Friday, September 26, 2014

How Odd

Sermon preached September 21, 2014

Texts: Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

            “How Odd” Power Point with
            How odd.  A while back I was reading some essays by E.B. White, the author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, who was also an essayist and editor and contributor to The New Yorker.  In one of his essays he writes: “I discovered , though, that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.”  (Essays of E. B. White, 25).  I posted this on Facebook on Friday with the comment – “I’ll take his word for it.”  How odd.
            We, though, as followers of Jesus should be no strangers to strangeness, nor to oddity.  Jesus often told stories with odd dimensions to them to provoke our deeper thinking.  He wanted his stories to so grab hold of us that there would be no turning back, no chance of resuming stereotyped roles.
            Today’s story is no exception.  A land owner is in need of workers for his vineyard.  He goes out early in the day and hires workers, agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage.  He hires more workers at nine, noon, three, and five.  At the end of the work day, the owner wants to settle accounts.  He has his manager pay the workers, beginning with those hired last.  Seems like an odd choice.  These workers receive the daily wage.  We don’t hear about any of the other workers, except for those who were hired at the beginning of the day, who signed on to work for the usual daily wage.  You get the impression, though, that the others had been getting that same daily wage.  In any event, after waiting their turn, and beginning to anticipate a bonus for their long day of work, they are paid what they agreed to work for, the usual daily wage.
            Their response is not unreasonable.  They grumbled.  “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  The owner replies that he has not done them wrong.  He kept the contract agreed to.  He then adds: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”
            There is a strangeness to this story, many odd elements.  We noted one, that the owner paid the last hired first, almost as if he wanted those who worked first to see what he was doing.  The understandable reaction of the workers seems denigrated in the story.  The owner may have been generous to those last hired, but he would not have been considered generous by those first hired.  He may have been “fair” but not generous with these workers.  The owner comes across as a mixed bag – generous, manipulative, capricious.  He is not very well-schooled in understanding human behavior.  His system of payment might encourage workers to seek to be hired later in the day.
            Here’s another oddity.  If you want to try and apply Jesus story to current political economy, you could get two very different directions.  On the one hand, the story could support a decent minimum wage for all.  The usual daily wage in the time of Jesus was really a subsistence wage.  It was just enough to get by.  Those who got hired early in the day should, at some level, been glad that those families of the workers hired later in the day would have enough.  Less pay would have meant some kind of deprivation.  On the other hand, the story gives great latitude to the job creator.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”  Who should tell this entrepreneur what he has to do with what belongs to him?  It seems this story may not be much help as we go to the polls in November.
            So what’s up with this odd little tale?  I think this story is really trying to tell us that there are some things that just don’t fit into calculations of deserving, and God’s grace is one of them.  God offers love freely and generously to all, and never gives up offering it.  God’s love is not something we “deserve” except in the sense that we all deserve to be loved, which really means that we need some sense of being loved in our lives to become the full and rich people we can be, to become our creative best.
            I think of the theological reflection on Bernard Meland about human existence.  Meland notes that we are born into a “nexus of relationships.”  He goes on: We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence.  And from this matrix come resources of grace that can carry us beyond meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defnining. (Fallible Forms and Symbols, 151)  The tragedy of life is that some come into a nexus of relationships that is not very healthy.  All the news about child abuse and mistreatment this week arises because we know how painful and scarring mistreatment can be for children as they grow into adulthood.  The good news is that God is also always a part of that nexus of relationships, offering opportunities for healing, growth, redemption.
