The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 24, 2018
Scripture: Romans 12:1-3
What is Good and Acceptable and Perfect
On this last Sunday in June, the first Sunday of Summer, 2018 in the year of our Lord, we begin.
”What is it you would like to hear?” Is a question you’ve been asked for the last six weeks. And you have responded. From “what happens after we die,” to “why do bad things happen to good people,” to “how do we unfreeze the frozen chosen,” I have received thirty-five responses from you, the men and women, young and old, who attend worship at Pewee Valley Presbyterian (at least those who have attended worship at least once since May thirteenth!).
I’ve been sorting these thirty-five responses into groups of similar, if not exact, topics. A few responses weren’t so much about sermon topics, but about sermon presentations: have a sermon through music, some more dramatic presentations, and having different people be a part of the sermon time to share personal testimony. (All of those may be a way to respond to our “unfreezing the frozen” question!) As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the largest cluster is full of questions about death and what happens to us after we die. Seven questions in all, twenty percent of the total responses. We’ll begin there … next week.
I know some of you are anxious to get started on these – in fact, one of the responses that asked us to explore “what happens to us when we die” included this further request: Please try to schedule this sermon soon. So we will, just … next week. We’ll use all five weeks in July to listen how the Spirit, through me (I humbly acknowledge) and in conversation with you, speaks. This morning is our “set-up.”
And to begin we turn to our bible, our Holy Scripture. The first verses from chapter twelve of Paul’s letter to the Romans not only challenge the Sunday sermons ahead in July, but also offer a warning to those sermon messages, and to their deliverer and their hearers. Listen for the Word of God … Read Romans 12:1-3. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Our challenge in this endeavor: Let us be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We must accept this challenge not just as a familiar biblical suggestion, but as a faithful scriptural requirement.
And our warning: Let us not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. As we dare to imagine something new with our minds so that our hearts may be comforted in the presence and the promise of God, we dare not assume we have figured it all out for all time and for all people. Our discoveries come out of our common life, our traditions, and our interpretations of scripture. Maybe the truths we discover are universal! But we’ll let others tell us that, not insist on it ourselves.
Does that sound impossible? Or, worse, does that sound somewhat half-hearted? What good is discovering Truth if it can’t be touted universally? If it can’t be “Truth” for everyone? Who would do that? Well …
Sometime around 30 AD a Jewish peasant looked around him, engaged his sacred scripture and his hallowed tradition with his personal and communal experience and transformed the minds of his followers, renewing them in their relationship with the mystery they called “God.”
“God is not coming” he said, “God is here.”
“The Kingdom of God is not in heaven,” he said, “the Kingdom of God is here – among you, within you.”
“You have heard it said do not murder; an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; hate your enemy,” he said. “But I say don’t even be angry with a brother or sister; turn the other cheek; love your enemies and pray for them.”
Jesus transformed the minds of his followers by renewing them, by taking what was felt, done, and spoken about the God of his tradition, in his “now” and in his community, and dared to go deeper. Jesus’ followers transformed the world by doing the same. A new religion was born. Yet he did that, they did that, by emptying themselves, by taking the form of servants, and by becoming obedient to the is “God” even to the point of death. Jesus and his first followers constantly pointed beyond themselves to a greater mystery, a greater “God,” a deeper Love. If the church, in the centuries that followed didn’t heed the warning we hear again this morning, to “not think more highly of itself than it ought to think,” let us not do the same.
So there’s the set up. I ask this morning that we – you and I – allow nothing less in the month ahead: Let us be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Let us think differently, imagine more deeply, and express more profoundly the sacred realities in our lives. And let us be humble about our discoveries, about the convictions that come from them, and about the new understandings, the new beliefs that will offer us peace of mind and fullness of heart.
With those thoughts spoken, I ask a question that must be on your minds – Why bother?
A few weeks ago, as we prepared for this series, I quoted a sermon written by Harry Emerson Fosdick many years ago. I find the words of his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” prophetic, spoken for our time, almost one hundred years later.
“There have been strange new movements in Christian thought, (he preached in 1922). A great mass of new knowledge has come into (our) possession: new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere.”
How much “more” true are these observations today? Think of the advancements in science and technology, in global connection and awareness, in personal experience and expectation in the last ninety-six years. Incrementally more than the century before it! If it was necessary to re-imagine our experiences of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and to re-think our understandings of such things as incarnation, resurrection, heaven and earth then, how much more today?!
“Our new knowledge and the old faith cannot be left antagonistic or even disparate, as though … on Saturday (we) could use one set of regulative ideas for (our) life and on Sunday could change gear to another altogether. We must be able to think our modern life clear through in Christian terms, and to do that we also must be able to think our Christian life clear through in modern terms.”
I believe with all my heart that we can “think our modern life clear through in Christian terms.” And I believe that we can use the language we have inherited, the Christian terms we are familiar with: God, Christ, incarnations, divine intervention (or better, Divine interaction), resurrection, eternal life. But order to then think our Christian life clear through in modern terms, we must understand and articulate those terms differently. “God” must become something more than a supernatural, external deity that “intervenes” occassionally. Christ must be something and someone more than Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnation must not be a one time occurrence in first century Palestine. Resurrection must not be limited only to what happens after we die to this life. And so on …
I have a very close friend that many of you know who left the ordained ministry years ago, in part, because the “theological gymnastics,” as he called them, required to maintain belief in “God,” the Christ, and eternal life in the twenty-first century were just too strenuous. I don’t disagree. But “nothing in all the world is so much worth thinking of as God, Christ, the Bible, sin and salvation, the divine purposes for humankind, and life everlasting” (Fosdick).
And so I persist … for myself, I admit. For you, I submit. And for any hope the church and its teachings, its community, and its response to life may have to offer future generations. Perhaps it’s for this last group that I stick it out so stubbornly. My own children are part of them. I’ll draw this morning’s “set-up” to a close with some final words from Fosdick’s sermon of nearly a century ago:
We have (young people) growing up in our homes and schools, and because we love them we may well wonder about the church that will be waiting to receive them … Ministers often bewail the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives. But this is easily explicable. Science treats a young (person’s) mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young (person): “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any (one) who is worth while, turning from that call to the church if the church seems to (them) to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”
No we can’t imagine that. So we are going to engage some of the most important issues in our lives as people of faith in ways that treat all of our minds as though they were really important.
We will commence our examination of Christianity and the Christian life you’re your response next week. And we will begin at the beginning, exploring our death. Please come every week in July (and dare you invite a friend or family member who may have given up on Sunday mornings?). Come together to explore, question, find comfort, find challenge, accept, reject, wonder and wander through the most important conversations of our lives.
It is going to take a deeper curiosity and require a sharper focus than we usually bring to our early Sunday morning gatherings. It’s going to involve an openness and a tolerance of ambiguities that we don’t allow in many, if any, other parts of our lives. But the return just may include that peace which passes understanding, that promise that only faith can offer, and the Life that was intended for us from the very beginning – a transformation by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 24, 2018