Circle, Mirror, Transformation.

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2013-09-08 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Christopher Adams
8th September 2013
Reading: Romans 12

For reasons which will become apparent later, the title of my sermon today is ‘Circle, Mirror, Transformation’. We’ll be looking at the twelfth chapter of Romans. Our first reading is from the first two verses:

1 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.

It was when I was facing a D-minus, written in red pen in the corner of my exam sheet, by far the lowest grade I had ever received on a university paper, and a personal affront to my, obviously inflated, sense of intellectual superiority, that I concluded I was not cut out to be an economist. I was in my final semester of university, and I had been informed that, in order to graduate, I still had to fulfil a course requirement ‘in a social science’. By this time, I was well into my English degree, and the last time I had looked at a number, much less added two of them together, had been over four years before.

So here I was, in an introductory class filled with around 200 mostly fresh-faced first years, all of whom had their hearts set on degrees in ‘marketing’ or ‘international relations’ — all degrees that I looked down upon as cheekily ‘employable’. After four years of training, I could write essays backward and forward, expounding on linguistic constructions in Jacobean dramatic texts, or the finer points of editorial theory, but now I was being expected to draw line graphs. The D-minus that appeared on my first exam was indicative of my attitude to the whole exercise.

In the subsequent weeks, as I worked frantically to make sense of any of the words that came out of the lecturer’s mouth, or the diagrams I found in the textbook, that four years of training in an entirely different discipline had, in fact, conditioned me to an entirely different pattern of thinking. My impressionable mind had been conformed to the pattern of the English literature world. On a basic physical level, the neural pathways in my brain had literally shaped themselves to approach problems and solutions in a specific way: a way that responded in essays, in thought-connections; a way that decidedly did not involve line graphs.

Romans 12 begins with a giant ‘Therefore’. Paul, having been on a lengthy, detailed examination of the nature of salvation and righteousness for Jews and Christians, switches thought. Or rather, he says: because I have just told you about the mercy of God to the Jews and the Gentiles, because I have just gone on (and on) explaining how much God wants to bring all people into His grace and mercy, because I have just told you that God wants all people to be saved: therefore…and what follows in Chapter 12 (and continues for several chapters) is the conclusion of that statement. If Romans 9 to 11 are an argument, or the cause of a statement, Chapter 12 is the turning point and contains the result or effect of his previous statements, which he will work out through Chapter 16. “Because God is going to save all Israel, therefore…”

Let’s listen to a selection of the rest of what Paul says in Chapter 12 — the rest of what comes after that therefore:

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.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Obviously, anyone preaching on these verses must issue all kinds of warnings, must admit he or she is indulging in the worst kind of hypocrisy by even contemplating saying something about them. As I began writing this sermon yesterday morning, I was in a thoroughly grumpy mood. “Don’t overmix that pancake batter,” I snapped at Tim. “I have a sermon to write about love!” (I may be rubbish at microeconomics, but I am a particularly gifted micro-manager.) How are we to cope with all of these sudden commands?

And sudden they are. Paul’s ‘therefore’, and what follows, surprises me. His sentence structure in Chapter 12, at least as it is rendered into English, becomes shorter, narrower. He moves from typical Pauline monsters of sentences with clauses and sub-clauses and conditionals, to simple lists of imperative statements. Do this, do that; do not do this, do not do that. He becomes surprisingly clear and prescriptive. And his first positive command is “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” and his first negative command is to “not conform to the pattern of this world”.

But at the same time, there is hope, first in the fact that we are not being instructed to doing something we haven’t already heard before. After so much discussion of theology (some of it very dry, some — most? — of it ambiguous), Paul feels that the end result of all of this teaching — the therefore — is love-based and Christ-like. If we know the tree by its fruit, we know that Paul must be coming from a place of Christ-centredness because the commands he gives are ones that chime with Christ’s own commands. In verses 9-10, Paul says: “Love must be sincere…Be devoted to one another in love”. Jesus in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another”. Paul says in verse 13: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need”. Jesus performs the miracle of the loaves and fish. Verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse”. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you”. Out of this great discussion on the Jews/Gentiles debate, Paul returns to foundational principles: love, live in harmony, be at peace. But the question, again, is: how?