            In Jesus story, there are also echoes of an older story from his tradition.  In Exodus, the Israelites are none too pleased about their travel accommodations.  They complained to Moses and Aaron, wishing to be back in Egypt where at least there was bread and meat.  All they see now is wilderness, desert.  God responds.  “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread.” Quail provided meat, and a kind of thin bread was given, though they thought it odd.  And each day, there is just enough for that day.  And this is grace.
            Frederick Buechner: The grace of God means something like: Here is your life.  You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you. (Wishful Thinking).
            In another essay, Buechner also writes movingly about grace, about the experience of grace.  Not every moment of our lives, Heaven knows, but at certain rare moments of greenness and stillness, we are shepherded by the knowledge that though all is far from right with any world you or I know anything about, all is right deep down. (The Clown in the Belfry, 113)  This is grace.
            This is grace.  God offers love freely and generously to all, and never gives up offering it.  God’s love is not something we “deserve” except in the sense that we all deserve to be loved, which really means that we need some sense of being loved in our lives to become the full and rich people we can be, to become our creative best.  Grace is God’s constant offer of that love.
            In his book Calm Surrender, Bemidji writer Kent Nerburn shares two memories that help him think about God and forgiveness and grace.  The first story he recalls is about the child of a friend, seven months old. Nerburn writes about visiting his friend, and his bond with the child.  I would cradle him in my arms; he would grasp me tightly.  We would stand together, a man in the full strength and awareness of midlife, and a child in the dawning of his days, sharing a warmth and a trust that overcame all differences of biology and chronology, and made us, for a moment, two people with a common heart. (128)  The second memory is of time spent with an elderly aunt.  We had cared about each other, but there had been no deep sharing of the intimacies of each other’s lives.  But on her deathbed, something changed.  When I came to visit her, we found ourselves inexplicably drawn to each other….  She craved my presence, and I, hers.  I would sit by her bedside, holding her hand, telling her what I knew about different religion’s beliefs about death, asking her about the uncharted landscape she was exploring moment by moment, and simply being present to the mysterious power of her dying.  As I left her the last time… we simply held each other. (129)
            Nerburn reflects: Neither of these events was momentous.  They were the common clay of everyday life.  But, each, in its own way, spoke the same fundamental truth.  Here I was, at the peak of my powers in life, having been blessed with the opportunity to be present to two people – one at the beginning of life, one at the end of the journey – who were physically helpless but spiritually guileless and pure of heart.  And, in each case, what they sought most from me, and I from them, was to be held.  Anything else we would have shared would not have meant as much. (129-130)
            To be held, this is grace.  We are held in God’s embrace.  And just a quick word – this being held by God changes us, transforms our lives.  If we really let ourselves be held by God in grace there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.  It may even have an impact on our social lives and politics.  Accountability matters.  Doing good matters.  But is there some floor below which we will do our best as a human community not to let anyone fall below?  What might that look like and how might we best get there?  That is another topic for another day.
            Grace transforms, but we need to let it.  The problem with those workers in the story of Jesus is that they missed the opportunity to see grace.  They started calculating what is essentially incalculable.  What is the price of being held?  And the problem with the Israelites is that they, too, had trouble seeing grace. “What is it?”
            This is your life, you might not have been, but you are, and this is grace.  There are moments when amidst all the chaos and pain of the world, you know a deep down rightness, and this is grace.  Something inside of you gives you the strength and courage to hold someone else, and this is grace.  And you are held, and this is grace.
            And just like giving a pig an enema, grace changes us.  There is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.  How odd of God to keep offering us that grace, to keep holding us, embracing us.  How utterly odd.  How utterly beautiful.  Amen.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dancing With the Cows

