“Faith Formation Amidst Covid 19: Sacrifices…Leading to Life or Death?” (2 of 4)
Romans 12: 1-8 ~ Rev. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ August 23, 2020
It was a very unique funeral. I guess that is why I remember it so well, so many years later. The funeral was coming to an end. Scripture had been read and prayers offered. Family had spoken and many tears had flowed. And as we came to the conclusion of the service, the family had arranged for a receiving line as people would file by the casket in a final goodbye to the deceased. The person in the casket was a highly-ranking member of the Hell’s Angels organization and a number of his group were in the attendance. So instead of traditional funeral attire, leather biker’s vests, denim, and gang patches were the norm. Harleys, not Hondas in the parking lot. But that is NOT really what made things unique. We are all God’s children, and this was a spiritual gathering to receive hope and grace. It was not a time to judge the living or the dead. What made the gathering unique occurred at the recessional as people filed past the casket. I found myself standing, adjacent to the casket, standing in formation with the funeral directors. And as the guests filed past the casket, they would pause and proceed to tuck items inside. I noticed wads of bills placed under one shoulder, a Ziploc baggie of pills under another, a baggie of some dried leaves (that I am sure was oregano), and the gifts and offerings continued as the guests filed by. The family and I gathered for a closing moment around the casket, a final prayer was offered, the casket was locked, and the hearse departed for the crematorium. As I said, it was a unique funeral!
This morning’s text is our second step in examining Paul’s letter to the Roman church. Romans 12 introduces the concept of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a concept which is very foreign to us in today’s understanding. The offerings made into the casket that day, in some ways, make us think of the offerings being made in the temple at the time of Paul and earlier. Animals and grains were presented in the temple for sacrifice in three forms: burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings. Burnt offerings were made for the atonement of sin where a bull, or a bird or a ram ~ perfect and without blemish, would be totally burnt up to show one’s devotion to God and their desire to make up for a sin committed. Grain offerings made in the form of a cake or baked bread were given in thanksgiving for God’s bountiful provision. And, finally, the peace offering was comprised of the sharing of unblemished animals and various grains and breads as community was shared in the temple. The common thread in these ancient offerings, as you can see, is the presentation of one’s best ~ perfect livestock or baking and offering it up to God. Offering it in thanksgiving, offering it in peace, offering it humbly in confession.
As we examine the text, however, we find a very unique form of sacrifice being presented by Paul. He calls us to present our bodies in a new form of sacrifice: as a “living sacrifice”. This adjective of “living” renders a very different meaning than the sacrifices in the past. This new form of sacrifice is not one requires us to ‘take up our cross’ and die physically (or mentally or spiritually for that matter). What Paul points us to in this new term is a way of living that is about doing things that are extensions of our faith that lead to life. He continues in his letter to offer a laundry list of how this might look in various people’s sacrifices: living sacrifices as prophets, living sacrifices as ministers, living sacrifices as teachers, living sacrifices as exhorters (a fancy biblical word for a person who shares God’s Word), and givers and leaders and those sharing acts of compassion. Have you ever considered how you offer “living sacrifices” such as these? Have you considered how you are being called to?
And Paul notes that these “living sacrifices” do not lead to death but rather these living sacrifices lead to transformation; they lead to growth; they lead to the enhancement of one’s being and the beauty of the living body of Christ. As the reading continues, Paul argues not to conform ~ to follow ways that lead to death ~ but rather to be transformed…to live in ways that nurture and allow us to grow and thrive. We are now into our second week of considering faith formation during these Covid 19 times. Not just how we are finding ways to survive and eek out a meagre existence, but rather how we might find opportunity for faith growth. We began last week considering a foundational aspect of faith formation…mercy. In the previous chapter, Paul describes a foundational component of God’s nature as being mercy. And we, as God’s children must find ways to receive this mercy, this merciful grace, and to allow it to be a foundation in our living. This second week, we move from the foundation of mercy…and we explore the transformative power of the living sacrifice. As we do this, we are reminded that our personal set of beliefs ~ our theology ~ must be related to the context in which we live, the ethics which calls us to live our lives, and the way we live them out. Our faith continues to be formed as it is expressed in ways that help us seek a deeper understanding of life, of depth and meaning. For example, in Paul’s day the context in which followers of Jesus lived out their lives was Imperial Rome. Rome was the (small g) god that sought the people’s loyalty and devotion. Today, in contemporary culture, we have an even more powerful empire that is as powerful, as persuasive and as cunning as Rome in the form of the market economy. And Paul warns that to bow down and worship the culture in which we live will never lead to the new life that God offers.
Martin Luther King’s ministry was all about living in a countercultural / transforming way to racism and hatred. He sought to encourage people to live, not in in ways of conforming to culture, but rather in ways that would transform. Calling people to transformation, King preached: “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of those willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right”. (From Martin Luther King in “Why You Can’t Wait”) I wonder if we might pause here and consider the unfolding of events since March with Covid 19, as living sacrifices that are being made. A variety of descriptions can be offered for the ‘new normal’ that we are living in. In speaking with one of our seniors about how difficult this time has been, they said “I can only compare this to living through war times. This has been very trying on us!” Trying indeed. We have been living in (almost) quarantine situations. Seniors in care facilities were not leaving the ground of the facility and, in some cases, even their room. Some of us did leave to access essential services or employment. Others worked from home and many had employment change or temporarily end. Activities changed: gathering socially, recreationally…all put on hold. Human touch: handshakes, hugging, simply being close enough to see the sparkle in another’s eyes ended as social distancing and masks became the norm. For the most part, people have willingly made sacrifices for the health and welfare of the larger community in which we live. These sacrifices are “living sacrifices” for they bring life and allow glimmers of hope to be seen in the days ahead. Have you ever thought of these “living sacrifices” as being an extension of your faith? An extension of how you care for others? A way in which you grow, and allow growth and life to be furthered in the world?
I have observed these changes as being viewed in many different ways. Some view them as an intrusion on our rights and freedoms: being unable to do as we wish; being forced to wear a mask; being forced to do what is not timely, and desirable for me. When we consider offering our lives as a “living sacrifice”, this way of living provides an opportunity for our further faith formation. Living for others, caring for others, taking precautions for the vulnerable…these are all sacrifices that lead to life. When I think back to that unique funeral that I officiated, I think of those offerings being placed into the casket as ones which do not lead to the enrichment of life. Drugs, alcohol, wads of money lovingly placed into the casket. These things might lead to pleasure in the moment, but they do not lead to life in all its abundance; they do not lead to the abundant life that Jesus brought to the world. I wonder what “living sacrifices” you will be making in the days ahead that allow your faith to grow and add for a true abundance of spiritual life in the world?
My daughter was a dancer all through her school years. And as a ‘dance dad’, I attended a lot of dance recitals and learned a lot about this art form. Judith Jamison is an internationally known dancer and choreographer who contributed to modern dance forms. In her book “Dancing Spirit”, she talks about how one’s dance does not end with the dancer, but rather it further continues into the world. She writes: “Dance is bigger than your physical body. You must think bigger than that. When you extend your arm, it doesn’t stop at the end of your fingers, because your dancing bigger than that; you’re dancing Spirit”.
The living sacrifices we make are ones which continue to ripple into the world. Living sacrifices allow us to grow and they allow for the growth of life and all its abundance to unfold into the world. May we each be daily transformed by the “living sacrifices” we make in our lives.