Proper 17A Sermon (2014)

Proper 17 (Aug. 28-Sept. 3)
Texts: Romans 12:1-8;
Matthew 18:1-14


St. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Does this sound like it’s asking for some form of conversion? A first answer we might have is that St. Paul’s words are preaching to the choir. We’re already the converted. We believe in Jesus, and so we’re promised life in heaven.

I’ve been your pastor at PoP for eight years now. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. But over that time, you’ve heard me speak a lot about how much my theology has changed over the past thirty years since seminary. Recently, I’ve begun to name this as a conversion. It has become more obvious to me in reading a book that’s rocked my world: A Farewell to Mars, by Brian Zahnd. Subtitle: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. It’s basically the story of a conversion from a very conservative evangelical pastor to one who is questioning many things about the nation he loves. I’m not saying he was converted from a conservative to a liberal. These days especially, I’m afraid that’s simply two opposing versions of the same thing. No, I find that his story is definitely one about not being conformed to this world but being transformed by the renewing of mind that comes from being challenged by the story of Jesus. It means, first and foremost, reading the story of Jesus anew so that we are challenged. We will be studying this book together on Tuesday evenings. I hope you’ll join us.

The kind of conversion Paul speaks about is something different from how we normally use that term. We most often speak of conversion when talking about coming into a new religion. But I think that discipleship of Jesus doesn’t ask so much a change between religions as it does a transformation of one’s religion. Here’s the thing: Jesus and all the apostles were Jews. When the church began, they never talked about not being Jews anymore. They talked about being Jews in a new way. And Paul’s most passionate letter, the Letter to the Galatians, is arguing against those who said that disciples of Jesus need to convert to be Jews. No, I don’t believe Jesus came to start a new religion and ask for conversion to that religion. I believe he came to redeem and transform the way all human beings do religion.

In other words, Brothers and Sisters, it means seeing that religion itself has always been a part of the problem. Now that we do anthropology, digging up remnants and artifacts of ancient cultures from all around the world, we know even better than in Jesus’ time that religion has always been central to cultures in every time and place. Religion gave the justification and authority to why we do what we do as a clan or tribe or nation. We eat these things, we do these things, we behave in this way, because the gods command it. So when Paul asks us to not be conformed to the world as we know it, I think he is talking about stepping away from our religion, too, to have our minds renewed by God in Jesus to see the ways in which our religion has simply been a prop not for the way God wants us to do things, but the way we want to do things.

And I firmly believe, Brothers and Sisters, that God is calling us again, in this time and place, to ask those very questions. Has our version of Christianity as a religion been more about justifying what we want to do as humans beings, or about what God is asking us to do as disciples of Jesus? In Europe exactly one hundred years ago, for example, they launched into a Great War, with both sides claiming the Christian God on their sides, that this is what God wanted them to do and so would lead them to victory. In the aftermath of that War, people began quitting going to church. It became obvious to them that this Christian God they worshiped had been mostly a mere prop for their own designs, and they lost faith.

I think we are increasingly going through a similar experience in our own country. More and more people are seeing religion as more on the side of the problem than the solution. “I’m spiritual,” they say, “not religious.” Look with me again carefully at the first verse of today’s reading from Romans 12: “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.” I believe that Paul is saying, in his own time and place, “be spiritual not religious.”

Living sacrifice. Think about what religion was at that time. It was all about presenting someone else’s body as a ritual blood sacrifice in a Temple. Sometimes, in the pagan world around them, that still meant presenting other human beings as victims. Most often, it was an animal of some kind. That was religion, the heart and sole of their practice of it. And the gods behind it were about commanding violence against other bodies. But Paul is beseeching them to present their own bodies as a living sacrifice. They are to live lives of helping those who suffer, of taking care of the weakest parts of the body. Their living sacrifice is their service to all those in need. And this is their “spiritual worship.” Do you see how Paul is calling them out of religion as they know it, and into something very different that he names as “spiritual”? I believe that St. Paul in his own way was among the first to say, “I’m spiritual, not religious in the traditional sense. We must not be confirmed to those ways of human culture but be transformed to God’s way of doing things. We must be converted, not to just another human religion, but to God’s way of doing things that God has made clear to us through Jesus Christ.”

