Living Sacrifice:  Year A Proper 16

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 124; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

How many sermons have been preached on the first two verses of Romans 12?  How many rituals of baptism, confirmation, communion, invocation, confession, benediction?  “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . . Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds . . . .”  Plucked out of the context of the rest of Paul’s argument, these verses are a reminder that Christians hold a special place in God’s Kingdom.  Christians do not live by the same rules as the rest of society.  Christians are able to “discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  

This exclusivity is confirmed by Matthew’s Jesus, who rewards Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Anointed, the son of the living God” with the keys to the kingdom.  Whatever Peter binds on earth will be bound in heaven (marriage contracts, peace treaties, tax breaks for corporations); and of course the opposite is also true: whatever agreement Peter releases on earth will also be released in heaven (voting rights, environmental protections, social safety nets).  

Is that an unfair argument?  Only from the point of view of church tradition that flies in the face of Covenant and aligns itself with Empire.

Paul of course is not referring to accommodation with political expediency.  Paul’s words are meant to encourage subversion, the same kind of subversion that Moses’ mother set in motion with her little reed basket.  Growing up in the midst of imperial privilege was a tiny spark of God’s justice-compassion, a subtle and unsuspected link to Abraham’s Covenant.  These biblical links in the great chain that is the story of the Jewish people (and by adoption, followers of Jesus’s way as well) are all individuals.  The Apostle Paul is calling for a collective shift in consciousness.  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”  

But this is not an exclusive club.  Anyone who wishes to participate in the program of restoring God’s Covenant (non-violence, distributive justice, peace) is part of the kingdom.  The only requirement is the radical abandonment of self-interest: That is the “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual [or reasonable] worship.”   Sacrifice can only make sacred what is freely offered as a symbol of reconciliation with the realm of distributive justice-compassion that humans continually cut ourselves from.  That life can only be acceptable as a sacrifice when self-interest is freely and radically abandoned in the service of the greater good.

In 1st Century Rome, Paul’s call to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” meant declining to participate in the usual patronage system of public sacrifice and banquet, the purpose of which was to reconcile the participants with the gods and the emperor, and to restore the commercial balance between patrons and clients.  Instead, by radically abandoning self-interest and sharing everything necessary for community without cost or price or condition, members of the Christian community restored God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion here and now.  This state of affairs is bad for business as usual, and is therefore unacceptable to Empire, as history has proven over and over again.  Nor did members of the Christian community find this model easy – as evidenced in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.  Following such a program gets awkward, if not extremely difficult.  What about the slacker who joins the community just to get food, and never makes a contribution?  How can my daughter get a decent marriage proposal without a dowry – which is only made possible because of deals I make in the course of business?  If all property is owned in common, how can I get yours?  In order to survive, the Church had to make some accommodation, and the accommodation began within a few short years after the death of Jesus.  

In the 21st Century, collective action to assure the wellbeing of human life on the Planet is essential.  The time is long past for individual leadership on the order of the return of a messiah, a prophet, or a liberator.  Yet in the United States, national elections continue to focus on individuals who can win enough political support to bring their own ideas into power.  Collective welfare, whether of education, medical services, employment benefits, or housing, is considered to be rewarding irresponsibility and encouraging criminal behavior at the expense of law-abiding tax-payers.  The result is entrenched injustice.

Bob Dylan asked the question 40 years ago: “How many deaths will it take ‘til we know that too many people have died?” He was singing about war, but any one of the above mentioned examples would do as an illustration of what the radical abandonment of self-interest might mean.  For now, in what is becoming a continuing series, the question applies to the evils of market-driven medicine in the United States, which is also a war against human dignity, decency, common sense, and oh yeah – love.  Specifically, let’s focus on one aspect of the medical system that impacts everyone, and that threatens to overwhelm the entire house of cards as the huge cohort of people born between 1945 and 1960 approaches our sunset years:  end of life care.

When a nursing home prescribes medication that will stimulate appetite, but will not provide the assistance necessary for the person to eat, what is the point of providing food?  A major problem “everywhere” in one particular state system is the failure of nursing home staff to turn patients every two hours, as specifically ordered by the physician, thereby worsening bedsores caused by archaic equipment, and creating more.  What possible purpose is served in prolonging life for which there is no longer any discernible quality?  Especially if one is trapped in the medical system that requires the sustaining if not prolonging of life, but denies the care required?

At what point do we realize that the radical abandonment of self-interest might mean the active assistance of someone into death?  This is not murder.  Murder means to cause the involuntary death of another, whether at the hands of the state and its death penalty for criminals (Empire) or at the hands of a fellow human being who has become so involved with self-interest that s/he cannot discern right from wrong.  Instead, such active assistance is the conscious choice on the part of the dying one and the assistant to ease into whatever adventure comes after this life.  

If Christians “believe” that Jesus gave us “victory” over death, why should we be so afraid to welcome that release?  Of course, as a society, we have been down this road with some tough cases: Terri Schiavo, and of course, Dr. Jack Kervorkian, who actively worked to assist terminally ill people with suicide, and was eventually convicted of  2nd Degree Murder and delivering a controlled substance without a license.  He is now out on parole, after serving eight years.  

What is the nature of the god worshiped by the people who devised the rules and regulations that offer promises of “care,” while denying access to that very care?  And where is the Church (the Body of Christ) on these issues of death and dying?  Somehow we consider the self-sacrifice of someone who saves another’s life to be holy, but causing the humane termination of life is evil.  Why am I allowed to kill myself to save another, but not to kill another in order to alleviate terminal and incurable suffering?  In either case, death has happened, but one is noble, and the other is a crime.

Despite all the screaming about how the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a “Christian” nation, as soon as the radical abandonment of self-interest [“love”] includes active compassion – such as supporting the right to die, or increasing taxes to pay for “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [self] and [family],” retribution comes into play.  Suddenly we revert to the prehistoric idea that anyone who is poor or dispossessed or ill or dying must either be a parasite on the community, or must have done something to deserve it.

We like to point to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which he declared that “government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”  But the part that is overlooked is the responsibility the people have for the people.  As the Apostle Paul says, “we . . . are one body in Christ, and individually, we are members one of another.”  Property rights, NIMBY, and “family values” belong to the theology of Empire: piety, war, victory.  That theology is a theology of individual salvation rather than corporate distributive justice-compassion, and is aligned with the forces of evil, which work to convince us that the realm of God is closed to us, and the keys to the kingdom are lost.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul says.  “Do not be conformed to this world,” where the normalcy of civilization traps us into injustice, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern” the will of God, which is justice-compassion.