(preached during my first Sunday as the pastor of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, Virginia on 6/30/2013)
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. Do not 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. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to begin serving his first appointment. He had taken all of the appropriate classes, learned from the best professors, volunteered in the local community and was excited to finally begin his ministry. After passing all of his boards and graduating from his elite seminary he packed his belongings and headed out into a rural area in the North Georgia Conference to John Wesley United Methodist Church. The young man was so anxious and filled with joy that he could hardly contain himself when he arrived in town the first day, so before he unpacked any of his possessions he drove by his new church. He got in his car and went to the listed address, but he missed the church. When he turned around he discovered what had prevented him from seeing the building – there was the oldest most decrepit looking tree with roots stretching all over the ground blocking the sign and most of the church from being visible on the road. In addition to the tree the young minister noticed that some of the hinges needed replacing and a new coat of paint could help too, but above all things he could not stand that awful tree. And so, before unpacking any of his important belongings, the young man found his chainsaw and went to work on the tree. By the time he had finished chopping it down he was incredibly proud of himself; the sign and building were now completely visible from the road and he thought that perhaps a few extra people might be in church on Sunday morning.
A few days later, as he sat in the study of his parsonage preparing his first sermon, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you’re being reappointed.”
You see, the church was named John Wesley church for a reason, nearly two hundred years ago John Wesley stood on the roots of that tree and preached to the people in the community about the overflowing grace of God, and they decided to build a church right where he stood, and that young minister had chopped it down.
Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and remember the important elements of life.
Today, we live in a world of competing narratives; people and organizations are constantly bombarding us with information regarding what we are to think and, perhaps more frighteningly, who we are to be. It is nearly impossible to turn on the television, get online, or even drive down the road without someone telling us how we are supposed to understand the world. Every single day we are thrust into a world that tells us what we are supposed to think, speak, and do; that frightens me. The world is full of ways for us to discover our identities and they are insufficient when compared to our fullest identities in Christ.
God’s Word, through the apostle Paul, looks out to the world and dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Do not let your favorite reality television shows dictate how you interact with other people, do not let the news channel be the only way you understand the world, do not let your political persuasions limit your relationships with those who are different from you. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Being transformed implies a willingness to let God enter your heart and soul and reorient you. Being transformed into God’s vision for who we are means recognizing that, if way say yes, it would be something great and glorious; but we also notice that saying “yes” carries with it a great consequence, for it will have a huge effect on the way we live our lives.
Transformation, a true change in our lives, occurs when we are turned away from our sinful selfish lives back toward God. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds every time we enter this building to hear God and worship God. The story of the church is supposed to be shaped by the greatest story ever told, God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ in order to reconcile the world unto Himself.
Last weekend I had the privilege of kneeling before 3,000 Methodist from the state of Virginia and was commissioned by our Bishop as a Provisional Elder for our great denomination. According to the ways of the world this is perhaps the worst time to enter ministry. Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, people are no longer attending churches, worship attendance in plummeting, and Church buildings are being closed regularly. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are largely absent from worship. The average age of a member of a United Methodist church is 57. I cannot begin to tell you how many people tried to dissuade me from entering the ministry at this point in my life because of these facts; because by the world’s standards, this is not the time for ministry, nor is it the time of the church.
Thanks be to God that we do not need to be conformed to the ways of the world, but instead get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
At the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark, Jesus begins his Galilean ministry by proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” In this one solitary statement, everything about the world has been changed. From this point forward God’s actions in the world will dictate how history takes places, how everything will be transformed, and how we can understand who we are to be in God’s story.
My story begins when I was baptized at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia when I was 19 days old. That church took the baptismal vows seriously and they raised me in the faith: I learned about the goodness of God from Children’s message, sermons, and the Bible. I helped establish the first youth band in the church, led bible studies, and ran the sound system for Sunday services. I was made part of the body of Christ and invited to participate in any way that I could. After one of my dearest friend’s died in a car accident I found myself praying more than I ever had before and started wrestling with a call to ministry. I majored in Religious Studies and Philosophy at James Madison University and eventually enrolled at Duke Divinity School in order to obtain my Masters of Divinity. I interned at numerous churches helping in a variety of ways from Bryson City, North Carolina to Birmingham, Michigan. I have led mission trips to places all over the United States and abroad. I have sat with people during the darkest moments of their lives at Duke University Hospital, and I have celebrated baptisms and the Lord’s Supper with people who earnestly desired them. But none of my experiences of the church could compare to this morning.
In my life I have never been more nervous, excited, thrilled, terrified, humbled, or blessed than I am right now in this pulpit. We are standing at the precipice of a great journey. We get the privilege to gather together as a community of faith every week to share the Good News of God. As we live and move and have our being in God almighty we will enter this place as the body of Christ to proclaim God’s kingdom on earth. I cannot wait to learn about how God has impacted your lives, made you into the individuals you are, and brought this church together. We get to share our stories with each other because they reveal the great things God is still doing in the world.
The stories of the world can never compare to the actions of God in the world through Jesus Christ. Whether you’re a brother or a sister, mother or father, republican or democrat, rich or poor, none of those narratives, none of those identities, compare with what it means to be Christian.
The stories of scripture help to shape who we become throughout our lives. They speak greater truths than simple affirmations or facts. That’s why Jesus never simply explains anything to anyone throughout the gospels, but instead responds by telling a story, or a parable. Stories are part of the fabric of what it means to be human, and even more importantly what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ
According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not built on the ways of the world, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ. Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands, comforting, nurturing, and sustaining us in all that we do. We can believe in the future of the church because our faith is in almighty God! We are here to share our stories so that we might learn more about how we are caught up in God’s story. The ways of the world are nothing but sinking sand, they can be shaken and moved by the slightest wind but God’s story is eternally unshakable and unmovable.
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Remember your truest identities in Jesus Christ; allow the scriptures to wash over you so that you can remember who you are, and whose you are. Listen to the stories of your brothers and sisters so you can remember how God continues to act in your lives every single day. The kingdom of God has come near! Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds!