Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, April 24, 2014

Conformers…or Transformers?
[Isaiah 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8]

            There’s a hint of sadness the night before the first day of school!  Summer is truly over. We’re hooked into a schedule that will last until next spring. We’ve been freely grazing in the pasture and now the bit and bridle are going back into our mouths.
            We also feel relief. If you work year round and your children have summers off, summers are more stressful than winters. You have to find childcare, in addition to juggling jobs and activities.  Getting back to a regular schedule may feel like a healthy change.  For some of us life is ALWAYS too busy.  There’s never enough time… to relax…to reflect… to appreciate moments as they unfold.
            For those of us not living the vigorous school-aged-children-lifestyle, let’s put ourselves in their shoes, by imagining this is the first day of the rest of our church’s life.  Think back to your school lives. Did you love the first day of school? Or did you feel anxious? What if you got a teacher you didn’t like or a class you weren’t interested in?
What if God invites us to bring our personal dreams to church with us? Does that sound selfish – to have our dreams realized in this faith community?  What if the gifts God has given you are EXACTLY what the church needs? If you like art, writing, dancing, shopping, athletics, cooking, or organizing, did you know that God wants you to express those gifts and dreams in the church for the Kingdom of God?  What if God wants YOU to be filled with the same excitement & adrenalin that school children feel when a new year begins?

How do we awaken and excite the inner longings and dreams that sometimes we can’t even name?  Frederick Buechner explains in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC:

“The place God calls you to is the place where
your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

