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Date Posted: August 25, 2020

But Be Transformed

When I was first ordained a priest, I served as curate at St. Benedict’s parish, in Smyrna.  The parish was a new church start, brand new, from scratch. It was an incredible place.  Still is.  We met for the first two years or so in a middle school gymnasium while we looked for property to buy and renovate.  Since, we had no campus of our own, I was challenged from the outset to reimagine what “church” might look like–an experience that I have drawn on during these past five months, to be sure.  

We worked during the week in an office park in Vinings, and we had to imagine ways to practice with a fledgling choir around a piano and offer pastoral care to the parishioners.  I looked forward to every Sunday morning.  At least during that time, we had something that I felt I had trained and studied for.  

We set up the gymnasium each Sunday, with a platform for the chancel, an electronic organ, chairs for two hundred or so people, a cloth reredos that we suspended underneath raised basketball goals, a pulpit, and an altar.  That was my home base: the altar.  So long as I could stand there on Sundays and share in Holy Communion, whatever came during the week would fall into its proper place.  We spent a great deal of time picking out chalices and patens, purificators and vestments so that the experience of Holy Communion was tactile, beautiful, memorable, and transformative.  

The school let us store our church stuff in an unused locker room down the hall, so each Sunday we would pack everything away.  I’ll tell you another day what happens when you store a paschal candle in a warm locker room.  For the silver and really valuable items, we had a large safe in the room that we used.  We would wrap everything and place it in our safe little sacristy, trusting that it would be fine for the week.  

One Sunday, about a year in, when I felt good and settled in my Eucharistic practice as a priest, I was helping the altar guild set up for the morning’s service.  I looked up and saw a small group of them coming in the gym with anxious faces, talking amongst themselves.  The safe had broken and couldn’t be opened.  All of our precious items that held so much value were locked away safe and sound, leaving us in an absolute panic.  How could we have church now? Without the necessary chalices and patens?  The candlesticks?  

I remember looking at one lady in particular who I always thought was spunky.  She smiled and said, “Well, I have nice champagne flutes at home.”  

That’s it, we said.  We made a short list of items we needed: four “goblets,” two plates, candlesticks, nice napkins.  With little time left to set up, the guild decided who had which items, and they ran to gather the ecountrement that we would use that day.  

We ended up celebrating Holy Eucharist with four incredible champagne flutes that were tinged with green and red stripes.  We had two pieces of fine china that we used as patens.  Our candlesticks were off of someone’s dining room table.  I smiled when I thought how the families would probably use all these items at home that night in their dinner–yet I bet they looked at them a bit differently.  

As each person came forward and was offered bread off the small china plate, and took a sip of wine from the skinny champagne flute, my heart swelled.  At the end of the day, we had celebrated Holy Eucharist indeed!  And I had learned a vital lesson about a proper orientation toward 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.

St. Paul offers us a crucial invitation to reflect on this morning, as we look at the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Romans.  Remember the fledgling Church in Rome was struggling to understand what it looked like to live an authentic Christian life in the midst of an empire whose values could not conflict more with the teachings of Jesus.  Into this anxiety, St. Paul writes to them, advising them on what an authentic practice of faith will look like–and what it will cost.  

And we have this image about transforming our minds.  In Greek this phrase “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” speaks to the metamorphosis of our nous,  the spiritual heart, by the anakinosis, the complete renewal of this deepest part of ourselves.   What we hold most dear is reoriented.  How we understand life and our place in it is reoriented.  Patterns, beliefs, behaviors, agendas…all experience this metamorphosis.  No stone is left unturned, we might say.  

What St. Paul is speaking about lies at the heart of what the contemplative tradition teaches, what the ancient practices of prayer offer us still.  It is the heart of Christian discipleship.  Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.  

So, our grasping selves, controlling selves, small perspectives, loaded agendas…all these aspects of what many have called our “false self,” all this is laid bare in the light of the Spirit’s movement in our lives.  And in this space of transformation, we see St. Paul then describe the way we each embody this presence of the Spirit in our distinctive gifts.  None of us is to think of himself more than we should.  Each should see herself as part of the whole, to seek a much bigger perspective than, perhaps, we have held until this point.  

Each of us has gifts we can bring to the table, just like those incredible souls at St. Benedict’s who scattered home to gather their precious objects to use for Holy Communion.  I have to tell you, I have held a lot of wonderful silver patens and chalices in my day, but serving Communion off a family heirloom piece of china was exquisite.  

