Summoned, Surprised and Sent
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on All Saints / Stewardship Commitment Sunday, November 3, 2013
Romans Chapter 12
Romans Chapter 12 has been one of my favorite scripture passages ever since I discovered it in high school. Verse 2 serves as the masthead and mission statement of my blog where I post my sermons, Sabbath plans and thoughts about life: “Do not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
As a young man, these words helped me discern God’s call on my life:
Present yourself a living sacrifice, for this alone is an acceptable form of worship.
Practice radical hospitality; give generously to meet the needs of the saints; weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice; as far as it is within you, live in peace.
Good stuff! Challenging stuff. Costly stuff.
I discovered Romans 12 the same year I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who led an underground seminary in the 1930s, helped write the Barmen Declaration to resist Nazi ideology, worked tirelessly on behalf of German Jews, and ultimately participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. For this he was hung and martyred in a concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just 23 days before German surrender.
During little bits of free time between classes my junior year in high school I read an English translation of Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship and came to believe that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount; that forgiveness, non-violence and love of enemy is not an impossible ideal but are what it means to follow Christ. Bonhoeffer taught me the difference between costly grace and cheap grace. Costly grace is given to those who aspire to be disciples, to be those who count the cost and yet still follow Jesus in the difficult but joyful way of life described so well by Paul in the Romans 12, who practice what he preached. They not only hear but respond to God’s call and let that call change them.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?
Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
Such a summons is already grace. To be called, claimed and commissioned as a disciple is grace upon grace. To try, and fail, and try again to be a disciple is grace. At the conclusion of such a life, one can look back and see that whatever was accomplished for the good was done with the help of God, and where one has failed one has been forgiven. Such grace is only the result or conclusion of a life of discipleship.
Cheap grace, on the other hand, is presupposed and aspires to nothing more than to be freely loved and accepted by God. It is the confidence I have heard so many times in the first draft of a confirmation student’s statement of faith: “I know that God will love me no matter what, even if should stop coming to church or even believing. God will always be there for me.” Or the adult who sings “Just as I am” and never tries to be anything more. The first is a set up for failure. The second is just laziness.
Do not conform to the world, but be transformed! Or as William Sloan Coffin so famously put it, “God loves is just the way we are, but God loves us too much to leave us this way.”
Friends, we are summoned to nothing less that participating in a divine way of life in the world, to be the images of God we were created to be by reflecting God’s imagine with our lives. We are summoned to follow the way of Christ in loving God and loving our neighbor, to being nothing less than a provisional demonstration of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Such a way of life in not entered into lightly, nor should it be. There is a reason we compare each baptism to a death by drowning – it is a dying and rising to life, a new kind of life, which is only lived with the aid God’s spirit at work within us.
And it is hard work.
And so we need each other, and we come to this table both to be strengthened by God and to support one another. In a few moments we will sing a new communion hymn:
Look who gathers at this table! Hear the stories that they bring.
Some are weeping; some are laughing; some have songs they want to sing.
Others ask why they’re invited, burdened by the wrong they’ve done.
Christ insists they all are welcome. There is room for everyone.
The middle verses bring us on this All Saints Sunday into the great company of saints, dead and living, who have struggled or struggle still to live out the healing love of God in broken world, and concludes with an invitation:
Bring your joy and bring your sadness, and prepare to be surprised
By the host whose hands are wounded, who will open wide your eyes
When he blesses bread and breaks it – truth and manna from above! –
And then passes wine that wakens in your heart the taste of love.
Summoned by Christ, we are surprised by our kinship with and need for one another, and we are sent into the world to be Christ’s body.
Thus we combine on this day our celebration of the great cloud of witnesses, the saints in light, the lives and examples that comfort and challenge us in our own discipleship, with commitment Sunday. Even as we bring forward our financial pledges for the coming year, what we are being asked for is our whole life as living sacrifice.
Take, O take me as I am (we will sing as we bring our commitment cards forward)
Summon out what I shall be
Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.
What God seeks from each of us today is a re-commitment to the difficult way of discipleship, a total commitment of time, talent, financial resources and influence in the world, that we might be Christ’s disciples.
Gifted by you, we turn to you, offering up ourselves in praise;
Thankful song shall rise forever, gracious donor of our days.
Now direct our daily labor, lest we strive for self alone.
Born with talents, make us servants fit to answer at your throne.