August 24, 2014

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

“Living Sacrifices”

Can you imagine being Shiprah or Puah when Pharaoh ordered them to start killing all the baby boys? How scary it must have been for them to disobey the king’s orders and lie right to his face about it!

Can you imagine being one of Jesus’ disciples when he asked, “Who do YOU say that I am?” How difficult it must have been for Peter to say out loud what he really believed about Jesus when everyone else seemed to think he was just some kind of prophet!

In some ways, this morning’s readings are very different from each other. But on another level, they are connected because they’re all about people of faith finding the courage to speak and to act on their faith in spite of great opposition.

On Friday evening, I went to a short play with my friend, Martha. It’s a play that we’re considering including in the program for the Saskatchewan Presbyterian Youth conference at the end of September. And it’s a pretty heavy play because it’s all about girls bullying girls.

It’s one of those one-actor plays that always impresses me so much because the actor performs for an hour straight, remembering all the lines without any cues from other actors to follow. But the other thing that impressed me about the play was the actor’s portrayal of a typical girl called Braidie.

Braidie isn’t the victim in the story, and Braidie isn’t the bully in the story – she’s just a regular girl. But Braidie is the girl who joins in the game of being mean to Sophie. Braidie is the girl who watches as the bullying escalates, who struggles with the fear of getting bullied herself, as well as the fear of what could happen if no one intervenes. And Braidie is the girl who finally goes to a trusted adult and tells what is going on.

I don’t really know where Braidie’s courage comes from in the end. But as Christians today, we are reminded that when we place our trust in God, God can give us amazing courage in the face of all kinds of difficulties. As the author of Psalm 124 explains, God can be our help and strength in the midst of terrible situations: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, they they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us… Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Of course, it’s usually much easier to go with the flow – to give in to the fear and keep our mouths shut. Peter could have answered Jesus’ question by saying, “Well, I’m not exactly sure who you are Jesus, but I think you’re pretty special like everyone else does.” The midwives could have done as they were told and avoided further risk to themselves. Brady could have just kept staying home from school, avoiding the other girls, and staying out of the whole ugly mess.

But as Jesus taught us through his life and his death, his way is not about keeping our heads down and staying out of trouble. Following Jesus with our lives means asking God for the courage we need to face the difficult situations, to get involved, and to do what is right even when it’s not easy. Being Christians means finding the courage (asking God for the courage) to speak and to act according to our faith despite great opposition.

I can’t really tell you how God may be calling you to speak or to act according to your faith today or tomorrow. Maybe you need to speak up for someone who is in trouble. Maybe you need to go the extra mile to assist someone in need. Maybe you need to challenge an authority figure, speak truth to power, or simply act in obedience to a higher authority that is calling you to discern God’s will and do what is good and acceptable and perfect.

But whatever we may be called to do or say in particular situations, what is very clear from Paul’s advice is that as Christians we are called to place ourselves fully under God’s direction. In today’s epistle reading, Paul appeals to the Roman Christians, calling them to present their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.

Of course, he isn’t talking about some kind of barbaric human sacrifice – but he is talking about Christians offering their lives fully and completely for the purposes of God. He is talking about Christians resisting the inclination to just go with the flow and follow the values, priorities, and patterns of the world, and choosing instead to be transformed by God – allowing God and God’s will to rule in their lives. This, Paul explains, is the best way for us to worship and honour God.

It’s not that we have to be superheroes or anything. In fact, Paul advises that we be careful not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

And then he goes on, as elsewhere in his letters, to explain that the church is like a body with many members. Not all the members have the same function, but the different members bring different gifts for different functions, and they all need to work together for the proper working of the whole body of Christ.

I am reminded of the way a friend of mine once illustrated this passage during a chapel service at camp. He put a table at the front of the outdoor chapel to represent an altar. When we presented our offerings during the service, we put the offering plates on that table as a symbol of our giving them to God and God’s purposes.

And then we put some other things on the table – musical instruments, and reading glasses, and a teapot, and a friendship bracelet, and a life preserver, and a painting – various symbols of the gifts that we had received from God, and that we wanted to offer for God’s purposes. And then my friend went up to the table, and hopped up and sat on it.

If it had been a Communion table or a church’s altar, someone likely would have gotten upset about it. But it was just a table in an outdoor chapel, and we all got the point. He said he just wanted to offer his whole self to God – his whole life, his body, mind, and spirit, his days and his nights, his choices and priorities, his work and his recreation, his friendships and family relationships, his thinking and acting and being. He wanted to offer it all to God as a living sacrifice.

And that offering was not something he was doing once, as he sat there on the table in the outdoor chapel. It was something he was committing himself to doing day by day as he tried, and sometimes failed, and tried again to live the way of Jesus.

Last Sunday, as we were celebrating a baptism here at St. Andrew’s, the parents of the child, and many of us with them renewed our baptismal vows. There were promises made that had been made before… promises to keep on turning away from evil and turning towards good… promises to worship, and celebrate the sacraments, and participate in God’s mission to the world, including sharing our faith with our children and encouraging them to follow the way of Jesus. We made promises, in essence, to give ourselves fully to this life of discipleship, no matter what difficulties may come, and to trust in God to be with us and help us along the way.

And I was reminded of how important it is for us to stand up publicly and make those promises – how important it is for us to figuratively come up to the front of the church and hop up on the table to offer our whole selves for God’s purposes in the church and the world. Because it’s so easy to get scared, and change our minds, and fall away. It’s so easy to get frustrated, or worried, or to feel like giving up.

We need to make our vows to God and one another to help us to stay strong when things get tough. We need to be able to remember that special day when we stood up and proclaimed our faith and promised to follow Jesus, just like Peter did when he first proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And we need to remember that God made promises to us as well – to bless us and keep us and make his face shine upon us, to never leave us in good times or bad, and to empower us through the gift of the Holy Spirit to fulfil our promises too.

Jesus built the church on the faith of Peter and those who followed him who proclaimed their faith in Christ as Lord, and who offered their gifts and their lives for God’s good purposes. And so I want to speak especially to those among us who have not yet taken the step of making a public profession of faith, as well as those who may feel called to reaffirm that profession and recommit their lives to Christ.

I want to invite you to a journey of learning and growing in faith through our fall membership classes on Wednesday evenings in October. The classes will include learning about the basics of our Christian faith and some specifics about the Presbyterian Church in Canada. And they will also be an opportunity to explore and to embrace the Christian life more fully as we consider how God is calling us to speak and to act in accordance with his will.

Please speak to me if you think you might want to participate, either for the first time, or as a way of renewing and strengthening your commitment to God.

And may God bless us and give us courage as we hear and respond to the call day by day to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, for this is our spiritual worship. Amen.