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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

We Belong Together

We Belong Together
Romans 12:1-8
March 15, 2015
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

The story is told of a wholesaler in New York who sent a letter to the postmaster of a small Midwestern town. He asked for the name of an honest lawyer who would take a collection case against a local merchant who had refused to pay for a shipment of the wholesaler's goods. He got this reply:

Dear Sir:
I am the postmaster of this village and received your letter. I am also an honest lawyer and ordinarily would be pleased to accept a case against any local merchant who refused to pay their debts. In this case, however, I also happen to be the person you sold those crummy goods to. I received your demand to pay and refused to honor it. I am also the banker you sent the draft to draw on the merchant, and I sent that back with a note stating that the merchant had refused to pay. And if I were not, for the time being, substituting for the pastor of our local church, I would tell you just where to stick your claim.

Not many of us have so many gifts. Most of us can do a few things well, other things only adequately, and some things not at all.  But we all have our gifts.

In this second half of his letter to the people of the church in Rome, Paul takes a turn towards the practical.  As he often does in his letters, he spends the first part of his message on more abstract thoughts.  In this case, he has covered sin and the sinful nature of humanity; grace and the gracious nature of God; law and its relationship to sin and grace; predestination, atonement, sacrifice. Ideas that make your head spin and could very well have done the same thing to the letter’s first readers.  “Paul, please, quit with the theologizing and just tell us what you want!”

What Paul wants is for Christians to understand the difference faith makes.  He wants them to know the difference between worshiping the God made known in Jesus Christ, and the gods made of wood or stone. 

You used to be enslaved to sin, he says in chapter 6, your minds, your souls, your bodies were held captive.  But now, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you are free from sin’s control.  Now you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

And just as being enslaved to sin involves our bodies, not just our minds and souls, so being alive to God is an embodied, flesh-and-blood existence.  We bring our whole selves to this new life, including our physical selves.  So we heard in this morning’s reading from chapter 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.” Notice plural “bodies” – each of us has one - but singular sacrifice – we offer it together.

Members of the body of Christ offer living, holy and spiritual worship, not by sacrificing the carcass of an animal, not by bowing down to a block of wood, and not even by working as individuals to resist being conformed to this world. We worship by practicing embodied gifts-sharing in community. Paul goes on to “flesh out” (pun intended) that idea in the verses that follow.

This is worship: embodied community in Christ in which the gifts of others are valued, in which each member uses her or his gifts on behalf of the body as a whole.  This is the sacrifice that is alive, holy and acceptable to God.

2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds….” The literal translation of the Greek is “And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” Singular.  There is just one sacrifice…and just one mind.  Members of Christ’s community use their different gifts in service of one, shared vision. 

“3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”

Paul knows how hard it is to live in community together.  Most scholars think the Letter to the Romans is the last letter of Paul’s in our Bible.  By this time he has seen churches divided over issues of status and power.  He has seen schisms over questions of who belongs and who doesn’t.  He has seen communities split by the valuing of some gifts over others. 

One way to resolve the infighting would be to establish a hierarchy, to simply decide which gifts and people have greater importance than others.  But Paul refuses to do that; he refuses to rank some higher than others. 

It’s easy to give lip service to this idea that different gifts are equally valued.  It’s an idea that’s easy to say, but hard to live. 

  • Clergy like to preach it, but many have the habit of assuming they’re the smartest ones in the room.
  • Parents have the same habit with children. 
  • Managers can be this way with their supervisees. 
  • Long-time church members can fall into this trap when they interact with new members.

"You used to belong to Sin,” Paul says, “the way a slave belongs to a master. Body, mind, and spirit: you were captive. Now, you belong to one another, with bodies that belong to the body of Christ, whom God raised from the dead."  To rank gifts is to rely on sin’s mentality; it is to be conformed to this world.

Ranking and segregating ourselves is an age-old human trait, but in the last three or four decades, Americans have been putting a new spin on it.  More than ever before, Americans of different types have stopped talking with each other.  It’s not that we used to be more similar, it’s that we used to know more people with whom and from whom we differed.  Yes, we have always separated ourselves into “us” and “them.” But now the lines separating us have become so thick that we can’t imagine how anyone on the other side could possibly be a decent person. 

In his 2008 book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop argues that that “as Americans have moved over the past three [highly-mobile] decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and politics.  Americans are forming tribes.  Churches, clubs, civic organizations and volunteer groups are “filled with people who look alike and, more important, think alike.”

It’s not a conscious effort by people to live among like-thinking neighbors.  [But] “as people move to take jobs, to be close to family, or to follow the sun…they make choices about who their neighbors will be and who will share their new lives.

So, for instance, “in the 1976 election between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, just over 26% of the nation’s voters live in landslide counties,” counties where one party won by 20 percentage points or more.  “But by 2004 in one of the closest presidential elections in history, more than 48% of voters lived in landslide communities, communities where the election wasn’t close at all.” 

