Proper 16A Sermon (1999)

Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Romans 12:1-8;
Matt. 16:13-20; Is. 51:1-6


A college sophomore had an interesting conversation with her campus pastor. She had come to the university, wanting to make friends, desiring to fit in, hoping to do well. Yet she soon discovered that fitting in, doing well, often carries a high price on today’s campuses. There were pressures put on her — subtle pressures, good natured at first, all very friendly — nevertheless, they were pressures. She was told things like, “people here do things this way,” or “you need to lighten up, loosen up,” and “get with the program.” She quickly realized that she could not afford to just “go with the flow,” passively drifting along with everyone else. She would have to spend more energy thinking through what she wanted in life, who she wanted to be, what actions were right for her.

“At first,” she confessed to her campus pastor, “I was scared. Nobody wants to look odd, to be a killjoy, a self-righteous prude. But then I finally got the courage to say to myself, ‘This is me. This is the life I want. It’s not for everybody else, but it’s right for me. I am learning the joy of being odd.'”

“The joy of being odd.” That’s what she said. Sort of an interesting phrase, isn’t it? For most of us, on most days, we assume that joy comes from fitting in: having on the right clothes, being with the right people, feeling comfortable. Yes, fitting in; we don’t normally like to stick out too much. That’s uncomfortable, to stick out. Yet this young person has seemingly discovered another way: the joy of being odd.

Oh, and by the way, she’s a Christian, so, as she sees it, her joy at being odd is also the joy of being faithful. She doesn’t stick out simply to find her own way of fitting in. You can fit in on college campuses by being the right kind of rebel, by being the right kind of rugged individual. But, no, her not being afraid to stand out comes from her faith in Jesus Christ. And she comes to find that being odd, that standing out, carries its own brand of joy, a joy that can survive those times when others might make you suffer for standing out from the crowd.

Wow! We only hope and pray that our children leave the nest with such courage and faith! Don’t we? Or, maybe we’d better ask ourselves first: what is our prayer for our children? Do we pray for them to stand out from their friends in odd ways, in-out-of-the-ordinary ways? What exactly do we imagine for our children? Do we wish for them to be odd? To stand out? To be holy?

Now, “holy” is a good sounding word, nice and proper and religious. But what does it mean? It basically means to stand out — you might say it even means being odd.

Jesus knew that he had been standing out, that he had probably appeared pretty odd. And so he asked his disciples who people thought he was. He asked who they thought he was. Good ‘ol Peter came up with the right answer, even if it wasn’t of his own accord. For that he received a new identity: “Peter,” the rock on which Jesus would build his church. But the disciples hadn’t even begun to see just how odd Jesus would end up being. Jesus was the Messiah, yes, but they hadn’t begun to understand what that meant. The Messiah, to the Jews of Jesus’ day, was the one whom God was sending to liberate them from their troubles. Well, to be liberated from the mighty Roman empire, this Messiah was going to have to be awfully powerful. He was going to have to fight power with power.

How odd, then, that Jesus, immediately after accepting the title “Messiah,” would begin talking about such weak appearing things, things like suffering and dying at the hands of the authorities. “No!” says Peter, fresh from his triumph, “That can’t be right! I won’t let that happen!” “Yes, Peter,” Jesus responds, “this is a Messiah who came to serve others, who came to be first by putting himself last. This is a Messiah who came not to vanquish the powers to be with greater powers of force, but who came to submit to those powers with a power of love that cannot stay dead. That, Peter, is the Messiah that you just proclaimed.” How odd, right!? And this Jesus, the Messiah, is calling Peter, is calling you and I, to follow in his footsteps of being odd, of standing out in contrast to the powers of this world.

So let’s ask once again: what do we really imagine for our children? Is it to be “holy,” to be odd? Or is it more like being successful according to the powers of this world?

A campus ministry report on the nation’s college students stated: “A survey of students who entered school last year revealed that ‘being well off financially’ was their primary motive in attending, and only 3% anticipated taking part in public affairs during their student years. Nothing surpasses the concern among students than to do whatever it takes to achieve economic security.” Economic security. That’s what the report says our children dream for themselves. In my own experience, talking to teenagers at church, most of them say something very similar.

Where do they get that from? Can we blame M-TV? Or peer pressure? Or how much of that do they get from us? What exactly is it that we dream for our children, and what do we communicate to them with our words and our actions? Is it the joy of being odd, of answering God’s call to stand out in this world? Or is it something more like economic security?

A few minutes ago we shared in the new birth that little Rebecca and William enjoyed through the waters of baptism. Especially when our children are such tiny bundles of unfulfilled potential, we dream for them. We dream of all they can and might become. Yet when we bring them to the waters of baptism, our dreams take more definite shapes. We do some pretty odd things there: give them a small bath; stand before a candle and urge them to “Let your light shine!” And in between the bath and the candle we pray for the Holy Spirit. From what we have said this morning that is like praying for the Odd Spirit! We pray that the Spirit of God which made Jesus, and all the saints, stand out in this world will give us, and our children, the wisdom and understanding, the counsel and might, the knowledge and fear of the Lord, and, yes, the joy we need to ever stand in our Lord’s presence as those who stand out in this world. We pray to be odd! And then we do the odd thing of putting some oil on the forehead, an anointing, just as Jesus himself was the Messiah, the Anointed One, anointed to stand out in this world, to live by a completely different power, the power of God’s love. Yes, little William and Rebecca, yes, all of us, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Odd Spirit forever! How odd!

And so we come to worship each and every week. Because it takes an awful lot of strength to be odd on a daily basis. During the week, the world isn’t going to help us find our identity of being odd. It’s going to do its darndest to have us conform to its ways. So we need to worship. We need to proclaim again the Holiness, the Oddness, of our God, and then to hear again who it is that we are, who it is we are called to be. And we need to be fed, to be strengthened in that identity, in that calling.

At the very height of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. Paul brings us to the very heart of the matter of worship:

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. 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.

Present your bodies, an offering to God. Have you ever thought of the offering as a high point in our worship each week? Something more than a necessary intrusion in order to pay the bills around here? No, we are to present ourselves as an offering to God! Go back to that dream of economic security that our children so often end up following, and think of our offering. If our gift is more than just a token, more than just a few extra dollars that don’t put any risk into our budgets, isn’t this a way to express that we do not live by this world’s dream of economic security? Isn’t it a way to help guide our children into another dream, that of living out God’s generous love to us in Jesus Christ?

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed, says St. Paul. Transformed! And so we are fed, strengthened with the presence of the one who came to be the most odd of leaders, the one who came not to be served, but to serve by offering up his body and pouring out his blood! Yes, he did that so that we might be forgiven, so that we might transformed to live by a different power in this world, so that we might stand out and find the joy of being odd. So let’s continue by making our offering. Let’s continue our celebration of the call to be odd. We are given the most precious of gifts that we might share with our children: In the waters of baptism, each of us is given an identity and a dream to follow. We are given the identity of our Holy, Odd God, who calls us to us to follow our brother Jesus. And we are given a dream to follow, a dream that will end in no less than the complete and total victory of God’s love. Odd as that may all sound, can we dream a better dream for ourselves and for our children?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 21-22, 1999

1. This sermon is based on one by William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 21, No. 3, July-Sept. 1993.

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