September 14, 2014
Texts: Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

            Groucho Marx – what a comedian.  I could dance with you till the cows come home.  On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows and you’ll come home.  In that same film, Duck Soup (1933), Groucho Marx’s character, Rufus T. Firefly is greeted by Margaret Dumont.  “As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.”  Is that so, how late do you stay open? (
            All this stuff about Groucho Marx and about cows is a rather strange way to welcome you all today.  Cow Sunday – Celebration of Welcome – are we making comparisons between you all and cows who return home after a summer in the Scottish highlands?  The Scripture reading from Romans does not exactly help us out.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith.”  Sort of a backhanded welcome – on second thought I’d rather dance with the cows ‘till you come home.
            As followers of Jesus, though, we should be no strangers to strangeness.  Some of the stories Jesus tells have a certain strangeness to them.  Today’s story is no exception.  If we have been around the church awhile, we have probably heard the story before.  It follows Jesus telling Peter that he is to forgive seventy-seven times.  Some translations read seventy time seven.  If you are keeping track, you probably missed the point.  Then Jesus tells the story.  A king is owed ten thousand talents.  The one who owes him the money is more than a household slave, probably more like a sub-ruler.  The amount of money in the story is absurdly high.  The annual salary of Herod the Great was nine hundred talents.  The man begs the king for patience, and the king grants his release and forgives his debt.  The man is given a new lease on life.  He has a new found freedom.  And what does he do with it?  Someone owes him money -  one hundred denarii, a denarius was the typical day’s wage for a laborer.  How does the newly freed man use his freedom?  He has the person who owes him money thrown into the debtor’s prison.  In the end, his own debt is reinstated.  Following the story, Matthew has Jesus utter these words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
            Forgive from the heart, or else!  Holy cow!  Nothing like a good threat to lighten the mood, or warm the heart, or say welcome.  Except there is deep irony here.  To be sure part of the point of the parable is that our decisions have consequences.  We can use our freedom badly, use it to fall into habits of behavior that enslave us.  We can divert the flow of grace, and that often comes back to bite us.
            But wait, isn’t there something in this story about the kingdom of God, and how it gets going with an unbelievable act of grace?  Does that just suddenly end?  I don’t think so.  We can mess up as recipients of God’s grace, but I don’t think that the grace just goes away.  How late do you stay open, God?  All day and all night.  Till the cows come home.
            At its heart, this is meant to be a story about grace, about forgiveness, about welcome – about God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s welcome and about how that should change us, should make us more welcoming people, should help us as we try and create a more welcoming community.  And we are trying to create a welcoming community.  You are welcome here.  You are welcome here whether this is the first or hundredth time you’ve been here.  The very first line of our mission statement as a church is “to welcome all people.”  Every week in our bulletin, we print a statement that says: “FUMC is an inclusive, Christ-centered community of faith, meeting people where they are in their spiritual journey.”  When we baptize, we pledge to surround the one baptized with “a community of love and forgiveness.”
            Wherever you are in the journey of life, no matter how much baggage you may carry, you are welcome in the name of the God of open arms.  No matter who you are, you are welcome here in the Spirit of Jesus.  “Welcome the weak in faith” – that’s all of us sometimes.  Spiritual growth is possible and is important, but it is not often a straight road.  I appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders the first part of Romans 14 in The Message.  “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do….  They have their own history to deal with.  Treat them gently.”  Don’t we all have some history to deal with?  Our pledge to each other is that we will surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness.  We will treat each other gently.
            To be sure, “forgiveness” is complex and messy, and is the topic for other sermons and conversations.  Certainly one part of the biblical idea of “forgiveness” is the idea of welcome.
            So let me ask you a question.  Can you welcome yourself?  Maybe part of forgiveness is self-welcome.  Maybe you’ve been that pretty awful slave sometime in your life, badly misusing your freedom.  When someone has given you grace, you’ve turned around and been graceless.  We all have our histories to deal with, but in the name of Jesus Christ, we will surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, because that’s what God does.  Can you welcome yourself?
            And I thought a little bit about the word “welcome” this week.  It comes from older words that mean being pleased at having a guest.  Have I told you how pleased I am that we are together today?  But I also hear in the word a place where we come to be well – welcome.  I think we want this to be such a place.
            Patricia Adams Farmer is an ordained minister, teacher and writer.  She has a lovely book entitled Embracing a Beautiful God.  In one of the short essays that makes up that book Farmer write about her Aunt Mary Belle, who is the family genealogist.
            After having supper with Aunt Mary Belle, my sister, Lexy, e-mails me with the revelation: “Did you know we have family members by the name of Looney?  Does it surprise you?”  “It figures… certainly does explain some things,” I e-mailed back, smiling.  “But I suppose it could be worse.”  And it is.  She continues: “Mary Belle got all the birth and death certificates in her genealogy research, and one of the Looney’s deaths was listed as ‘eaten by a hog!”
            Reflecting on this e-mail exchange with her sister, Patricia Farmer goes on to write: With regard to our personal pasts, it’s the same.  We need to know and embrace every part of ourselves – Looneys, hogs and all - with compassion (and humor).  In this way we open the door to new ways of seeing ourselves and the world….  In this honest way, we offer to God our whole selves, which God then embraces, transforms, and opens up for new future paths of joy.  In familiar language, it’s all about forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and wisdom gained. (62-63)
            Welcome.  We are and want to be a place that welcomes all people.  Welcome.  We are and want to be an inclusive, Christ-centered community of faith, meeting people where they are in their spiritual journey.  Welcome.  We are and want to be a place where all are surrounded by a community of love and forgiveness.
            There is this other lovely vision of this kind of community that we are and want to be.  It is found in part of a poem entitled “Out of Cana” by Sister Maura Eichner.
Eat bread.  Drink wine.  Try to sing the song
of Christ.  Live life.  If you can dance, dance.
Everywhere grace awaits.  Desire to love to love.