In a period of “unprecedented choice about where and how they wanted to live, [with] incredible physical and economic mobility” we have used those freedoms to increase segregation, not lessen it.

Bishop proves what we all have an intuitive cultural sense of anyway:

  • Seattle votes blue, Houston votes red. 
  • Boston is….(congregation: Blue!)  Salt Lake City is….(congregation: Red!)
  • Ingham County is…(congregation: Blue!)  Livingston County, next door to our east, is….(congregation: Red!) 

But what about our churches?  What role do we have to play in the segregation of our society into like-minded clusters?  

If our neighborhoods have become more culturally segregated since the mid-1970s, our churches are even more so.  Some of this is because we prefer to worship in like-minded congregations.  But we have also grown more homogenous because, in the effort to counteract church decline and ‘grow’ their congregations, ministers actually encourage segregation by using techniques that create “group cohesion through like-mindedness.”  (Bishop, 159)

Church growth gurus design their churches to appeal to targeted groups, demographic types.  It’s easier to attract people to a church filled with one kind of person.  It’s much more of a challenge to attract people to a church filled with a diverse membership….    (Bishop, 170-1)

Saddleback Church, one of the largest and best known churches in America, was carefully started by Pastor Rick Warren in the fastest growing end of Orange County, California, the nation’s fastest-growing county.  Warren began by creating a composite portrait of the unchurched person he wanted to attract: college-educated, married, likes contemporary music, prefers casual dress, has little free time.  Then he went to work breaking down the barriers between his church and his target: he made the services shorter and tighter, he invested in the best sound system and musicians, he built the best daycare center, he made sure there was plenty of parking.  He didn’t wear a suit.  The Saddleback Church membership now numbers 20,000, it has 9 satellite campuses outside its primary one, and the campus on which it is located encompasses 120 acres.

Those are exciting statistics if your goal is to pull as many people as possible into your church.  But what has happened to the other mission of the church?  What has happened to the idea that the church does not exist for its own sake, to grow bigger and stronger and more popular every year, but that the church is called to be a transformer of culture? 

What has happened to the idea that the church is not called to be a thermometer, registering the temperature of majority opinion, but a thermostat that affects and changes that temperature? What has happened to the idea that the church is a body with many different members, that our gifts differ – by God’s design – and that – as hard as it can be to keep the body working together -- our strength lies in those very differences?

Brothers and sisters, it would be easier if we didn’t take these verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans seriously.  It would be easier if we could just ignore questions of diversity and what it means for us.  It would be easier if we didn’t ask ourselves about differences of race or age or socio-economic status or sexual orientation. 

I know the last one would be easier because the Reconciling Ministries Exploration Committee is prodding us to ask ourselves how we feel about publicly welcoming a diversity of sexual orientations into our congregation…and I can feel that tensions are rising. 

  • Some of us wonder why we are asking this question at all.  Aren’t we a welcoming church already?
  • Some of us wonder what took us so long to start asking this question.
  • Some of us wonder what the Bible says about this.
  • Some of us worry that they and their children will witness public displays of affection that make them feel uncomfortable.
  • Some of us are concerned that calling ourselves a Reconciling congregation will get us, or our pastors, in trouble with denominational authorities.
  • Some of us wish we would not talk about this question because they fear it will drive a wedge through our congregation.  They fear that folks who hold a minority opinion will not feel welcome in this congregation if they let their opinion – or even their questions and hesitations – be known. 

And at the same time as we are asking ourselves all these questions, we are also beginning a visioning process.  We are part of the VCI – Vital Church Initiative – process that aims to help us name who we are and what we value and how we are going to live out God’s mission for us.

Dear friends, what if who we are called to be as a congregation is an example to the world of how to live together as a strong, healthy, diverse church – diverse in age, race, socio-economic condition, sexual orientation and gender identity and opinion?  What if we are called to model true Christian community, a community of mutual respect in which people who disagree can listen to one another in love, with compassion and humility, valuing the different gifts each one of us has, recognizing the strength and importance of our differences? What if God is calling us – University United Methodist Church and MSU Wesley Foundation to show the world what strength-through-diversity really looks like?

What if Paul is talking to us?

4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

Beloved children of God, faithful disciples of Christ: I do not know what the future holds, I do not know what the answers will be or even should be to the questions about who we are and how we live out God’s call.  But I do know this: in our life together, we belong to Christ, and we belong together.

                 

 

References

Mary Hinkle Shore. Commentary on Romans 12:1-8. Posted on Working Preacher, August 21, 2011. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1038

Mark Reasoner. Commentary on Romans 12:1-8. Posted on Working Preacher, August 24, 2008. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=127

Steve Goodier. “Doing What We Can Do.” Posted on Life Support System Wednesday, August 13, 2008. http://stevegoodier.blogspot.com/2008/08/doing-what-we-can-do.html

Dan Clendenin.  Positively Maladjusted: Martin Luther King and "Transformed Nonconformity." Posted on The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, August 18, 2008. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080818JJ.shtml