming new creations because God has entered the world. We are forming new communities of welcome and peace. We are reaching out into our communities to welcome those who are not welcome elsewhere. We are rewriting the rule book on who’s allowed and who’s not, but instead of adding to the list of unacceptable, unsavable, lost causes, we’re tearing pages out of the book. Because in Christ we’re all new creations, saved from lives of sin for the work of the creator, to participate in the creation of the kingdom of God on Earth.
This is the good news: That Christ has come into our world, but it’s not what we think at first. This is, after all, the messiah who rides into Jerusalem victorious on a donkey, perhaps as a slight to all the rulers of the world. After all, this kingdom is not of this world. It preaches a Good News that’s good news for everyone, that’s a welcome for all people, no matter where they’ve come from. And, as we’ve learned throughout Romans, this good news is bringing together folks that don’t belong together, that come from different parts of the empire, from the diaspora to the city block, from the suburbs to the downtown slums, from the palaces and places of power to the renegade revolutionaries who want to usher in the kingdom by their own hands.
We are now asked to participate in this work, in the procession coming into Jerusalem, picking up our palm leaves and preparing a way for the messiah to ride into this place, to transform our community. If we are ready to receive Christ in this place, than we are going to have to always be ready to be changed. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And we are going to have to reach out into the world and spread the Good News wherever we go.