“Conforming, Reforming, Transforming

October 25, 2015


Romans 12:1-8

Ephesians 2:4-10


I will be brief this morning since our worship has been so full and inspiring already. We have sung and prayed and given. And we welcomed a lot of new members! Together we owned the covenant of our congregation.

Our newest members followed the path that most have—spending weeks, months, even years walking through our doors, worshipping with us, drinking coffee with us, talking with us. And after all of that they decided, “Well, they don’t seem so bad. Maybe I could walk with them in the ways of Jesus Christ.” And those of us who have been here for a while also spent some time checking them out—going from “Who was that new person here today?” to “Welcome to our common ministry.”

In the church I served in Connecticut, it was the custom dating from colonial times to read the names of new members in worship a week before they joined—to be clear with everyone about just who those new people were. And on the Sunday they joined, the names were read again and the congregation voted to receive them. Now, that’s a very Congregational practice, but we’re a little more—what? flexible? open?—here. No votes here. All are welcomed.

New members and long-term members alike, we hear the words of Paul to the early church in Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Those are good words for Reformation Sunday.

Conforming suggests going along with the prevailing winds, being shaped by the imagination of others, and being shaped into the image of others. One translation offers this picture: “Don’t let the world around you shape you into its own mold.”
There are many forces at work that want to say what the “Christian mold” or the “Church mold” look like. And that same imagination—Paul calls it “the world”—then seeks to shape everyone into that one form. So many on the so-called “Christian” right have made so much noise that their mold is the only ones many people know.

Many have forgotten about—or never knew about—the long and ongoing expressions of Christian faith that grow from a liberal understanding of faith and life. Our congregation and our denomination are descendants of the great Protestant reformers who challenged empires and reordered societies. Our tradition has continually fostered important innovations in meeting social needs. Our tradition has produced powerful voices of prophetic judgment and has frequently given birth to great movements of moral protest.

In the past sixty years, even as many were making a concerted effort to cast Christianity in a conservative image,  it was Mainline Protestants like us who addressed such issues as racism and civil rights, welfare for children and families, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the protection of the environment, the war in Iraq, the shifting line of separation between church and state,  the rights of gays and lesbians, including the right to marry, and hunger and homelessness and poverty in America.

We take seriously, not our own sufferings alone, but the suffering of God in the world. We pray for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the victims of disasters. We also find ourselves helping to rebuild cities; we find ourselves welcoming the homeless, feeding the hungry, and working for policies and practices that would lessen poverty in Iowa City and around the globe. We believe and we act—that is faith.

We believe that God’s love extends to all people. And so we declare ourselves an open and affirming congregation, and stand with gays and lesbians in efforts toward equality in the eyes of the state and of the church. We believe and we act.

We can embrace this tradition with joy. We can speak of it with pride. Out of our liberal Protestant tradition we faithfully bring the good news of God’s love to the world rather than being conformed, shaped into the world’s mold.

In the face of the pressures that would force conformity, Paul urges the followers of Christ to seek transformation—an act that suggests a change into something previously unknown.

Now, transformation has become something of a buzzword in the United Church of Christ. Websites of our denomination and of individual congregations announce that they are “transforming lives,” that they are “transforming congregations,” and that they offer “transforming worship.”  People go on at length talking about “transformational leadership.” Just this morning I opened a mailing from the national UCC offices that spoke of “transforming the world.”

And, of course, you know that anytime something becomes a buzzword, I worry about it and tend to avoid it—remember my sermon about “blessing” from about a year ago?

A Lily Tomlin character said, “I always wanted to be somebody—now I realize that I should have been more specific.” If transformation is a change into something new, maybe we’d better be a little specific about just what that new thing might be. After all, when Paul wrote about “transformation” he used the Greek word “metamorphosis”—and I hope no one is looking for lives or congregations turned into Kafkaesque bugs.

This is where reformation becomes important for us today. The purpose of reformation is to go back to our roots, to look again at the events and the documents and the people that shaped our origins as Christians. It is not, as someone put it, it is not so that we can give 19th century answers to 16th century questions. Rather it should help us find 21st century answers to those first century questions of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, what it means to be a community of God’s people who actively seek to follow in the way of Jesus Christ—not only in those ways that have been known for some time but also, and perhaps more importantly, those ways that are being made know right here in our midst in our time.

So we mark Reformation Sunday, remembering those giants such as Luther and Calvin and also the multitude of unknown common people who found renewed faith through scripture and sacraments. We mark Reformation Sunday so that by remembering and embracing our past we ultimately can be transformed—so that we can be made into the new individuals and new community that God desires us to be. The purpose of marking Reformation Sunday is to let us explore the wisdom of the past so that we might live faithfully in our present days, that we might even become different people, non-conforming people in the future.

Now Paul says that we should accomplish this transformation by the renewing of our minds. Given our location and our membership, we use our minds a lot in this place. So it’s probably a good idea to renew our minds, our thinking on a regular basis, peeling away all the old accretions, perhaps looking to the early church not for rigid guidelines but for examples of how we live faithfully toward Christ and with others in changing times.

Our minds are renewed as we act.

I keep coming back to the Kurt Vonnegut quote that is embedded in the sidewalk on Iowa Avenue: “We are what we pretend to be. So we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.”

Now, I’ve been thinking about the religious implications of those words ever since I first read them—and they trouble me every time a walk past them. It seems to me that, whether he wanted to or not, Vonnegut said something very important about the Christian life.

Perhaps we are—and in a positive sense—“pretending” to be Christians. The root of that word suggests a stretching out before us, moving into a space that isn’t quite filled yet, an intending to be something or someone. It is a word that speaks of, yes, transformation. We start by pretending to be Christians and doing the things that Christians seem to do: extending hospitality and welcoming all people, setting aside judgment in favor of love, speaking the truth to power, living as stewards of the earth, working for justice, for peace, for reconciliation in our lives, in our community, in our world. We do the things that Christians seem to do: worshipping and singing and praying—just as we did this morning—even if we’re not always sure why, even if we’re not always sure we’re doing it “right.” We bear one another’s burdens and share in each other’s joy.

In short, we who are many, live as the one body of Christ, exercising our many and different gifts as God has given them.

We do the things that Christians seem to do, we pretend—stretching ourselves into those actions. And—maybe very quickly, or slowly over time—one day it occurs to us that we  have been transformed, we have become the very Christians that we were pretending to be.

If Vonnegut is right, that we are what we pretend to be, then let us together—new members and long-term members—let us together continue to follow in the ways of Jesus Christ. And let us remember the good news that we have seen and heard today:

We belong to God.

We all belong to God.