August 23 – Proper 16A – Rev. Jim Schubert

“Transformed Lives” (Read Romans 12:1-8)
Rev. Jim Schubert

A number of years ago I was at a talk in which the speaker was giving advice to the those in attendance. The topic was on “Christ and Culture” and discussed how Christian faith relates to the general culture around us. I still remember what she said, “each day pick up the newspaper with one hand, and the Bible with the other.”

I was thinking about that recently since every morning my wife Susan and I sit in our den around 9 a.m. and read scripture, discuss it, and then pray. Often this session follows a glance at the television news or a scanning of the Sunday New York Times. The newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. According to the newspaper, the world seems to be getting more unsettling by the week. And scripture tells us to live into hope. What do we do with this?

I grew up fairly happy as a kid and I believed that things would continue to get better and better in the world. New inventions would improve the quality of life, better medicine would make us healthier, better behavior by us citizens would create harmonious communities. Oh, how wrong I was. So each morning the news of the world intersects with the message from scripture-usually I am told that the world is a mess, then turn to the Bible and hear that God is in control and through all the of rhythms of history, justice will prevail, the haughty and ego-filled people will get their due, and a fountain of grace will immerse those who trust in God. I must admit, some days it is hard to line up these two things: the way the world is and the vision of scripture and teachings of Jesus. How do we live as a Christian in these days? Is God present in the middle of this current mess with virus, international tension, and social unrest? I think I will go with scripture instead of the newspaper on that. If for no other reason than to live in
hope and not despair.

And into all this craziness, this week we are given the letter that Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome-Romans 12:1-8. It was also a time of trouble. The first thing he says is to “think of God’s mercy.” Then he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” This, he says, is the way to discover the will of God for our lives. Do not be conformed. Be transformed. There, the will of God will be found.

Yes, the world does seem out of control-and beyond anything we can do personally to change its direction. But-we can pray into our personal lives and control how we interact with others. These may be small, but significant things. What are the signs? Experiencing God’s peace, finding empathy for enemies, treasuring God’s promises versus checking account balances, caring for those in need. Just to name a few.

A transformed life is certainly not the life of the world. In the world we are pulled constantly by changing winds. We all want acceptance, don’t we? We want to somehow fit in and not be a problem. But the world pulls us all over the place. With the new technologies and all the political strife and current parenting, school issues, we are barraged by forces, often  forcing us into tribes and animosities. On top of this there is a term called “multi-tasking” which has emerged in recent years. Doing many things and doing them all good.

I experienced this as a young pastor in a large church in Wisconsin. I looked at my job description and saw that I had to do 14 things-and all really well. I had to be a preacher, a worship leader, a counselor, a meeting leader, a financial planner, an evangelist, an office manager, an encourager, a community leader, a model for family life, a friend to the young, a comforter for the aged, a mediator with mid-life crisis folks, and it was highly encouraged that I also play golf. Oh, also, it would be good to learn to play a card game called euchre and also learn to like a thing called lutefisk, this strange fish they served at an annual festival. I did learn to tolerate it, but it took five years. No wonder my hair turned grey overnight.

Well, thank the Lord for Paul and the scripture we have before us today.

He says that the way a transformed life looks -is that a person is given a few gifts, (not 14) and we need to focus on the gifts we are given to build up the body of Christ. And these gifts are often very different, according to the person and their makeup. He says some should do the preaching, others deal with finances, others deal with administration, others with prayer and prophecy, others works of mercy. I think this is true for a parish, but also for daily life household duties and work life. And the important things he says is that a gift, although it may be more high-profile, or appear to be superior, is not more important than another one. In other words, the people up here in robes near the cross are no more important than the
volunteer who is standing in the sun on a Thursday afternoon taking in boxes of food for the community pantry. The person washing dishes by themselves, tucked away in a kitchen, or the person sitting with another praying in the corner of a room is as important as the person dressed up talking into a microphone in front of a crowd.

A transformed life is not always some mystical experience that takes place on a remote mountaintop. It is found in simple gifts that are used to live out the kingdom of God in this world right now. Paul says that the gift you receive will be experienced as an “earnestness of spirit.” I see this in simpler terms-you will know your gift if it energizes you. That is the sign. What gives you energy? He says that this is where the will of God will be found.

I had to learn this the hard way. So many things on my job description “to do” list were energy-sapping. Some gave me energy. I had to primarily focus on those few things that energized me, and I was a better person for the world, as well as happier as a person. There were others who had different gifts, often the ones that drained me, and that is who should be in those roles. And, if scripture can be trusted, by doing this I was discovering, as Paul says, the “will of God” for my life. And isn’t that an important thing-to discover God’s will for your life? I hope so.

Some of us are a bit stubborn, or are on a delayed schedule and do not claim, or understand our gifts from the Holy Spirit until later in life. Others are fortunate to know these at a younger age.

For example, our son Jay, now in his 40s was told by a teacher in grade school that he had a gift of “justice.” She told us that Jay was always sticking up for the underdog and was very out front in trying to bring justice into many situations. And I remember that in middle school in Iowa he confronted racist behavior on the football team he was part of. It is little wonder that as an adult in Champaign, IL he founded a program called Books for Prisoners which he operated out of an abandon post office basement. They collected donated books in special bins at local grocery stores and set up a lending library for the Illinois prison system. He knew, and acted on this gift from an early age.

What is interesting is how simple this really can be. And how powerful the simplest gift can be. A number of years ago I was living in Dubuque, IA and volunteering at a mental health facility which was filled with young people with all sorts of very serious chronic mental disabilities. There was this one young man, maybe 19 or 20 years old, named Walter. He would sit in his chair and sway and was not able to carry on a normal conversation very effectively. One day I was sitting there next to him, making small talk and I asked him what he liked to do. He looked at me and then began singing. He leaned back in his chair and raised his voice, and sang very loudly, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and then turned as all eyes in the room were on
him, “for the Bible tells me so.”

Since I still remember this incident, and the strong sense of faith behind those words which rang through that room full of society’s outcasts, I believe his gift was Christian evangelism, although not exactly the way the textbooks would describe it. Not the world’s way, but through a transformed life, even though he was not valued in eyes of the world.

In another situation we knew an introverted person who could not evey imagine themselves being used as a person by God to bring anything to others worth much. We asked, What do you love doing? She loved Christmas and the wrapping of presents. We set up a church table at a local mall where we offered to wrap presents at Christmas season for free for people who were Christmas shopping. Guess who was there chit-chatting with people and
wrapping presents with a smile and telling people this is all a gift from the church? She was in her element. Probably as good as a witness as the silver-tongued preacher on the corner.

I do believe that if we hold the Bible in one hand while watching the craziness of the world, and asking the question, how do I live in both these places with honesty and integrity that God’s shower of grace will descend, and is actually right now descending. In this time of different living and isolation it is very important for each of you to know that you have been given a gift or two and through that gift, no matter how trivial or “un-important” it may seem, you can be a channel of God’s love and grace to others. Hold up the newspaper and watch the TV news. Then lay that next to the Bible. See where you go from there.

Listen to Paul. Do not be conformed to the world-but live in a a transformed way.

May Jesus lead you to know God’s will for your precious lives. Amen.