So what is that Way in Jesus Christ that we are being converted to? As I’ve gone through my own conversion these past thirty years, very similar to the one Brian Zahnd describes, I would lift up one big thing that plays itself out in two big ways. That big thing are the gods and religions behind the old form of sacrifice, which was a way of always dividing the world into Us and Them, good and evil, holy and profane, clean and unclean, etc. The “them” could be your outside enemies, those who would even seek to harm you, or the “them” could also be those on the margins in your own culture, your own nation. In the parable of the sheep and goats that I shared with the children today, Jesus basically names the “them” as the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner.

So what are the two ways that logic of the old sacrifice has played itself out through our religions from time immemorial? The first is through capital punishment and war. The gods command us to level sacred, sanctioned violence against our enemies. We saw this big-time in last week’s Gospel. Peter begins by getting the right words: “You are the Messiah,” he says, “the Son of the Living God.” But when Jesus begins to say what that will mean, that he will knowingly choose to undergo suffering and death, Peter gets it spectacularly wrong and rebukes Jesus. Jesus doesn’t mince words in his reply: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

First of all, do you see again the words imploring conversion? Jesus says that Peter needs to convert from setting his mind on human things to divine things. And how so? By understanding that the way of the true God is never to dish out more violence than we human beings already do, but through him to suffer the violence. Yet Peter has been right to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, as the one who will begin to topple empires of violence. But here’s why we cannot be conformed to this world but radically transformed in our minds to God’s way of doing things. God will topple the empires of violence precisely through choosing to suffer the violence in a way that the victims’ voices will finally be heard. Jesus himself will be raised from the dead so that the voice of the victim of our violence will now begin to be heard and change our ways — slowly but surely, or the consequences will simply be another time of devastation, of our unleashing our violence against each other.

It may seem outrageous: toppling empires of violence by choosing to suffer the violence in a way that allows the victims’ voices to be heard? Yet haven’t we finally seen that in history? Wasn’t there a man last century who took seriously Jesus’ way of nonviolence and succeeded in toppling an empire based on violence? Do you see why Gandhi is so important to me? Two thousand years after Jesus we finally had the right factors in history for a whole nation to rise up in the path of Jesus’ nonviolence and topple the violent empire that oppressed them. And in God’s usual irony, it was a Hindu man leading Hindus and Muslims against the “Christian” nation that provided history’s first instance of what Jesus prophetically began on the cross, namely, toppling our human empires based on violence in favor of God’s way of nonviolence. It didn’t require a conversion of religions. These were Hindus and Muslims. It required following Jesus’ way, even if it was short-lived. Our job, then, is to work for other instances where nonviolent resistance of violence might begin to topple our human way of doing things — like Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.

So let’s finish quickly with that second big way in which the old sacrificial logic plays itself out, namely, through marginalization and neglect of those on the margins: the poor, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner — the least of Jesus’ family, as he names him in the parable. In the way of the world, we see them as “them,” not one of “us.” The way of the world is to take care of Us first, and if we do things right, maybe there will be some leftovers for some of Them.

But Jesus is calling us to a conversion, a not being conformed to the way of the world, and to be transformed to his way, the way in which we see the least as Us not Them, and we find ways to take care of them as one of Us. This morning’s Gospel reading is all about caring for the littlest ones, the weakest ones, or the consequences will be hellish. He lifts up for us a crazy economics where the Good Shepherd searches after the one lost while leaving the 99 behind. That might be an even bigger conversion, because it may even mean raising some uncomfortable questions about things like our economics. Will it? Let’s continue to walk this journey of conversion together. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, August 31, 2014

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