A week ago, as I sat down to plan out worship for this week, I noticed on the UCC website a reminder that 74 years ago this week two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan. I wanted to recognize that part of our human history. I wanted to pause to consider how we as people of faith grapple with violence, war, fear, and hatred. Doing so 74 years after that event would provide us some emotional distance.
Then my phone beeped with a news alert on Saturday afternoon – there had been a shooting in El Paso, TX. As news came in, and the body-count rose, I began working in earnest with the Winona Interfaith Council to plan a community vigil. I went to bed late that night saddened but committed to providing space for our Winona community to come together to grieve and pray for a better tomorrow. I drew comfort in the language of the Psalms, as I often do, and remembered the words of Psalm 30, “weeping may endure for the night, but joys comes with the morning.” I knew there would be no joy, but there would be comfort found in community.
I woke Sunday morning to a series of news alerts on my phone once again – there had been another shooting, this time in Dayton, OH. Now my colleagues and I on the Interfaith Council had to adjust our plans. We were no longer holding space just to grieve the violence in Texas, we must now also grieve the violence in Ohio. My body and spirit grew heavy and my mind once again turned to the Psalms. This time Psalm 13 which begins, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”
This afternoon I had planned on us remembering the horror of war – from the comfortable perspective of history. And now I must ask us to consider the horror of right now. The violence of today. The fear of today. The anger of today. The need for justice today. We must confront this, all of this. But how? How do we, as a worshiping community of Christians, begin to make sense of this world in which we live? How do we grieve and yet remember that we are an Easter people, and alleluia is our cry? What do we do now?
And as I considered these questions, I began to think of all of you. What words do you need to hear? What words do I need to hear? When we cry out to God “How long, O Lord?” what words do we hear if we are willing to listen? Words of comfort and discomfort. Courage and renewal. Solace and hope. A word of transformation.
St. Paul said, “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. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” “Do not be conformed…but be transformed.”
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed.” Why was it so important for Paul to remind that early gathering of Jesus-followers of this simple yet profound imperative? Was he fearful for their future? Was he concerned that they would forget the teachings of Christ? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect he wanted to build up that faithful community to compel them to do even more. To compel them to take more risks, to explore the fullness of God’s grace, to extend the radical message of Jesus’ ministry further than they could imagine.
Remember, those early gatherings of Jesus-followers were communities that were persecuted and Christians were martyred. The Empire in which they lived had no tolerance for voices which cried for justice, which spoke up for the oppressed, voices that said all people, everyone, is created in the image of God. To believe in, and worship, a God of justice and inclusion, of love and comfort, of grace and forgiveness – that was dangerous. Paul was speaking to a group of people who were committed to their faith in the Good News of Christ’s message and resurrection, but for whom the threat of violence was real and immediate. Paul sought to comfort them. And in comforting them to compel them to live into the Gospel message. To compel them not only to cry out to God – How long, O Lord? – but to listen to God’s still-speaking voice. To listen to how God is answering that plea.
Paul goes on: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” What impact would those words have on that community? What impact do they have for us today, as we look into our future?
From its very beginnings, this Christian community has come together to serve God, to stand opposed to injustice and oppression, and to share the message of Jesus, that God’s grace and mercy are for all – no exceptions. Nurturing those within and those who simply pass through. Sharing grace. Spreading love. Welcoming all. That is who you are. That is who we are.
So, my beloved community hear these words: Do not be conformed to this world. This world which creates separation, division, oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and fear. This world which says church is irrelevant and a faith in God is silly. This world which lives in scarcity, of never enough, and of what is – rarely shared. Do not be conformed to this world. Be transformed. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Be transformed you Beloved Community of God.
- Conform not to empty promises and false affection – but be transformed to let your love be genuine;
- Conform not to apathy in the face of injustice – but be transformed to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good;
- Conform not to that which says one person is better than another – but be transformed to love one another with mutual affection;
- Conform not to quiet complaints or whispered disparities – but be transformed to outdo one another in showing honor;
- Conform not to hesitancy in doing what must be done – but be transformed to a zeal and ardency of spirit to serve the Lord;
- Conform not to despair – but be transformed to rejoice in hope with patience and perseverance in prayer;
- Conform not to scarcity – but be transformed to the abundance of this world to contribute to the needs of those saints working for good;
- Conform not to close-mindedness and hardness of heart – but be transformed to radical hospitality for all people of God, especially the stranger.
Do not be conformed to this world. Be transformed! Have courage for tomorrow. Have hope for tomorrow. For joy comes in the morning. Amen.
*Note: portions of this sermon were taken from a sermon written and preached by Pastor Danielle at Congregational Church, UCC in Rochester, MN in September, 2018