Sermon for May 6th, 2018
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
12 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 worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
FPC Worship is Intelligent
It's been awhile since I told you a story about two of my favorite Aggies, Bubba and Tiny. As you may recall, Bubba and Tiny are graduates of that esteemed institution, New Mexico State University. Or maybe it was Texas A&M, I can't remember. But they are definitely Aggies.
One day, Bubba and Tiny were working hard, out in the hot oil field, while their boss (a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso) was sitting in the shade, supervising. Bubba said to Tiny, "How come he gets to sit in the shade while we're out here workin' so hard in the hot sun?" Tiny replied, "I don't know, Bubba. Why don't you go ask him?"
So Bubba went up to the boss and asked him how come he gets to sit in the shade while they work out in the sun. The boss looked up from the book he was reading, set down his chilled Margarita, looked Bubba right in the eye, and said, "Intelligence."
Bubba, confused, said "What's that? I don't remember taking that class in school." "Well, then I'll show you" said his boss. "I'm going to put my hand on the frame of this pumpjack, and I want you to hit my hand as hard as you can." Bubba took a mighty swing, but at the last second the boss moved his hand. Bubba's fist collided with the steel structure, and he let out a cry of pain. "That's intelligence," said the boss.
Bubba went back to Tiny, who was still out in the sun, digging a hole with a shovel. When Tiny saw Bubba he asked him, "What did he say?" Bubba, with a smug air of confidence replied, "We're out here because of intelligence, Tiny." "What's that, Bubba?"
"Well, I think it's something he learned at that Minin' school he went to, Tiny. But I'll teach it to you." And Bubba looked around, but the pumpjack was too far away, so instead he put his hand on the side of his head and said, "Now, hit my hand with your shovel as hard as you can, Tiny..."
Today's sermon is about...you guessed it...intelligence. Incidentally, how do you know when your pastor is about to say something really intelligent? That's easy enough. He begins with the words, "My wife once told me..."
We are in the homestretch with our sermon series on Worship at First Presbyterian Church, using the acronym WORSHIP--which stands for Welcoming, Orderly, Reformed, Sacred, Honest, INTELLIGENT, and Public. We try to make our Worship experiences reflect all of these things, and particularly we promote an approach to faith that is intellectually engaging.
Most organizations that have been around for awhile embody the personalities of their founders: Think of Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and the companies they founded, or more Recently Steve Jobs and Apple.
As Christians, our "founder" is Jesus Christ, and one would certainly hope that in our best moments we embody some of his virtues, or are at least moving in that direction. But as Presbyterians, I think we also tend to embody the personality of another J.C.--John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed movement which eventually gave birth to Presbyterianism.
John Calvin was trained as a lawyer, served most of his life as a pastor, but perhaps his greatest legacy is his work as a scholar. He founded the University of Geneva, which became a major hub of the Enlightenment, and his scholarly writings influenced the modern fields of textual criticism, economics and Western democracy, among others.
There's a reason this robe I wear every Sunday bears a strong resemblance to the ones our graduates wear when they walk across the stage. It's called a "Geneva Gown" in honor of Calvin's city, where it was the daily attire of university students and their professors. Calvin felt it was also the most fitting attire for a minister--a constant reminder of the minister's commitment to education and scholarly preaching.
Moving beyond Calvin, the first two countries in the world to achieve a near 100% literacy rate, well over three centuries ago, were Scotland and the Netherlands--both bastions of Calvinist influence. Why? Because they realized that if you want people to read the bible for themselves, critically and thoughtfully, not taking anyone else's word for it...well, you have to teach them to read first. And so they did. Along the way, they completely reformed their educational systems and pioneered some pretty amazing approaches to teaching and learning.
When Presbyterians came to America, one of the first things they did was to found a little college in New Jersey that you might have heard of: In time it came to be known as Princeton University. The first twelve individuals to serve as President of Princeton University were all Presbyterian ministers. The thirteenth, and first non-minister to serve as President of Princeton University was Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, who went on to become the President of the United States and remains the only American President to have earned a PhD.
To this day, the Presbyterian Church is the only major Christian denomination that still requires all of its ministers to pass an ordination examination demonstrating proficiency in both ancient Greek and Hebrew. If you're going to study the scriptures, you should be able to read them in their original languages. That's a true scholar's approach.
So, yeah. Presbyterians are intellectuals. It's just part of our cultural DNA. You can be proud of that.
But what does any of this have to do with Worship? That's where we turn to our scripture passage from Romans 12, and from the Apostle Paul (who happens to be a bit of an intellectual and scholar himself). The first half of Paul's letter to the Romans focuses on the past--everything leading up to Christ and the birth of the Christian Church. Then here in chapter 12 he turns his focus to the future--to the new life in Christ and what that looks like. And the very first topic he brings up, before anything else...is worship. That's how important worship is.
