John’s sermon, the 2nd in our Lenten sermon series on Roman 12:1-3 begins just before the 32nd minute mark.
Props to Lois for shaping this preaching series on Romans 12:1-3! As followers of Jesus we are to be living sacrifices – transformed by the renewing of our minds – in other words, as I often say, “we are to get a new mind for a new age.” We are called to be change agents for the Kingdom of God!
We discern God’s will for our moment in history – and by God’s will I mean God’s desire for you, and for us. We are to discern – as best we can – what has the weight of God in it.
These verses are a reflection of Paul’s own search for meaning, his own exploration of his own identity.
I think Paul was an absolute genius. Talk about being transformed; his mind and heart just exploding with thoughts about the cosmic implications of Jesus. Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord changed everything – world history.
And sure, some of Paul’s comments and remarks reflect his age and culture. But even his narrowest comments about the role of women in church are blown sky high by his realization that in Christ Jesus there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. Yes, he points his finger at certain “sinners” and yet he writes that God is groaning to reconcile the whole world to the divine self; that in Jesus Christ all are made alive – no exceptions. Love wins!
Several years ago, a group from this church travelled to Turkey and Greece to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul. We were at Corinth. Paul wrote several letters to that community. They had some real problems in that city! The group was wandering around the ruins – splendid Greek temples to the gods. These temples were the places where spirit of particular gods were believed to visit, to resideed… and so you brought sacrifices to them. You brought the lamb or the dove to the altar and you killed it. You spilled its blood or you burned it. Then the priests took it home and ate it.
Paul had two profound insights into temple worship and sacrifice. The first profound adjustment Paul made was this: the temple was no longer a building of stone located in one spot where the spirit of a god visited. Paul realized that your body is a moveable temple. Just as Jesus embodied God, just as Jesus was God in flesh and blood so too you and I embody Christ to the world, we are now the moving temple of God’s presence.
In community – when two or three are gathered together – we become the temple. And as we go out into the world we take God with us. We, you, show the world who God is and what God desires: justice, kindness and humility.
I see those kids organizing in Florida – they are becoming a living, moving temple of power and hopeful change.
Our commitment to Sanctuary and our calling of a Co-Pastor shows our desire to embody the gospel – to be the temple of the living God.
The second profound insight was on the nature of sacrifice. Paul tells us to become a “living sacrifice.” Sacrifices don’t live. Dr. William Slone Coffin was once preaching on the passage from Isaiah about the Kingdom of God. He said: “the kingdom of God that Isaiah was envisioning was a place where the lion would lie down with the lamb…. And the lamb would get up again!”
Paul’s “living sacrifices” don’t die – they live, they act, they are empowered to witness to God’s grace. Again, YOU are living sacrifices. Paul exhorts each of you and all of us to BE a living sacrifice – offer our best selves to the holy work of just and meaningful living.
This sounds good and I believe it. But there is a difference sometimes between understanding a passage and living the passage; of accepting intellectually and embodying it daily. Moving it from head to gut – and then taking it to the streets.
So I got thinking about the ways we hold ourselves back from being temples and living sacrifices – how we keep ourselves from knowing more fully the power of Jesus Christ in our lives. Three words came to mind that describe our standing before God and one another: “selfless,” “selfish,” and “self-interested.”
I suspect that if I asked for a show of hands most would agree that being “selfless” is a good thing and that being “selfish” or “self-interested” are bad things and synonymous.
But here is my take: “selfless” and “selfish” are two sides of the same coin – a misunderstandings of how we are to see ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Self-interest is where we need to be as we come to understand how you and I as individuals are part of a larger community – engaged in the powerful work of the Kingdom of God.
We read in the Bible that we are to “turn the other cheek,” “blessed are the meek,” “blessed are you when people revile you…” We look to passages like “to find yourself you must deny yourself,” or “he emptied himself taking a form of a slave.” And I am sure you can come up with many others. We see Jesus offering himself up to be beaten and crucified. “Look how “selfless” he was.”
And I get it – but “selflessness” can become a title for a being a doormat for abuse.
