May 29, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do you believe that transformation is possible? Or is there any situation in which transformation is not possible?
I ask this because I think transformation is a pretty important part of Jesus’ mission, yet I think a lot of us live our lives as though some things are more powerful than God’s ability to change them. I hear it in statements like, “They are just evil,” or, “He’s never going to change,” or, “All of this certain kind of people [black, brown, gay, women, men, Muslim, immigrant] are that way.” But it goes even beyond the way we label others. I wonder if we also have convinced ourselves that we will never be different or better than we are. “I can’t do it. I’m not good enough, smart enough, brave enough. I will fail at that,” or, “I could never forgive that person,” or, “I will never forgive myself.” I get it – I have felt that way too, about myself and others – but I do wonder: have we convinced ourselves that there are some things in this world that are simply beyond God’s power to transform?
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that he must be born anew, born again, born of water and the spirit. Normally we associate this famous verse with baptism, or in some circles, re-baptism. But this week I’ve been thinking about it more broadly: when Jesus tells us that we are to be born anew, is he, in fact, telling us that transformation is and must be a part of a life of faith, whether that transformation is of ourselves, or of others, or our perception of others?
Furthermore, what, then, counts as a transformation? Only big things? Or even the mundane things of life? What brings about a transformation? Major life events or epiphanies? Or could something very small also be a sort of transformation, or a step on the path to one?
I’ve been thinking about this question this week, prompted by a number of stories and incidents I have come across. Allow me to share a few.
The first is right out of our scripture for today. A young man named Isaiah was a sinful man, from a sinful people. He lived in a time that seemed completely beyond restoration or redemption, in which people had turned from God and engaged in evil acts. Yet one day Isaiah has a vision. In that vision, he is in God’s Temple, and God is there, surrounded by heavenly beings. Stunned by the magnificence of this vision, Isaiah is moved to lament that he is sinful and unclean. In response, an angel touches his lips with a hot coal, and voila, Isaiah is made clean. He is forgiven. And so, forgiven, he is also transformed: when God asks whom he will send to bring an important message to God’s sinful people, Isaiah is able to say, “Send me.” And suddenly, Isaiah becomes God’s prophet.
If you have ever forgiven or been forgiven, you know, forgiveness brings about a change – change of heart, lightening of a spiritual load, and perhaps even a call into a new way of living. Because of forgiveness, you see, transformation is possible.
The next story is closer to home. Last weekend we had a wonderful conversation with Pastor Julie Cicora, who works with Rural Migrant Ministries, one of the recipients of our annual Christmas Stocking Program. She also pastors a church close to the city, and she was telling us about some of the youth programs they have there, aimed at children of the migrant workers. Many of these young people have endured significant trauma in their lives because of the harsh conditions under which their parents live and work. Some have seen their parents taken away in handcuffs and deported, some have hidden under beds during ICE raids, they’ve witnessed violence of various types, most live in abject poverty, itself a trauma. Enduring childhood trauma is a key risk factor for engaging in future violence. Pastor Julie said, almost off-handedly, “I think the church ought to be a healing place, so we focus our programs on helping these kids heal from the trauma they have experienced.”
The church ought to be a healing place – this has been ringing in my head ever since! And when healing, whether physical, spiritual or emotional, takes place, we are born anew. When our deepest pain is acknowledged, when our story is heard, when we find companions who will walk with us and love us, transformation is possible.
The last story I want to share today is the story of a young man who was a part of a college field trip through a program called Sankofa, in which 20 pairs of students, generally one black and one white, traveled to the south for what amounted to a tour of the history of racism. Their first stop was a plantation in Louisiana, where the cheerful guides went on about “happy slaves” who sang in the fields, who lived under good conditions and whose fingers never bled. At the end of the tour, the students all had a chance to pick some cotton out in the fields.
Back on the bus, the black students were angry and the white students were confused about why the black students were angry, dismissing their friends’ feelings and knowledge of their history in favor of the “expert” tour guides. Surely if the experts said they were happy, they were!
They went on to their next stop, a museum whose only exhibit was a history of lynching. Here they saw horrifying pictures and letters, reflecting some white people’s pride of this practice, pictures showing white families smiling in front of hanging bodies. The students walked silently, stunned, through the exhibit.
This time, back on the bus, the white students did their best to separate themselves from this history: “My family didn’t own slaves. I didn’t even know these sort of things happened. I’m not a part of this.” The black students were even more outraged by the white students’ unwillingness to own this history, or truly recognize their pain. The tension on the bus was palpable.
Then one white student stood up and changed the whole tone. She said, “I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned. I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.” Then she added, “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” (Christian Century, “Talking about racism on a college bus trip.“)
Would she have been so changed if she had walked through the exhibit on her own? I doubt it. There was something about seeing and hearing the pain from friends and colleagues with whom she had just traveled hundreds of miles, that brought about that change. When we build relationships with one another, see and listen to one another, seek to understand and bear with one another in our pain, transformation is possible.
And this, this is a wonderful gateway into understanding the Trinity. Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, the day when we celebrate the triune nature of God. It’s a difficult doctrine to understand – how God is three-in-one and one-in-three. So instead of trying to wrap our heads around it, think of this: God is, by God’s very nature, a relationship, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As our hymn of the day says, the Trinity is a sort of dance, always moving, working, impossible to be apart yet each its own. Our God is a relational God.
And when we are baptized, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we indeed join that dance of Trinity. Or as Paul says in our epistle reading today, we are adopted, we become a part of the loving, living, relationship that is our God.
So what does that mean for us? As a part of that divine relationship, we, too, are pulled into the transformative work of the Triune God: we love one another, we forgive one another, we walk with one another as companions, we bear with one another in pain as in joy.
And as we live out this life, as children adopted and baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are continually born anew, transformed. We are daily assured that transformation is possible – for ourselves, for our friends, and for our enemies – even when all hope seems to be lost.
Transformation is possible, brothers and sisters in Christ. Thanks be to God! Let us pray… Three-in-one, One-in-three, we give you thanks for pulling us into your joyous, transformative dance. When we have lost hope that anything will ever change, assure us that you are more powerful than anything that could bring us down, and as long as we are in relationship with you, transformation is possible. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.