Before I Fall Asleep

I’m a little embarrassed to be using the blog only for posting sermons, but I suppose that it’s good for me to keep this functioning for some purpose, until the day I get exasperated with writing on corporate platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ and return to my own blog. Anyway, I did preach this morning, and although I’d really have liked to give the manuscript a once-over, I didn’t have the energy to smooth out the wrinkles.

I’ll add the text of the sermon below the fold, as they say, but here’s the video recording from St Mary’s website:

(I’m not looking at it, so if Kelvin edited in subliminal messages, or made me sound even more incoherent than I usually do, you can go ahead and laugh, and it won”’t hurt my feelings ’cos I won’t know.)

There were three or four sermons jostling to get onto the manuscript this week, and I suspect that there are places where one would-be sermon manages to elbow into the flow of the actual sermon, and I know there are places I saw a problem in the typed version that I tried to correct, or clarify, spontaneously. On the whole, though,it went very well, and I should sleep pretty intensely tonight.

St. Mary’s, Glasgow
Proper 16 A
21 August 2011
Isa 51:1-6 / Ps 138 / Rom 12:1-8 / Matt 16:13-20

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…

+ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.

   Yesterday morning, I observed in my Twitter feed that a particular performer whom I follow had been greeted after his Friday night show by an old friend of his, who gave him a DVD of their high school production of the musical Grease. He was, as you may imagine, taken aback. If I were to see a DVD of something I did in school — say, a speech I gave in Student United Nations, or a film of myself playing on the chess team (all right, I didn’t lead the most exotic of high school lives) — but if I did suddenly see myself from high school years, I can imagine that I’d be pretty embarrassed by the bony, gangling, pretentious whelp that I was. In the same way, the actor who suddenly saw his twenty-years-ago self on stage thought he looked fat, reminded himself of a chimp, and was especially startled to seem himself kiss the young woman who was then his girlfriend. He had changed, he had grown; who was that hefty adolescent?

   Though many of us know from our own experience that we have grown tremendously over the years, many fewer of us actually live as though we had anything more to learn. If we’re thirty years old, we roll our eyes at the follies of young people in their twenties; if we’ve reached middle age (by which I mean, for the purposes of this sermon, about forty-five years), we nod knowingly about all that we didn’t know in our thirties. At retirement age, the cares and concerns that preoccupied our working years no longer possess us. But though we see over and over that we’re always moving on, always changing, many of us live as though we had finally reached the ultimate of insight, and would never again learn something we didn’t already know. Our current condition usually seems like the normal state of the world; and since we don’t already know what we might learn on the morrow, we stride through our todays without any hint that we aren’t finished growing.

   But that’s exactly what St Paul wants to remind the church: we’re not finished growing and changing, indeed we’re only at the beginning of changes whose contours we can’t even guess at. When the disciples answered Jesus, that some people thought he was John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets, all those people were thinking about Jesus in exactly, exactly the way they should have. They didn’t know ahead, they couldn’t know, what kinds of change Jesus was bringing with him. And though some people would cry out with horror at the thought, the church is precisely the place we find Change Central. It’s amazing to me, in fact, that good, earnest church people make a fuss about trying not to change; we can’t help changing, we’re always changing, and the relevant question is never “Shall we change or not?” but always “How shall we change?” Not every sort of change is made good just because it’s a change; the vital point is that we try to change in a Godward direction, and that we realise that we don’t yet know enough to determine in advance how to be exactly, indubitably, inerrantly right. As St Paul says, we have to judge with sober judgment when we should be tearing down, and when we should be building; we have to discern wisely when to cooperate and when to resist. As we grow and change, the church will make mistakes; but we will also get some things right, and we hope that over the long run our follies will not push us further away from God than our wise changes will draw closer to God.

   That’s how it is with growing up. We can look back on the church’s adolescence and say, “I can’t believe we used to think it was the right idea to send crusades off to faraway lands to with a view to imposing our theology on other people (for their own good, of course).” We can look back and say that, but at the very moment we’re congratulating ourselves for being such clever non-Crusade sorts of people, we are surely up to some plan or another that will make our children’s children’s children moan with dismay. We haven’t finished growing yet, not you nor I, not St Mary‘s, not the great wide ecumenical church catholic. We still have some growing up to do, and though growing and changing challenge our sense of the way things ought to be, some of the changes that lie ahead of us are unimaginably vast. We don’t know what lies ahead of us any better than the somewhat confused disciples knew what to think of Jesus.

   So St Paul urges the Romans not to think they already know everything, not to assume that this Jesus stuff leaves all the checkers on the same board as before. Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed! Whatever called you here this morning — whether it was the Holy Spirit, or a persistent neighbour, or the prospect of the choir’s exquisite harmonies, or the comfort of fellowship — whatever called you here this morning called you, just as you are; and whatever called you here brought you to a precipice of transformative change.

   Paul promises us that the church at its best, when we are truest to our calling, the church forms the natural home for growing. Here we know about trying hard, and failing. Here we know about putting on costumes and pretending to be something we aren’t. Here we know that day by day we confront powers greater far than any one of us can hold back — but on a good day we do indeed hold back the power of misery and devastation because here we join with one another in the great transformative power of trusting our brothers and sisters. Here we understand that we are not the wisest judges of our own interests — so we seek out people who love us for what we are, for what God sees in us, and who have an inkling who we might become, and who volunteer to share with us in the great, risky, enterprise of growing up together. We join ourselves with a whole congregation of our sisters and brothers, a whole diocese of congregations and chaplaincies, a whole communion across continents and around the world — and we join ourselves with saints who have gone before us, and we join ourselves with saints who have not yet set foot on this earth, so that by our combined patience and openness and love, we may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. We don’t have everything we need, all by ourselves; each of us has gifts that differ, depending on the grace given to us. So it’s vitally important, it’s theologically important that we not annihilate our difference in order to assimilate to a single uniform model of sharing in God’s life; but by the same token, it’s every bit as important that we offer our distinctive gifts in ways that complement and harmonise with our neighbours’, not creating pointless conflict and futile self-aggrandisement. These gifts that make us vessels of quirky excellence are given us that we may grow into them, and with them, collaborating with one another, amplify the depth and majesty of our joyous praise to the Giver.

   These gifts, different in each of us, are signs and powers in us of a Sign and a Power that lies beyond our growing and changing; they supply the clues from which we can reach out toward goal of the transformation to which Paul calls us. Those gifts reach their realisation as we let go of childish things, as we lower the barriers that protect our isolated individuality, as we allow ourselves to change, to grow together into a gifted, glorious people who have begun to share in the true Meaning and the true Life toward which we’re just taking our awkward adolescent steps.

   But that vision, that scent, that hunger for a transformative divine splendour draws us onward. That call to our very hearts brings us together in God’s name this morning, morning after morning, here where we dare to approach the epicenter of divine transformation, and present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. We reach out our hands and ask, “Change me.” We come forward and offer ourselves at the waters of life, saying “Change me.” We gather to greet one another with open arms, and in so doing we say “This is my mother and my brother and sister. These are the people among whom I hope to be transformed. Change me.”


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