I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sister, 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.
Years ago there was a young man fresh out of seminary, ready and eager to begin serving his first appoint in the United Methodist Church. He had taken all the right classes, learned from the best professors, and was excited about finally embarking on the ministry he had imagined for so long.
All he knew about his church was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.
The young man was so anxious about the appointment that when he first got to town, a few days before his first Sunday, he got in his car and drove straight to the church. But when he arrived at what he thought was the address there was no church, so he doubled back and drove down the empty road until he found a disheveled looking building with the biggest and most unruly tree he had ever seen blocking the marquee and most of the structure.
The church clearly needed work: a new roof, new paint, new everything, it even had a bell tower without a bell. But above all it needed to have the tree uprooted. The young man stood there on the front lawn looking at the tree and the wheels started clicking in his mind… He thought that if he took the tree down, individuals from the community would be able to see the church and the sign from the main road and they might even get a couple extra visitors on his first Sunday.
So instead of going back to the parsonage to unpack all of his belongings and get settled, he went straight to the box with his chain saw and he went back to John Wesley UMC.
Hours later, with sweat dripping down his brow, the young pastor stood proudly in front of the church that was now completely visible from the road with the old gnarled tree perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.
A few days passed and the young pastor was sitting in the study at the parsonage preparing his very first sermon in his very first church when the phone rang. It was the District Superintendent and the pastor briefly thought that maybe his boss was calling to congratulate him on the quick work with the tree and the beauty of the totally visible church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet, because you’re being sent to a different church.”
You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s John Wesley had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all that Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love for the scriptures, and its shade was loved like the mustard bush from the time of Jesus.
And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.
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 understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to hold dear the most important elements of existence.
Stories are remarkably important. I’ve been saying some version of that sentence in every sermon over the last 4 years. It’s what I started with, and it’s what I’m ending with.
We are the stories we tell.
By my rough calculations I’ve preached over 250 times while serving St. John’s and written about as many devotionals. I’ve traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles, read countless books, and gone to the hospital enough time that a few of the security guards will wave me into the ER without having to ask who I am.
I’ve gone to more meetings than I ever thought possible, compiled annual budgets I though we could never meet (though we always did), and led bible studies that have addressed almost every book of the bible.
And in all of this, I’ve written close to a million words in four years. Between the sermons and the studies, the devotionals and the prayers, even the chapel times and the epistles, nearly one million words.
All of those million words, in whatever context they appeared, they have been my attempt at saying these words: We are the stories we tell.
I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever walked into this sanctuary it was late in the evening on Good Friday in 2013 and no one could figure out how to turn the lights on. I groped around this room in the dark hoping to have a sense of what it looked like and left none the wiser. I love that story because it became indicative of our time together: rediscovering the light of Christ that burns in our lives.
Or I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever led the Children’s Message during worship I realized that I was closer in age to the kids sitting on the steps than to the vast majority of you folk sitting in the pews. I love that story because it quickly embodied how this church needed to discover it’s multi-generational gifts and people of all different ages have really grown closer together.
Or I could tell you the story about how on my very first Sunday I remembered to do everything except I forgot to give the ushers the offerings plates. It was good for a refreshing laugh that first worship service and I love that story because in it we learned, as a church, to stop worrying about the offering plate and instead we began to believe that the Lord would provide, and the Lord has provided ever since.
We, preachers and laypeople alike, tell stories in order that they might be remembered. We tell children about George Washington and his tree so that they will tell the truth. We tell high school students about political elections from the past so that they might cast informed votes in the future. We tell older adults about what our children have been up to so that they might live a little through them.
We tell stories because we want them to be remembered.
But recently I was reading a book by Ellen Davis and she believes that a successful sermon is one that isn’t remembered. Sounds strange right? I’ve stood in this pulpit for four years in the hopes that you might actually remember what I said. But after reading that part of her book, I went through the archives and I came across a ton of sermons that I barely remember writing, let alone preaching.
A forgotten sermon is successful because we have to keep showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear again the story that makes us who we are.
If one sermon was capable of proclaiming all that the bible has to tell, all of the life of Jesus Christ, all of God’s glory, all of the fellowship of the Spirit, then we would never come back and our lives would be perfect from then on.
But that’s not the way our lives work!
The goal of preaching, and of good story telling, is the hope that people won’t remember what you said. The goal should be that the next time someone turns to that part of the Bible it will say a little more to him or her. The purpose of the church, of doing worship week after week, is to give the bible a little more room to shine.
Now, don’t get me wrong… I hope you won’t forget me. I hope you will think back over these last years with fondness. I’m even bold to hope that you might remember some of my sermons. But more than that, I hope when you open up your bibles, the story of God with God’s people shines a light in your life, regardless of whomever the person was that stood in this pulpit.
Because today, the world is full of stories, competing narratives vying for our allegiance. It is almost impossible to go anywhere or do anything without someone or something telling us how we are supposed to understand the world.
And Paul dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you understand others, don’t let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationship with those who are of a different opinion. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Tell the story that is our story! Jesus Christ and him crucified!
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. God transforms our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship and whenever we tell the story. The story of God in Christ reconciling himself to the World is what transforms us into the very people God is calling us to be.
According to the world, the church is in between a rock and a hard place. Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, people are no longer attending church like they once did, offering plates feel lighter and lighter. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are disappearing from the fabric of church.
The church is between a rock and a hard place.
Thanks be to God then that Jesus Christ is the solid rock upon which we stand! We don’t have to be conformed to the ways of the world! We get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our story!
Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say bring me your votes and your mortgages and your perfect families. Jesus says, bring me your burdens and I will bring you rest.
Jesus does not tell us to earn all that we can and save all that we can. Jesus tells us to give away all we can.
Jesus does not say that our religious convictions are private and something to keep to ourselves. Jesus tells us to go tell it on the mountain and share the Good News.
Jesus does not look at our outward appearance and say you’re too fat, or short, or tall, or dumb, or slow, or strange. Jesus looks into our hearts and says, “You are mine and I am thine.”
This church, St. John’s, is on the precipice of a great journey; you’re about to receive a new pastor. But at the same time, this is nothing new. This is what the church is! It is the place where disciples gather to hear the story over and over and over again.
The stories of the world will 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, old or young, none of those narratives, none of those identities, none of those stories compare with what it means to follow Jesus.
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, it’s not in Pastor Chuck Cole, my hope is not built on the ways of the world. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands. Jesus Christ is Lord and that means that the ways of the world crumble away when compared to the foundation made manifest in God in the flesh.
We are here in this place to share our stories with one another in order that we might learn more about how we are caught up in God’s great story. The ways of the world are nothing but sinking sand, they falter and flounder, they creak and groan, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Remember that Jesus is Lord! Keep the faith! Let the stories of scripture wash over you like the waters of baptism. Feast at this table like the disciples did with Jesus long ago!
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! To God be the Glory!