The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: August 27, 2017
The Rev. Kyle Oliver, Assisting Priest at St. Michael’s Church
Some of you know that my first job out of seminary was as a digital media resource expert serving Christian educators across the Episcopal Church. The Center for the Ministry of Teaching had never had a “Digital Missioner” before, so for me one of the joys of this position was getting to figure out what the job was actually supposed to be.
My early priority was collecting free resources from around the Internet. We know that what happens at home is more important to people’s faith than what happens at church. So my goal was to help teachers and pastors to encourage the people they serve to connect their faith to their everyday lives.
I found great stuff on accessible prayer practices, on caring for the environment, on thinking critically about faith and politics, on bringing a Christian vocational attitude to all kinds of paid and unpaid work.
One thing I really struggled with was faith and culture, especially faith and pop culture.
We were well into the era of “prestige television,” and the theologically rich Hollywood obsessions with vampires, zombies, and superheroes. Web series and podcasting were just coming into their own, diversifying the range of available cultural creations.
In other words, there was lots of great stuff to read, watch, listen to. Plenty of it had really interesting connections to the big questions of God, faith, life, the universe, and everything else a nerdy and just ordained priest wanted to get Episcopalians talking about.
There was just one problem. Very few Christians were saying interesting things about them. Some, I thought, were saying some pretty loathsome things. I remember putting out a call to colleagues that went something like this: “Does anyone know of online faith-based culture writing that doesn’t reek of mean-spiritedness?”
I was looking for conversation partners who were serious people of faith AND weren’t afraid to love a piece of quote-unquote secular music, or film, or television on its own merits. Bonus if the author wasn’t afraid to believe that these cultural products might also have something to teach us about the love of God in Christ.
What I found was mostly preachy, even scoldy.
I realize now that this was not a new dilemma. The early church struggled with how to reconcile (or not) Christian identity with other cultural loyalties and priorities. All the theologians I’d studied in seminary struggled with these questions. Every period of history has asked and answered them in different ways.
Today we hear the Apostle Paul’s formulation, incredibly concise and yet rich enough to occupy us for a lifetime. He writes, “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.”
Near as I can tell from some rudimentary study of Paul’s original Greek, it’s not misleading to break into their constituent parts the two important verbs in this passage as we express them in English, “conform” and “transform”. We just have to be a little careful.
We might take “con-form” as literally “with” (con) the form of. For example, a cast sculpture takes the form of its mold, or a gingerbread person takes the form of the cookie cutter.
Paul seems to be saying we’re not supposed to just fit a generic template or set of expectations that the world provides to us. Fair enough.
What we want to avoid here, I think, is the idea of a prohibition against being con-formed as in “formed with” the world or “formed alongside.” That’s not what the underlying words mean. Paul doesn’t seem to be advocating a distanced separation from the world.
And that makes sense. After all, this is the man who “bec[a]me all things to all people, so that [he] might by any means save some.” He’s a savvy and cosmopolitan man of the world, whether or not he’s always willing to admit it.
OK, so how about being trans-formed? Here again there’s a helpful and a misleading way to think through breaking up the word.
The Latin prefix trans- in English often gives us the sense of connecting or crossing, as in a trans-Atlantic flight. But I don’t think Paul is advocating that we put one foot in the Christian community and one in the wider world. That’s not a bad image, but it implies a separation that, again, I don’t think Paul believes is really there.
Here we need the sense of the prefix “trans” not just as connecting but as changing. Though we are still the same person, yet somehow we come to be entirely new. In fact, the Greek word that “transform” is standing in for here is a different word we also know in English, mostly as a noun: metamorphosis.
Paul says that the “renewing of our minds” should transform, metamorphose, utterly change who we are. When we receive, come into, become this new form, we can “discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
So here’s Paul’s doctrine of Christ and culture, at least as I read it here, today:
By the grace of God, by the transforming work of Christ within us, we will neither conform to the culture around us nor simply connect our faith to that culture.
No, we will have new eyes, new hearts, new minds, new wisdom. We will see things as they are and some of what we see in the world will be good. For Paul, that’s the only distinction that matters, because there can be only one source of that goodness.
Please do not hear me saying everything is fine. It isn’t. As many have pointed out, things certainly aren’t “normal” right now, and anyway “normal” in our city, nation, and world has never been very just. f
Normal has never been particularly “good” or even “acceptable,” certainly not to the marginalized people who Jesus always makes his priority, because the powerful have made them a priority so seldom.
What I’m saying, and what I certainly hear smart and experienced activists and educators saying—is that we need to be able to see and hold fast to whatever gives us hope.
By God’s grace we will find it in the world around us. With transformed hearts and minds and bodies we will know it down in our souls.
Unguarded joy, heartfelt laughter, mutual vulnerability, unconditional love: these most precious of God’s gifts have not been banished from the Earth, or from our nation.
They endure despite the fact that they are the exception and not the rule. They endure despite unjust pardons and storms both literal and metaphorical.
They endure despite the fact that dwelling on them has never sold an ad on a cable news show or inspired nearly enough celebration on Christian culture blogs.
All those gifts Paul mentions at the end of this passage—prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, leadership, compassion—they don’t just depend on the grace of the Giver of All Good Gifts. They depend on our willingness to accept and use them. For many of us, that willingness is being tested, and for most of us that willingness requires a centering in hope.
I invite you in the days ahead to join my friend and Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson in a practice he calls “naming it holy.”
When you see the good and acceptable and the perfect in the world around you—anywhere in the world around you—name it holy. Do it for yourself, and for the sake of those around you.
My most recent moment like this happened last night standing in line for a Mister Softee truck. If you’d seen this little girl eating a gigantic ice cream cone, you’d be feeling more hopeful to.
As we name these moments holy, moments big and small, we will come to know the meaning and the experience of transformation. We will know it in our bodies and souls. And we will experience it, eventually, in the world that God has given us and is longing to redeem.