Sunday, June 06, 2010
There must be some kind of universal appeal to the particular brand of reality show that shows someone or something undergoing a major transformation. Take the “The Biggest Loser,” for example. Every season a number of contestants begin at a very high weight—this year’s winner started out weighing more than 500 lbs. Over the course of 20 or so weeks, prodded by the brutal coaching of fitness gurus and prompted on by the enticement of winning $250,000, the contestants work, sweat, and totally relearn both how to eat and how to take care of their bodies. This year that man who started out over 500 lbs lost the highest percentage of body weight, and got to take home, not only the money, not only a brand new, fit physique, but a new lease on life. Transformation.
Or take the show “Clean Sweep.” There, people with cluttered houses are given their shot at a makeover. A crew comes in and throws out and organizes and cajoles a family into letting go of those things to which they are sentimentally attached, but which are just junking up their houses. Then they have a yard sale and raise money for a redecorating project, and—presto! What was a cluttered nightmare is a sleek new living room or bedroom. Transformation.
Or, take this letter of Paul to the Galatians. You can tell Paul’s on the defensive here. He’s trying to persuade his readers that the message he preaches comes from God and not from human beings. He reminds them of his former life—a life in which he had reached the pinnacle of religious understanding, but which, for him, translated into a life of violently persecuting followers of Jesus. That is, until Jesus revealed himself to Paul, and the violent persecutor of Christians was transformed into the most passionate of Jesus’ followers. Transformation.
In speaking of his astonishing transformation, Paul says that God set him apart before he was born, and called him through divine grace. It’s a little strange to hear someone speak of his experience of God in this way. It sounds so grandiose, conceited, really… especially when Paul wraps it all up with a flourish: “And they glorified God because of me.” But it’s vital that we hear Paul’s words with the right inflection. This is not the voice of ego speaking. This is the voice of gratitude. Paul knows himself to have been chosen before he was born, because that is the only way he can understand God—our God who searches us and knows us. Even before we are born, from before the beginning of each of our lives, God knows our story. And so God knew before Paul was born what a stunning transformation the gospel would cause in his life. Paul is grateful beyond measure, to have been called, to have been set apart.
Today three young people, J, H and A, will stand before us and confirm for themselves, in their own voices the promises others made for them at baptism. Like Paul, they too have been called and set apart by God. Like Paul, they have been chosen for the gospel, and all the amazing kinds of transformation it makes possible.
The experience of being a parent, in many respects, has to do with watching tiny transformations take place, one after another. A child who balks at bedtime learns to love a soothing nighttime routine. Another child who never wants to let a green vegetable pass her lips falls in love with spinach. Still another child who struggled in school finds the subject, or the teacher, that ignites their absolute love and thirst for learning.
And then there are the major transformations. The little children who once gathered for the children’s message are suddenly old enough listen to a sermon. The elementary school student reaches the age where he can participate in the youth group. The high school senior takes into herself the years of learning in our Sunday School classrooms, and she preaches a sermon.
What will the transforming power of the gospel do in these three lives? Will J spend his days as an environmental engineer while spending his weekends engineering wheelchair ramps as a youth leader at his church? Will H teach math to middle schoolers by day only to lead thoughtful and exciting bible studies at her church by night? Will A study the sea and the environment as a marine biologist, while spending her free time tutoring students in the sciences as a part of her church’s outreach to the local high school? How will the gospel of Jesus Christ transform, not only the lives of Allison and Hope and Jay, but also all the lives they touch?
The thing that is striking about how Paul tells his story is how immediately his transformation leads him to take action. He experiences a revelation of Jesus, and does not pass “Go,” does not collect $200, but instead heads out with it, hits the road, goes to tell the Gentile world about this Jesus who has changed his life.
Sometimes that’s how it works. Sometimes it’s more like “The Biggest Loser.” We take three steps forward and one step back, we hit a wall, we get frustrated, we wonder why we’re doing what we’re doing. But the transformative power of the gospel is still there. It is still ours for the taking, or rather, the receiving. It’s a gift. It has been a gift since before we were born, from the beginning of God’s plan for each of us.
I want to leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver. In her poetry she combines a wonder at the harsh beauty of nature with the conviction that there is a great and holy Wisdom behind it all. The poem is called “The Summer Day.”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
J, H and A: God set you apart before you were born, and has called you to join with a great community of people filled with the transforming power of the gospel. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Thanks be to God. Amen.