… if we are to be true children of God, we need to expect transformation of self, community and creation. We need to let the messiness of transformation happen in our lives. We actually need to be willing to leave our old ways behind, as we seek to become agents of resurrection – agents of new life.
Rev. Jenny Carter
September 17, 2017
Based on Romans 8:18-27 and Mark 1:9-13
When a baby is about to be born, when the labour pains have progressed to such a point that either a trip to the hospital or a call to the midwife is determined a prudent course of action, the birth becomes the singular focus – especially for the mother. Not that Dad’s aren’t concerned or focused, it’s just that if you’re not the one in labour, your focus doesn’t have to be quite as, well “focused”!
My sister went in to labour with her second child around two in the morning. The labour was proceeding exceedingly fast, and by 3:00am she knew that the baby was almost ready to make an appearance. My brother in law helped her in to the car for the drive to the hospital. Being a cautious man, and not wanting to make my sister unduly uncomfortable, my brother in law drove really slowly. Being three in the morning, there was nobody even still awake in that small town, let alone out driving on the roads. Yet, being the cautious man that he is, not only did he drive slow, but he stopped at every red light, patiently waiting for it to turn green before proceeding.
At the first red light, my sister turns to her husband and says, “Run the light.” To which he replied it wasn’t legal to run red lights. At the second red light, my sister turns and says, a bit more forcibly, “Run the light!” To which he said, “No. It’s not legal to run red lights.” At the third red light, she yelled for him to “Run the light!” And when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to run it, she took her left foot, placed it on the gas peddle and pushed down as hard as she could. They ran that light. They ran that light, and got to the hospital with about thirty minutes to spare before my nephew made his entry into this world.
At family gatherings when the subject of babies comes up, we often share this story. We share it and we all laugh. It’s a cute story. Well I should say, it’s a cute story now. It took about 5 years before my sister saw the cuteness of it, and it took my brother in law about 20 before he would even smile when it was told. You see, there was a lot of yelling in that car. And while babies arriving are always a joy, during that particularly panicked and fear filled car ride – joy was not one of the emotions expressed by either parent.
When babies are about to be born, emotions run very high. We have anticipation, and joy all mixed up with panic and fear. When babies are about to be born there comes a point where we wonder if we’re up to the task of being a parent, a place of self-doubt, a place of worrying if everything will be “okay”. When we’re in this place old habits and even social rules recede in importance because something really big is happening, there is no turning back, and where you know – you know with every fibre of your being that life has changed in a huge way. And while you don’t know what your life will be like once the baby arrives, you do know that all your relationships, all of what you knew of your life before that baby’s arrival, will be transformed in some way – and eventually you will have to learn how to live this new life.
That was Paul’s point in the passage we heard read from the letter to the Romans this morning. Writing to a community of Christians he had never met, but was hoping to visit, Paul is reminding them that in their life with and in Christ, everything changes. He uses feminine images for God here, saying that with Christ, creation is experiencing labour pains – just as the Christian church in Rome was experiencing labour pains – as both waited for the fullness of God’s plan for the world to be revealed in Christ.
Another way of saying what Paul meant is this: that as Christians, if we are to be true children of God, we need to expect transformation of self, community and creation. We need to let the messiness of transformation happen in our lives. We actually need to be willing to leave our old ways behind, as we seek to become agents of resurrection – agents of new life. As faithful hearted people, we seek to grow our faith by seeking a deeper relationship with God, and by laying down our lives so that others might live. That we treat God, the earth, and one another like eternal partners in the life God has planned and initiated in our world.
Make no mistake – the work of transformation is messy and difficult work. We humans always want to jump to the end of the story – proclaim our transformation before we achieve it. That’s an issue in our life and world right now But, it was just as big of an issue in Paul’s life and the life of the Roman church way back when Paul wrote this letter. Everybody was wanting to jump to the good stuff, without working through the tough stuff.
And there was a lot of tough stuff. First off, Paul was not in the good graces of the Christian church back in Jerusalem. He was at odds with Peter and the other wise leaders of the Jesus’ way. Paul felt called by God to a mission among the Gentiles and traveled the known world preaching the gospel in ways that the Gentiles could make sense of. But it was a very different way than those in Jerusalem preached it which caused a lot of church infighting. And to make matters even worse, Paul was preaching the gospel to Gentiles, a clear break with tradition and faith rules, about the place of Gentiles in the realm of God’s love and concern.
Second, this letter is addressed to the faithful followers of Jesus in Rome. These people had heard the gospel, decided to turn their lives over to living in a new way. But they lived in a cosmopolitan city, where everything from commerce to social position was set, and enabled, by the Roman temple system and the politically all powerful Roman military establishment and government. What a struggle it must have been for them to learn to live in new ways when there was so much social and familial pressure to remain as they had always been.
One of my favourite lines from this particular passage is the one that says, “The Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words… and the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” There are so many reasons I love that line! But probably the biggest reason involves the chaotic messiness of letting my heart and life be truly transformed. There are times, as a human just trying to do my best, that I have no clue what “best” looks like. So, there is grace in these words. I don’t have to “know” everything, I simply need to be open to the Spirit, to be honest in my struggling, to seek to deepen my relationship with the divine, and somehow, the Spirit will help me to get to the place I need to be. Somehow my relationships, my life, and my world, will be transformed. I cannot tell you how much I trust this work of God and Spirit in my life.
This is not wishful or magical thinking. On the contrary, it is the real, and really hard, work of personal/communal spiritual transformation. It is the mind-set that keeps us from jumping to the end of our story, and thinking we are complete, or have “graduated” from our school of life and faith. While we have been “justified” or “saved” or brought back into deep and everlasting relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – we need to work on our own sanctification. Sanctification is a fancy theological word that simply means actively choosing to let God transform every aspect of who we are, what we do, how we live, and how we relate to one another and to all of creation.
No, we don’t ever graduate – we are divinely created people and institutions that are caught up in an ever evolving, unfolding, and reforming of self and all of creation. There is a saying among Pauline scholars – where the role of the Spirit is to take us to where the pain is. While it is a natural tendency to avoid pain, there can be no life abundant for all, without going to the painful places and working things through. It is a process of looking at the things that keep us from growing into the people and the faith community that we are being called to be. It is also acknowledging that transformation, can be, in and of itself, painful.
Painful because, like the early church in Rome, we must leave some things behind if we are to embrace what God is doing in our midst. Painful because we must examine our own hearts, and the hurt that lives there, the hurt we may have nurtured all of our lives, so much so that we cannot imagine what life would look like without it. Painful because it holds us accountable to God, to one another, and to the unfolding of life in our midst. Painful because it pushes us to move beyond our own sense of “how things are” and embrace different people with different ways. Painful because there comes a slow dawning where we begin to realize that the Spirit calls us to really care about all those other humans, some of whom are in really big trouble, and most of whom will never darken the door of a local congregation.
To be clear, I am not elevating pain to an elevated status. We don’t need to seek out fresh ways to hurt, but we do need to be honest and willing to look at all that holds us back from letting ourselves and our relationships be transformed. You see, our faith is always and only ever about transformation. While it may be messy and arguments may happen and pain may come in the working through of things, transformation of self and world is a divine program in which we are all enrolled, will never graduate from, and yet it is still so very worth it! Just like babies, no matter how much disruption they cause, or how many red lights are “run” are worth it.
May it be so in your life, and in mine.