“Be Ye Transformed”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 10, 2017
University Baptist Church
Arriving students were in diapers when the planes hit the twin towers sixteen years ago tomorrow. We have known so much fear ever since then. It transformed us as a nation. It accelerated the already endemic suspicions of Muslims. It fueled the fires of fear of immigrants. We spent billions trying to keep us “safe” all the while running up a huge debt that politicians conveniently blame on each other. In the meantime, the earth warms and disasters like hurricanes wildfires and the melted polar ice caps threaten our very survival. Maybe it’s time to be transformed.
The authentic church is made up of people that dare to embrace the Gospel reversals and seek to live transformed lives.
“Be ye not conformed to this world,” says Paul, “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Paul is saying, don’t let this hopeless world drive you down into its endless cesspool of despair. Don’t only look at the world through the eyes of status and resignation. But keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your hope alive. Be in the world, but not defined by the world.
Do what the world tells you not to do: “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 God. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering. Persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers.” That last part includes immigrants, people who came here illegally, people who might be facing deportation. Let love be genuine. Extend hospitality to strangers.
Now this all sounds so good, but consider the source. Paul had been a persecutor of the Christians. He worked with the Roman magistrates to hunt down the Christians so they could be legally prosecuted for their crimes. But Paul got his life reversed on the road to Damascus where he met the risen Jesus who asked him why he was persecuting his church. Paul was made blind and for a time, until he could see the Christians as his sisters and brothers. And Paul used his great mind and his powers of persuasion to become the great Christian evangelist. This former persecutor. This enemy of the church. His life was reversed. And this letter to the Romans is the evidence of his reversal. He spends 11 chapters outlining the way that God had transformed his life and then in the 12th chapter he gives the ultimate “Therefore”. And he calls us to be similarly transformed. Be ye transformed.
Paul had spent plenty of his life conformed to this world. He was absolutely committed to the old ways with zeal. My friend and mentor George Williamson said that this is not hope, but resignation. It says that the best we’ve known in the past is the best there is. We can’t improve on the past so stick to what has worked before. Paul thought Christians were foolish—risking their very lives for a mere hope on the basis of this Jesus. Paul thought their hope was a fantasy. He laughed about those Christians with his Pharisee buddies. He made Christian jokes.
But then he got himself transformed. His life got reversed. He lived in hope, which means that he sought something better not only for him, but for his community. That sounds like a good thing to embrace to me.
So how do we live transformed lives? How can we be transformed? Paul’s letter is about embracing the transformation that is central to the Gospel. That’s all well and good, but how do we do it? “…by the renewal of your mind” is a clue.
We are given a tremendous gift in the education that we receive here at the University. I hope the students among us make the most of it. There’s education that happens in books and outside of books. Go deeper. Go beyond the syllabus. Do more than the minimum. Ask the hard questions. Don’t settle for half-truths and platitudes.
I remember turning in an assignment in my Intro to Sociology class during my second year in college. I answered the question by using the textbook assigned for the class. But the professor marked it wrong. So I challenged him, “I wrote down the answer that was in the textbook.” He said, “just because it’s in a textbook doesn’t mean it’s right.” He wanted me to think deeper, to go beyond the written record. He wanted me to engage my mind, not just parrot what someone else thought. Be ye transformed by this educational experience.
That’s one way. Another way is to be transformed by doing something very different. In May and June, we accompanied our Muslim sisters and brothers in a seven-week study of Islam. We prayed alongside them here at UBC and at a Mosque in Plymouth. We took off our shoes and donned headscarves. It did not make us weaker Christians. It made us better ones. We were embracing the challenge to be better, more compassionate, understanding and supportive of our Muslim sisters and brothers.
Two weeks ago, we enjoyed a visit from our sister church in Leon, Nicaragua. We delved into another culture, another language and they held up a mirror to us. The theology is different, but the relationships are deep. We are constantly amazed by their commitment to the children in their community.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that there are two pillars to the life of a church. The first one is prayer and the second is doing justice. If we did that, we might well be transformed.
This week marks one year from Kim’s cancer surgeries. She’s doing very well. And I think the past year has been a transformative one for us. It transforms what we spend our time and energy on. We pay attention to the people offering us assistance and understanding. We have embraced the prayers of each of you. And we are more healthy as a result, and more thankful.
The Apostle Paul exhorts us to be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds. So that you might discern what is the will of God.
How do you know if something is of God? Is it just because it is in the Bible? Anyone can take a verse or two out of context and use it to support your position. But the thread of the Gospel is about transformation—of individuals, communities and even government. It’s about taking the throne away from evildoers and making the path straight for those who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
It’s of God, if it pushes toward justice. It’s of God if it supports the dignity of all people. It’s of God if it preserves life. It’s of God if it recognizes the dignity of another, even if that one is your enemy.
Here’s the thing, though. Sometimes people can’t take the transformation. It’s too shocking. I just sent my last child off to college. I know intellectually that she is going to transform in college. She is going to grow and learn and experiment and do things that her parents really ought not to know. And in my mind, she will always be the child we raised. But as she learns something new, tries something new, transforms a part of her life, I will have to shift my perspective, maybe transform myself a bit. It’s all a part of the growing process, I know. But I hope that she is patient with me as I adjust. Us old folks are not as pliable as folks in their teens and twenties.
Be ye transformed is the word from Paul. Maybe as I see my child transformed, I will be transformed into someone more patient, more responsive, more interested in the new things she will teach me about her and about me.
“Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds so that you may discern the will of God.” That’s what we’re here for. And transformed people do amazing things.