Rev. Lois Annich’s sermon begins around the 28 minute mark.
Another Lenten journey has begun. Over the years I’ve heard some people say that the word “journey” has become something of a cliché, but I confess to personally loving the word, conveying as it does a sense of movement that can be at times meandering and at other times purposeful.
In this holy season we are certainly aware of Jesus’ purposeful steps as we trace his journey through Galilee, to Jerusalem, and finally, to the cross. We watch the way he fulfills his divine purpose of declaring through his own body that God’s kingdom has drawn near–in a voice that announces good news in so many different ways, in hands that feed and heal, and in a life that is finally laid down in the face of oppressive earthly powers. And we, sometimes purposefully and at other times with faltering steps, also set out on a journey to bring ourselves back from the distractions and seductions that have pulled us away from our identity as beloved children of God.
John and I are really looking forward to this Lenten sermon series on transformation based on the Romans passage we just heard. By way of background about the passage, Paul has just taken 11 chapters in Romans to describe how trustworthy God is, and Chapter 12 is his call to his hearers, and to us almost 2000 years later, to respond faithfully to God’s goodness.
“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.”
Did you hear that “therefore?” Because God has been so good to all of us, therefore, we are called to new life in Christ, or as we might say in true Presbyterian style, to be “reformed and always reforming.” The holy season of Lent provides us six weeks to meditate very intentionally on who and whose we are, and on the ways we have wandered away from our truest identity. It’s a time for deep reflection, humility and repentance–and the good news is that God’s faithful love lies at the core of it all.
In Lent I always think of my dear dad, who taught me the importance of that deceptively simple verse in I John, Chapter 4, “We love because God first loved us.” If we have any hope of facing our brokenness and coming remotely close to our truest selves, it’s because we were created in love and for love.
I have been fascinated by the concept of transformation throughout my life and ministry. It has served as the basis for my call to be a pastor, therapist, and coach. I have always been captivated by questions such as, “What does it mean to be God’s beloved child?” “How can we move beyond the sinfulness and woundedness that clings to us so closely?” “How do we live with and for Christ every day of our lives?”
My dad came out of a large family that struggled to get by with very meager resources. Based on what a cousin later told me, I think it was more of a hardscrabble life than I ever realized. When he was a young teen he publicly gave his life to Christ. He then went on to work his way through college, seminary and a doctoral program, and ended up ministering to countless souls over a long and fruitful career. I remember him telling me about that decision to accept and serve Christ and how it had shaped his life, and I longed for the kind of life changing experience he had had. When I was about 14, I went with my youth group to a worship service at a rescue mission in the Bowery in New York City where an altar call was given. It all seemed so holy and glorious and dramatic, and I was sure I was going to be a completely changed person, but when by the next day I was still the same selfish, moody adolescent I’d been before the altar call, I decided that this conversion business might be fine for other people, but not for me. God apparently thought otherwise and has continued, through many ups and downs, to change my heart over many years’ time. Whether we call it transformation or conversion, a change of heart is not “one size fits all.” God works through each of us in very different ways and on different time tables, but the call is always the same– to return to God and keep living into being the persons God created us to be.
Throughout this sermon series John and I will be talking about some of the patterns and values of this world that pull us off course–such as selfishness, closed-mindedness, resentment, hatred and fear. These are no small forces to be reckoned. We might easily despair of ever making significant changes in ourselves, in the church or in the world. It can feel like too much work and we can easily grow resistant. I was therefore moved by Walter Brueggemann’s words in the devotional book I am using for Lent, A Way Other Than Our Own. He writes, “…the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence. The good news for the church is that nobody, liberal or conservative, has high ground. The hard news is that the Lenten prerequisite for mercy and pardon is to ponder again the initial identity of baptism… ‘child of promise’… ‘to live a life worthy of our calling,’ worthy of our calling in the face of false patriotism; overheated consumerism; easy, conventional violence; and limitless acquisitiveness. Since these forces and seductions are all around us, we have much to ponder in Lent about our baptismal identity.”
Our baptismal identity is no different than Jesus’, who–as we heard in this morning’s Gospel Lesson–was assured at his baptism that he was greatly loved by God. We also heard that immediately upon this pronouncement the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, into a no-man’s land filled with temptations and wild beasts. The fact that Jesus’ baptism and temptation seem to be of one piece is our hope—because when we know who loves and holds us we can go into the wild places of our lives and face the beasts and forces that threaten to undo us personally and communally.
A little over five years or so ago, researchers at Boston College and University of Houston found that people were better able to change negative habits if they changed their language. If dieters were offered junk food and said, “I can’t eat junk food,” they were more likely to succumb to temptation. If they said, “I don’t eat junk food,” they were more likely to follow through with their resolution to eat more healthfully.
That may seem like a nit-picking difference, but the researchers found that it was statistically significant. The more I’ve thought about this study the more I’ve come to believe that it’s another way of talking about identity. If I say “I can’t eat junk food,” I am somehow a passive victim with no power or ability to act. If I say “I don’t eat junk food,” I am claiming that this behavior is not in alignment with who I am choosing to be. Not a nit-picking difference at all!
We do something similar, language-wise, when we claim our baptismal identity as God’s beloved children. When we say we are beloved children of God we are aligning ourselves with the source of truth and love that can inspire and empower true healing, change and growth. We may not always believe ourselves when we say it, but it nevertheless becomes the North star by which we can more and more guide our thoughts and actions over time.
“Be transformed!” may seem like a tall order, and in fact, just saying it that way makes it sound like an impossible order. But in the context of Paul’s call to be transformed by renewing our minds, which also included the heart in his day, we have hope of being able to change and grow. We renew our minds and hearts by looking at what it means to be a beloved child of God in the midst of a broken world with broken values that threaten to tear all God’s children down, ourselves included. We renew our minds and hearts by getting clear on our identity and seeking to live in alignment with it. We renew our minds and hearts by re-dedicating ourselves to a loving, lively relationship with Jesus Christ.
I have my issues with Paul, but I also love a lot of his work. I especially love his honesty about his own spiritual struggles. We read about them in the 7th chapter of Romans where he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul knew that he could not simply transform himself. His brokenness and compulsions were too much for him to confront alone. But Christ’s love enabled him to change. And so, as we once again undertake a Lenten journey with Christ, let us rejoice and trust in him “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”