— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 12th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
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.
(JB – “worship that is worthy of thinking beings.”)
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 judgment, 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 exhort-er, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out.
That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Worship will transform us, and we all worship something even if we never step foot in a house of faith; so, we should be careful to whom we pay tribute in private and in public with our time, energies, commitment, and also with our prayers, songs, sermons. I think the apostle Paul would agree with Emerson that what we are worshiping we are becoming; so, he encourages us to worship in a way that is worthy of thinking beings.
In my older age I am becoming more and more convinced that the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination within which Nacoochee Presbyterian Church exists, is in a unique and important place to embody a worship worthy of thinking persons. In my older age, and maybe it is just an old man wanting to justify his life’s work but I don’t think so, in my older age I am more Presbyterian Church, USA than I have ever been because I am more convinced than ever that the graceful, mindful, thoughtful, justice-oriented worship and work of our denomination embodies what our world desperately needs.
At our best, and let us confess, we are not always there,
but at our best…
we worship a God who is love.
At our best we worship a God who is just.
At our best we worship a God who is full of grace.
And as we worship we become that which we worship –
love, justice, grace.
Back in 2017 there was an article in Time magazine that seems to make the point I’m trying to make in this sermon. The article is entitled “The Alt-right has created Alt-Christianity” by Brian McLaren – author of many books, including the one that began his fame, Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren went to Charlottesville, Virginia as a part of a clergy delegation to protest the “Unite the Right” rally that ended with deadly violence when a car mowed into protestors. The Reverend McLaren says that for the first time in his 61 years he got to look into the faces of white supremacists – they looked, he said, scarily normal. He’d seen them before working in big box stores, restaurants, even in churches but he did not recognize them in those places because they were not carrying Nazi and confederate flags, semi-automatic rifles and shields. McLaren posed in the article the question –
What would possess these young, white men (and a few women) to chant hateful,
anti-Semitic and racists slogans, to shout homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynistic slurs…?
Part of McLaren’s answer is … bad religion. I would add – religion unworthy of thinking human beings.
Brian McLaren wrote this:
White nationalism isn’t simply an extremist political ideology. It is an alt-religious movement that provides its adherents with its own twisted version of what all religions supply to adherents: identity… community… purpose. If faith communities don’t provide these healthy, life-giving needs, then death-dealing alt-religions will fill the gap… if good religion slumbers and stagnates, McLaren concluded, bad religion is the alternative (Time.com; 8/25/17).
Q-anon came into existence a few months after the “Unite the Right” rally, and this far right group with mysterious origins claims to have secret government documents that reveal a vast conspiracy involving well known and long time government officials. Part of what is claimed is that former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are Satanists involved in a global pedophilia ring, and that President Trump has been secretly planning a counter-coup against members of the so-called “deep state.”
These are beliefs and a form of religious worship that is unworthy of thinking human beings, of any functioning adult. When people like the President of the United States give credence to such idiotic theories it leads to violence. It is not a huge step from believing that President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are Satanists and pedophiles to believing that a person would be righteous to murder such people. This stuff is not a game.
The call of the PCUSA, our denomination, the denomination of Nacoochee Presbyterian Church, is to embody religion and a world view that is worthy of thinking human beings because as we worship an all-embracing, loving, justice giving, graceful God we become all embracing, loving, justice giving, and graceful people.
If Emerson is right, the opposite is also true. To worship a God that is harshly judgmental, narrow in those who are considered chosen, blind to injustice, given to harsh punishment, unconnected to truth and fact is to become the same. It matters to whom we pay our tributes and, praise be, I am convinced that the PCUSA at our best embody good religion and invite tribute to a generous and loving God who has given us minds to engage the world. At our best we give people who come through our doors a strong sense of identity, community, and purpose as children of a loving and generous God who cares about the oppressed and wants the world to live in peace.
This belief that we can become all embracing, loving, justice giving, truth oriented and graceful people might seem too daunting a thing to preach… even if it is true, what good can a denomination of so few make in a nation of hundreds of millions and a world of billions. It might be too discouraging to say that we can make a difference, but I believe it. I believe that small groups of people dedicated to embodying the radical love and acceptance of God can be used by the God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and his midwives, Jesus and his followers to transform the world! It begins with communities, but the transformation can have ripple effects from here to everywhere. As we offer, in all humility as Paul instructs us, our gifts to God, we can make a difference.
Anne Lamott, in her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, tells the following story. Anne Lamott is a single mom who writes wonderful essays and novels and attends St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City, California. She did not go into church quickly. She was addicted to alcohol and pills and for a while she would wander over to the church after walking through a flea market and listen in the back to the music. One day she went into church and she was baptized and she began writing about her life and her faith.
Anne Lamott writes in a salty way… but her words and her story and stories have been used, I think, by God to transform many minds and hearts. Her story is a larger version of the following story….
My pastor, Veronica, one Sunday told the story of a sparrow lying in the street with its legs straight up in the air, sweating a little under its feathery arms.
A warhorse walks up the bird and asks, “What on earth are you doing?”
The sparrow replies, “I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.”
The horse laughs a big, loud, sneering horse laugh, and says, “Do you really think you’re going to hold back the sky, with those scrawny little legs?”
And the sparrow says, “One does what one can.”
(From Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, p.14).
We do what we can and trust that God can use good religion to transform not only our minds and hearts but the minds and hearts of communities and nations. We do what we can and place our worship and works of love into the hands of God who can multiply our gifts such that our small offerings infuse the world with love, justice, and grace.
A final story – this one from a place where white supremacy once thrived, South Africa. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, was clandestinely sneaked into South Africa during the time of apartheid to support South African churches and to report their story back in the United States. He had just arrived and was taken to St. George’s Cathedral, in Cape Town, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was to preach. The power of apartheid was frighteningly evident in the numbers of riot police and armed soldiers massing outside the church. Inside, all along the cathedral walls, stood more police openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak, the atmosphere was tense. He confidently proclaimed that the “evil” and “oppression” of the system of apartheid “cannot prevail.” Wallis said that at that moment in history, the South African archbishop was probably one of the few people on the planet who actually believed apartheid would fail.
Jim Wallis said he watched Tutu point his finger right at the police who were recording his words, while saying – “You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God!” And the God whom we serve, he said, “cannot be mocked!” “You have already lost!” the diminutive preacher thundered. Then he came out from behind the pulpit and seemed to soften, flashing that signature Desmond Tutu smile. So – since they had already lost, as had just been made clear – South Africa’s spiritual leader shouted with glee, “We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!” The whole place erupted, the police seemed to scurry out, and the congregation rose up in triumphal dancing!
(The Impossible will take a Little While, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb, pp. 205-206).
What we are worshiping, we are becoming.
Let us continue in our lives to worship
the God of love, justice, grace, and peace
embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
Let us continue to offer our gifts and trust
that God can use those gifts
to transform lives, communities and nations.
Let us continue to keep the faith, in good times and bad,
and trust that love, justice, grace, and peace will out!
Thanks be to God! Amen.