“Gracious and loving God, thank you for bring us all together today to hear your wonderful words of love, diversity, and faith through community. Thank you for calling me to deliver your message this day, and please allow the words I speak be a true representation of your message.”
Sermon: Romans 12: 1-8
I would like to start today by making a couple of apologies right off the bat. First, I would like to apologize for my nervousness. I am literally shaking like a leaf up here right now. Second, I have to apologize to all those that might have come to worship today looking for a message that has a familiar theme as of late. I must say I will not be continuing said theme. And by that I mean I will not be talking about Harry Potter and how he relates to the bible.
So, ever since my stewardship moment from last year people have approached me several times about preaching. A quick recap of that message, I talked about how I was in a dark place in my life at that time. I was stuck in a dead-end and abusive job, absolutely did not like living here anymore and yearned every day to return to my home of San Diego, California. I wanted to be near the people I knew loved me; my lifelong friends. To top it all off, my wife and I were in the middle of moving to a new apartment in the dead of summer. The heat was not as bad as it is now, but it still was not pleasant.
One particular day I had just come home from a very bad day at work, and was in no mood to make trips over the new apartment with boxes and furniture. While disassembling the bed in our guest room / hot-as-an-oven loft, I sat there muttering to myself, asking God what in the heck I had ever done to cause him to not like me so much. I kept saying things like, “I have busted my butt my whole life for others, and for what? A dead end job? No friends at the age of 32? What the hell is going on in my life?” I also had some other, shall we say more colorful language mixed in, but I can edit that part out. At that moment the tool I was holding slipped and scraped me on the hand. This led to more colorful language. I was so frustrated, I just collapsed to the floor crying, and saying over and over, “What about me? Have you forgotten about me?” To add to my frustration I felt a piece of paper sticking to my hand, due to the heat in our loft and me sweating up a storm. As I went to grab it, crumple it up and throw it away in a fit of anger, I saw it was fortune slip from a fortune cookie. I thought, “How did a fortune slip get all the way in our loft, and under the bed for that matter?” I decided to look at it so I could mock it, because I was not feeling very fortunate. The slip said, “You are on the right path.” This of course led to more tears, but this time they were out of embarrassment for my fit and anger at God.
The requests to preach only increased after my stewardship message this year, which I won’t retell, as most of you were just here in May to hear it. This time I thought, “Why not?” Preaching could be fun. Plus, following along with our readings at the time I figured I could definitely relate to the Jacob and Esau story. I have plenty of life stories with struggling with forgiveness, and being estranged from former loved ones, and most of all, wrestling with God.
But to my surprise; and I have no idea why I would be surprised anymore at Gods plans, but following in those familiar and safe storylines were not the plan God had for me. It seems like it never is. Not sure when I’m going to learn this lesson.
When I approached Amber to ask what my topic was for the week. She informed me we would be starting a new set of readings focusing on Paul’s letter to the Romans. And lucky me, I was batting lead-off with Romans 12: 1-8. And shocker, there isn’t really a story to help with writing a sermon. What?!? Pam got the topic of wrestling with God, and I get to talk about a letter? What’s up with that? The whole drive home from church that week I just kept thinking, “Thanks God, you got me again. Couldn’t just give me a topic that was in my wheel-house, uh?” For those of you who may not know the term “wheel-house,” it’s a baseball term, and what it means is that I was hoping God would have just gave me nice fat fastball over the heart of the plate, maybe belt high middle in, that I could drive out of the park. Instead, he threw me one of his wicked change-ups, low and away, and made me look silly as I flail at the pitch.
