SERMON FOR AUGUST 24, 2014
PROPER 16, YEAR A
Nativity, Bloomfield Township
READINGS: Exodus 1:8-2:10
MAY THE WORDS OF OUR SACRED WRITINGS BE A LAMP UNTO OUR FEET, AND LEAD US ONTO PATHS OF JUSTICE, LOVE, AND MERCY. AMEN.
The 19th and 20th Century German-American theologian, Paul Tillich, contended that Christianity was not born at Christmas; nor was it born in a stable to a peasant Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph; nor was it born when angels declared to shepherds that a Savior for all people had been sent. Nor was it born when astrologers from the East came by starlight bringing gifts for the one designated “King of the Jews.”
Tillich said that Christianity as we know it was not begun in Bethlehem—but at the base of Mt. Hermon, where today’s gospel takes place. This was in the district of Caesarea-Philippi, the ancient Roman City once called Panion, after the Greek god Pan. The Emperor Augustus Caesar gave Panion as a gift to Herod the Great.
Those of you who know your Jewish history are aware that Herod the Great had been appointed by Rome as king of Judea in the year 37 BCE until his death in 33 years later. Herod has been called a genius, but an evil one. He who was willing to commit any crime to gratify his greed and ambition, especially his drive for building colossal projects, such as an expansion of the second temple in Jerusalem, a seaport, and two fortresses.
When Herod died, Roman authorities divided his kingdom among his three sons. Herod’s son, Philip, was given Panion, which he had rebuilt and then re-named “The Caesar City of Philip,” or Caesarea-Philippi. Today that area is known as the Golan Heights.
And so it was in this place of Caesarea-Philippi that Jesus of Nazareth asked his followers a question that millions of people ever since have had to face… at that moment when Jesus asked, “Who do YOU say I am?”… at that moment, Tillich says, is when Christianity as we know it began. “Who do you say I am? Who do you say I am.”
Each one of us must face and answer that question. Is Jesus God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, the Son of Man sent to bring about a transformation of humanity’s relationship with the Creator and with one another? Or is Jesus a new or reincarnated prophet? Or perhaps Jesus is a wise Jewish sage? Maybe an itinerant faith healer and exorcist? Some said and continue to say that he was an irrational zealot, a revolutionary dedicated to ousting the Roman Authorities and the conservative temple hierarchy that was in sympathy with Rome. “Who do you say that I am?”
There comes a time in our faith journey when each one of us has to answer that question. “Who do you say that I am?” And I contend that how we answer that question determines how we live out our role as Christians, as disciples of Christ. I’ll go a step further. I suggest answering that question determines how we live out the epistle reading we had today. Paul sums it up in eight short verses.
We are to present ourselves, the totality of our beings, as a “living sacrifice,” not a dying sacrifice, but a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Paul tells us there will be times in our daily lives when we may need to actually do things that will put ourselves outside the norms and values of our culture. We will have to do this in order to live into God’s will, not our culture’s will. I suggest that’s what being a “living sacrifice” is and means. Carrying out God’s will regardless of what flack it causes us.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed”…be transformed. I suggest the world we live in today is every bit as bad as Pax Romana at the time Paul was writing. The imperial Roman Empire was brutal and oppressive, demanding devotion and sacrifices to their idols, their gods, especially the emperor.
Today’s contemporary empire is far more global and far more cunning, making idolatrous claims on nations and on individuals. The economic market is one of those idols. Now, I’m a business major and have always believed strongly in capitalism, but not today’s kind of capitalism. Today, a company’s bottom line is an idol. It must increase yearly. Everything must be done to reach this increase. Anything goes: rape and plumage of the earth, its waters and air. Cutting costs, especially the human costs of manufacturing, production, and distribution. Using shoddy materials or poor engineering and design. It’s cheaper to pay off complainants than it is to fix problems. Profit supersedes all else. And Government and our society doesn’t hold the miscreants accountable as long as corporations pay big fines.
Reduce people’s hours so you don’t have to pay benefits. Or decrease any benefits remaining in order to increase profits. Reduce the work force, but not the work. Add the work to the jobs of those lucky enough to have a job. Manipulate the political system to pass so-called “right-to-work” legislation to kill off unions and to easily get rid of workers who complain about unsafe or abusive working conditions. So what if they have to work two jobs to make ends meet!
