August 21, 2011 Sermon

Sermon for Proper 16 A

August 21, 2011
Michael Coffey

Text: Romans 12:1-8

Let’s face it:
It would be easier if Paul had said:
Be conformed to this world!
Get in line with the expectations of others!
Live out the common assumptions
that human life is about garnering enough power
to win and accumulate and rise above others.
We know this way of the world very well.
We all have, to a certain degree,
been conformed to it.
Like Play-Dough pressed into a mold,
we get pressed and conformed into the shapes
that our society gives us.
I suppose those church folks in Rome that Paul is writing to
had been pressed and conformed as well,
which is why Paul wrote them.
Conformity comes easy.
The hard thing is transformation.
It is some kind of deeper change.

Do not be conformed, Paul says.
Do not be conformed to the ways of this world.
“This world” for Paul is the Roman empire,
in which power is something to be sought after at all cost.
It is the social reality where everyone is ranked
in a carefully structured hierarchy
that keeps most people at the bottom.
It is the empire in which people are devalued
it they cannot produce enough and don’t own enough.
It is the world where people are deemed unworthy
of attention, care, dignity, and love
if they haven’t earned it.
Don’t be conformed to this, Paul says.
Don’t let your minds get so convinced
that this is how we are to live and believe
and treat each other.
It isn’t life giving.
It isn’t expressive of divine love and mercy.

And yet, Paul knows,
we all get conformed to it.
The empire then is not so different from the empire now.
Maybe some details have changed.
Maybe some things have gotten better
and we have overcome a lot of the more oppressive forces.
But the same old mind,
the same old way of thinking and seeing ourselves and the world
still draws us in
and presses us against its mold,
conforming us to it.
It’s like when you go to bed at night looking sort of OK,
and then you wake up in the morning
and your face has lines and creases across it
from your pillow and bunched up sheets.
You get up and look in the mirror all bleary eyed,
and you wonder: How did that happen?
Well, you lie in it long enough, whatever it is,
and you get conformed to it.

So Paul says,
don’t be conformed.
Be transformed.
Paul chose the most radical kind of “forming” there is.
Not conformed. Not deformed.
Not informed. Not malformed.
Not reformed.
Be transformed.
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
What is this radical change Paul talks about?
It is a complete change in the way we think,
not just what we think,
but the way we think,
the categories we use to discern,
the lenses we use to see.
And that complete change, Paul says,
is the one given to us in Jesus.
It is the complete change in how we see ourselves,
each other, the whole creation, and God.
It is the transformation that comes
when we see all of life
not as a series of paychecks earned,
but as a series of gifts given by grace.
It is the transformation wrought by the cross and resurrection,
where every worldly category got exposed as a lie.

Paul begins these verses with the little word “therefore.”
It is a big word, that little word “therefore”
because it implies that all of what Paul just said
about God and Jesus and the Spirit
the cross and resurrection and baptism
has some deep implication:
Transformation. A change of how we see and think.

What happens when we start thinking in a new way?
When we see all of life as a series of gifts given by grace?
When we view ourselves as redeemed persons
worthy of love?
When we view every other individual as worthy of love?
When we view every other human group
as worthy of dignity and respect?
When you stop viewing God as the big distant daddy
who is terribly disappointed in you,
but instead, as the great source of your life
who is thrilled that you exist,
and longs to heal all that is broken in your life
out of sheer merciful, grace-filled love?
What happens?
Transformed relationships, transformed church,
transformed spirituality, transformed psychology,
transformed economics, transformed society,
transformed politics, transformed liturgy.

It occurs to me that in this time of deep economic recession
when many people are facing unemployment
and struggling mightily to get by,
it might actually mean something to say:
All of life is a series of gifts.
You are not your next paycheck.
You are not only what you can earn and spend.
You are something fundamentally deeper and more valuable.
Not that employment and providing for yourself and family
isn’t terribly important.
But the mind we use to think about ourselves
can be radically transformed
so that a recession in the economy
doesn’t become a recession in our spirits.
So what we might want to know is
how does transformation actually happen?
How does it happen in our lives
and how does the church lead transformation in the world?
Note that Paul doesn’t say: Transform yourselves!
His “therefore” means first:
Let the cross transform you.
Let the suffering of others
embodied in the suffering of Jesus
enter your life,
penetrate your shell,
make you vulnerable to our shared humanity.
Transformation is the work of God in us
through Christ and the Spirit,
through cross and resurrection.
Transformation is what happens
when we enter the mystery
of living in utter and complete surrender
to our merciful, loving, compassionate God,
the God who can be trusted with our very lives.
Transformation is what happens
when God gives us a taste of the kingdom of love and mercy,
and we know there is no going back to the old food of conformity.

HEB grocery store has a very sneaky think they are doing,
at least at the one near us in Circle C.
They have a cheese of the month.
They set up a tasting booth and entice you to try it.
This month, it is a finely aged Australian parmesan.
Most of the time we are used to cheap parmesan
that is a dusty powder shaken from a green can
or a salty, flavorless grated substance in a bag.
But once you get a taste of a fine, aged parmesan,
there is no going back.
It is firm, and nutty, and not too salty,
and rich and complex in flavor.
One taste and your taste buds are transformed.

Oh, they’re pretty clever, those HEB cheese purveyors.
Sure, I tasted it, and went “wow.”
But I mustered enough strength to keep on walking
and not buy any of it.
And then the next day, my wife was going to the store,
and I said you might want to try some of that cheese of the month
and buy some, because it is so awesomely good.
And we have now ruined our sons for parmesan cheese.
They have tasted the good stuff.
There’s no going back.
Transformation in Christ is like that.
God gives us a taste of what life lived by utter grace means,
and there is no going back,
as much as we want to live a cheaper, more conformed life.
A life lived by being loved and loving everyone and everything
is just too good and complex and nutty to go back.
That might be a good way to understand our education and formation
of our children and ourselves:
Give them a taste of how good it really is
to live in the transformed life of God,
and they won’t want to settle for the
boring, tasteless life of conformity.

Now Paul already gave away the goods
on the rest of how transformation happens in us
in the first line of the passage:
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.

Paul is playing with a lot of words here.
Present your bodies,
your whole selves, your true selves,
body, mind, and spirit,
as a living sacrifice.
Well, in religious terms
a sacrifice is something that dies when presented.
But Paul talks here of being a living sacrifice.
Make the living of your life a sacrifice, an offering, Paul says.
Live the mystery of your own self humbly and fully,
joyfully and gratefully,
without expecting perfection,
but with striving toward perfect love.

Paul understands that this transformation,
this renewing of our minds, our ways of thinking and seeing,
happens not by trying hard to think about it,
but by living it out,
by enacting it, by doing it and experiencing it.
Richard Rohr says it this way:
"We don't think ourselves into a new way of living,
we live oursleves into a new way of thinking."

The good news is that by God’s grace, by the cross of Christ,
by the Spirit’s mysterious power in us,
transformation happens,
it happens in us, in the church,
in society, in the whole world.
Why waste much of our time and energy anymore
being conformed to the same old, boring,
lifeless ways we already know so well?
Have a taste today of God’s goodness
and the one who loved you before you did anything to earn it.
Have a taste. Just try it.
You don’t have to buy into it.
But I’m betting, you might just want some more.


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