Transformed by the renewing of our minds | Sermon for June 28, 2015

I subscribe to the daily emails sent by the Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr, who said once at a lecture at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena that:

Religion distinguishes between education and transformation. They’re not the same thing! You can be educated and not transformed, and you can be uneducated and profoundly transformed.

But the apostle Paul blends the two in his letter to the Romans, where 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 (Romans 12:2).

Education and transformation go together in the program called Education for Ministry, or EfM, which Joanne and Barb invited me to talk about today here at St. Luke’s.

EFM as education

Students in EfM really are students. They read textbooks chosen by staff at the Beecken Center of the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee (one of the 11 historic Episcopal seminaries).

EfM was created 40 years ago as a “four-year distance learning certificate program of theological education,” and students will testify that they learn a lot.

EfM students in Year One listening to today’s Gospel might be thinking about the Old Testament’s (excuse me, the Hebrew Bible’s) ritual purity laws.

John Petty of ProgressiveInvolvement.com writes that:

Mark does not explicitly mention violations of the ‘purity code,’ but there are two of them in this reading. First, the woman with the hemorrhage touched Jesus, rendering him unclean. Second, Jesus touched the dead young woman, which also would have rendered him unclean.

EfM students in Year Two might be thinking about the New Testament and how to interpret documents written in Greek nearly 2,000 years ago.

Mark Davis, on his blog Left Behind and Loving It, translates the Greek of each week’s Gospel reading directly and comments on the problems or insights he discovers.

Mark the Gospel writer’s prose is urgent and breathless anyway, but this passage takes the cake:

And a woman being in a flow of blood for 12 years and having suffered much by many physicians and having spent all that she had and not having benefitted but having gone from bad to the worse having heard about Jesus having gone into the crowd she grabbed his garment from behind.

Davis goes on to say, “She is as defined by her determination as by her suffering. That is the value of respecting Mark’s string of participles and being patient for the main verb. After all that she suffered and did, she grabbed his garment.”

EfM students in Year Three might be thinking about how the political maneuverings and bloody wars of 3,000 years of church history are seemingly unrelated to today’s Gospel.

As one student in my group observes nearly every week, “The church history author hardly mentions Jesus at all!”

The church history we read is really the history of 3,000 years of religious change.

The last couple of weeks have seen momentous changes, with the events in Charleston and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the ACA and marriage equality, with President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Episcopal Church’s election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, another African-American preacher, as our 27th Presiding Bishop.

And yet we realize that the past is prologue, that history repeats itself, that even today girls in Zimbabwe, Kenya, or Haiti who have reached the age of menstruation often have to miss school because their period is seen as shameful. Girls in Bangladesh and India suffer infections for lack of clean supplies.

As for their hopes of an education or independence, they might as well be dead — like the synagogue leader’s unnamed daughter.

And EfM students in Year Four will have been reading stories and academic analyses about how people in different cultures read the Gospel differently, about how men and women read the Gospel differently, about how the powerful and powerless read the Gospel differently.

Deborah Blanks, associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, writes for the African-American Lectionary.org:

[Jesus’] message is clear – that the unnamed woman is of no less importance than the ill daughter of a person of power. She becomes a perpetual reminder that the socially marginal have a conspicuous place in the realization of God’s reign.

EfM might help us learn a lot that enriches our appreciation of the Gospel, but it doesn’t stop there.

EFM as reflection

We don’t simply gaze in admiration at all of the pictures our teachers have painted.

Instead, we deliberately – in a process called theological reflection – look more closely at the pictures, entering into the emotions and dilemmas and questions they depict.

In our “TRs” (as we call them) we seek a glimpse of how God is acting in our lives and share with each other our transformed understanding.

If we were doing a theological reflection on efficiency, for example, we might picture Jesus as a paramedic and look closely at his presence in this chaotic and emotional scene.

Peter Woods, on his blog The Listening Hermit, writes an entry called “Jesus has no time for triage”.

With all the drama of a novel rushing to its climax, Mark inserts the older hopeless woman into the story of Jesus’ mission to heal the just girl. The old bleeding woman is an interruption and an energy thief to boot! Yet, as the story unfolds both are healed. The young and the old, the hopeful and the hopeless. There is enough time, power, compassion, and grace to go round so that no one needs be written off.

Or, if we were doing a theological reflection on vulnerability, we might remember that the woman is ritually impure, shunned because of her bleeding; the child is unclean (and her father prostrate with grief) because she is dead. We might see ourselves in the portrait before us.

David Lose of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia writes on the blog Dear Working Preacher:

We tend in our culture to avoid vulnerability – to avoid admitting that we don’t have it all together – because of the way it can leave you feeling exposed, desperate and, well, vulnerable. And there is something of that in these stories. But we’ve also seen that only in admitting our vulnerability are we able to receive help, and only by owning our moments of desperation are we willing to try something out of the ordinary, discover the courage to be and act differently.

Being transformed for ministry

Jesus’ presence in the whirlwind encounters with the woman and the child transformed them. The child was brought back to life, and the woman was brought back into life.

Jesus transformed and encouraged them both.

He encouraged Mark and the other disciples to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and the world keeps turning upside down.

Having “the courage to be and to act differently” – that’s what it means to be transformed by Jesus.

Admitting our vulnerability – admitting that we don’t have it all together – and receiving help, that’s the renewing of our minds in Jesus that helps us to “discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Transformation is for all of us. Reflection is for all of us. Education is for all of us.

Shameless plug: Education for Ministry is for all of us.

Being transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect – that’s for all of us.

Amen.

[Sermon preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.]

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