Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Verse on the Cake

Romans 12:2
August 26, 2012
William G. Carter

“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.”

            In one of his stories, Garrison Keillor took us back to Confirmation Sunday. Thirteen young Lutherans were being confirmed in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Pastor Ingqvist lined them up in the front of the sanctuary and asked questions that had baffled theologians for years. They passed the exam, took communion, and went home to eat chuck roast and drink their first real cup of coffee.

            Over at the Tolleruds, they had a confirmation party for young Lois. She sat at the head of the table, a lanky girl, four inches taller than last year. A quiet girl, prone to blushing, she is having a few doubts about God. Big Confirmation service that morning, but now she wasn’t sure.

Just the other night, she sat down on the couch and turned on the TV. It was some kind of violent show. She didn’t know what it was. Men were punching one another and shooting machine guns. Irrational fear came over her. This could happen here, she thought. She prayed, “Oh God,” but all she heard was the echo in her head. It was as if the world was under the control of dark powers and prayer wasn’t going to do any good. Lois had felt her faith slipping away.

Meanwhile the family was getting ready to cut the confirmation cake. It had a scripture verse inscribed on the top in blue frosting, the very verse that we heard a few minutes ago:

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.

It was a really big cake. That’s a really big verse. Here it is once again:

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.

            Over the years, a lot of Christian people have memorized that verse from the letter to the Romans. It makes a very important point. There is a difference between this world and God’s Kingdom. There is a distinction to be made between the values of the world around us and the values of the Gospel. They are not the same. They do not automatically overlap. The show on television with its fearful violence is not the world that God created. It is the world that turned away from God from the very beginning.

            The apostle Paul reminds us of this truth in the very first paragraphs of this letter. God created this world in love and generosity, yet the very people who were made in God’s image forget to say thanks. God gave us everything, yet we turn away and live as a world unto ourselves. This is the diagnosis of the letter to the Romans.

When people do what comes naturally, generations of selfishness and violence have shaped their behavior. At the end of chapter one, Paul gives a long list of grim human habits: wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, pride, rebellion, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. This is the stuff let loose in the world. We see it every day:

I don't like the way she looked at me. I am suspicious of her. I don’t like the way he is driving his car. I’m going to show him what I think of him. I think I could make a little more money if I did not report everything I’m supposed to do. I wonder what her kiss would be like. I’m getting a little bored. I can’t stand his success and how everything comes to easily to him. I’m going to fix that.

The “I’s” have it. Paul says, “Don’t be conformed to that stuff. Don’t let anger and resentment shape you. Be different. Stand out. Let the Gospel change you.” Become like Jesus Christ. That’s what this Roman letter is all about; it’s not merely about the diagnosis but the cure. Jesus is not wicked. Jesus is not greedy. Jesus will not slander. Jesus will not damage somebody’s body nor murder their soul. Don’t be like the world at its worst. Be like Jesus Christ.

In case we wonder what that means, we have the rest of Roman letter. Paul gives a much longer list here in chapter 12:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

. . . and the list goes on a ways after that. The hinge upon which all this turns is the verse on the Lake Wobegon confirmation cake: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed . . .”

            So I have been thinking about these things. I’ve been reflecting on the verse on that cake. Because it occurs to me that, these days, it’s harder to live as a Christian in America than it was one hundred years ago. All through this summer, I’ve been reflecting on the many changes that have occurred since this congregation began in 1912. As this sermon series winds up, we take a minute to name some of the changes:

  • The family unit has diversified.
  • The outside world has gotten both smaller and bigger.
  • Consumer urges trump relationships.
  • The culture has lost its theological vocabulary.
  • The church’s voice has been increasingly sidelined.
  • Churches are redefining an understanding of professional leadership.
  • Society is breaking into more divisive factions.
  • And we no longer have much of an attention span . . . (Squirrel!)
            This is a map of where we live. This is the context of our mission field. We have to swim in these waters or else we will sink. There is no desert island where we can retreat beneath the coconut tree. There is no secret rapture to snatch us away. We are called to embody the love of Christ in this place, in this neighborhood, at this time in human history.  

