Sunday, August 27, 2017

Living sacrifices

A Sermon preached on 27th August 2017, Pentecost XII at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 51:1-6, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

This is one of the Sundays when I have the feeling that at least one of the readings, in this case the extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, was written just for us and just for this day. I know you heard nothing about a picnic, though if I had not left out the OT reading from Isaiah you would have heard a reference to a “garden of the Lord” where “joy and gladness will be found, … thanksgiving and the voice of song.” And I think that is a good description of our service. You all look pretty happy to me.

The references I am thinking of are to Baptism, and today with Shanaya we have our third Baptism in a row, as well as to the ministries of this church and to stewardship. And they are all connected. Baptism first:

Paul writes “I appeal to you therefore, … 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.” This is a good summary of what Baptism is all about. Like all candidates, Shanaya is being presented as a living sacrifice, not to die – except to sin – but to come alive, to begin a new life in Christ, to begin a transformation and renewal that will last her whole life. As baptized Christians, we have all promised to give our whole lives to God: 24/7. Our worship is not restricted to an hour or so on Sunday, our lives are our worship and our offering to God. Surely God deserves something better, you might think. No. You are just what God wants. That does not mean that you should not change and grow – but that change and transformation into what God wills for us, what is good and acceptable and perfect, has already been factored how our Creator sees us.

Baptism is not just an individual experience, Shanaya is being baptized into a community, into the church, into the one body in Christ. We promise to support her in her life in Christ and she will enhance and enrich the body. As a member of that body she, like all of us, will have a gift, at least one, to be used for the common good. It’s a bit too early to tell what that might be. That is part of a process of discernment that will last all her life. 

The list of gifts and roles that Paul gives in this letter is not complete or exclusive. There is another list in Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians (12). That one includes gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, speaking in and the interpretation of tongues. The list we just heard from Romans on the other hand is a bit more practical, a bit closer to the ministries we offer here. Though I am not denying that miracles play a big role in everything we do in this church too.

At this time of year, many churches have homecoming Sundays: welcoming everyone back from vacation, welcoming newcomers, and inviting everyone to participate in one or more of the ministries of the church. They will often produce a leaflet or have a ministry fair. We do not need to, as Paul has done it for us.  He has listed almost everything we need in a church community:  

We need preachers, able to proclaim what our faith means not just intellectually, but in our lives. That is what Paul means here by prophecy in proportion to faith, and this role is by no means restricted to me and to Douglas. We have lots of inspired lay preachers in this congregation.
We need people who serve, who reach out to people in need. The word translated as ministry is diakonia, or service. We have lots of people like this in our congregation, who support both our official ministries to the homeless, to refugees, to those in long-term care, our missions, or also their own private projects.
We need people who teach. This can be a regular activity like teaching Sunday school or working with our youth, or a one-off or occasional activity like leading an adult formation on a – spiritual – topic close to your heart.   
We need people who encourage others – the exhorters. This group includes our vestry and officers. They encourage not just by word, but by example.  
We need givers. Ideally everyone in our congregation should give to the church in accordance with their financial abilities, enabling all the other ministries, and putting us in a position to help others financially where that is needed.
We need leaders, administrators, all those who work diligently, often behind the scenes, in the office, setting up for worship, producing bulletins and publicity, making food …. And much more.
We need compassionate helpers. Those who identify needs within the community, who spot a sad face or a tear, who visit the sick and comfort the mourning, who give practical support. Often a kind word or gesture is enough.
If there is one thing missing in Paul’s list that applies particularly to our church it would be music: which is not only a key element of our worship, but also of our fundraising and outreach activities. We are certainly blessed with musical gifts here.

We always need new people in all these areas, and more. If you want a detailed list, and you want to know who to contact: it is here in the directory.
Each activity, each area is equally important. The preacher is not more important than the compassionate helper or the administrator or the coffee maker. Do “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think,” says Paul. Sound advice especially for the ordained and for elected officers. No one role is meant to elevate the person or persons playing that role above the others. They are all to be used for the common good of this church community and of the world we serve.

It is also important that we engage in and enjoy what we are doing. The spirit with which we carry out our role and use our gift is as important as the act itself. Paul hopes for a cheerful care giver and a generous donor. That is also why it is important that we do not just have a few people doing everything … or doing it forever. Using the gifts, we have been given, and as Paul implies, everyone has at least one gift from God, is a key part of the self-offering, the living sacrifice we present, that Paul started this section of his letter with. Remember: None of these gifts require supernatural skills, they are all normal abilities of a practical, caring nature. They are love expressed in concrete action. They are the living out of the promises of our Baptismal Covenant.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, to present yourselves, your time and your talent and your treasures, as a living sacrifice, that is holy and acceptable to God.

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