October 1, 2017
Human beings have an incredible ability to accept and adjust to almost anything. This is both our strength and our weakness. It is hard to figure out when we are coping and when we are stuck. Over the course of years, I grew used to knee pain. I acquired a heavy limp. I drained it and had cortisone injections more and more frequently. Only after years of adjusting and accepting a diminished quality of life did I decide I couldn’t stand it any more. Finally, it was time for change.
That was half the battle. The other half was physical therapy. Because I had an afternoon surgery slot, I walked twelve miles that morning. Two weeks after the surgery, I felt so weak. I asked the question that people always ask after making a change: “How is this possibly better?” I reported to my physical therapist—John. I rather brashly said, “I am going to be your dream patient! I have worked out six days a week for five years. All I want to do is get back to the exercise that I love. I’m the patient who is actually going to do everything that you tell me to do!” He chuckled and invited me up on the table. Then, he just began very gently to rub the scar in order to desensitize it. And I began to “climb the walls!”
Each appointment, John would introduce a new challenge. Each one would seem fairly insurmountable at first. He encouraged me but he didn’t let me off the hook. He challenged me but he didn’t break me. Early on, he had me stepping up onto a four inch pad and landing on my new knee. In the end, a number of matts were piled on top of one another to make a 24 inch step. I landed on top of those mats 15 solid times in a row on that new knee. He looked at me and said I was done. (I think I was really done, though, a few months later when I sent him a picture of me climbing boulders on the north shore of Lake Superior!)
I trusted John. Almost everything that he did was uncomfortable. Almost everything he did involved some kind of pain. Hanging in there meant having to learn to tolerate the discomfort and the pain and understand that this is what I was going to have to go through in order to get my life back. He was a caring, listening, reassuring presence who would look me in the eye and say, “Come on…we’ve got work to do!”
In our text from Romans this morning, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” His message to us as individuals and to us as a church is that we are meant to be changed and to grow. As individuals, we are meant to hear the incredibly good news that we are loved, no matter what, by God. As a community, we are meant to build a life together that reflects that good news. If we take this good news to heart—as individuals and as a community—nothing will ever be the same.
Think about the incredibly sad alternative. How weird would it be if I take faith to heart, if I hear the good news that I am loved, if I feel God’s presence in this life and I manage somehow to be totally unchanged. “Yup…congratulations to me for being that guy who managed to be loved but not grateful. Yup, I was invited to live differently, but I clung to staying the same. Yup, purpose and joy and meaning were out there but I couldn’t deal with the discomfort that was here inside me.” Of course, every one of those things could be said about churches that refused to be transformed, too.
This morning, I want to point to three things that can block us from being transformed. Then, in the next few weeks, I want to introduce you to some folks who made it through those barriers, whose lives were never the same.
The first barrier we might run into is exclusion. Either we are told directly that we don’t belong or that message arises for complicated reasons from inside us. Specifically, we don’t feel like there’s a place for us in a community of faith. God’s love is good news but it turns out to not be good news for us. It is just not acceptable for me to be who I am and be here. So, I can either hide who I am or I can just have the “courtesy” to stay away and at least not make others uncomfortable.
There are a host of reasons someone might be excluded. My skin might be the wrong color. My bank account may not be the right size. I might love the wrong people. I may not speak the right words. Any of these reasons, spoken or just silently enforced, might be the basis for the community of faith to exclude me. For centuries, church leaders and church members alike have felt that they had the authority to declare who was in and who was out. Of course, if you really look at Jesus’ ministry, you realize that no one was excluded. Sooner or later, you realize that either everyone is in or God is out.
The notion that everyone is “in” is a revolutionary concept. On our own, most of us gravitate to people who are similar to us, people with whom we feel comfortable—the kind of folks who aren’t going to challenge our assumptions. That’s just the way people are and the way the world works, right? Here is the problem though: when we conform to our world and allow the church to become just another like minded tribe, we cease to be the church. As a church and as individual followers of Christ, we don’t get to be like everyone else. When we meet someone who makes us uncomfortable, who disturbs us, we are meant to see that person as someone whose presence will lead us to learn and stretch and grow and be transformed. We need to welcome that person…
Unless, of course, what we expect them to do when they come to church is to go sit in the corner and not disturb anyone. We don’t get to invite people into our lives and then tell them, “Just don’t touch anything!” When we include people, we have to invite them to be who they are, to tell us what they think and feel, to tell us what works and doesn’t work for them. We have to invite them to be full participants in the work of being God’s people and the perilous task of trying to make a few God-inspired choices. Here’s the tricky part: we will know that we are actually fully inviting those people into our lives and into our church when what they say and what they do makes us a little uncomfortable. That discomfort isn’t telling us that there’s is something wrong or that we are in danger. That discomfort is what it feels like to be challenged to grow and be transformed.
As individuals and as a church, the best thing we can have in our lives is people who love us enough to be honest with us, who push us just the right amount. We have to be willing to tolerate how it feels to have things be a little unstable, to not feel perfectly secure, to not know exactly how things are going to turn out. We have to move from expecting everyone to be like us to fully inviting them to be the people whom God created them to be. And here’s the secret… when we work at that, the person who benefits the most is not that other. Rather, it is us. For a moment, we shed our self-centeredness and discover the joy of compassionate action. The transformation begins…
The transformation continues if, and only if, we are willing to commit and immerse ourselves in that life. As the transformation begins, we have to look around ourselves and say, “This is who I want to be. This is how I want to spend my time. This is who God is calling me to become.” We have to do the hard work of discovering how to be committed and immersed in loving the people in front of us every day. We have to ask ourselves whether what we are doing is what we think God would have us do. We have to challenge one another and ask, “Are we about the business of trying to become the church that God would have us be?” If we don’t work at making transforming choices and doing transforming things, then the transformation will stop because we will grow comfortable and, sooner or later, that comfort will lead us to want to just keep things the way that they are.
What if we prayed individually and collectively for God to disturb us, to challenge us, to knock the wind out of us so that we could draw a fresh breath? What if we prayed for God to help us to include the person whom we would love to exclude? What if we prayed for God to help us listen to the truth we don’t want to hear? What if we prayed for God to “Lead us not into comfort and deliver us from complacency?” What if we prayed: “God help us to grow,” not in numbers or power but in depth and compassion and purpose?
Faith should change us, as individuals and as a church. That change can be daunting. However, it doesn’t have to overwhelm us because we can take it one challenge at a time. It also doesn’t mean that we lose what’s essential about who we are. Instead, we pray—individually and collectively, “God, show us the next step.” Then, we will do our best to take that step together.