            Welcome.  This is good news – good news to be heard, celebrated, taken in.  the good news is that God’s arms are always open late, and open early, open till the cows come home.  This is good news, which deserves to be danced to, even dancing with the cows.  You are welcome, by God, by others, in the name of Jesus.  You are welcome.  Welcome others.  Welcome yourself.   This is good news, to which we might say, in the theme of the day “Cowabunga.”  And amen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rocking Without Capsizing

Sermon preached September 7, 2014

Texts: Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

            Hues Corporation, “Rock the Boat”
            I have had a few conversations in recent weeks with young adults who are not all that charged up about becoming “adult.”  With the freedoms and choice that come with adulthood there are also new responsibilities to assume – bills to pay, laundry to do, dishes to wash.  As we move into adulthood, some of those who were with us on the way begin to age and some die.  As we grow into adulthood, we come to recognize that life is often more complex and messier than we perhaps thought.  Of course, this analysis supposes that we had relatively secure childhoods, and unfortunately, there are too many who did and do not.  That’s another difficult truth we can learn as we grow.
            I think part of the appeal of the music of our youth is that it evokes a simpler time.  “Rock the Boat” was a song from 1974.  I turned 15 that year.  Now that time in life also has its challenges, and they are real.  But as the distance grows from age 15, one often remembers the simpler times – a fun song that you just wanted to dance to.
            Well, a few years later, 1987, I was in Dallas, Texas.  We had moved there so I could pursue my Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University.  I got a job as a youth pastor to help with our family income.  We were a family of four, then, and I could not simply be a full-time student without contributing something to our family income.  Anyway, I was hired by a church in Dallas as a youth pastor.  The basic commitment was to lead the weekly Sunday evening youth group, which included time for recreation and for some teaching.  That first fall, as I was planning for something around which to do some teaching for our Sunday evening youth group I came across a book written by Christian singer Michael W. Smith.  It looked like a good resource to use to start some conversations.  It was not an official United Methodist resource however, and without knowing it, I had stepped on a land mine in that church.
            United Methodist Churches in the South tend to have very developed adult Sunday School programs.  Six or seven adult classes met at this church every Sunday morning, along with classes for children and youth.  What I did not know was that before my arrival, one of these adult Sunday School classes had hired a teacher from a theologically conservative seminary in Dallas – Dallas Theological Seminary.  He was with the class for a couple of years, I think, and in that time became very critical of The United Methodist Church and United Methodist theology.  It got to the point where the church made the decision to fire this teacher, leading to the departure of some of the Sunday School class members as well.  In order to prevent a future occurrence, the church had established a policy that all curriculum used in church programs had to be United Methodist curriculum.  So I come in and suggest that we read Michael W. Smith!  I was asked to come prepared to discuss this at the next council meeting.
            Conflict in the church – imagine that.  We are a group who has in its founding document, the Bible, these words: Owe no one anything, except to love one another….  Love does no wrong to a neighbor.  Love and conflict?
            My doctoral dissertation advisor in Dallas was Joe Allen, professor of Christian ethics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.  Joe’s major book on Christian ethics is entitled, Love and Conflict.  In it he writes: Conflict is an inescapable feature of life, in several senses: conflict among moral claims, conflict among the interests of various people and groups, and conflict as struggle over those interests.  He goes on: Conflict is not simply evil, nor is harmony simply good; it depends upon what kind of conflict or harmony (9).
            Love and conflict.  Conflict is not simply evil – it depends.  While I stepped into something in my church in Dallas, and created a bit of conflict, it turned out to be a good conflict well-managed.  We had a good discussion at the council that evening.  The senior pastor, Fred, for whom I developed a deep affection, even though he and I have some significant theological differences, helped let the council know that I was not simply another youth pastor, but that I was an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church and should be trusted to teach well.  I was not out to split the church.  The council was open to the conversation, and supported my choice. I was the youth pastor in that church for all seven years we were in Dallas.