Self-less-ness mean “no self.” Dr. Seuss, one of my favorite theologians, once wrote about a:
“wasn’t” who has no fun at all, no she doesn’t.
A wasn’t just isn’t. She just isn’t present.
But you, you are you, now isn’t that pleasant?”
A “wasn’t” is a person with no self, selfless, having no identity.
Jesus was not a “wasn’t.” He was very aware of himself. He was no doormat – he told rich folks to go away, he overturned tables in the temple. He failed to kowtow to Herod. And he calls his disciples to be aware of their own selves too; he gave them power.
A selfless person often has no boundaries; no self-care. Either feeling as if she has nothing to give, or doing anything for anybody. This leads to burn out and feelings of isolation, powerlessness, disconnect. The demons want you isolated, feeling helpless.
Selfless persons get swept up and overwhelmed by enormity of need in the world, it can be paralyzing. You can even become resentful of others and of God: “Look at all I am doing for you, God.”
This is where selflessness becomes the flip side of selfishness – this egoistic sense that the entire world revolves around your own self. As John Ruskin, the English art critic once said: “When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.”
We know selfish people. I know selfishness in myself – getting what I want when I want it, not listening to others, getting ahead at another’s expense. Being tight with my resources. When I make sure I am in front of the food line! When I use my entitlements because of gender or race or education or money; and go along with the culture that makes sure that the balance beam of life tilts toward me and mine and my tribe.
I think feelings of suspicion, fear, resentment and jealousy follow. When you get, when I get self-absorbed, needing attention – we lose sight of others, we don’t care. And we lose our selves. I think we are seeing this play out in our body politics right now.
So really, selflessness and selfishness are the same; self-absorbed we cannot absorb God’s loving redemptive, powerful spirit; the sponge is full.
We have to get a new mind. A new way of looking at this: Being Self-Interested is where you want to be and is consistent with the Gospel and with this passage in Romans.
“Self-interest” comes from the Latin Interesse – which means “to be,” or “lie between.” In other words: “to be between others” or, “to be one among others.” Self-interest comes from knowing you exist with others. You know yourself and to “know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” (Socrates) Knowing yourself takes honest hard work. It takes times. You make mistakes. You have to go deep.
As followers of Christ we know ourselves as beloved Children of God. As self-interested Christians we understand that we are one among others, and together we have power. Self-interested people know their spiritual gifts and let their light shine. And in shining our light we want others to shine theirs too.
Together we seek to build the beloved community; A community of strong self-interested persons who celebrate the gifts of one and all, and claim the power. So transformed you and I together become agents of transformation.
I think that this is part of the power behind the movie “Black Panther” – tapping into Black self-interest, which is also a call to my own self-interest – I want in my own white man way to be moved and liberated and find my own self: one among others.
In his book Works of Love, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard notes that Jesus offers a variation of the Golden Rule, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds a bit narcissistic! Kierkegaard’s answer is very similar to Jesus’ and to Paul’s I think. It is proper self-love, and proper self-interest that alone makes us whole persons and able to fully love another.
Both selfless persons and selfish persons often don’t know the kind of self-love that Jesus offers. Selfless persons and selfish persons often don’t stand as one among others in community. Selfless and selfish people don’t do well in relationships – with God or with others.
Self-interested persons see themselves for what they are: A sinner but redeemed, made in the likeness and image of the divine, part of a larger whole.
Becoming a living sacrifice; coming to discern the mind of God; not conforming to this world but being transformed – coming to know what is good and acceptable and fulfilling, life affirming (which is my definition of what the Bible means by “perfect.”) comes when you and I, like Jesus, rise up from the waters and hear God’s voice saying, “With you, I am well pleased!”
Self-interest – interesse – to be between, one among others: powerful and free.
God calls us to give of ourselves. Well, you have to have a self to give.
Come to know this Lenten Season your own power and worth; with your own light that will free others to let their light shine too, as we take our temple into the streets, called to be living sacrifices for the glory of God and the liberation of all people.