I want to bring us back now to the beginning of Chapter 12, and the idea of patterns. Paul says “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world”. But as we saw in the opening example, patterns of thought and behaviour are ingrained in us. We choose, for instance, to study a subject, and our brain literally re-shapes itself to become better at that subject, but at the expense of being able to think or conceive of problems relevant to another subject of study. An economist has been trained to think like an economist. Her approach to the world, to problem-solving, to interacting with people, to how she views relationships, are influenced by a certain pattern of thinking. Not necessarily a bad pattern, but a pattern nonetheless. To be more general: we each form patterns of thought and behaviour, we practise them, we become very good at them. Over time, it becomes easy to respond in certain ways because those are the ways in which we have always responded. To make this more personal: the world offers us a pattern to follow: war, revenge, pride — and the world reinforces these patterns over and over, in the films we watch, the books we read, the tiny domestic battles that play out from day to day. How are we to resist the overwhelming force that is our culture, and more importantly, how are we to resist the internalization of those forces?

If this sounds overly deterministic, Paul offers us a bit of hope. “Do not conform to the pattern of the world”, he says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It’s a pretty figure, in English — do not conform, but be transformed. It’s on this verse that I would like to linger for a while, and carry out an activity.

The ‘it’ playwright of the moment, Annie Baker, recently wrote a play that was put on by the Royal Court called Circle, Mirror, Transformation. The play takes place in a community arts centre and involves five characters who show up each week to take a basic drama class. Much of the play involves watching actors (including Imelda Staunton and Toby Jones) play drama games, including a game called ‘circle, mirror, transformation’. The principle involved is simple, which is good, because — surprise — I have asked Tim to lead us in a game of ‘circle, mirror, transformation’. So, please, everyone gather round.

[Play: Circle, Mirror, Transformation]

Thank you for humouring me.

As a brief re-cap of what just happened: as the title of the game suggests, we gather in a circle, we begin mirroring an action, and then that action undergoes a transformation.

To relate the game back to the verse: Paul’s command, at least in English, has an implied single-person subject: you (singular). “[You] do not conform…but be transformed by the renewing of your (singular?) mind”. Which is something of a tall order. For the longest time I read this verse as something that I, alone, could do. There was a vogue at one point, perhaps it still exists, for certain Christians (mainly teens) to go about wearing rubber bands around their wrists. The point was that every time you had some kind of ‘unChristian thought’ (usually something sexual, let’s be honest), you were to snap the rubber band and start thinking about something holy and righteous. In this way, you (you, singular, personally) were to ‘renew your mind’ — replacing (suppressing?) your ‘worldly’ thoughts with ‘Christian’ ones.

But as the game we just played, I think, illustrates, and as our general approach to Christianity teaches: “no Christian is an island entire of itself”. Life happens in the circle of community. Change, transformation, take place there too. And, indeed, in looking at this verse in other languages (i.e. ones that distinguish between singular and plural ‘you’ forms), it becomes clear that the command is given to a wider, a plural, group of people.

I think it is also worth noting that the game works in the opposite way as ‘telephone’ or, as I think you call it here, ‘Chinese whispers’: someone speaks a phrase and transmits the phrase to the next person and so forth. In a game of telephone/Chinese whispers, the expressed intent is not to change, not to transform, even though, invariably, words, phrases, and whole sentences wind up completely different from their original. A Christianity that aims to preserve everything as it always was and has been and will ever be ends up deluding itself that it can retain and maintain such practices. When we as a community involve ourselves in the practice of Christianity, we do change it, and it, in turn, changes us — we are transformed.

A Christianity of Chinese whispers seeks to maintain the literal letter of the law; circle, mirror, transformation seeks to maintain the essence, while recognizing, even inviting, change to its literal manifestation.

To return to those long list of commands — they are, certainly, impossible, without transformation in the deepest parts of ourselves. But I would argue that that transformation does not take place in a vacuum, does not take place only on an individual level, that, in fact, for transformation to take place, it must take place, and the process through which it takes place, is through the mechanism of the community. We join community, we witness good practice, we mirror that practice, we contribute to that practice and by doing so, change both it, and ourselves.

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