"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 worship."
Spiritual worship. That's not a very good translation. The Greek word that for some reason the NRSV translates as "spiritual" is λογικὴν, from the Greek root λογικός, which means just what it sounds like--logical, rational, pertaining to reason and the mind.
So the kind of worship Paul envisions is rational, intellectual worship, the kind that engages with your mind. But notice something else...in order to get your mind to the place where worship is happening, you have to activate that large, body-shaped container with legs that your brain lives in: Present your bodies to God. In other words, rule number one for intellectual worship is this: You have to show up, body, brain and all.
Verse 2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This is an amazing verse--one of my favorites in the entire Bible: The goal of Christian worship is (or should be) nothing less than the transformation and renewal of your mind. And what baffles me is that so many churches today ask their members to do the exact opposite: to shut their brains off at the door, accepting whatever the preacher says blindly and without question, without critical thought or challenge.
Look, I take pride in my intellectual abilities (maybe too much pride). But I'm human. I am quite capable, and even prone to, error. If I say something up here that doesn't seem right, I *want* you to question it and challenge it. Some of you are great about saying, "let's have coffee and talk about that some more, pastor." I enjoy that--sometimes you bring up things I hadn't even thought of, and sometimes I'm the one who grows and changes my mind."
Way back in high school, when Amy and I first started dating we were talking on the phone one day (you know, like teenagers used to do). She asked me some random question about a particular type of spider. Already back then, I thought I knew everything there was to know about everything, so I jumped right in, telling her everything she needed to know about that kind of spider. At some point she stopped me and said, "Really? Because I'm looking at the encyclopedia article on that spider right now, and it says something completely different than what you're saying."
Oops. And that was the moment when I knew she was the right girl for me.
What's the benefit of worship that is honest and intellectual, that engages the mind fully, asks difficult questions and isn't afraid of wading through complicated answers? What's the benefit of open-minded worship that seeks after intellectual growth and transformation? It's this: So that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Let me repeat that, with emphasis: So that you may DISCERN (or judge, or in Greek δοκιμάζω - put to the test) what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. One more time: So that YOU (not the preacher, not Fox news or CNN or Beth Moore or Joel Osteen or all your friends on Facebook, but YOU, YOU, YOU) may THINK and *figure out for yourself* with your brain, with the intelligent mind God gave you, what is good and acceptable and perfect, in other words, all the things God wants for you and for us and for our world.
It begins with you...showing up, activating your body and those two legs to carry your brain through these doors on Sunday morning. That's your part. Then it continues with all of us together. We sing, we pray, we stand up and sit down and greet one another with the love of Christ. Then my part: I preach, and I promise to be prepared, to do my homework, to ask the difficult questions and present all sides of the issue as best as I can, maybe a few things you might not have considered, maybe even a few things that are way out there and hard to believe.
Then you do your part again -- you reflect, meditate, process, synthesize, struggle, embrace or reject or revise. You do this individually and with each other. That's what the time of fellowship after the service is for--to ask someone else "what do you think Pastor Neal meant when he said this?" Or "In my own experience, I find that..." or even some days "That pastor is pretty full of it. He's off his rocker again." And don't forget the part about inviting me out to coffee later in the week!
One last thing about worship that is Intelligent.
There is a popular misconception that intelligence is the accumulation of knowledge and experience. The longer you live, the more you have, the more intelligent you are. You can gain it, but you can't lose it. There is a small amount of truth to that, but recent studies on intelligence say that it's more like a moving target. The world God created keeps changing, along with the people who inhabit it. Sometimes our experience and knowledge, when they become fixed and stagnant, can work against our intelligence. What we "used to know" is no longer adequate, as the goal posts have moved elsewhere on the field and all the rules have changed.
Rudolf Pintner was a professor at Columbia University and a pioneer in the field of educational psychology (He also happened to be educated at a good Presbyterian school). He defined intelligence as nothing more than the the simple "ability to adapt oneself adequately to relatively new situations in life." Think about that for a moment. If you aren't actively adapting to change, you aren't being intelligent. I like that, because it echoes the wisdom of our Presbyterian ancestors who taught that worship should be reformed and always reforming.
That's why we keep coming to worship every Sunday. Unless you are ready to just lay down and die, I hope you never get to the point where you say, "I guess I've learned enough, I don't need to come to worship anymore." We keep learning together, we keep studying together, we keep presenting our bodies and our minds to God for worship, for the logical and rational transformation of our lives.