            Love and conflict.  Love does not erase our differences, but calls us to work with our differences with compassion and care.  Owe no one anything, except to love one another.  Sometimes the call of love moves us to rock the boat a little.  Loving change can require a little boat rocking, but in love we want to avoid capsizing the boat.
            So I want to spend just a couple more minutes with our Scripture readings to see what insight they offer about love, conflict, rocking the boat without capsizing it.  I am looking at this not because we are in the midst of significant conflict here, but precisely because we are not.  It is in times like these that it is most helpful to think about the kind of people we want to be, even when conflict arises.  It is in times like these that it is helpful to develop qualities of character and skills so that we can work well with conflict when it arises.
            Our two texts are an interesting combination.  Paul cites a number of familiar laws found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and says they can all be summarized by love – “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The text in Matthew, on the other hand, seems to be an expansion of the concept of love.  Here is what love in community looks like, particularly when there are disagreements and differences.
            So what does that look like?
            If you have an issue or disagreement with someone, talk to them, or maybe not.  I have worked in the area of conflict transformation for The United Methodist Church using this model from Matthew 18, and we added a step.  Sometimes, it is o.k. to let something go, if we can really let it go.  I think of the wise words of Lewis Smedes in his book A Pretty Good Person: What we often need is not to be forgiven, but to be indulged a little.  Not every annoyance needs forgiveness.  Some pains beg a little magnanimity.  I need it from my wife when I  switch channels mindlessly on the television set.  She needs it from me when she stretches her short stories at dinner into full-length novels.  With a little magnanimity, the quality of the big soul that puts up with small pains, we can reserve serious forgiving for serious offense. (170)  Sometimes it is ok to let a disagreement go, if you can really let it go and not store it up for a later attack.  I often tell couples to watch out for “Always” and “Never” in their disputes.
            When you do have an issue with someone, though, begin by talking to them.  It can take courage, but it is the loving thing to do.
            If that doesn’t help resolve the issue, get some help.  This is not the same as finding three other people to agree with you and ambushing the other person with how wrong they are.  In a marriage, it may be seeking someone who can help you move through a difficult time.  In a church community, it may mean speaking with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee if you are having an issue with me, or with another staff person.  If you are struggling with someone else in the church, it may mean coming to me.  We are here for each other.
            Sometimes we need to get even more help.  Sometimes churches get really stuck in an issue and need to invite someone in to help.  I served for a number of years on the “Conflict Transformation Team” for The United Methodist Church in Minnesota.  We helped churches work through difficult times.  If you are struggling in a personal relationship and you have sought some help from friends and that has not been enough, maybe some professional help would work.
            Then there is the painful reminder in Matthew 18 that sometimes relationships end.  Churches make decisions that may have wide but not unanimous support, and someone decides they cannot live with that decision.  It is painful, but it happens and sometimes people have to move on.  The wonderful irony of the Scripture in Matthew is that it says that such folks should be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector.  But aren’t those among the people Jesus hung out with?  In the midst of pain, a word of hope.  Sometimes even our best efforts at conflict transformation won’t keep people together, but Jesus never gives up on us.  Jesus seeks whatever healing is possible.
            Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor whose person and ministry have garnered some significant attention.  She has been interviewed by Krista Tippett.  She has a book.  She is a sought after speaker.  In her book, Pastrix: the cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint, Bolz-Weber writes about church, and what she tells people who are joining the church she pastors.  This community will disappoint them.  It’s a matter of when, no if.  We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings.  I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens.  If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. (54-55)
            In Matthew 18 it talks about where two or three are gathered.  In my experience, where two or three are gathered, there will be disagreement sometimes, disappointment sometimes, conflict sometimes – some of that conflict necessary boat rocking, some not.  I also trust that where two or three are gathered in the name and spirit of Jesus, he is there, forming us in love and grace so we can be more magnanimous, big-souled.  And where two or three are gathered, the grace of God happens in some remarkable ways, too beautiful and too real to miss.  Amen.

