Sermon Preached at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church on August 9, 2009
2 Corinthians 5:16-20
Focus, clarity, truth… It is part of our human nature to seek these things above all else. Often we tell ourselves that we have them as though they are things to own. Often it seems the world would be a better place if people could just accept “the facts of life” or at least have some “common sense.” The reality is that our ability to live balanced, sensible lives is directly effected by the choices of others. Not only that, the choices we make are not as limited as we want to think that they are. So we live in this messy space where we have a certain responsibility for our own actions… where we are responsible for the impact we have on others… where we are affected by the actions and ideas of others we cannot control.
God is here too, you know. God willingly enters into this place out of genuine love and compassion. It is because of God’s love that we know how to love. It is because of God’s demonstrative, selfless gift in the person, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are even here! So what? What do we do now? How do we connect that with our need for truth, clarity, and focus in the living of our days; in the chaos of divorce, disease, and economic uncertainty; in the bliss of children, luxury, and seclusion?
Let me ask you this, have any of you ever been white water rafting? The Ocoee River on the border of Georgia and Tennessee offers one of the best day trips in the Southeast with five miles of continuous class III and IV rapids. One of these is a type of underwater hydraulic that curls up under its self, a veritable death trap that has claimed expert and novice alike. How do you get out of it? Do nothing. Those who struggle against its current remain trapped inside. Those who submit to it’s will are released, a little dizzy, but virtually unharmed.
Sometimes life can make you feel like that, like you’re trapped in a current you can’t get out of. I tell you what we Presbyterians do about it. We define things, or at least we try to. When we are being faithful we define things based on our experience and understanding of God’s activity through the lens of scripture. When we are not being faithful we define things based on our need for stability and comfort. My hope is that we are faithful most of the time. I don’t mean that in the sense of a wish but rather in the sense of hope that comes from faithfulness – the kind that does not disappoint.
The clearest example of what I am talking about can be found in our mission statement. I imagine a good number of you could say it with me right now. It’s on the front of your bulletin every Sunday. Let’s say it together now; our mission is “to nurture Christians who will by their words and actions reflect the face of Jesus to the world.” Thank you. It is nice to hear that referred to in committee meetings and personal conversations, but it has a deeper, richer resonance when we all say it together in the midst of worship.
Mission statements are important. I imagine many of you have served in a company or attended a school that had a mission statement. Some of you may have helped to form them. I’m not going to ask how many of you can recite them. Sometimes we say them without thought or forget about them altogether. Sometimes it just isn’t practical to try to fit everything we do into a few words and phrases. At least that’s my excuse.
Mission statements are important because they define our priorities and establish our identities. They give us a “home base” to return to when we get to that point of wondering why we are so busy, and what are we trying to do in the first place. A few years ago I was challenged to come up with my own personal mission statement. Being Presbyterian, I could not do it without grounding it in scripture. So, today’s texts are the basis for my personal mission statement: Be transformed, be transforming, and focus on the One.
In Romans, Paul tells us to present our bodies as living sacrifices, for that is our spiritual worship. I often jump right past that and go to the part about “not being conformed.” Being a sacrifice is uncomfortable and a little vague, and in the past I have shied away for fear of the idea that sacrificial living might be a requirement for grace. Of course we know that it is, in truth, a response to grace. The phrase “spiritual worship” is more literally translated as “reasonable service.” Young’s translation says: “present your bodies a sacrifice--living, sanctified, acceptable to God--your intelligent service.” It simply follows logically that if you understand yourself as sanctified that you will act accordingly.
So before we can be transformed we have to know that we have been sanctified, set aside, chosen for a purpose. More importantly, Paul is not talking to individuals. He is speaking to a community. For just as conformity happens through blindly following the masses, transformation comes through participating in a common unity whose desire is to know God and experience God’s presence. Paul is speaking to the church in Rome and the church on Skidaway Island to remind us that if we are not constantly seeking to be part of a common purpose that exalts God we will instead be seeking selfish gains every time, and we have to give them up. That’s why we do things by committee here. That’s why we gather in classes, small groups, and at home Bible studies. That’s why we are having a congregational retreat this Fall to strengthen the bonds we share as a congregation.
Transformation is individual and corporate; they go hand in hand. But, to what end? So that we might transform others! To those of us who know what it means to be loved in spite of our weakness we cannot help but to love others in the same way. Except when we don’t.
The story goes that a country preacher went to visit a member who had not been attending because of a disagreement at the church. The preacher was invited in, but the man he was visiting informed him there was nothing he could say to make him come back, and he knew he was saved and didn’t need a church full of hypocrites. The Pastor sat with him by the fire for some time in silence. After a while he used the tongs to pull a hot coal out of the fire and set it on the hearth. The two men watched it slowly die. The Pastor thanked him for his time, and the church member said, “I get the point. I’ll see you on Sunday.”
In 2 Corinthians, Paul again reminds us that if we believe what we are saying about forgiveness that it changes everything. It changes the way we see everyone from a human point of view to God’s point of view. We become God’s ambassadors, literally representing God before others. Not because of anything wonderful about us, but because of everything wonderful about what Jesus has done for us.
So there you are in the grocery store or at a restaurant, and the person taking care of you has a pierced face or a strange tattoo. Maybe you don’t go to many places off the island and you don’t see people like that very often. Maybe you know someone who is struggling with alcohol or someone who is just never happy. Or maybe you are feeling called to mission service with Faith in Practice, or some other area of need.
This is where things really come into focus, but the clarity of vision I am about to describe may not be what you are expecting. The obvious, and no less true, path that I am taking you on today follows the idea of being transformed through God’s love into someone who seeks out and transforms the lives of others. The parable of the lost sheep and the idea of the social misfit, the over achiever with no meaning, or the call to mission service is kind of a no brainer. But here’s where the water circles in on us.
We don’t seek to save the lost simply because it is our Christian duty. We do it because it is a part of our transformation. If we think the person with piercings, the drunk, and the destitute have nothing to offer us then we have missed the point entirely. Sanctification, being set apart for God’s purpose, comes through faith in Jesus Christ. So does our salvation. But those things are just words when we don’t see the humanity in those we would rather not.
There is something about sharing life’s stories with someone else that changes the very stories we share. There is something about hearing the way the stories of the Bible affect another person that affects us as well. Focusing on the One means that we look to Jesus for our sense of priority in every interaction. Focusing on the One means that God’s priority of proclaiming the good news is intertwined with God’s priority for justice. It means that instead of saying “What Would Jesus Do?” we say, “God, what would you have me do right here and now?”
So, as we find ourselves caught in the waves of life and its extremes there is a hand that reaches out to us. It is the hand of Christ. Look closely. For you may find that the outstretched hand of God has come to you from someone you did not expect. In the same way, God expects each of us to reach out to those who do not expect it from us. For there are many groups of “us” and “them” in this world and in our community. But through Jesus Christ there is only a common unity that we invite others to join. When we forget that, even for a moment, we become like the coal growing cold, separated from the fire.
So do not be conformed to the forces of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Be reconciled to God for you are God’s ambassador, carrying out the message of transformation. And above all, focus on God’s priority for every opportunity of your day. As a friend of mine once said to me; it’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.