Sermon for 27-28 June
I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Please be seated.
So there I am, eight years old, sitting in the middle of my messy room on Saturday morning. Now I was SUPPOSED to be cleaning my room, cause the county fair was that day, and we had to clean our rooms before we could go–that was the deal, The only problem was that I loved to read, and there, in the middle of the mess, was BOOK, which I had only read, oh, two or three DOZEN times before. My mother came by and warned me: “if you don’t finish cleaning your room, you’re not going to get to go.” And she meant it–after the third warning, they left without me. My brother was distressed, but I was SO relieved–at last I could finish my book in peace!
I’ve always loved words and reading. Frederick Buechner says of one character, “words were the lines that moored him to the world.” He could have been talking about me. I used to give my English students dictionaries as end-of-the-year prizes. For pity’s sake, not only do I own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, I’ve even read a BIOGRAPHY of that dictionary. I love language?
Now when I came to today’s readings I found some hard words, phrases such as SANCTIFICATION and being a SLAVE! But because I love words, I dug into some research about the readings, and discovered some great news about them. And then a dear parishioner said: “you’re a teacher, so TEACH!” So that’s what I decided to do!
Let’s look first at our reading in Romans–you can even turn to it in your bulletin. There’s a lot here, so I’m only going to talk about those two words. Let’s start with that word “slave,” a challenging concept in any time and place. The word in Greek, doulos, is filled with meaning for us. In Israel, every seven years, everyone settled accounts and debts. So if a Jew fell into financial trouble, he could sell himself into slavery until the next Sabbath, or seventh year, after which, they went free.
But at the end of that period, if he loved serving his lord, he could choose to remain with him for life instead of going free. That kind of slave or servant, “doulos” in Greek means a slave BY CHOICE. It’s like saying “serving You is better than any other free life I could make on my own.” I can’t help but remember that old Bob Dylan hit, where he says “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to SERVE somebody.” Scripture calls us bond-servants, voluntary slaves to a Lord we love.
And in this passage Paul reminds us that “having been set free from sin, we have become slaves to righteousness.” Yes, St. Paul says, we are “enslaved to God,” but this is an enslavement that we choose because our Lord is so good that we don’t want to go anywhere else. I’ve tried serving myself, and I don’t care for the results. Fortunately, we have a very good example of this kind of slave.When the BVM finds out she will be the mother of her Savior, she responds, “behold the handmaid of the Lord.” It’s that same word, doules. And by being God’s servants, we too can bear Christ into this world that so needs Him. We are God’s servants, and, as our Collect for Peace reminds us, “His service is perfect freedom.”
The advantage to this service, says Paul, is sanctification. Let me see if I can make that five-dollar word a little easier: To sanctify something, to make it holy, literally just means to set it apart, make it special. Ever get a new car, a new set of golf clubs, or a really elegant party dress? What do we do with it?–we set it apart. We might get a brand new golf bag for those clubs. We cleeeeear out some closet space for that dress, maybe don’t even take it out of the plastic. We certainly never let the teenagers take that beautiful new car.
That’s “sanctification,” being set apart. And Paul calls that the advantage we get from being enslaved to God, from serving him by choice, sanctification, the process of becoming righteous. That means when we choose to follow Jesus, He keeps changing us. He makes us holy–He SANCTIFIES us. I’m nowhere near the Christian I want to be. But looking back, by the grace of God, I’m certainly better than I was. That’s sanctification. And the Bible promises that Jesus, who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Christ. That’s good news. So how do we participate in this process?
Well, Jesus tells us one way in the Gospel reading: we love. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple will receive a reward. If we love our neighbor, looking for Christ in the face of the other, the face of the poor, even the face of our enemies, Jesus promised we would find Him there. Mother Teresa says that when people receive our help, they see Jesus in us. And when we minister to others, we can discover Christ in them. When I forget myself and I see and serve Christ in you, you and I both disappear and only Jesus remains. She calls it “Jesus in disguise.”
Jesus said the greatest among us must be servant of all. Learning to serve Christ in our neighbors, in the poor, in our enemies, in each other–this sanctification process will last a lifetime. But by presenting ourselves as slaves to righteousness for sanctification, by letting the grace of God transform us until we love like Jesus loves, this is how we take hold of the free gift of God: eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.