2010-08-08 by George Kaplan
Joint service with Westbury Avenue Baptist Church
(in whose premises we used to gather for worship)
Preacher: Emily Welty
8th August 2010
Romans 12:1-8 (NIV)
12 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,
5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith;
7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;
8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Good morning – it is an honour for our congregation to join you this morning – in the midst of our sorrows and our joys and to spend time in the presence of God together.
Politicians promise us change – a new mandate, a new programme, a new path to prosperity and ease in our lives.
Businesses sell us change – the next health food, the newest gadget, the fastest app for our iphone, the hottest new fashion.
Technology urges us to continually communicate change – twittering and facebooking about the slightest change in our moods.
And religion makes sense and meaning out of change – so we have religious language for change like “conversion” or being born again and we have metaphors for change in all of the world’s great religions – from the story of Exodus and the liberation of the Israelites in Judaism to the Buddhist tradition of awakening the mind from illusion to awareness.
And within our own Christian tradition, we have a rich sacred history which involves change – the mantle from heaven which radically reshaped the accepted social wisdom on Judaic kosher laws; Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, the transfiguration of Christ. And of course we have the person of Jesus – God’s great change who came into the world and radically restructured our understanding of the covenant relationship between God and the world – captured most poetically by the series of revelations in which Jesus says “you have heard it said…but I tell you…”
When we consider how we experience God in times of change, I think there are two critical questions to consider. The first is – what kind of change are we talking about? And the second is – what was the catalyst for change?
Change is one of those tricky, bland words in our language in which the way that we react to the word depends largely on the context in which we hear it. “I just spilled something on my shirt and I need to go change” is likely to be heard, and emotionally responded to in a vastly different way than saying to your spouse “I think we need to change our relationship” or a boss telling an employee “I think we need to talk about changing your job”. Finding and experiencing God in the midst of change when change simply means adjustment or alternation – a minor amendment to the way things usually work – is not very difficult. But is when we use the word “change” to mean “upheaval”, “revolution”, “disruption” or “catastrophe” that change becomes not an irritation but a source of pain and anxiety.
What I want to suggest this morning, guided by our text from Romans, is that God’s word for change is transformation. A change to our routines, our expectations, our accepted way of doing things that may be new, complicated, disorienting, even deeply painful but that represents an opportunity, however small, to orient our lives towards God and towards embodying the kind of change that God needs in order to bring creation and the people of the earth towards God’s good purposes for us.
Much of how we interpret and experience change depends on what the catalyst for change was – if the change came about as the result of our own choices and volition or if the change was forced upon us. Having a new baby or entering into a marriage both represent drastic change – and even transformation – in our lives but when these changes are the result of our own choice, we are able to accept these changes and integrate them into our own experiences. But when the change is forced upon us – when we are faced with the loss of a family member, the loss of our job, the loss of our home – in these spaces we are likely to experience change as a source of fear and anger.
In our reading from the book of Romans, Paul reminds us of the importance of acknowledging change and its power in our lives. “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Here we are being reminded that not only is change inevitable but actively seeking change – in the form of transformation – is part of what we are actively called to do as Christian discipleships. The use of the word “renewing” suggests that this process of transformation is never fully complete – that we are always in the midst of the grand transformation project of building the kingdom of God here on earth.
Paul writes: “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…”. and I think Paul raises an important point here. It is very easy to look at a dramatic unwanted change – a break in the narrative structure of where we thought our story was heading – and then to passively put the blame on God. When someone suffers a change in their life that shakes the very foundation of their faith – when refugees are forced to flee from the country of their birth, when lives are lost in earthquakes and floods, when people experience loss that tears their certainty in the goodness of God – I do not think that we can stand by and simply say that these kind of changes are all the will of God. I do not claim to know the deep mysteries of what God is. But I do not believe that it is the will of God for people to suffer. And I think that Paul is encouraging us to make distinctions between human tragedy and the will of God. When Paul writes that we should “test” and “approve” what God’s will is, I think he is encouraging us to make a distinction between the changes in our lives that represent openings for transformation and the changes that are simply a tragedy that breaks God’s heart. Some changes might crack us open and empty us in order to offer opportunities for new growth and transformation. But there are some changes that we might be right to resist – to powerfully voice our opposition. Saying no – not to God but to human evil.
Paul also urges us to resist the urge to create unnecessary drama in the midst of change, writing “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the measure of faith that God has given you.” I think that here we are being encouraged to distance ourselves from our very human need to make ourselves the centres of attention and to create unnecessary drama around the everyday changes.