Friday, September 5, 2014

I Want To Take You Higher, part 2

Sermon preached August 31, 2014

Texts: Romans 12:9-21

Romans 12:9-21: New Revised Standard Version and The Message

Let love be genuine.
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.
Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good.
Love one another with mutual affection.
Be good friends who love deeply.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Practice playing second fiddle.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.  Be alert servants of the Master.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Be cheerfully expectant.  Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Get along with each other, don’t be stuck up.  Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do.  “I’ll do the judging,” says God.  “I’ll take care of it.”
No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, of if he’s thirsty, get him a drink.  Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

            David Bowie, “Changes”
In last week’s sermon, I spoke, in part about the work of God in our lives and in our world as “transformation.”  We read the first part of the twelfth chapter of Romans and zeroed in on the first part of verse 2.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2a).  We considered some other renderings of this passage.  Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within (Phillips).  Do not become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.  Instead fix your attention on God.  You’ll be changed from the inside out (The Message).
            Ch-ch-ch-changes.  That’s what God is about.  Jesus wants to take us higher.  The Spirit wants to transform our hearts, souls, lives.  The Message version of Romans 12:2 uses yet another image.  It begins, as noted, Do not become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit in without even thinking.  It goes on: Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  Just this week in Time there was a brief piece on “narcissism,” with the sub-title “We’re all born to adore ourselves, but not all of us grow up.”  There is a lot in our culture that drags us down to immaturity. Ch-ch-ch-changes – Jesus wants to take you higher.  God wants to develop well-formed maturity in us.
            Last week we considered one area in which we are to be transformed by the Spirit of God.  We all have gifts to be celebrated and cultivated.  It is not just those with extraordinary talents who have gifts, we all do.  If Romans 12 is our guide, however, we all have gifts, but none of us has every gift, so we need each other in some important and fundamental way.  That strikes at the very heart of why we need the church.  We need the church because we need each other.  And if Romans 12 is our guide, we are also to use our gifts for some larger good, not simply for our self-aggrandizement.
            Continuing on in Romans 12, which is all about the kind of transformation the Spirit seeks to nurture in us, we see a shift.  We begin with transformation.  We focus on our gifts, our uniqueness.  But then there is this change.  Instead of continuing to speak about unique gifts, Paul writes about qualities that we should all be striving to nurture and cultivate in our lives.  Here is what God is seeking to grow in you.  Here is how Jesus wants to take you higher.  Here is what the Spirit is up to in you.  This is well-formed maturity.  Then we get wave upon wave of images and ideas.  It reminds me of a jazz musician taking a theme and developing it, playing it just a little different each time through.  It reminds me of waves rolling upon the shore, transforming the shore line a little each time.  It is almost as if Paul is embodying transformation in his writing about being transformed.  You can feel it in the reading, and I hope you felt that a bit when Geoff and I read.
            So how is God working in our lives?  What does this transforming presence of the Spirit seek to do in us?
            Let love be genuine – love from the center of who you are.  You need to develop a solid center if you are going to love from it.  Love one another with mutual affection – be good friends who love deeply.
            Outdo one another in showing honor – practice playing second fiddle.  Don’t be the great somebody.  It is not always easy, walking that fine line between developing our center, celebrating our gifts, and not being the great somebody.
            Keep yourselves fueled and aflame.  Don’t quit in hard times.
            Be cheerfully expectant.  I love Wendell Berry here – “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
