Elizabeth M. Deibert
October 28, 2012
Do you get discouraged sometimes, wondering if all your effort is not really accomplishing anything? Did you know that just before Martin Luther died, he wrote a friend about the failed reformation of the church? He had just preached his final sermon and guess how many people showed up? Five. If Martin Luther thought his effort had been a failure, then surely one never knows what God might do with our attempts at being faithful. It is easy to be discouraged about the church – big C, because as I mentioned last week, there is a rapidly growing group of people who mark none on the survey of religious affiliation. And many who claim to believe in God are not really very interested in being an active part of a church. And of those few who are willing to commit to a church, many are not interested in our kind of church, one that treasures our handed down tradition and lives with it in a fresh and vibrant way. And it is always clear that in order to thrive as a church, what we need is growth, and sometimes to be honest with you, I get tired of trying to figure out how to do that. And in my exhaustion, I have little tolerance for the little skirmishes that happen in all churches, including one that is named Peace, because sometimes we are NOT peaceable. And if they’ll know we’re Christians by our love, none of those people marking none on their pages will know. Perhaps tensions are high because of the election season, but what I have seen lately is the need for more respect, more gratitude, and more peace around here. It all begins with the transformation of character of which Paul writes in the 12th chapter of Romans. It is about the reformation of character – about internalized the mind of Christ.
Paul spends the first eight chapters of Romans talking about the amazing grace of God that trumps all sin. We a justified by grace through faith, not through works – the great emphasis of the Reformation. Then in chapters 9-11, he explains how the new covenant does not nullify the first covenant made with the Jews, but broadens it. God imprisoned all in disobedience to be merciful to all. Then in chapter 12, he gets to the huge transition moment – the therefore.
Because there is no more condemnation because of Christ’s gift of grace, then we are called to live as the free children of God, transformed by the renewing of our minds. And our text goes on to describe just what that renewal, that re-formation or transformation should look like. I could preach five sermons on this passage, one on each paragraph as it is laid out in your bulletin, but instead we will look today for the big picture view of the committed Christian re-formation.
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.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (NRSV)
It takes guts to be a non-conformist. The opening lines of this scripture lesson call us to yield ourselves completely to God, like Jesus, to give ourselves thoroughly to a sacrificial life of service that brings meaning to others. This does not just happen magically. It is hard to work out your own salvation even with the help of the Holy Spirit. It requires the transformation of our minds – from our regular old self-absorbed, reactionary, reptilian brain, looking only to protect self and satisfy self, to a deeper, more humane, Christ-like mind that is sensitive to the Spirit of God, that knows what is good and right and holy – by prayer & study.
Transformation – Re-formation. It begins with our humility – not thinking too highly of ourselves and then recognizing our need for one another in the one body of Christ. Thinking too much of self gets in the way of seeing the value of others. We all have differing gifts – what a good idea –that we are not all alike – how utterly boring that would be. Forgive me, but I have to stop preaching and go to meddling now. There is just not enough gratitude in this church for all the different gifts that people bring. For the rest of gratitude season at Peace – that’s three more weeks, I am making a commitment not to complain about anything or anyone at Peace. Will you join me in this commitment (it is a big one) not to complain about anyone or anything at Peace. (Yes, that includes your spouse if you have one who goes to Peace and children and the person at church who bugs you the most.) Can we fast from complaints about people for three weeks? Will you make that commitment with me? Let’s give thanks to God that we are all different. Every time you get ready to complain about someone, stop yourself and find something to be grateful for, and I don’t mean sarcastic gratitude, which is not real gratitude at all. Life is too short to waste so much energy wishing people would be more like me, more like you.
Barbara and Don McIlwain handed me a wonderful little comic strip last Sunday. It says, “Dear God, so far today I have kept my mouth shut, have not lost my temper, have not been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulgent. I’m feeling good about that. But in a minute, Lord, I am going to get out of bed, and I’m going to need a lot more help from you. Amen?
We all have our excuses for meanness – for being un-reformed. Richard can tell you I’m not very nice, even first thing in the morning. Let me have my coffee and leave me alone to pray and walk in the garden and gradually I become humane. Now I could blame my irritability on menopause. Or I could say that being a pastor is challenging, exhausting sometimes, but so are other vocations, and the vocation we share is ministry – wherever we are, whatever we do. And ministry would be so easy, if it were not for the people. It is so easy to blame our irritability on other people, rather than looking at self more closely. Outdo one another in showing honor. We all can name any number of excuses for bad behavior. The kids driving you up the wall. Your aging parents needing more from you than you can give. Your stressful job or the fact that you lost it. Your financial situation, your health or that of your spouse. Your concerns about the future – who will take care of you in the end. There are many reasons for our grumpiness, for our lack of patience in suffering, for our inability to trust God, and to love others generously. Yet, there are no real excuses because God’s grace has been poured into our hearts and in Christ, behold, the new creation! Everything old has gone. See, everything is new. Everything is being reformed.
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what God’s up to... getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But then God starts knocking the house around in a way that hurts and stings and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is God up to? The explanation is that God is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but [Christ] is building a palace to come live in himself.” ― adapted from C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
We are called to be shining lights because of God’s grace. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, you are a light on a hill. Shine so that others will see your good works. The first letter of John says, “Beloved, let us love one another… whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
The last two paragraphs of our text today are a sort of checklist of attitudes and actions which I believe can be summed up with the words: Embrace the good, serve God your might, be compassionate and generous toward all people, and put your hope in God.
There are twenty-three challenges to live a devoted Christian life here in those two paragraphs. I’m going to end this sermon by reading them very slowly, hoping that each of us can internalize them and pray to embody them, as the transformed person God calls us to be. The great slogan of the Reformation was semper reformanda, always being reformed – according to the word of God. It does not just happen overnight – this sanctification process takes some effort, some cooperation with the Holy Spirit who wants to indwell us and re-form us – as a community and as individuals. Please pray with me for re-formation in these ways:
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.