A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on August 21, 2011.
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
I have a question for you this morning, and I want to give you an opportunity to actually answer it. Here’s the question, “What are the pressures you face living in the world today?”
It seems to me that the pressures we face living in the world today conform to certain patterns of this world.
Patterns of Professional life – there is pressure to be “successful,” to make a lot of money, to have status, to get the corner office on the top floor, to be recognized as the best of what we do.
Patterns of Personal life – there is pressure to find “love,” to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. And if that’s too much to ask, we’ll settle for just “friends” – whether in real life or on facebook! There’s pressure to be popular, to be well-liked, to be a people-pleaser, to be loved by our parents, our spouses, our children.
Patterns of Political life – turn on the TV, listen to talk radio, surf the internet, and you’ll see how there is great pressure in our political system to strive for power, to demonize one’s opponents, to pander to a narrow constituency instead of promoting the common good.
Patterns of Economic life – there is pressure to see all of life in economic terms. We are pressured to think that the good life consists of being a good consumer – think of our joy when we find a great bargain. We are pressured to value “growth” based on profits, market share, and efficiency. We “market” ourselves so that we can be successful professionally. We “package” ourselves with the right clothes, the right car, the right house so that we’ll be attractive to others. During my freshman orientation at Rice University back in the old days, the university published a “Meet Sheet,” a booklet of pictures and names of all the incoming freshmen. That booklet was very popular among the upperclass male students, who called that booklet the “Meat Sheet” as they checked out all the new women students. Needless to say, in an age of facebook, Twitter and other social media, there is even greater pressure for people to objectify others and commodify themselves.
Even in our Religious life – there great temptation to let the patterns of the world dictate the church and its members. There is pressure for churches to be a place where everybody is happy and no one is upset. There is pressure for churches to grab hold of political power, to demonize those who believe differently, to pander to a narrow constituency and not promote the common good. There is pressure for churches to be a “success,” to think of “growth” solely in economic terms of membership market share, budgets and how many religious goods and services they offer. And many Christians are taught to “shop” for the right church, one that is “friendly” and convenient; one that doesn’t demand a lot, but still offers a full range of services and activities for each member of the family. Instead of making faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, churches are pressured to make faithful “members,” basically faithful consumers of one particular church’s religious goods and services.
These are some of the patterns that the world tries to conform us into, to “squeeze us into its mold,” as the Philips translation of the Bible puts it. So many times, we are being squeezed and we don’t even realize it! But Paul counsels us today to not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind.
Be transformed . . . by the renewing of our mind. In other words, change the way we think. That is a hard thing to do. When it comes to change, our first temptation is to change the world.
Our second temptation is to change other people. I love this saying: “It is much easier to wear slippers than to carpet the world.” The first step to be transformed is to change the way one thinks. What does it mean to be “successful” professionally? Is it to make a lot of money, or is it to use one’s gifts and talents for the benefit of others? How can I think of myself as being fully loved by my heavenly father, so that I’m less needy on the love and approval of others? How can I stop blaming all the politicians for our society’s problems, and start taking responsibility for my part of the problem, like paying off my debts and start living more within my means? How can I think of church as less a place where I get my needs serviced and more as a community where we meet the needs of others? How can I think less about the sin of others and think more about repenting my own sins?
A wise man once said: “I was a revolutionary when I was young and all my prayer to God was “Lord, give me the energy to change the world.” “As I approached middle age and realized that half my life was gone without my changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to ‘Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me. Just my family and friends, and I shall be satisfied.” “Now that I am an old man and my days are numbered, my one prayer is, ‘Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed for this right from the start, I should not have wasted my life.”
I’ve been a part of many small groups in my life, and in my experience, the transformative groups were the ones that focused on how each member of the group can change for the better and not on how others outside the group should change for the better. Transformative communities are less about confirming their own biases and prejudices, and more about transforming their minds and their actions. Criticizing the wrong thoughts and actions of others might have made me feel better about myself. But being held accountable to correcting my wrong thoughts and actions have made me a better man.
Any transformation in thinking that is worth its salt will lead to a transformation in living. That’s why Paul writes: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Be transformed by offering your bodies as living sacrifices. What a provocative image! We often think of a sacrifice as something that involves killing and death. So to offer our bodies as a “living sacrifice” sounds like an oxymoron. While there are sacrifices that can take the life out of you—I think about some jobs that can drain the life out of a person. But I believe that we can offer sacrifices to God that are life-giving. Offering our “bodies” means to offer to God all that we are, the best that we have, in the areas we are most gifted. When we function out of our strengths, our gifts and our talents, everything feels fun and easy, and we can do it for hours and still feel fully alive and fulfilled. That is true “spiritual worship,” and it does not just take place on Sunday mornings at 11 am, but it is something that we can do all the other days of the week. And it has very little to do with the old thinking about church attendance, budgets and programs.
So, where does transformation take place? It takes place in community, with people sharing life together intentionally and transparently. It may be in a Sunday School class, in youth group or in choir. It could be in a Baptist Campus Ministries life group, or an InterVarsity gathering. The key to living in community is that each member does not think more highly (or lowly) of him or herself than they ought, and that each member uses his or her gifts to lift up others. Last semester, seven Longwood students participated in a discipleship “huddle” group that I led here at Farmville Baptist. Each member “sacrificed” a couple of hours in their hectic schedule every Tuesday night to attend, and I left each meeting more energized than tired, more wide-awake than sleepy, and more affirmed by the transformative power of Christ than ever before. Over the summer, the group received an email from one of its members. This student’s message illustrates the kind of transformation that Christ offers better than anything that I can say.
This student writes: “As I lay in my bed tonight I began to see how much I have changed in the last year, heck in the last few months. I have always had a bit of pity for myself and what I have gone through in my life, and for the first time in my life a lot of the pity and bitterness is gone. This group and Baptist Campus Ministries have changed my life so much, and I wonder what my life would be like today if I had not taken the steps towards these two groups. Being able to discuss things that I have kept bottled up for so long with people that I have not known my entire life is such a blessing in disguise to me. I am finally learning to let things go that I cannot control and I attribute that to this group. It was soothing and healing to know that I was not the only one who had gone through such tough times. I admit that I was a bit closed minded at times in the sessions because I was afraid of the changes that would result from my actions. . . . My trials make me feel weak and afraid that people are going to see me differently after they find what I harbor inside. On the other hand, talking about my trials made me stronger and I developed some of the best friends that I have or ever will have. I had a hard time making friends in high school and now that I have learned that everyone else accepts me for who I am, baggage and all, I know that if I need to talk every last one of them would be there in a second. I hope that we all stay in contact in the years to come, because everyone of you have become like my brothers and sisters and that is a bond that I will forever cherish.”
This email is a real-life affirmation of the quote found at the top of our worship bulletin this morning. Let’s read it together: “GOD can turn a MESS into a MESSage, a TEST into a TESTimony, a TRIal into a TRIumph, and a VICTim into a VICTory. GOD is GOOD . . . all the time!” Amen! It is also a real-life example of what it means to begin living a transformed life that has eternal significance starting here and now. This journey in on-going, and often, it is not a cake-walk. But it is life transforming, and it is never too late for anyone to start. If anyone here would like to be a part of this journey of transformation, please feel free to contact me, as it is my hope that more people will participate in these discipleship huddle groups this semester.
I end this sermon by repeating Paul’s appeal to you: In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices as your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Amen.
 Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird, p. 153.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.