So yeah, the letter. I read Romans 12: 1-8 over and over and over again. And every time I read it I found myself more and more confused. I could not wrap my mind around what Paul was talking about, which only furthered my confusion on why the heck was this letter so important. I reached out to everybody and anybody I could on this topic, including the big guy upstairs, Amber, Holly, and most of all my father-in-law who is also a UCC minister. I received excellent information from both Holly and Amber. No big surprise the boss upstairs never got back to me, but I have to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at the response and help given by my father-in-law. It’s not that he’s not supportive; far from it in fact, it’s more along the lines of a parent that constantly tells you to figure it out on your own. That way you’ll feel more accomplished. Along with all of the information and insight he gave came another unexpected surprise; he capped it off with a quick note that said, “I think you’re going to do great on this topic.” What’s this, overwhelming encouragement? Another trait my father-in-law is not known for; at least not spoken to you directly. He’ll tell everyone else that he’s proud of you, but not you to your face. It felt so good to get that kind of encouragement from a man I respect so much. Especially because it is encouragement for me doing something for the first time that he has been doing for over 30 years now. And just at that moment, I felt the air blow past my face.
God threw me one of those fastballs I was looking for earlier. This time it was up and in. Chin music as it were. Telling me to pay attention and wake up. He was letting me know my father-in-law’s encouragement “was” his response….and to stop crowding the plate. Looks like I’m sitting at 0-2 at the moment. I tell you what God, one of these days you’re gonna leave one of those over the plate, and I’m going to get ahold of it.
So, what I gathered from all my research and help from others is that Paul was a busy dude. He was writing letters and sending them all over the place. You see, Paul was convinced that his buddy, and our savior Jesus Christ was coming back any day now. Yes, Jesus had just died, but Paul was sure that all the “I will return” talk meant he would be back soon. And because of this Paul was trying to convince everyone to straighten up and start living right, and do it like right now, because any minute now Jesus is coming back and we were going to have to answer for our actions. That kind of reminds me of the bumper sticker that reads “Jesus is coming….look busy.” Unfortunately for Paul, he kind of missed the mark just a bit.
Paul’s expectation for immediate piety was a bit unrealistic, seeing as Jesus did not return as he expected. But, what if, just for a second we consider the point that maybe, in true stumbling and bumbling bone head apostle form, Paul actually hit on a more important point; more of a big picture plan, as opposed to the short term like he was preaching about? In short, Paul’s letter(s) to the Romans were more of a plea for them to reevaluate their lives, the things they held so dear, and to refocus on what to really care about.
Think about if that were to take place today. Some guy from far away, writing letters, or maybe sending emails or Facebook messages would be more appropriate for today; telling us that Jesus was on his way back. In the letters he’s pleading with us to reevaluate our lives, and to set aside the things that are nonessential and to focus on the important things in life, like faith and community. What would we do? Would we be able to give up our Kardashian’s and Bieber’s of the world; set aside our Facebook and Twitter? Would we continue to need to know every move celebrities and athletes make? More importantly, would we finally set aside these trivial things, and once and for all stand up, turn around and look into the eyes of the one person who has loved all of us more than himself? The person who loved us before we were even born, and will continue to love us long after we are gone. The same person who even as he hung on the cross dying for our sins, asked God to forgive us for we know not what we do, Jesus Christ. I would like to think we could. Looking at the world today it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it actually happening….but I have Hope.
That’s kind of a broad look at Paul’s letter(s). But when we focus on the first part of Romans 12, our reading for today, Paul explains the importance of diversity within a community of Christ. You see, the early church started out small; very small in fact, just a band of 13 dudes wandering the desert. After losing the person who was the focal point of their message, the churches spent time in influx about direction and leadership, but then little by little they began to come together. As time went by they began to grow and become much more diverse than they were before. That growth brought excitement with all the possibilities ahead of them. But then a funny thing happened, the focus of faith started to take a back seat to the feeling of fear.
Members of early church who had been there from the beginning, even persecuted by the Romans for their beliefs; the same ones who had held it up while it seemed like everything was tumbling down around them, started to get scared. Perhaps they were jealous or threatened by the newer members, or maybe, just maybe what they were really scared about was the feeling of being lost in the shuffle of growth. I believe the senior members of the church started wonder about where they fit in when it came to the body of the church now. The thing is, so did the new members. Two sets of people on very similar paths of nervousness and confusion, but from two different angles.
