Sunday, August 21, 2011

Living Sacrifice

photo "holding hands together" from sethskim




On Friday I was driving down 35W, and on the 35th street overpass a man was standing, looking down at the cars below, with a dog sitting beside him.  He was holding an enormous American flag in one hand, which was billowing in the wind, and with the other hand he was pressing a handmade sign against the fence, the words barely legible to the passing cars, it read, “Thank you Nick for your sacrifice. We will miss you forever.”  
Here was this person, demanding to be seen in his grief, seeking to honor someone who had died, I assume, in service to his country. And this man’s need to share it, to be seen and heard, was so great, and had so little outlet, that he had to silently shout it to strangers in their cars on their way to work. 
I couldn’t see the man’s face, but in the narrative I constructed, it was streaming with tears, defiant and proud and lonely tears, and, (just to make it all the more heart-breaking), I imagined that the dog beside him was this Nick’s dog and the two of them stood as a testimony to Nick’s sacrifice – that somehow by their actions he could be remembered and honored – even if just by the two of them in all the world.

Seeing that man and dog made me think about sacrifice, about this exhortation in our text today to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God.” We see sacrifice as giving up something, hurting us in some way for the sake of another.  The ultimate sacrifice you can give is your life, like Nick. It means you’re dead.  Gone.  The sacrifice, then, the exchange you made or thing you let go of, was everything that you could have been and never got to become.  The sacrifice was putting someone else’s battle, someone else’s agenda, someone else’s calling ahead of your own, or taking it on as your own in exchange for whatever you would have been without it.  Thank you for your sacrifice, you will be missed forever.

In Paul’s context, a sacrifice was dead as well. To bring a burnt offering, a sacrifice to God was a religious symbol, recognizing God’s sovereignty and your place as God’s subject; it was a way to worship and honor God.
So this language about being a living sacrifice, about your bodies, your lives, your whole beings, being a living sacrifice… it hardly even makes sense.  A living sacrifice is almost an oxymoron.  Nothing is put to death in this sacrifice, nothing is killed or made dead. Instead it remains vibrant, thriving, vital; the life lived becomes the sacrifice. 
Rather than giving up who you are; you fulfill it.  You let your every day, your imagination and actions, your creativity and fears and hopes and skills and relationships and encounters be the way of honoring God. 

In fact, this urging of Paul says we honor God most when each person lives fully who they were created to be, no less, in mutuality and connection with each other.  Everything you do, then, is part of this gift back to God, this thank you so much! lived out in each moment.  It’s not separate – the spiritual and the bodily, it’s one and the same.

You belong to God!, Paul has been saying for chapters and chapters up until this point – you belong to God and not to sin, you belong to grace and not to condemnation, you belong to freedom and to wholeness and not to slavery and brokenness, so live like it. This is your new natural state, you need to live your way into it.

And here’s how, he says, with your whole selves as an offering to God.  And this is absolutely and completely tied up in how we treat one another, in all of us together sharing in this thing – many bodies, one sacrifice, many members, one body, many gifts, one calling, many functions, one intention, serving the whole as we serve each other, and honoring God by doing so.  That is how we share in the purposes of God on earth.

Sitting here today, you probably cannot sense it in this moment, you probably have not seen the increasing build up, but our denomination is in a tenuous place, and this week some of that will come to a head. In congregations all over the country, this is the Sunday before, the Sunday of prayer and preparation, for this national Gathering put on by the Fellowship of Presbyterians here in Minneapolis.

This week the more conservative end of the one-dimensional spectrum we’ve created to judge and rank ourselves, this week those “conservatives” that are not so far over that they’ve given up completely on the rest of us, the ones just in from them, and then lots in the middle too, are gathering to talk about the future of their congregations, their presbyteries, their faith and how they practice it and whether it can still be practiced in the PCUSA, and if not, then what?
And the those on the more liberal side of this deceptive and perilous teeter-totter we’ve all frantically balanced ourselves upon, are either ignoring this large and emotional Gathering altogether, watching with concern and apprehension, or openly mocking and criticizing it. 

A few days ago someone whom I would consider a friend, or at the very least, a friendly colleague, wrote a scathing blogpost about the event, in which he, in essence, judged the motives of those attending as being about power and money, and finished with a “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” approach.  He was lauded for his words by some; and I wept when I read it.

 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to ….
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.