Connive unfriendly take-overs of companies that don’t make excessive profits but have good cash reserves. Get rid of faithful workers. Drain the coffers. Declare bankruptcy. Move on to the next company to pluck. Oh, yes. Be sure to pay CEOs up to 300 times the wage of the workers of the company. After all, they’re the ones who make the decisions to maximize profits. They also manipulate Congress to help them ignore laws that have been passed to prevent economic disasters from happening. Their lobbyists maneuver congress to pass laws that give them tremendous tax loopholes.
Did you know Wall Street analysts don’t recommend buying Costco stock? Their rationale is that Costco treats their employees too good. Costco doesn’t make as much profit as it could for its investors.
Our society operates on an attitude of scarcity, not abundance. It you read a suggested budget for individuals, there are line items for retirement savings, emergency savings, housing, food, insurance, transportation, recreation and travel, clothing, hobbies and so on.
Hardly ever is there a line item for donations to community and religious organizations. Donations are for December when a small portion of the left-overs, if any, is donated in order to get an itemized income tax donation. If you don’t itemize, then just forget about those in need. They had their chance. It’s not your concern if they didn’t make the right decisions or weren’t born into the right families or the right neighborhoods or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There was an article in USA Today this past week about a protest against immigrants. One man was overheard telling anyone who would listen that Central American child refugees (he called them immigrants) were being housed in fancy hotels where the rooms cost between $100 and $250 a night. Indignantly, he stated he was a law-abiding citizen who resented working off his behind and paying outrageous taxes to coddle those people who are breaking the law. I won’t use the word he chose to use. “Ship them right back where they came from. They aren’t our responsibility!”
“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.”
How we are transformed depends on who we say Jesus is. We renew our minds within a faith community that does its best to help us discern God’s will. That is how we don’t conform to our contemporary world and its beliefs of scarcity, its idols of market place and profit.
Last Wednesday evening, St. David’s in Southfield hosted the vestries and bishop’s committees of the Oakland Deanery to a BBQ. Our guest speaker was Jim Gettle, the Diocesan Canon for Congregational Development.
Jim pointed out that, not until we are willing to accept in our hearts that God loves us… you and me… unconditionally, are we able to lead our communities in carrying out God’s will as Christ’s disciples. See, when we accept that God loves us unconditionally, then we begin to realize God loves all creation unconditionally, human and otherwise. No matter what we do, no matter what we think, no matter what we believe… God loves us. God is always there for us. All of us. No exceptions.
Accepting this is a life-long journey. It’s part of our spiritual walk. And we walk in and out of our acceptance. We walk out, but God is there. We walk in, and God’s still there. God doesn’t leave us. We leave God. Yet this is all part of the transformation Jesus modeled for us… a transformation of relationship… relationship with our Creator… relationship with one another… relationship with people outside our community.
“Offer yourself as a living sacrifice… do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” There are five more verses to today’s epistle, but I’m leaving those for another time.
Nativity is going through a year of discernment… a year of transformation of our minds, our hearts, our attitudes. We are assessing our gifts individually as well as a community. We are discussing the changes necessary to be Christian disciples in the 21st Century. How are we to be and do church? How are we to take the message of God’s unconditional love to others? And who are these others? Most of all, who do we say Jesus is?
A lot of unanswered questions at this point in time… but if we accept God’s unconditional love for ourselves and for our community, we’ll also accept God’s promise through Jesus that God will give us all the resources we need to take this message to others. Actually, God already has given us those resources. We’re still in the process of discovering what they are. We are still in the process of figuring out just who we say Jesus is and allowing him to transform us!
The Rev. Diane E. Morgan
Resources used for this sermon:
“Messiah and Lord.” Proper 16 Scriptures. August 24, 2014. PNMSI Publication Co., Inc. Boyds, MD 20841-0335.
Fernandez, Eleazar S. “Romans 12:1-8, a Theological Perspective.” Feasting on the Word. Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.
“Herod the Great.” Wikipedia. Retrieved from the Internet August 19, 2014. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great.
Hutson, Christopher R. “Romans 12:1-8, an Exegetical Perspective.” Feasting on the Word. Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.
Jones, Kirk Byron. “Romans 12:1-8, a Homiletical Perspective.” Feasting on the Word. Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.
“Paul Tillich.” Wikipedia. Retrieved from the Internet August 19, 2014. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tillich.
Stackhouse, Rochelle A. “Romans 12:1-8, a Pastoral Perspective.” Feasting on the Word, Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.H