Renewing Your Mind
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff
September 23, 2018
During my junior year in college, I spent a semester studying at the University of London. I had never been abroad before and I felt like I spent my entire semester with my eyes wide open, exclaiming, “This isn’t what it’s like at home!” When my term was over, I spent three weeks in Zurich, Switzerland where Dan had a job. On the weekends, we had some amazing hiking expeditions in the Alps. I flew home at the end of June and my parents picked me up at the airport in Minneapolis, loaded my enormous suitcase into the trunk of the car, and drove me home. As soon as we started driving, I noticed something. Minnesota looked flat. As funny as it sounds to say, I had never noticed that before. But after six months in deep green rolling hills of England and three weeks in the great peaks of Switzerland, I suddenly saw what I hadn’t seen the whole time I was growing up in Minnesota. The state is basically flat.
That’s a kind of silly story, but it is for me a strong memory of seeing something in a completely new way because I had an experience that changed my perspective. Have you ever had an experience like that? Do you know what I mean?
I’m thinking of my friend Bev who spent a couple of weeks working at an orphanage in a village in Haiti. She told me that when she came back home and went to the grocery story, ready to get back into the swing of her normal life. But when she walked into the produce section, she was completely overwhelmed and burst into tears. “There was just so much,” she told me later. “It was all so fresh and clean and perfect—I couldn’t bear it.” Two weeks in Haiti had changed the way she saw food.
My friend Mary Jane told me a similar story about having her first child, a sweetheart of a kid named Andrew. She had been an elementary school teacher for almost seven years before she went out on maternity leave. She had perfected her techniques of classroom management, had all her routines down, but when she came back to the classroom, she found she had to re-think everything. “I looked at each of those kids,” she explained, “and I realized that each one of them was somebody’s baby Andrew.” Three months on maternity leave had changed the way she saw children.
Have you ever had an experience like that? Has something happened to you that made it impossible for you to see the world in the same way again? Think of those experiences, for a moment, and then let me ask you: What if faith was like that? What if your faith affected your life like traveling to Switzerland, working in Haiti, or having a baby? What if your faith made you see everything differently?
Faith, as we usually talk about it, is focused on belief. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior? If you can say “yes” in response to that question, then you are by definition part of the Christian faith, right? And when people say that their faith is shaken, or when they say that they’ve lost their faith, that usually means that they are started to doubt the things that other people in their church say they believe. Faith, as we usually use the term, is something that happens up in your brain.
In today’s reading from Romans, Paul seems to agree with this description. “Be not conformed to the world,” Paul writes. Don’t just mimic the behavior and attitudes of the people around you. Don’t just live on automatic pilot. Instead, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In other words, get your thinking straight and then the world will change. Many Christians have taken this advice to heart. Instead of focusing on our actions, instead of teaching the practices of faith, we focus on teaching people what to believe and helping them chase away all of their doubts.
Does anyone have a problem with that? I sure do. For one thing, having hung around churches all my life, I’ve known quite a few people whose beliefs are perfectly orthodox and they still act like a jerk. Clearly, all sorts of things can happen in your mind that have absolutely no affect on your behavior.
And for another thing, I have argued with all sorts of people during my life about their beliefs and as far as I can tell, none of these arguments have ever transformed anything. I’ve argued with people about the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, the meaning of passages in the Bible pertaining to homosexuality and womens’ role in the church. For that matter, I’ve argued about climate change and nuclear disarmament and gun control and vegetarianism and as far as I can tell, no one’s life was different as a result of any of these arguments.
So I have now come to the conclusion that belief is highly over-rated, most especially by Christians. We can’t just think different—we have to BE different.
Is that even possible? Paul, writing to people who lived right in the midst of the most entrenched system of power and control in the world at the time, was convinced that it was possible. And if we step back and put Paul’s words in today’s reading a bit more into context, we can see that Paul is talking about more than having the right beliefs. Our reading for the morning began with the exhortation to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…to God”. Paul’s not talking about nodding and smiling and singing along with a few hymns. He’s telling people to go ALL IN, to hand their whole lives over to God made known in Jesus Christ and not to hold anything back. To be as immersed in the Good News as someone is immersed in a service trip to Haiti, or immersed in parenthood. To allow every aspect of your life to be shaped by the promises of God, as lived by the people of God. Do you think that is possible? Can we as the church, the People of God, promote something more than belief, something that really can transform the world?
I’m not asking this as a rhetorical question, one that we all should obviously be able to answer affirmatively. This is the question that is quite literally keeping me awake at night right now. The public conversation that has happened over the past week in response to the accusation that Professor Christine Blasey Ford made against Judge Brent Kavanaugh has illustrated over and over that there is something in our culture that is in desperate need of transformation. All week, women (and a few brave men) have publically shared stories of being sexually molested as adolescents. All week, men in power have suggested that the women who tell these stories are mistaken or lying. And as the mother of a 19-year-old daughter and two 22-year-old sons, as a Chaplain on a college campus, I am sickened at the thought that young men have and will continue to receive that message that there is something understandable, even excusable, about treating women as objects of conquest and not as human beings worthy of care and respect.
What do we as a church have to offer to that conversation? Some shaming and blaming language about the dangers of drinking and premarital sex? Some high and mighty exhortations about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? That can’t be all we have to offer because no one is going to be transformed by thinking alone. We need to show the world what it looks like to hand everything over to God’s love and God’s law—mind, body, spirit, everything.
This is not just a pipe dream. I’ve had enough glimpses of this kind of community to keep me from utter despair. Here’s just one story:
The congregation I used to serve in Columbia, Maryland was, like EBC, very involved with programs that addressed the needs of people living on the economic margins. As one part of this work, the church hosted the community’s Cold Weather Shelter for a week each year. During that week, 24 men, women and children struggling with homelessness lived in our church building. The members of the church were there with them much of the time as we helped staff the shelter and provided three meals a day, activities for kids and conversation for the adults. One year, the shelter was in our church the week before the Sunday in January when we read the story about the baptism of Jesus when a voice came down from the heavens declaring, “This is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased!” Our church planned worship in teams (as EBC is starting to do) and so a group of us spent the week discussing this scripture and crafting a worship service around that powerful declaration.
And then, on the Monday following that week, I saw one of the people who had slept in our church the week before sitting in the food court at the mall. He had a bunch of plastic bags with him and he was kind of muttering to himself. Other people were keeping clear of him and I would have reflexively followed suit. But then the words popped into my head, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well-pleased!” Beloved, I thought. Well-pleased, I repeated to myself.
You see, those were no longer just words to me. That was a shorthand description of the world I had lived in for the past week. That was the language we had spoken together. That was the law we had lived by. And it was transforming me from someone who did nice things for homeless people to a person who saw a homeless person as beloved.
That’s what faith can do—faith that reaches way beyond belief and becomes the language and the law of the People of God. With faith like that, transformation is not just possible, but certain. May it be true for us, and may we offer that promise to this whole, hurting world.