United Church of Christ, Webster NY | PAST SERMONS


A Sermon by Rev. Sara D. Smith, Esq.,

Interim Senior Pastor

United Church of Christ, Congregational – Webster


Text:  Romans 12:1-2

September 28, 2008

            Lest you think the words we sing in our hymns are not picked for a reason, let’s read those wonderful words of Hymn #8, Praise to the Living God:

            Praise to the Living God, The God of love and light,

            Whose word brought forth the myriad suns and set the worlds in flight;

            Who infinite design, which we but dimly see,

            Pervades all nature, making all a cosmic unity.

            Praise to the Living God, from whom all things derive,

            Whose Spirit formed upon this sphere the first faint seeds of life;

            Who caused them to evolve, unwitting toward God’s goal,

            Till humankind stood on the earth, as, living, thinking souls.

            They are picked for a reason.  The words we say, and the words we sing, matter.  Today this hymn goes hand in hand with what Paul wrote to the Church at Rome so long ago; Words that have been so important in my faith journey:

            I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,

            to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,

            which is your spiritual (reasonable) worship…

            Do not be confirmed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of      

            your minds . . .

Or in the words of The Message, quoted in your bulletin:

             . . .Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it

            without even thinking. . .

            To understand the context for this passage, we must understand a bit about Paul’s world.  A central element in the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s time had been the Temple sacrificial system.  Large portions of the Torah – particularly in Leviticus, detailed the offerings to be presented to God -  how, when, and what.  Every detail was spelled out – animals, grains, and yes, a lot of bloody rituals.  Paul and Jesus were nurtured in that religious system. 

            Now Paul finds himself writing to the Church in Rome – far from the Temple.  What were those people supposed to do about sacrifices?  Plus, many were Gentiles, non-Jewish converts, to Jesus’ movement.  Did they have to make sacrifices?  And even bigger, after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., there could be no more sacrifices.  How were they to be faithful in this new world – Paul included?

            Paul had to open himself to new ways – to different understandings.  So Paul shifts the focus of sacrifice from grains and animals to the presentation of our whole lives – as a “living” offering to God.  Paul had to re-think his beliefs and his understandings.  He had to think about how to fit following Jesus into these new developments.

            So he writes:   “Do not be confirmed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds . . .”  The urging to not be “conformed to this world” is a call to set aside old ways of perceiving and living in the world.  This text summons us to be open to change and transformation. 

            Paul interprets such change as the renewal of our minds – learning, thinking, studying, using our brains – for the sake of discerning God’s purposes for good in whatever new world we are facing.

            The key verb in verse 3 is “think.”  Paul uses “think” three times in reference to how we assess ourselves and our lives.  Paul does NOT tell us that faith leaves mind and reason behind in order to follow Jesus.  In fact, Jesus, himself, tells us in the Gospels that we should love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

            So our faith is not just a matter of the heart – or of our spirits, but also our brains.  Yet, it seems that lately, the Christians making the headlines are not doing too much thinking.

            Today, one of the top examples of Christians not using their brains has been in the news numerous times the last few years.  It concerns ‘creationism’ (or what is now being called ‘intelligent design’ to make it sound make it sound more scientific) versus ‘evolutionism’ – and which should be taught in our public schools.

            Three “isshahs” I would like to raise:

            Rather than just holding to our own faith and letting others hold to theirs – and living together with respect, some Christians want to make sure our   beliefs are the ones taught.  How would Christians feel if it were the   followers of another religion pushing to have their beliefs taught in our public schools?  We must be careful of becoming so arrogant so to think        our beliefs should be forced onto others.

            I find it inconsistent for us to applaud that we have religious freedom – even celebrate it –  and say we are fighting for it around the world, yet have a small but vocal minority of Christians tell us what and how we are to believe – and to think - and to teach our children.

            It is ironic to me that as numbers in Sunday School and other religious education programs are declining in churches, the argument to let our public schools teach the Bible is getting louder.

            Perhaps the Church needs to do our job better – and focus on our role in nurturing the young of our faith.

This is Diana Butler Bass’ point about Reflection – her term for Thinking Theologically -  in our series’ book, Christianity for the Rest of Us.  Bass found that vital mainstream churches think theologically.  They wrestle with difficult issues in the world and their life and bring their faith and their mind to bear on them.

            To continue with our example:   Why do we reject one aspect of science, while thanking God for the science which continues to give us such medical and technological knowledge?

            Have we studied the creation stories?  Do we know that there is not just one but two?  Do we know when and how and by whom they were written?  Do we know for what purpose they were written? 

            The reason I want to explain some of these things today is because once I learned about them – it made me believe again.  When I thought I had to take Genesis 1 & 2 (our two creation stories) literally, I couldn’t.  I just wrote them off as nice stories for children.  But when I learned about them, when I used my brain about them, they became very important to me.  Let me explain.

            As I have said before, I take the Bible very seriously, but I do not take it literally, because I cannot do both.  Consequently, I do not see why evolution theories and our creation stories have to be enemies.  For me as a Christian, we need both, for different purposes.

            The creation story in Genesis 1 is our faith story about the power of our God to create this beautiful creation.  Theories of evolution are the science that God has given us the brain power to figure out how we got here.  They are for different purposes:  One is a powerful faith story, one fills in the details.

            Let’s look at Genesis 1:  It is a mythological story about God; a poem actually, which has meter and pattern and rhyme.  It is about a time before time that is for all of time.  It was written by the priests during the Babylonian Exile to help folks not forget the power of their God.  Just like every society, the Jewish people have epistemological stories – stories of how they got here.  Every culture has them.  Since we are grafted onto the Jewish story, it has now become our own.  And there are great truths within it.

            But it is not a newspaper or a science textbook.  It was not intended for that purpose.  When Christians to that to this powerful story, it makes Jews crazy.  We miss the point.

            In the Jewish Bible, Genesis 1 starts this way:  “Bereshith bara Elohim:   When God began to create . . .”   Immediately it sets the tone for a mythological story about our beginnings.   How do Christians render this:  “In the beginning . . .”  Yet there is no definitive article – no “the” in the Hebrew text.  We have tried to make it about a certain time and place – factual and actual, rather than filled with spiritual truths.

            Genesis 1 is a faith statement about the power of God to create – not the particulars of how the earth and humanity got to this point, nor the details of how this beautiful creation unfolded over the eons.

            To me, the miracle of creation is how all of creation fits together over billions of years, and that God gave us the brains to figure out a little of how it happened.  That’s the miracle, rather than believing  - despite bones that prove otherwise, that the earth has only been here 4000 years.

            We must use a major thing God has given us as a gift – our brain.  Like Paul, we need to be willing to learn and grow and change, not just listen to the loudest voices.  We don’t have to leave our brain at the door of the church to be faithful.  We need our faith stories.  We need science.  And we need to trust that God is working in both.

            There.   You just shared in the practice of Reflection.  We used our brains and hearts to think theologically.  And Chicken Little was wrong, the sky didn’t fall.

United Church of Christ, Webster NY | PAST SERMONS