            Pray – and pray again, and pray again.
            Contribute to the needs of the saints.
            Extend hospitality to strangers – be inventive in hospitality.  Make friends with nobodies.
            Bless your enemies.  If they are hungry, feed them.  If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.
            Laugh with your friends when they are happy.
            Share tears – weep with those who weep.
            Live in harmony with each other, even with those who may not be a great e-harmony match.  It’s us, folks, we are who we need to be in harmony with.
            Do not repay anyone evil for evil – don’t hit back.  The lesson I remember learning was “don’t start the fight, but if someone else starts it, make sure you win.”
            Discover beauty in everyone.
            Live peaceably with all, so far as it depend upon you.
            Don’t be overcome by evil, don’t let it get the best of you.  Overcome evil with good.  Hold on to dear life to the good and thereby overcome evil.
            Wow.  A bit overwhelming, isn’t it?  That’s what God’s Spirit is doing in us.  This is well-formed maturity.  This is the way Jesus wants to take us higher.  Ch-ch-ch-changes.  Can our lives really look something like this?  Well, we are not at this by ourselves.  God is with us.  We have each other.
            And it is here among ourselves that these qualities of character are to become qualities of community.  God’s transforming work is meant for our families, for our church community.
            As this kind of transforming work is happening here, perhaps then we have a real gift to share with the world.  If we can love genuinely, if we can practice playing second fiddle, if we can be inventive in hospitality – welcoming the stranger and blessing our enemies, if we can discover beauty in everyone, maybe we can be of more help in a world torn by violence, revenge, racial tension, sexual exploitation, injustice and oppression.  Given what we have seen in Ferguson, Missouri, our world needs to find creative and kinder ways forward.  Given what we see in Israel-Palestine, our world needs to find creative and kinder ways forward.  I am not sure of the exact implications of this Scripture for that situation, but revenge upon revenge doesn’t seem to be getting us very far. Given what we see in Syria and Iraq, our world needs to find creative and kinder ways forward.  Again, I am not sure what our text might mean for a situation where you have people willing to behead others.  Sometimes evil has to be confronted forcefully, but not with vengeance as its primary motive, I think.  The important point in all of this is that it is as we are being transformed, and as our community is being transformed, we have creative gifts to share that can perhaps also transform our world.  We are at our best when we love other things together.
            Ch-ch-ch-changes – God’s Spirit wants to transform you, transform us, transform our world.  Ch-ch-ch-changes – Jesus wants to take you higher.
            Two final thoughts.  Marva Dawn is an insightful writer and theologian, and one of the places she has been insightful for me is in her work on Romans 12.  She wrote a book about it which was originally entitled “The Hilarity of Community.”  In Romans 12:8 Paul writes about acting compassionately with “cheerfulness.”  The Greek word he uses is hilarotes, from which we derive our word hilarity.  The word can carry the connotation of one’s heart laughing, or of one’s eyes dancing.  God’s transforming work is serious business, but it is also to be filled with joy and hilarity.  We are invited to a joyful journey of transformation.
            A story (Anthony DeMillo, Taking Flight, 162).  Once, in a village, there was a congregation whose rabbi would disappear each week on the eve of the Sabbath.  The members suspected that the rabbi was stealing away to meet God in some secret place of prayer.  They decided to have one of their members follow him.  This is what the man saw: the rabbi disguised himself in peasant clothes and served a paralyzed Gentile woman in her cottage, cleaning out the room and preparing a Sabbath meal for her.  When the congregational spy returned, the congregation asked him, “Where did  the rabbi go?  Did he ascend in to heaven?”  “No,” the spy replied, “he went even higher.”

            Let love be genuine – love from the center of who you are.  Love one another with mutual affection – be good friends who love deeply.  Bless your enemies.  Be inventive in hospitality.  Discover beauty in everyone.  Overcome evil with good.  Jesus wants to take you higher.  Jesus wants to take us higher.  Amen.