Squeezed or Transformed?
- James A. Harnish Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa, Florida
- 2003 1 Feb
Squeezed or Transformed?
(February, 2003 POL)
Text: Romans 12:1-8
Let's begin with an object lesson this morning. This is a toothpaste tube. I'm prepared to confess this morning that I am a "squeezer." I realize that news will come as a grave disappointment to the "rollers" out there. Let's see the hands of the squeezers. Now, let's see the hands of the rollers. They often marry each other and create great opportunities for marital counseling.
You know what happens when you squeeze the toothpaste tube. The toothpaste comes out. But I'm not so interested in the toothpaste today as I am the tube. Did you notice that when I squeeze the tube, it takes its shape from the outside in? Sooner or later, squeezed from the outside in, it will end up empty, with nothing inside.
By contrast, this is a balloon. Right now, this balloon is empty. It has little or no shape at all. But if I blow into it from the outside, it will take a new shape from the inside out. And it will hold that shape, as long as there is air inside. And, of course, you know what happens when let the air go.
Now, some of you may think that is just a silly little object lesson. Some are probably saying, "I came to church for that?!" But I dare you to forget it once you've heard the scripture lesson this morning. It comes from the Romans 12r of St. Paul's letter to Rome. He has spent 11 chapters describing the amazing grace and mercy of God that meets us in our brokenness and sin, forgives, restores, and renews us in our relationship with God and with each other. The twelfth chapter opens with a great "therefore." Therefore, because of the way God's love and mercy have been made known to us, because we have experienced God's grace at the cross, look at the way we should live in response to that love and grace of God.
In order to get the flavor of these verses I want you to hear them in several different translations.
Romans 12:1: "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 an acceptable and perfect."
Romans 12:1: "Therefore, my brothers [and sisters], I implore you by God's mercy to offer your very selves to him: a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect."
Romans 12:1: "So then, my brothers [and sisters], because of God's great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God, what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect."
Romans 12:1: "With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers [and sisters], as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands, and moves toward the goal of true maturity."
When it comes down to it, Paul is pretty well convinced that there are two options for our lives. One option is to be squeezed. We can allow our lives, our values, our attitudes, our convictions, and our relationships to be shaped and formed from the outside in by the forces of the world around us. The other option is to be transformed. Our lives can be remolded, reshaped, redesigned from the inside out by the wind and breath of the Spirit of God.
Paul hangs those options out in front of us. With great passion he calls for our response. Therefore: because you know the mercy and grace of God, because you've seen how God loves lost, disoriented, confused and broken people, because you know how God's love has been made real for us at the cross, therefore, for God's sake, for your own sake, don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold. Rather, let God remold your life from the inside out so that you may demonstrate in practice the good, acceptable, loving, life-giving will of God for you.
Paul is correct, of course. You and I know that if we let it, the world around us will squeeze us into its own mold. If we let it, the world will shape our attitudes, our values, our convictions from the outside in, until it squeezes the life right out of us.
If we let it, the world will squeeze us into the mold of materialism. That's the belief, the ideology, the conviction, the assumption that everything that really matters in this life can be bought and sold with money. It's the belief that I can have what I want and have it now; all I need is plastic. We will mortgage our grandchildren's future to have what we want and have it now.
One of the emerging pastoral concerns that we share is the concern for good folks, Christian people, who are being squeezed to death by the demon on debt and the demonic power of plastic. People whose lives are being controlled and managed by their credit cards. The crisis for many families today is not only the high cost of living, but the cost of high living. It's a profoundly spiritual thing, and later this fall, we want to try to work on that.
If we let it, the world will squeeze us into the mold of self-centered amorality. That's the assumption that there is no objective standard of right or wrong in this universe, and that my behavior is determined solely on the basis of what satisfies me. It expresses itself in many ways. We desperately need gun control in this country, but we will never control the violence of our culture until we deal with the underlying desire to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, by whatever means it takes to get it. It works itself out in a multitude of ways, but if we let it, the world will squeeze us into the mold of self-oriented amorality.
If we let it, the world will squeeze us into the mold of "squishy spirituality." I borrowed that term from Jonathan Yardley, the book critic for "Washington Post." When I shared it on the Internet a few weeks ago, I received more response than anything I've sent out there since I wrote on Moncia Lewinsky. In a scathing review of a book on "boomer spirituality," Yardly described "squishy spirituality" as a "blend of all the most self-absorbed aspects of pop psychology, New Age pseudo-mysticism . . . and half-baked religiosity. It completely rejects anything remotely smacking of authority . . . It is self-indulgent rather than self-sacrificial, and it is utterly devoid of anything approximating intellectual rigor." He says the bottom line of most contemporary spirituality is "What's in it for me?"