            What it all suggests to me is the Christian congregation has to become an alternative community. In a world where people are beaten up and bruised, we must be a community of profound respect and deep hospitality, all in the name of Jesus. In a culture that worships the mighty and shames the fallen hero, we open our arms to forgive and welcome all whom Jesus loves. In a society that loses its way, we announce that Jesus is the Way, the Only Way; his mercy, his peace, his call to love God and neighbor is the road we travel.

            As we approach our second century, I hope we can be the kind of congregation where strangers stumble upon us and say, “I didn’t know there was a group of people actually like this.” The evidence is in our freedom. We can be free from the ongoing damages of an angry world. Free from the fractures of incivility. Free from the self-absorption of modern life. Free to be neighbors, sisters and brothers, and friends. Most of all, free to be Christ-followers. Intentional, committed Christ-followers.

            The Christian life does not happen without change. “Do not be conformed – but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Our invitation is to come before God to have our minds changed. And Paul does say our minds. The Greek word for “mind” includes the combined abilities of perceiving, understanding, feeling, judging, and recognizing goodness (Strong’s Concordance). A renewed mind is full of insight, not merely crammed with disconnected information. A renewed mind integrates all our multiple intelligences. A renewed mind seeks after God. A renewed mind directs muscles and bones to serve the global neighborhood.

Needless to say, a renewed mind is renewed. It is not stale, stuck, or stodgy. It is alive, constantly growing, and open to wherever God is leading.

            And I have to say, God is leading our congregation into the future. For well over a year, our Christian Education leaders have reviewed their own program. It wasn’t working. Classes were small. Attrition was high. Teachers were discouraged. There was not ample time to have an adequate class. Frankly, a lively church like this was dragging along a limping education program. Something different needed to be done.

            And why not? Sunday Schools have not been around forever. Historically the Sunday school did not actually happen on Sundays in most places in America until the 1930’s.[1] Here, our Sunday School really began to grow in 1951, during the Baby Boom, under the leadership of a young man named Jim Spann. That was 61 years ago, and a lot of those Baby Boomers are entering retirement. Things change. It’s a different world.

            But our commitment to Christian growth has not changed. So in a few weeks, we are moving virtually all of our education classes to Wednesday nights. We are going to begin with a simple meal for anybody who tells us they are coming to eat. Every week, it will be good for us to eat together, and everybody is welcome. Then we have full one-hour classes for disciples of every age. For those who want to sing, they can stick around after that to sing, or to ring bells, or to continue the fellowship and the friendship in other ways. The classes will be all about following Jesus; that’s our curriculum.

It’s going to be exciting. A dozen or so confirmation kids will meet here every Wednesday with the rest of us. At the end of the year, I think we should give them a big cake inscribed with a Bible verse. For children’s classes, we are going to a rotation model. That simply means it is going to feel like Vacation Bible School every week. There will be an adult class on faith and life, with current topics and Bible studies. I will be working directly each week with a new class open to younger adults called TAGS – Talking About God Stuff.

All of this is being planned by committed volunteers while we search for a full-time church educator. We have people working hard to make this happen – because they know the Christian faith is a growing faith. It’s a learning faith. It’s a faith that keeps working on us until we become more like Jesus.

Isn’t that why we are here? Of course it is: to have more people becoming more like Christ. This is the ongoing Christian journey. It is God’s way of transformation. That, as they say, reminds me of a song – the very next song which we will sing together:

Faith begins by letting go, giving up what had seemed sure,
Taking risks and pressing on, though the feels less secure;
Pilgrimage both right and odd, trusting all our life to God.

Faith endures by holding on, keeping memory’s roots alive
So that hope may bear its fruit; promise-fed, our souls will thrive,
Not through merit we possess but by God’s great faithfulness.

Faith matures by reaching out, stretching minds, enlarging hearts,
Sharing struggles, living prayer, binding up our broken parts;
Till we find the commonplace ripe with witness to God’s grace.[2]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] “Faith Begins By Letting Go,” Carl Daw. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment