13th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon

August 27, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

“Do not be conformed to this world,” says the apostle Paul.

Well goodness. That’s quite an exhortation. Because, quite honestly, whatever aspirations or theology we may hold to the contrary, we remain very much conformed to this world.

How we dress, the food we like, the books we read, the language we speak, the opinions we hold – absolutely everything about us is formed by and conformed to this world. How could it be otherwise, when every experience in this world shapes us? Every exposure is a lesson (right or wrong) to what this world is and how we are to make meaning of our place within it.

Shoot. Even the church is “of this world.” Everything about it is shaped by the legacy of what came before and the context in which it now operates. Whatever purity of religion we may espouse or aspire to, the church – in reality – is far more an expression of culture than it is a reflection of God.

And I don’t say this as a criticism. Nor as a cynic. It’s just reality. It’s how things are. And in its way, that’s fine, because it is the way of creation. We who are “made from the dust” (to use that Biblical poetry) will always be a bit dusty in our makeup.

We are shaped by every thing and every circumstance we encounter.

But for those of us who are seeking the way of wisdom, who yearn to encounter the Divine Mystery, the one we’ve named “God,” Paul’s exhortation to us is “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

But how are we to do this? From whence will come such renewal? And how will we know it to be “of God” and not merely one more instance of conforming to the ways of the world, albeit a well-intended one?

And to be clear, the “renewal” I am talking about this morning is distinctly that of “the mind” – that is: How do we choose to think in order to discern the nature of God and thereby to discern God’s will for us and for how we shall live?

And as a clear disclosure: What I have to offer this morning is simply the testimony of one man’s search for such a renewing. And at this stage in my life, this is what I have to offer:

Let’s start with church itself. What exactly is it we’re doing here? And as a starting point, let me say plainly: As a people (as a species!), we are small-minded, self-centered, and fearful. And therefore, when we go about “creating church” (or choosing a church), the church of our making is usually a small little shell, with its hard exterior to keep us safe. And for us to feel safe, we need that shell to reinforce whatever forms of safety we’ve already grown to trust from this world. We want the people and the messaging to reflect our social values and our political values: to look like us and behave like us and talk like us. And so, the goodness of a church in our estimation often has less to do with God! and far more to do with reinforcing the values of the world we’ve come to trust.

But if we are at all serious about wanting to renew our minds, to be transformed, then what we are saying is we want to be changed. And change is something we will always resist! And what the church has to offer, what the church must be centrally about (even in its broken forms), is to point us to God and to the hope of God, the source and the center of all being. And by definition, this God must be bigger, must be purer, must be truer than what we have yet believed and experienced of God. And God certainly must be bigger and purer and truer than all those other things we’ve come to trust, even if they be good things that are of God. So let us be clear: What we want is God.

The second thing I’ve come to believe about the renewing of our minds in pursuit of God and the spiritual life, is that we must learn to be honest. For if God is truth, and God is the one we’re after, where else can we meet such a God but within the realm of truth? Which calls for an increasing commitment to honesty. And honestly (!) I’m finding that to be far more difficult than I thought it was. Because what often masquerades as honesty for me, is more accurately described as what I honestly want to be true of me: the husband I want to be, the father I want to be, the Christian, the priest, the person I want to be.

Now, aspirations are good. Like we say so often at St. John’s, “We want to be like Jesus.” But let us discern, let us be honest, about what is an aspiration, and what is actually true of us in the moment. The aspirations may inspire us, but we function out of who we are right now, which in many cases is largely driven by fear.

I got called out on something the other day, some unbecoming behavior in a ministry meeting. And naturally, my immediate response was to be defensive. But my spirit knew they were right, that my behavior was inappropriate. So on my own, I began thinking it through, and saw how my behavior and my energy were largely driven by anxiety – by fear that what we were doing wouldn’t work, and more honestly, that if it failed, I was to blame. And I tell you, much as I resisted admitting it, when I finally did, it came as a great relief. Because it was is true. And now, that fear is still there. The anxiety is still there. But it’s different now. It’s been named, exposed for what it is, which means, I can now make deliberate choices towards goodness, even in the face of my fear.

The third thing I’ve come to believe about the renewing of our minds is I must be deliberate in fostering my hope and belief that I am not Eric alone – that as much as I am truly an individual, I am also truly corporate. After all, our faith teaches us that we are made in the image of God, this God who is also singular and plural, this “One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This is the same mystery of faith Jesus prayed with his disciples, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me, and as I am in you, and you are in me, we are one.”

This is deep faith. But what faith claims by its doctrine, our soul knows by its instinct. We are one. Fear keeps us separate. Past disappointments keep us separate. Our ongoing patterns of broken behavior keep us separate. But still we crave intimacy. We crave trust and union and a spirit of being where we know and are known, where we love and are loved – that to be truly “me” must include “you.”

And what I have often found, is – before this hope can manifest in any active behavior – it must first be fostered by the renewal of my mind. Because the truth of the matter is, we are broken people. We do behave in irritating and off-putting and (in some cases) truly wicked ways. But prayer is a sacred place, a holy place, where truth resides unsullied. When I pray, I am joining God – entering into union with God and what God is about. God is loving the world. I love the world, with God. God is loving you. I love you, with God. God is loving my enemy. I love my enemy, with God. God is loving me. I love me, with God.

In prayer, my mind and soul can rest peaceably and freely with God. For God is not threatened or surprised or compromised by any of my brokenness or your brokenness or that of this whole world. God is love. And the more time I spend in that place of God’s love, the more I believe in my oneness with God and all that God loves. Which is everything. And the more I now want to participate in that love.

And so I’m finding Paul’s exhortation to be true. “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.” For what follows in his teaching is a whole list of examples of what that good and acceptable and perfect will includes – and they are all ways of loving each other.

This is my desire for you, for me, and for St. John’s.

We have come to this church for any number of reasons. In one way or another, what we’ve experienced here has been like a shell. Something of the worship and the community has offered us some degree of safety. It makes me think of the hermit crab who – small and vulnerable – goes scampering out on the seafloor to find some vacant shell to live in, where it will be safe. But that hermit crab keeps growing, and the shell becomes too small, and the time comes when it must abandon that shell in search of a larger one that can now hold it. For a season. Until a larger one is needed again.

I pray the church may have the humility and the honesty to see it for the shell it is and – paradoxically – to become the shell it needs to be. In the mystery of the body of Christ, this one church – this one shell – may be many shapes and sizes for as many crabs who may dwell here.

So may we have the graciousness of spirit, through the love of God, to grow together – each at our own pace – into the knowledge and the likeness of the God we seek.