The textbook for that kind of "squishy spirituality" is the "New York Times" best seller, Conversations with God, which by my estimation is theological drivel without a single protein in it. It feels good, but it doesn't have the bone or muscle in it to hold life together when the earthquake hits or the hurricane comes.
There are other molds out there, but those are a few of the ways in which the world will, if we let it, squeeze us into its own mold. The alternative, Paul says, is to let God mold our minds from the inside out. We can allow the Spirit of God to reshape and reform our lives, our attitudes, our convictions, our values from the inside out so that our lives become a tangible expression of the good, and perfect, and loving, and life-giving will of God.
The word Paul uses to describe that process is "transformation". And that's what we want to be about in this church. The gospel is not about transferring intellectual concepts from mind to mind. The gospel is about the inner transformation of our lives from the inside out by the power of the Spirit of God. This church is here to provide the opportunity for God to totally transform the way we think, act and live by the reshaping and renewing of our minds. We're here for transformation.
Our mission, as you know, is "Making God's Love Real." We believe God has called us to be a community of Christian people who are "committed to Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, united in the love of God and called to make that love real to others." Our task is to allow the inner, transforming power of the love of God in Christ to become the transforming reality within and through every one of us. When we talk about that, we say that we are here to "transform ordinary people into extraordinary lovers of God and of others." We're here to make great lovers out of you by the Spirit of God.
One of the goals of the Ministry Leadership Council this year has been for us to be very clear about the process of transformation, the tangible process by which that inner transformation happens. We need to be very clear about one thing. Paul makes it clear that either we allow the world to squeeze us from the outside in, or we allow God to transform us from the inside out, but we don't do this on our own. It is God who does the transforming work within us. Transformation is God's work, but our task is to guide the process by which that transforming work can happen.
We know what the steps in that process are. They are defined as a part of our mission statement. The first is worship, by which we mean both corporate worship and those spiritual disciplines of prayer by which our lives are so deeply centered in the presence and power of God that the Spirit becomes the living reality in our lives.
The second step in the process is education. We are a community of learners who know that we never outgrow the need for continual discover of God's truth and God's will for us as we study the written word. Over 150 people will gather tonight to begin this year's Disciple Bible Study.
We have adult groups at both 9:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning and throughout the week. We want to be a learning community where God's Spirit remakes the way we think, so that we think differently than the world around us because our thinking has been remolded by the Spirit of God.
The third step is caring relationships. God's love becomes real in our relationships with each other. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that whenever two or three are gathered together, he is in their midst. We know the presence of Christ in loving and caring for each other.
The fourth step is witness and service. Every baptized believer, every follower of Jesus, is called to discover how their gifts, their resources, their talents, can be used to share the love of God in Christ with the whole world. It is in giving ourselves away to others that we discover the transforming love of God at work within us.
I need to say that all four of those elements are essential for all of us. We're not talking about all the worship folks going over in this corner, and all the study-types getting together over here, and all the touchy-feely folks caring about each other, and all the activists going out and being active. We're saying that all four of these elements are absolutely essential for a healthy, whole, balanced experience of God's transforming presence in every one of our lives. That's the way the transforming love of God becomes a living reality in and through us.
One of the ways we've tried to get a handle on that has been to ask: Is my life more like Jesus today than it was a year ago? Are my attitudes, my values, my convictions, the practical stuff of my life, more consistent with the will and way of God revealed in Jesus than they were six weeks ago, a month ago? Is my life more deeply centered in prayer than it was a year ago? It's a way of measuring the way God's transforming power is at work among us.
We're asking the question another way in the sermon series this fall. We stole the theme from those fascinating billboards that are going up around the country. There's one out here on I-4 when you are headed toward Brandon. The background is black. There is a simple statement and each one is signed, "God."
For all the folks who are glad the Bucs won last night, there's one that looks toward football season and says, "Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game. -God." For all the country music fans, one says, "What part of 'Thou Shalt Not . . .' didn't you understand? -God." For every parent who lives in a two-story house, there's one that reads, "Don't make me come down there. -God." And for everyone who needs to do some work on understanding the Bible, there's one that asks, "Have you read my No. 1 best-seller? (There will be a test.) -God."
Several of the billboards get at the process of transformation. One asks, "Need directions? -God." Another declares, "My way is the highway. -God." The one we have borrowed for this fall asks, "Will the road you're on get you to my place? -God." We're asking it this way: "Will the Road You're On Get You Where You Want to Be?"
Will the path you are following, the process by which you are living, enable you to become a transformed person? Will the path you are following allow the Spirit of God to be at work within you so that your life will become a tangible expression of the whole, perfect, loving, and life-giving will of God? Let's pray about that as we share these weeks together.