            Our 3 Scriptures help us connect what gives us the greatest joy to the world’s deep hunger. First, the words in Isaiah are full of hope and FRUITFULNESS:  “The Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her.” God takes our waste places, which are de-populated, barren and arid and infuses them with verdant new life.  Those who have been in mourning or barren will be blessed with offspring. 
            God reminds the people of Israel they are descendants of a barren couple:  Abraham and Sarah. God gave them a son long after they were physically able to have children. They named their son, Isaac, which means laughter! Doesn’t God have a great sense of humor?  When we’re at the end of our rope, when our inner life is a wasteland, there’s finally just enough space within us for God to plant and nurture seeds of new life in the Spirit.
            When I finished an inspirational course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Dr. Martha Robbins gave me an answer that blew my mind.  Pastors and lay people who studied the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius were profoundly impacted by her teaching, including me. As we sat over breakfast I asked:  “What do you do to prepare for this class?”  She answered.  “I empty myself.”
            What? I did a double take.  She spoke a language I didn’t understand. She was raised Roman Catholic and spent many years as a sister in a convent, where contemplative silence was an everyday spiritual practice.  As a Protestant, I’ve always been a “doer” – a Christian educator who plans & programs, who creates goals & objectives for measureable outcomes. When I prepare for classes, I spend time “filling myself up with knowledge!” Dr. Robbins does the opposite: She prepares herself to be ‘empty’ of her own issues & agendas, so she can be fully present to what God is doing and where God is leading her, as she encounters new people.
            Sure, she gathered Scripture meditations, CDs with reflective music, and an outline of the Spiritual Exercises, but her purpose was to give God time to work in the lives of those who showed up and not to interfere with the work of the Holy Spirit.  She was “empty” so she could listen, observe and hear the prompts of God about whether to move more quickly or to slow down, to skip things or bring new things that God brought to mind as a result of her many years of teaching.
            Many church leaders & teachers go to continuing ed. classes exhausted or burned out.  Dr. Robbins has a gift which enables her to be a spiritual masseuse, or invigorator who can coax out the inner giftedness of those who have been worn out by the neediness of their clients, parishioners, or students. She pastors by pastoring the “people” who pastor or teach.  She is a midwife of the Holy Spirit, who is the Person of the Trinity that brings new life, births new Christians, & renews the Church. 
School teachers need the same tender care, as they re-enter the FRAY of public education. The profound neediness of children and youth is increasing. What children can’t find in their families, they seek at school: either by performing well, or by rebelling & ruining the learning environment!  Teachers are called upon not just to know their subjects, but to be “miracle workers” in the lives of students.  Only God can do that.
            Our first challenge from the New Testament is to FIND our calling in God’s Kingdom. The second is to USE that calling to “transform” the status quo.  Have you found YOUR calling?  Are you USING your dreams for Christ?
            In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus asks: “Who do people say I am?”  The disciples answer: some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, Jeremiah or another prophet.  Then he asks:  Who do YOU say that I am?  Peter answers:  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
            Jesus praises Peter for recognizing his divine identity. Immediately Jesus names and commissions Peter, giving him his life’s purpose from that day forward. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mt. 16:18-19). 
            Have you been named and commissioned for service? Jesus Christ wants to name you and commission you.  Jesus changed Simon’s name to “Peter,” which means “rock” – because he wanted Peter to be the foundation stone for the Church.  He also offered Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
            Jesus gives all of us “keys” – for unlocking life and releasing dreams. What we “bind” – will be bound – what we “loose” will be loosed!  I hope what we bind will be forces of darkness and what we loose will be the love of God, the forgiveness of Christ and the energy of God’s Spirit. Jesus also said: Woe to anyone who binds or restricts the Spirit of God.  
Paul gives us 4 steps in Romans 12:1-8 for unlocking life and releasing dreams:
            “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.”
            Step 1.  Offer your body, which is the sponge God gave you. It includes WHO you are, what you love, & all your gifts: not to be dutifully martyred but to be freely given: as LIVING SACRIFICES squeezed out joyfully for God’s purposes.
            Next… “Don’t 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.”    
            Step 2. After offering your bodies, God wants you to have a renewed mind, re-formatted to God’s vision.  Your mind’s hard drive needs to be cleaned.  If you normally spend most of your time “reacting” to what other people are doing or saying, rather than choosing proactively how you want to live your life with Christ at the center, your mind needs renewed.
            Next (paraphrasing)… “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…. Our gifts differ according to the grace given us, but we who are many are part of the ONE body of Christ and can ONLY function properly if we stay in close connection to the other members of Christ’s body.”
Step 3.  Stay in healthy relationship with other members of the body of Christ. Don’t think too highly of yourself or too low of yourself. Don’t demonize others & don’t put others on a pedestal.  A coal by itself grows cold; healthy Christians stay engaged in the faith community; they don’t isolate themselves.
            Step 4.  Fulfill your dreams, by exercising your spiritual gifts!  If you are a prophet, prophesy!  If you are a teacher, teach!  If you are a giver, give. If you are leader, lead. If you have compassion, care for those God reveals to be in need.
            If, and it’s a big IF, members of Christ’s body are connected and freely offering their gifts, dramatic fruitfulness follows. Flowers bloom. Peoples’ needs are met. Joy flows.  This kind of church doesn’t conform to its surroundings.  A vital church is transformational, which BEGINS with leaders humbling themselves and offering themselves to the Spirit of God. The leaders have to be empty, humble, willing to give the Spirit space.
            Let me tell you about one transformational leader, Wayne Cordiero.  In the magazine: Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders, the article, “Dreamin’ and Teamin’” describes Cordiero, whose church in O’ahu, Honolulu grew from 70 to more than 6,000 weekend attenders.   Wayne encourages pastors to become dream releasers.”  He says:
Every person has a dream of what they can be. But too many Christians are going to the grave with their dreams locked up inside and unexpressed. Many are releasing some of their dreams in the marketplace because that’s the only place they can dance or play guitar or use computers. As leaders of the church, we have to change that and say:  “Wait a minute!    That dream needs to be expended for the advancement of the kingdom of God. ”
            When the interviewer asked if that creates a self-centered rather than a God-centered faith, he responded. “Not necessarily. There’s always a sense of fulfillment when you can give your life away. We start, as babies, taking life, needing life, having needs. That’s just humanity. But there’s something deeply fulfilling about giving of ourselves, because God wired us that way…. In the beginning, all our arrows are pointed inward. Even when we go to church, it’s still inward:  “God help me.” “God give me a promotion.” “Give me this.” “Give me that.” We can go our whole life with our arrows pointed inward.
            “What pastors do is help people turn those arrows outward, so the person is not a cul-de-sac of God’s blessings, but a channel, an avenue through which God blesses others and brings glory to himself.  Then as God flows through you, all of a sudden you say, ‘That’s why he created me the way he did.’ And lights start turning on, and circuits start to work.”
            Then Wayne explains the “sponge” theory.  Christians need to squeeze their sponges more regularly. Then the absorbency of our hearts is restored, worship becomes more vibrant, our community will feel God’s transformational energy flowing through us.  Let us pray.

“Dreamin’ and Teamin’” Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders, published quarterly by Christianity Today, Spring 2000, p. 22.

Ibid., p. 23.