In this spirit of humility that I think I should share a story with you about my attempt to write a sermon this week. At the moment, there is a high degree of change in my own life. For the most part, this change is change that I have chosen – I am trying to finish a PhD programme, I am preparing to move away from London and into New York City, I am preparing to teach three new classes in the spring, I am trying to be a good friend, a good partner, a good community member.
But I really believe that when we listen carefully, diligently, with intensity, we can hear what God is whispering in our lives. And this week, in the midst of the hectic, frantic schedule, I really wanted to create a space in which I could listen and hear what God wanted me to say to you this morning. I had really good intentions – and lots of ideas about where I could create a space in which I could relax for an hour and listen for the voice of God. I searched the internet in an attempt to find a labyrinth, I wandered into a number of different churches, I tried to find a convent. And my good intentions were thwarted at every turn! The convent was closed. The labyrinths required prior reservations. My attempt to commune with God in a garden was rained on. And my attempt to find God in the sanctuary of one of my favourite central London churches was interrupted by honking horns, tourists chatting with each other, mobile phones ringing, mobile phones being answered and tourists flashing photographs.
So this is the scene – I am running around London desperately seeking a place of purity, silence, stillness – something that fits the image in my mind of what holiness looks like. I am trying to hunt down God and I am being frustrated at every turn. I am aggravated with myself, with the general public and even with God. I was silently crying out to God “Can’t you see that I am making an effort here?” And then it hit me – the irony of this situation – that I was so committed to finding a place that was free of change so that I could hear what God had to say to me about change. I had been doing exactly the opposite of what I believe we are called to do – I was trying to retreat from the world entirely, to stop the messiness and unpredictability of life. All around me was change and yet I wanted to find some place easy – some place pure and quiet – where I could encounter God. The problem is – we don’t live our lives in these easy, silent, still places. Our lives are lived in the messiness, in the chaos, in the uncertainty – the ringing mobile phones, the honking of car horns, the sirens – we live our lives there. I had been praying “God take me someplace where I can find you” when what I needed to be praying was “God reveal yourself to me here”.
Finding God in the midst of the craziness, the madness, the frantic pace of our lives is both profoundly hard and amazingly easy. In the midst of my struggle to find God this week, to hear what God was saying to me, I didn’t find God in the hallowed halls of churches smoothed by decades of prayer. I found God in the friend who pulled my backpack out of my hands, handed me a cup of tea and said, “sit down. You look exhausted.” I found God in the haunting owl call in the middle of the night, I saw God in the red flash of the tail of our neighbourhood fox. I saw God’s name scrawled in the graffiti I couldn’t read, under the railway bridges where human creativity and the need to engage with color was evident. As I loosened my grip on where I thought God was supposed to be, it became easier to see God everywhere – in the clean water that flows out of a tap, in the sirens that mean that we have a functioning medical and police force.
We can embrace transformation. We can pray for the clarity and the courage to hear the still, small voice of God in the world around us. We trust that the One who is faithful will do this.
Returning to the words of Paul, we are counselled to recognize our roles to play as different members in the body of Christ. In times of painful change, we can reach out for each other and for God. In the midst of lives which can feel terrifying, full of deception, greed, manipulation, lies, we can hold the light for one another. We can fix our eyes on the light that is Christ and we can take a step forward. God is in the midst of the rubbish and the crowd. Sometimes we are called to stop and seek out that light and other times we are called to hold the light for one another.
I believe that God wills good for us, that the presence of God is our constant, our one sure thing in the midst of lives which are often chaotic. I pray that God grants us vision to glimpse the bigger picture, to see that the thread of our lives contributes to the woven tapestry of the whole world – to see that what looks like a knot or a frayed thread – a deadend – may be an opportunity for transformation. We believe that the one who is faithful will do this.
So I think that we pray for clarity, for the patience to see the bigger picture, the greater whole. But we also pray for the courage to resist, to rise up and firmly and boldly say no to some things so that, with the same measure of passion, we can say yes to other things. We pray for humility and courage in equal parts. We pray for the humility to allow ourselves to be bent but not be broken, to be pulled by tides we didn’t create and to be willing to be lost so that we can be found.
And we pray that wherever we find ourselves, we might have the assurance of knowing that the great changeless One is our comforter, our constant companion and our hope in times of change.