This early example of hurt feelings and division is the exact thing that Paul preaches can and will destroy the church. It flies in the face of the very thing Jesus was, and still is about. Paul explains that we are all different, yet similar. We are from different backgrounds; different family and belief structures; different age, height, weight, race and sexual orientation. We are as different as it gets, and we should embrace that difference with everything we have. To quote my father-in-law in one of his letters to me on this topic, “One spirit, many gifts (talents, abilities, functions etc.) — all for the building up of the one body of Christ (the church). Find your gift(s) and then seek your calling! Thank goodness we are not all alike!” And yet, even in our vast differences we are all the same in our love and devotion to Jesus Christ. Hmmm, maybe Paul’s not such a bone head after all.
When Paul speaks of the body and the members of the body, it’s not just a figure of a speech. Paul is actually speaking of more; just as much as members of the body work together, so should we as Christians work together with all our diversity in full force. One author I read during my research says:
“Paul means we are the members of the body of Christ. When we were joined to the body of Christ, we were given a special function to fulfill in its organism, the function of each being distinct from that given to other members; and we were given special gifts needed for our special function.”
As I started to understand what Paul, and my father-in-law, was saying, I started to relate more and more to his message. Paul talks about finding what we’re good at, or more aptly what we are called to do, and embrace that calling. This also got me thinking about my place here at Hope. Where do I fit in? What are my gifts? More importantly, what am I being called to do, or am I being called at all?
I talked about all the people I reached out to during my time of reflection on this sermon, but the one I have not mentioned was probably my most helpful; my Wife, or as she is more appropriately known, the smart one in the relationship. Stephanie and I talked a lot on this topic; obviously after when I actually figured out what was being said. She broke it down to a family level. Stephanie said, “In any family, no matter the size, there is always that struggle to find your place. The question of where do I fit in.”
I am just now experiencing that question at the age of 33, and I am doing it with my family at Hope, because that’s how I see this community at Hope. I did not grow up in a loving family; in fact it was quite the opposite. I have mainly had to look out for myself for a good portion of my life, and I never had to worry about where I fit into a family of 1. But where most of you have siblings, and possibly two parent families, or any combination, you most likely already worked through these issues within your family structure. Me on the other hand, I am still searching.
Over the past six months or so I have spent a lot of time in reflection. I have been trying to emulate the great advice of one of my personal heroes Jim Valvano; more commonly known in the sports world as Jimmy V. Jimmy V was a national championship winning basketball coach at North Carolina State University who gave his now famous “Don’t Give Up….Don’t Ever Give Up” speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards while receiving the Arthur Ash Award where he talked about his body dying from cancer, but how his mind, his heart, and his faith would never die. In that speech Jimmy V says that there are three things we should do every day. First, his says that we should laugh, and laugh a lot. Second, we should think; spend time in thought. And thirdly, we should have our emotions move us to tears, whether it’s from happiness or joy. In his speech he said, “Think about it, you laugh, you think, you cry, that’s a full day.” I have tried to do as many of those as possible every day over the last six months, focusing more on the thinking part though.
During that time I found myself wondering about what I am being called to do here at Hope. I currently serve as the Buildings and Grounds team lead here at Hope, and some may not like hearing this, but I don’t feel called to do it. I took this position back when we were kind of starting a time of rapid transition here at Hope. The former team leader and his wife, two long standing veteran members of the Hope family moved away because of military assignment, and I knew the church needed my help. But like helping your family out in times of need, you don’t always do it because you “want to,” you do it because it needs to be done. I knew that our building needed someone to care for it on a regular basis, because let’s face it, dare I say our building is slightly more high maintenance that we are.
My term is going to end in about 3 months, and I’m sure you guessed it, I am not seeking reelection. But that is also for many other reasons, most importantly because my wife and I are expecting our first child in January. But, during this time of deep thought reflection over the past few months I kept coming back to one question, “Is this position or any position on cabinet what I am called to do? Is this my place in the body of Christ?” And to be honest, I didn’t have an answer. It was very frustrating. One thing that has, and continues to nag at me, is that when I took the position of B&G team lead I was barely a member of this community for about 5 minutes. This is not an attempt to say anything negative about being asked to join the cabinet, it just the way things worked out with timing. But, I never felt like I was able to really connect as a member of the community, and all of the sudden I was part of the decision making process. And over the past 2 years, while I feel I have come far in my relationship with God, I sometimes feel it has been hindered because of my position.