This image of the transformation of our spiritual hearts, and the story of that incredible Communion service swirled in for me, especially, of course, in these days of being removed from our prior ways of worshipping.  We are being transformed, my friends, and while we may go kicking and screaming, the Spirit continues to invite us into spaces of wonder and growth, imagination and deep, deep prayer and community.  

And yes I am tired, I am so tired.  I would give anything not to have to worry about the details and frustrations around “what do we do about this?” or “how much longer is this going to last?” or “why can’t we get there already?”  In my heart–well, outloud, if I am honest–I sound just like one of the Hebrew people in the wilderness who are bumping up against God’s invitation to see a different perspective.  Even as I hate this, I wonder what lesson is in it for me.  Maybe that is good enough for now.  

But I am tired.  

And yet this text hooks me, inviting me to wonder how I am being invited into this transformative space.  How is my soul being stretched?  What gifts have I seen rise up in my heart that I didn’t know I had–or refused to acknowledge?  How have I grown closer to God, and to you all, as a community?  To my family?  To this slower pace of life, perhaps.  To having time to pray more.  And why didn’t I take time to pray like this before?  What lesson is there in that for me?  How is my vision expanded?

See, my own spiritual journey is marked by a bit of pride, if I am honest.  I grew up in a particular fundamentalist tradition that felt it had the right way.  That it was the only way.  That every other expression of faith was flawed.  Even at an early age I bumped up against this assumption.  If we could sing that “God has the whole world in his hands,” then might it possibly be true that God loves everyone who lives in this whole world?  I was every Sunday School teacher’s worst nightmare.  

So, I moved away from this fundamentalism.  I rejected it, and considered my own understanding of faith to be better.  Isn’t it tricky how that judgement slips in so easily?  Sure there were things about that particular tradition that I felt were off base.  Sure there were ways of how it imagined God and people that I couldn’t agree with.  But the pride is the problem.  

I had a glimpse of it when I came out of school thinking that I knew the absolute core of Anglican theology and worship.  I had been taught by the best, and when I was in classes and meetings in those early days, I felt a bit like the emperor in Star Wars talking to Anakin Skywalker: “Use my knowledge, I beg you!”  And there on that Sunday morning when we couldn’t get our precious silver out of the safe, I hit a wall with my perspective on what proper worship looks like.  Celebrating Holy Communion with a champagne flute does a number on one’s liturgical ego, I can promise you that.  

And now in these past five months, there have been so many moments when the Spirit has smacked me in the forehead with this realization: while I was so proud of rejecting the fundamentalism of my childhood, how have I nurtured a distinct fundamentalism in my spirit here and now?  How is my own fundamentalism alive and well in my own spiritual life, and in my leadership? The grasping and thinking that this or that is the only way?  How have these days challenged me to see worship and prayer, community life in a much more fluid, expansive, nimble way?  

When I think back to that day at St. Benedict’s, when we couldn’t get the safe open, I realized one of two things was true.  Either we simply could not worship since we didn’t have the tools we had always used, and we were just going to have to say that we couldn’t worship and be angry and sad about that.  Or, we were being invited to see a wider perspective, to grasp the champagne flute and the heirloom plate and lift them high to celebrate Christ’s presence among us.  Which perspective would I choose?

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.

These are days of transformation, I believe.  That is not to say that we cannot be honest about our grief and loss.  There is enormous loss with those whose loved ones have died, who have lost jobs, who live with constant stress of exposure and the fear and anxiety that comes with insecurity.  Those who are hungry.  Those who are ill.  These are the realities I grieve and hold in my prayers.  

These are days when my ego is checked all the time, and I find myself recognizing the way I grasp onto a certain way of doing things until I am humbled and realize that the Spirit has given us enormous gifts to share with each other.  What an incredible community this is!  Full of life and grace and hope and possibility.  And humor.  Thanks be to God for humor!

So let us today ground ourselves here, in this space of transformation and gift.  And I can think of no better way to do this than to remind ourselves of the grounding of our baptisms, that sacramental awareness that demonstrates for us the reality of our transformation and the promise of the Spirit’s presence in our lives.  

So, as we move toward the font, I invite you to take a favorite bowl or cup–even a champagne flute!–and fill it with water.  Feel the water.  Dip your fingers in it and drip it on your forehead.  Create a space in your home, a little sacred nook, that you can return to during the week when you need a reminder. And let us share together in a renewal of our baptismal vows, as we give thanks for the transforming presence of the Spirit in our lives.  

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:1-8
August 23, 2020