The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
People use religion or spirituality for all sorts of reasons. For some, it provides comfort and peace when life seems too difficult to bear. For others, it gives black and white answers in an otherwise gray world. Still others use religion as a way of feeling secure, even superior to others. I’m mostly interested in religion and spirituality as a vehicle for transformation. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have other legitimate uses; it’s just how I tend to use it.
Do you hope for transformation? Do you harbor the dream that one day, you will be able to move beyond your fears and self-defeating behavior and live in the light of faith and freedom? Do you long for this nation, this world, to mature to the next level, to break through division, greed, denial, and short-sightedness, and start living with enlightened intelligence and compassion?
Then you’ll relate to Paul’s words today from the Letter to the Romans. Paul was writing about the transformative waters of baptism. In Christ we are crucified; our old life of enslavement dies; we are resurrected to the new life of freedom. That’s more than religion as comfort, moral boundaries, and security. It’s about complete transformation.
This is why we pray, isn’t it? Isn’t this why we ask for the Spirit’s guidance, why we feed the hungry and advocate for justice? We hope for transformation.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had an opportunity to think about the last 25 years of my life. An incredibly fun party, hundreds of heartfelt messages from you, and a liturgy of recommitment witnessed by a who’s-who of the wider church: all of this external activity stirred up internal reflections and memories.
Among these is the remembrance that I got into this business in order to be transformed. I had the sense that if I were to throw myself with both feet into the life of a priest, God would keep me honest, keep me moving more deeply into the gospel, keep challenging me towards greater purity of heart.
I also developed the hope, as I got to know you, that together, we could transform this community. We could be for one another the hands and heart of Christ; we could become an inspirational light within our diocese and our city; we could move from being a sleepy little North Valley church to a dynamic village of creative formation and service. Perhaps I even dared to hope that we might do our part to change the world.
Some of this has taken place. But it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. I discovered that real transformation is a lot harder than I imagined it to be; and it takes us to places we don’t expect because we can’t will it into being – there is this stubborn guiding hand we call “grace” that takes us where it will.
But the most surprising thing of all on the road of transformation has been the necessary element of conflict. Oh, I always knew, like everyone does, that a pearl is only created by the irritant of sand in the shell, blah, blah, blah…But when it came down to it, I didn’t like that sand in my shell, even if it came from God. In every time of conflict, at least at first, I didn’t believe that there was any good in it.
We hear these words of Jesus our whole life, as we did today: The disciple is not above the teacher. So if I’m maligned and even crucified, you will be too, if you’re faithful to my ways. I’ve come not to bring peace but a sword, dividing you sometimes from members of your own family. If in this case you choose peace instead of my sword, you’ll lose your soul. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it. So take up your cross and follow me into conflict. It is there that life is resurrected. This is the place of transformation.
We’ve heard this teaching over and over again, and we say we believe it. But when it happens, we go in kicking and screaming, asking “Why me?” and thinking that somehow, if we had handled things better, we wouldn’t be in this fix. If we were really spiritual, would have been smooth sailing all the way.
We’re like the prophet Jeremiah, in our first lesson today, who thought that if he was faithful to God and warned Israel of her sins, he would be warmly welcomed. “Oh, great, you’re going to show us the way to God!” Instead, they shot the messenger. Obviously, Jeremiah thought, the rejection and persecution he experienced was a sign that he or God had done something terribly wrong, and he became bitter: Lord, you enticed and deceived me, and now I’m the laughingstock of everyone. I cry out in despair!
But conflict is not some terrible mistake; it is the place of spiritual transformation. Freedom, for me, has come not because I’ve just lounged by and sipped from a refreshing spiritual spring that just bubbled up to the surface. Freedom has come because I’ve been forced to remove the boulders of habit, delusion, and resistance that have blocked that well of life. In my spiritual practice and in my sense of vocation, I’ve had to fight with opposing forces within that argue “This way!” “No, you idiot, that way!” Depth of love and real intimacy has come in my family because we’ve struggled our way through many conflicts along the way.
And looking back over the last 25 years of our parish history, I see what an important role conflict has played in our continuing transformation. We struggle with the issues of money, buildings and growth, disagreeing over how much emphasis we should give to them; this irritant has resulted in a natural, authentic expansion that wouldn’t have happened if it had been easy. We had a decade-long period of division, persecution and self-scrutiny in our diocesan life that led to deeper faith, self-confidence, and a remarkable clarity of focus and mission. We have bumped into one another over changes in the liturgy, the use of Spanish in worship, new staff members bringing different ways of doing things, and to what degree political, economic and social issues should be a part of our preaching and ministries. We will no doubt experience some conflicts in the fundraising and building process ahead of us. All of this plays an important role in helping us grow in God’s grace.
I’ve come to trust conflict. When I’m struggling to remove yet another boulder in the way of grace, I don’t believe any more, like Jeremiah, that this is a sign of something gone terribly wrong. It is a natural part of the process. It is, in fact, a sign of hope. For God must take us through many crucibles on our way to purity of heart. There’s no way around these places of purification. We can only go through them. And by God’s grace, we shall be transformed in the process. This has become my hope when I am in conflict.
Jesus said that we will, like him, walk the way of the cross. He said that that sometimes a sharp sword will divide and we will lose relationships with family or friends if we are faithful to him. But he also said Do not be afraid. Every hair on your head is counted by God, who sees everything. You are of great value to God, and if you persevere through conflict as faithfully as you can, you will find your life in God. You will be transformed.
What conflicts do you face today? Are you stuck behind the boulders of personal habit, delusion, and resistance? Are you facing several forks in the road, with no signposts? Are you at odds with someone in your family, and you don’t quite trust that God is actively involved, trying to bring about transformation? Are you anxious about something in this parish not quite being what you want it to be, and do you worry that things will go badly wrong? Are you fearful that the change you hope for in this world may not be realized in this election cycle?
Do not be afraid. This is the place of the cross, where two opposing forces come together in creative tension. It is the place of potentiality, where the baptismal waters may seem to drown, but in fact irrigate the desert and bring about new life. It is the place where you lose the life you were used to, and gain a new life.
Do not be afraid. As you endure this crucible with faith, trust in the Spirit. You are of more value to God than you think. For God meets our willingness for change with a grace beyond our control and our comprehension. And in this alchemy, we are transformed.