Scripture: Romans 12:1-2, 13:11-14
So as some of you know, I have been away for the past couple of weeks. I missed three Sundays, and the weekends on either end. What I want you to know is that first week I was gone was actually a business trip, continuing education, a spiritual retreat with a bunch of Disciple clergy in the Big Horn National Forest in Wyoming east of Yellowstone. Think of church convention where A River Runs Through It. Fly fishing is a big specialty there with a little Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance thrown in alongside just for the fun it on the way. But the retreat was lead by Ron Allen who is the Professor of Preaching and New Testament Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. That’s him in the white shirt. That is not a very good picture. He presented each morning and each evening and engaged us in conversation. It was a little cabin. I didn’t sleep there; I slept out in the woods. They asked Ron share something that he was working on that might benefit a group of ministers like this. So he gave us his thumbnail sketch of his interpretation of Luke Acts. Now if you are not familiar with that, it is how scholars refer to the Gospels of Luke and Acts because they were both written by the same person and obviously meant to be read together. But it was through some misfortune of the early church when they were first compiling the books of the New Testament that somebody inserted the Gospel of John in between the two, and thereby separating them. But Allen and many other scholars like him believe that there is much to b gained by reading these two works side by side and comparing them. For instance, the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem which begins in Chapter 9 of Luke, compares very nicely to the journey of Paul to Rome told in the Acts of the Apostles. But Allen is quite unique among his contemporaries in that he takes this comparison a step further and says that Luke Acts is a giant Chiasm. Now I know that that really helped you a whole lot, didn’t it? Chiasm is a one of these words that biblical scholars create. And if you know your Greek alphabet, it is the first letter of Christ. It is one letter, not CH but one letter. They use this word because of that kind of X-like symbol to describe this style of literature, rhetoric, Greek rhetoric. Chiasm looks like this. There is point A, B & C or however many. Then you go backwards in reverse order and you have point C, B & A, stated in a new way, rephrased or added something to it or whatever. For example, John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” is a chiasm. They appear everywhere. They are as old as literature itself. They appear everywhere from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Hollywood’s Mae West. “It is not the men in your life that count; it is the life in your men.” She looks a little like Homer, doesn’t she? Jesus used chiasms. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And so does Tupac Shakur. “They say that money don’t make the man, but I do sure make a lot of money.” In ancient Greek chiasms were so highly valued that students were taught the Greek alphabet forwards and backwards. Can anyone say the alphabet backwards? Z, X, Y. Well, my wife can do that, I have no idea. And not only that, they would have them go to the middle of the alphabet and then back to the beginning, then start at the end of the alphabet and back to the middle and then back to the end. So, they taught chiastically. So Allen contents that the book of Acts is rhetorically the Gospel of Luke written backwards. So for instance, you have in the beginning of Luke and in Luke and only in Luke, the appearance of Cesar “In the year of …. of Augustus Cesar, Jesus is born.” which pairs quite nicely in the end of Acts with the appeal of Paul to Cesar or in the end of Luke you have the Resurrection of Jesus that pairs with the story of Pentecost at the beginning of the story of Acts. At the center of this chiastic structure is not the Resurrection as we might think but rather the Ascension of Jesus which Luke ends with the Ascension and Acts begins with the Ascension. It is told twice. So for the author of Luke Acts, this is the central and most essential message of the Gospels, that Jesus has taken this place at the right hand of God which is just a way of saying in story form “Jesus is Lord and Cesar ain’t. You can trust Jesus as the one to follow and not the rulers of this world.” Now why am I telling you all this when the bulletin says I am supposed to be preaching on Paul’s Letter to the Romans? I just want you to know that this trip to Wyoming was a legitimate, bonafide, spiritual retreat. Whoops. Well you know Jesus was a fisher of men. I am just trying to get closer to Jesus. In any case, I get back from this spiritual encounter with the fly-fishing gods of Wyoming and a little bit of vacation and I come in and begin working on my sermon this week, and I open up one of my commentaries on this section on Romans 12 and what do I see? Hum, it is a chiasm. Here is what I am going to do is focus on the A section. By the way scholars call it A, A prime, B, B prime, C, C prime and so on. So today I am going to focus on the A section, then next week, the B section and then we have the church campout and we are going to focus on the cosmos and then finally on September 14, I am going to focus on the central section which include Romans 13, 1- 7, which this particular scholar, M. T. Wright, says “has often been regarded as something of a cuckoo in the nest of Romans”. That is just a little teaser to get your curiosity, so that is coming up. So reading first from the introduction of this section in Romans 12 and then the conclusion at the end of Chapter 13, which by the way takes the central idea of the introduction, this contrast between the way of the world and the way of God and turns it into a familiar metaphor. Now I am going to read from the scholar’s version and I invite you to follow along in your own bible or in your pew bible which is the New Revised Standardized Version. I am going to refer to both of those versions at some point. “So I appeal to you friends as the recipients of the wondrous mercy of God to dedicate every fiber of your being to a life that is consecrated and pleasing to God which is what enlightened worship ought to be. Don’t accept life of this age as your model but let yourself be remodeled by the recovery of your true mind so that you can discern what is consistent with God’s purpose; what is good, worthwhile and completely genuine.” Then Chapter 13, verse 11 – 14 “I don’t have to tell you that we are living in the most decisive moment in human history. The hour has already passed for you to be roused from your sleep (“thank you for the help there”, a baby crying), because the time of ultimate fulfillment is nearer now than when we first put our unconditional confidence and trust in God. The night is almost gone, the day is almost here. Let us rid ourselves of the preoccupations of darkness and clothe ourselves with the armor of light. Let us conduct ourselves in ways befitting those who live in the full light of day, not in gluttony and drunkenness, not in promiscuous sexual behavior nor in uninhibited self indulgence, not in dissension or envy but adopt to the manner of life of our Lord, Jesus, God’s anointed, and make no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.” So here is Paul’s basic idea in a nutshell, the current age which in the New Revised Standard Version is translated as the world. The current age is corrupt, but a new age is coming. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, the followers of Jesus sometimes called it the Second Coming of Christ even though the New Testament authors never used that phrase and simply called it the return of Christ. Some called it the Eschaton or the last days, not referring to the end of creation, when properly used, but the end of corruption of the world. John Dominic Crossan calls it the great divine clean-up. So whatever you call it, Paul’s claim is that this time of God’s coming into the world is just on the horizon. The resurrection of Jesus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of the Disciples of Jesus is the first rays of that new dawn. Therefore, it is time to get up and get dressed in Christ is Paul’s image because there will be no sleeping in in this new age to come. It is time to get up and get moving. Now, I realize that for those to whom sleeping in is the closest you will ever get to Nirvana, that this is not a very appealing metaphor. So to help us get this feeling of a sense of urgency that Paul has and maybe the resistance we have to it, I give you one of the greatest sources of theology, I give you Simon the cat. (video of cat trying to wake its owner). See what a week away flying fishing in the mountains will do for you? These are the inspirations that come. Well, Paul is like that prodding, poking, provoking cat and is willing to hit us over the head with the proverbial metaphorical bat. Whatever it takes to wakes us up. To get us to pay attention to the new reality of God’s new age that is just there on the horizon. And that is all well and good for type A personalities like Paul, who are always eager to get up and get moving at the first light of dawn, but the truth is we are more like sleeping Simon. Right? We are satisfied with the status quo even if it is may be in a mess kind of like his room because in our bed, everything is warm and cozy. We don’t want to be disturbed. After all it has been 2,000 years, Paul. Why the urgency now? Without Harold Campion around anymore to give us the latest date for the end of the world. What’s the rush? So I use the scholar’s version of this text because I think it does a better job of conveying that urgency felt by Paul. “I don’t have to tell you”, he writes, “that this is the most decisive moment of human history.” In other words for Paul this dramatic infusion of God is going to change the world and we are called to live in that new reality now. Not to wait for something to happen, not to wait for God to do something but to begin living by that standard now, not to wait until tomorrow, not waiting until next year, not waiting until someone else does it, but to do it now. To give every fiber of our being to this new reality, as it is called in the New Revised Standard Version, to give ourselves as a living sacrifice. That is to make every moment a sacred moment celebrating God’s real presence that is with us in each and every moment of our lives. So I want to suggest to you that the passing of 2,000 years since Paul wrote this letter has not made him irrelevant. To the contrary, that sense of urgency for the need to wake up is even more relevant today. The infusion of God is even more needed, the manner of Christ is even more critical. I give you just two examples and I ‘m sure you can think of many more. In the book many of us have been reading in our prayer pods “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road”, Brian McLaren makes the case for a Christian faith that is not just tolerant of other religious traditions but that embraces and welcomes them. And he notes that increasingly we are faced with a choice not between kindness and hostility, but between kindness and nonexistence and if then in the manner of Christ, we follow Jesus crossing the road with Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed, we will find there McLaren says, not hostility but hospitality and in such lies the hope of this world so increasing torn by religious and sectarian strife. Or consider Bill McKibbon, the Christian activist who is one of the leading voices today in the issues of climate change, raised in a church much like ours, with the understanding that we are tasked with the responsibility of being good stewards of the earth. He calls climate change the greatest problem human beings have ever faced in the history of the world. Writing last year in Christian Century Magazine, he notes that we have just 14 years then, 13 now, of burning fossil fuels at our current rate before we reach the tipping point when we will have warmed the earth two degrees resulting in devastating damages to the environment. Witness what we have seen going on in many area in the drought of California as just one example of areas that have completely run out of water. And what is especially scary in the article is the calculation of scientists which show that fossil fuel companies that companies have in their possession, their reserves, equal five times the amount that it will take to push us beyond that point. Five times if it is released in our atmosphere, if it is burned and used. “Most people don’t realize it, but we are engaged in a struggle for our very survival that is coming to a head, McLaren writes, “the time to be counted is at hand.” So when Paul looked on his world he saw corruption, dissension , envy ,gluttony, drunkenness, promiscuity, self indulgence, gluttony and drunkenness and all this before Reality T V.
Today we have all that and more; climate change, global terrorism, multiple wars simultaneously in the Middle East, wealth inequality today that exceeds the era that led up to the Great Depression. This may be, this is, the most decisive moment in human history. Only the urgency today is not because God is about to act, the urgency is that we must act. The time has come now more than ever for courageous people of faith to trust the way of Christ and the rein of God, to not be conformed by the way of the world, or as it is put in the New Revised Standard Version, “but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the rule of God, what is good, acceptable and true.” It is a very tall order and in Paul’s eyes and an urgent one for each and every follower of Jesus, for all of us. I have no doubt that Paul was right, more so today than ever. What are we to do? Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God. More to come later.