If they go, (whoever “they” are), we who stay, (whoever “we” are), will lose valuable, integral parts of our body; we will not be able to function as we were meant to.  Where each person, and each congregation - in our limited awareness, and capacity, in our own little faith or great faith, in our gifts and our strengths, our weaknesses and blindspots - let our whole lives be part of this amazing thing we are called to, let our lives participate with God and each other.
Where will be prophets and the givers if we are separated?  What leaders and compassionates, which ministers and teachers will we lose?  And how will we carry on without these parts of our body?  What are we really saying, if any one of us thinks we can dismiss the other, or ourselves, from the body? We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

These verses before us today are the first verses I really remember memorizing, (aside from John 3:16 and the other givens).  I was at summer camp, I must have been about ten, and we got points for different various activities, one of which was memorizing verses.  This one sounded so much like a sermon that I threw open the windows of our bunkroom, and shouted it down to passers-by until I had the whole thing perfected in the cadence of an old-timey preacher. 

Do not be conformed to this world!  I would roar out the window, jabbing my finger at the sky.  This doesn’t mean, like I thought it did when I was ten, not to swear or cheat or kiss boys or think bad thoughts or lose your temper.  It means not to let yourselves be dominated by the mentality that some are better than others, or that we are not utterly connected and dependent on one another.

This week is the 2-year anniversary of our move to embrace Sabbath more fully as a congregation.  I was asked to contribute some articles to a worship website on the meaning of Sabbath and how we practice it together, and as I wrote I found it fascinating to remember why we chose to do this, and to reflect on what it has given us. 
Sabbath breaks us out of the cycle of this world, the 24/7, non-stop, consumer-driven system that sees people as competition instead of companion, that sums up your full worth by your net worth, that isolates us as individuals instead of binds us as a body.  Sabbath demands that we stop and sense the grace given to us, and recognize the God who breathes life into it all.

Sabbath renews our minds and helps us resist the messages of this age.  It means, stop being solitary you in traffic, on the way to your own job and absorbed in your own life and look up at the man on the overpass – standing there in his grief and his need to be seen – and see him, and his friend who is gone, and your connection to them as human beings, and realize how grateful you are for your own connection to others, for places of belonging, for people who will grieve you when you are gone, and see your life for the living sacrifice it can be – the offering, the gift – to God and to the world, each and every day that you are living, and not only when you’re gone.

Sabbath rest means being reoriented, reminded, that God is God, and that you are part of the people of God, and that is how you are defined first and foremost –and in Christ you have a unique and particular role to play and others are blessed when you are fully you, living that role out alongside them being them and God being God.

All week long, with thoughts of Sabbath bumping around my brain, and watching the internet hubbub build up around the PCUSA, I was aware of the constant struggle not to be conformed to this world, and how even in the church, everywhere in fact, we are indeed opposing the forces that would throw us back into sin, that would lie to us about ourselves and our world and our God.  I was reminded that allowing ourselves to be renewed, body and mind, is a deeply spiritual and radically revolutionary act of resistance and honesty.

There is joy in all this too, by the way. Not like I preached it from the second floor bunkhouse window. Not all hellfire and brimstoney and preachy.  But worship, worship it becomes!  Full on, joyfilled worship, thank-you-God, worship, worship that says, yeah, things are bad, and they are hard, but still you are God and I am so thankful to be yours. 
Not worship as our world worships – worship of self and self-sufficiency, of wealth and fitness and independence and the sacrifice of death.  But worship to our creator and designer of life, who knit together this striking and intricate, eclectic body and knows how it all works together, worship that finds its rest and purpose and meaning in the one who sets us free and then holds us accountable to live in our freedom.
I urge you, therefore, it says, – wherefore?  Because from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever and ever amen! (vs. 11:36)  That kind of worship.

As we head into this week, I pray for the strength to keep seeing one another- as individuals, as members of one another, as a church and a denomination, as human beings, family and friends - to keep seeing each other and not leave one another stranded on the overpass in grief and isolation.
And I pray for the vision to recognize that this is God’s body, and not our personal property, and that each and every one of themespecially the ones I can’t relate to or don’t understand – are part of this body with me, and their purpose is necessarily different than my own, and I am not complete without them.  
And may my discomfort be a sacrifice of worship and widen my capacity to love,
and may my anxiety become a sacrifice of praise and expand hope in God’s design,
and may my apprehension or confusion become a sacrifice of surrender and deepen trust within me.  
And may I know the joy of belonging to God and each other, that each day, by imagination and action, our lives may sing out together in all their notes and harmony, into a living and holy sacrifice of praise, which is our spiritual worship.
Amen.

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