After the Benediction
Text: Romans 12:1-18
For most of my ministry, the Sunday after Labor Day has kicked off a new church year. The choir came back after a summer break. Sunday Schools classes began after a few months off. The summer church attendance slump was finally over. People were back from their travels. And, folks were ready to return to their Sunday church routine.
Well, this is the Sunday after Labor Day, but in this very odd year there has been no summer church slump. More people view our virtual worship each week than typically sit in the Cove pews on a Sunday morning. Few people are back from travels because most people have only traveled to buy groceries and pick up medicine. Ironically, the one thing that still holds true on this first Sunday after Labor Day is that we are ready to return to a normal Sunday routine. At least, I hope that is true! Instead, if you watching, listening, reading this sermon, you are not doing so in the Cove sanctuary along with other friends you are anxious to see.
So, given such strange times in which we live, I decided to invite a special guest to address us on this Sunday after Labor Day 2020. This guest is a rather intense soul and he does not engage in small talk. Instead, he wrestles with the great questions of the Christian faith. The guest is the Apostle Paul who, in his letter to Rome, asks questions that any Christian facing tough times has at some point asked:
Where is God in our suffering?
How can we who are so broken and mired in sin ever sprint to freedom?
What possible difference could baptism make?
Can anything, even death, separate us from the love of God?
Are Jews and Christians kin?
For eleven chapters, Paul asks tough questions. He does not shy away from them because he wants Christians to be clear about what they believe and why. Paul wants people to put feet on their faith. It is one thing to believe that God loves us; it is quite another to live out God’s love by volunteering in a Food Bank or a night shelter or as a tutor.
After eleven intense chapters, we turn to chapter twelve and read three Greek letters that spell the word translated in English as “therefore.” Since God’s grace defeats even our sin, since God’s mercy frees us to live into the abundant liberty of grace, therefore, says Paul.
What follows after “therefore,” though, is not what I expect. After eleven chapters in the indicative, telling us what is true about God and about us and about the Christian faith, I expect “therefore” to shift into the imperative mood. “Therefore, do this!” “Therefore, do that!” “Therefore, say this but do not say that!”
The first words that follow “therefore,” though, are not a call to action, but an invitation to look deep inside, to pay attention to what God is making possible in us, an invitation to prayer.
The poet, Mary Oliver, captures Paul’s invitation this way in her poem, “Praying”:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak. [Devotions, p. 151]
At the opening of chapter twelve, Paul slows his elegant rhetoric long enough to invite us to recognize the grace of God growing within us, to be silent long enough so that “another voice may speak.”
What Paul and Mary Oliver say is lovely but I have far too much to do to stop, look, and listen, to gaze inside, waiting for a warm feeling from God. I walk to the tempo of the imperative. After all, in our world, too many people are without shelter or adequate shelter. They need decent housing and need it now. Too many children are chronically hungry. They need food and need it now. Too many citizens are mentally or physically ill and are uninsured. They need health care and need it now. Too many students need to learn virtually this fall but have no internet connection. They need high speed technology and need it now. Too many fellow citizens are divided by walls of color or wealth or political persuasion. If we are ever going to communicate past our differences, we need to tear down walls and build bridges and build them now.
Given all that I, all that we, have to do, this is simply not the time to light a candle, play contemplative music, write in a journal, and pause for long stretches of prayer. I am much too busy for such idle pursuits; I have got God’s work to do! Why did I invite Paul to worship with us, anyway?
Well, listen carefully to Paul and you see there can be no grand imperatives sending us out to do justice and to love mercy until you and I grasp the grand indicative of God’s grace. There can be no way to discover the divine possibilities within us until we stop, look, and listen for the voice of God deep inside.
Paul, though, does get to the imperative, gets to what we need to do, but again, it is not with a to-do list. Instead, Paul follows his “therefore” with these words: “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.”
Paul holds a mirror before us and declares: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” Paul has great respect for all the gifts that God has given each of us, and clearly Paul has a healthy self-ego, but he never suffers from the delusion that the future of God’s reign on earth is up to us. Our God given gifts are gifts meant to be shared.
Throughout his long and winding letter to Rome, Paul tells us that we have enough gifts to be Christ’s church, but we are never gifted enough to be the church alone. You and I need each other. We need Jeanne standing up at Cove on Sunday morning and reminding us that the Food Bank is not just grateful for whatever food we can spare. It needs us to spare more because too many of God’s children need it. We need Tuesday morning wood splitters and deliverers who give up work to work to be sure that those who need wood this winter will have it.
We need music, to listen to Chopin and Watts and African American Spirituals, to anthems and solos and instrumentals. We need to wash in baptismal waters and feast at a table that never runs short on food and drink. We need to speak out and cry out to God and invite our pew mates to be a company of pray-ers. Listen to our guest today and you realize that the body of Christ is woven together into a divine majestic tapestry of gifts, all given by God.
Only after we stop, look, and listen for God’s work inside us, inside the church, does Paul finally start speaking in my natural tempo as he strings together these grand imperatives: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
I cannot think of a better way to end this sermon than with Paul’s benediction of imperatives. The next steps into God’s grace-filled living are ours to take. May we walk together.