So, one day in particular I was driving home after doing some work here at the church. I was having a very rough time at that moment feeling connected to my position here, the community at Hope, and more importantly to God. I was zoning out while driving home, because that’s always the best way to drive right? The radio was on in the background, and I wasn’t paying it any mind. I was lost in thought, when all of the sudden I heard some lyrics being repeating over and over.
I find music is a powerful conduit when it comes to me and connecting to God, which is why I love our music here at Hope. I will hear a lyric that will just strike me a certain way, and I will feel this powerful charge go through my body and I can almost feel the presence of God. And that’s exactly what happened that day. The lyric was from a U2 song called New Year’s Day. At the moment right before I heard the lyric I was asking over and over, “What should I be doing? Where are you when I need you the most?” And at that moment my mind refocused and heard over the radio “I will be with you again.” I felt like I heard that lyric repeat probably 100 times, but in actuality it was probably more like 5 times. But just then I got that shiver from the charge I felt threw my body. But this time it was something more. The hair on the back of my neck and on my arms stood up as I felt the charge, but this time it didn’t stop, it actually intensified, and finally I had this feeling as if a hand was on my shoulder while the faintest whisper said, “Do not worry, just be you. I will be with you.”
Trust me; I know how that just sounded. I just, in no uncertain terms, told all of you I not only had a calling, but that I actually heard God. I have not told anyone that story, other than my wife, mainly out of fear. Even while I wrote this sermon I fought every urge to simply click and delete this portion. How ironic, don’t you think? Here I am receiving a wonderful gift from my God, one that left me with the biggest smile on my face, and more joy and calm in my heart than I have felt in a very long time, and I was afraid to tell anyone because I was more concerned on my people would think of me, or being compared to people in the past who have made similar claims to justify their actions.
In the past I have been just like most people and scoffed at the notion of “feeling, or hearing Gods call.” I too spent many hours making fun of such things, and people who said that they heard God, mainly our people like our President from 2000-2008. And now here I am, saying the same thing, except I’m not looking to start a conflict with anyone; quite the contrary. I wanted to share it with everyone. I want to share with all of you the same feeling of joy I got at the sheer suggestion I heard that it was ok by God for me to just be me. I didn’t have to do anything special, because I already am special, and God loves me for me. And that’s what led me to the stewardship message I gave this year.
Much like the early church, Hope is growing rapidly, and that’s a good thing. While some members might be wondering where they fit in, asking the question, “What about me?” And other members might be feeling overwhelmed by feelings of nervousness and fear at taking that first step in process of coming to God, while also feeling pressure to fit in and find their place, I say to all those with worry in their heart; “Don’t worry about the ME, think of the We. But most of all…..Don’t worry, just be you, because we are all unique and special and all part of the body of Christ, and God will always be with you.”
Earlier I said that I look at Hope like my family, and I meant it. I love each and every one of you. And just like dealing with our actual families, we may not always like each other; we will go through our ups and downs, we may drift apart from time to time, but we will eventually find our way back to one another and will still be family. When I think about my time here at Hope, I can’t help but feel like Paul a little bit. Yes, I too am a bone head when it comes to some of the things I say, but in this instance, I can’t help but feel like something I said two years ago was more of a “big picture thing” that was meant for today. We are growing here, and while we will move forward and backwards together; while we will laugh together, think together, and hopefully have our emotions move us to tears together from joy or happiness, we are, just like the fortune cookie told me “on the right path.”
I would like to close this out in the same spirit in the way I started it; talking about God’s wicked pitch selection. Writing this sermon, reflecting on my place within the body of Christ, and the relentless soul searching had me feeling like it was the bottom of the ninth, tie game, with me sitting on a 0-2 count. But I warned you God, you keep putting them over the plate, one these days I’m gonna run into one. And at this moment I’m feeling like I just hit a homerun…..but something tells me that was your plan all along. Ballgame.