Rev. Christopher Marlin-Warfield

Bringing People Together to do Good

Will You Be Transformed?

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 18, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33.

Some of you may know that, before I came to serve as your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission. The Mission is a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. And it has a variety of programs centered on helping people who live in poverty. There’s a day center, a housing rehabilitation program, a community garden, and supportive housing… among other things.

And one of the most powerful programs there is the mission trip program. Every year, hundreds of people from dozens of congregations go to the Mission to work in its ministries. They repair houses, serve people in the food pantry, clean showers in the day center, and meet people living in poverty or homelessness on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

One of the groups that comes every year is a huge youth group from one of Chicago’s affluent western suburbs. There are always young people in this group who have never really encountered someone who is experiencing homelessness. Sure, they’ve seen people on the streets asking for money, and they’ve almost certainly known a classmate who was staying with relatives, but they’ve never talked to a homeless person about being homeless.

Well, one year this group was sitting in the common room listening to one of the people who the Mission had been serving. Mr. Jesse is a 70-something-year-old veteran who had been on the streets for years before the Mission got him in an apartment. And he told his story.

And when he was done, this young woman raised her hand. Mr. Jesse called on her, and she cocked her head to one side – you could see the wheels turning – and she asked, “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?”
And that’s a good question. It cuts to the heart of who we are as a society. We don’t just house vets. We don’t just house anyone. We don’t just feed people. We don’t just provide healthcare for people. We don’t just welcome people.

We don’t just do these things. We just don’t do these things.

In today’s gospel reading, we’re given a frightening image.

“Very truly,” says Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And that’s scary because, not to spoil the story, I think something bad is going to happen to Jesus. ‘Those who love their life must lose it’ and ‘whoever serves me must follow me’ sound a lot like Jesus is asking us, “Would you die for this?”

That’s a good question. It might even be an important question.

You might know about RuPaul Charles. He’s an actor, model, singer, author, and, yes, drag queen. He’s probably the most commercially successful drag queen in history. And he has this great quote: we’re born naked, the rest is drag. Not just the clothes, hairstyles, and makeup, but the respectability, civility, politeness, and propriety. All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit.

And ‘what would you die for?’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. Not ‘what do you fantasize about dying for?’ This isn’t about being an action hero. What would you die for? What would you run into a burning building to save? Who would you take a bullet for? Really. Like, really really.

‘What would you die for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s not the question Jesus is asking.

There’s another question that goes along with ‘What would you die for?’ And that question is ‘What would you live for?’ It’s a good question. It might even be an important question. It is certainly a hard question.

All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And it’s easy to slide into the performance and start living for other people’s expectations. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live the lives that other people have planned for us. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live a life that isn’t our own.

And ‘what would you live for’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. What would you spend every day doing? Who would you spend every hour with?

‘What would you live for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s still not the question Jesus is asking.

Jesus is asking a much scarier question.

And it’s scary because, not to spoil the story, something amazing is going to happen to Jesus. He is like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies… and bears much fruit. He is the judgement of the world, who drives out the ruler of this world, and draws all people to himself. He strips away the drag and shows us who we are underneath.

The question Jesus is asking is, ‘Will you be transformed?’

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the day is coming when God will make a new covenant with his people. It won’t be a covenant that’s written on paper or carved in stone. It won’t be a set of rules that we try — and fail — to follow. It will be inside of us. It will be written on our hearts. It will be part of who we are.

Jesus is calling us into that life. Jesus is calling us into knowing God. Jesus is calling us into being the people of God.

And that’s scary.

It’s scary because all of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And following Jesus — going where Jesus is — means giving up those performances. It means not living the lives that other people expect. It means not living the lives that other people have planned for us. It means not living the lives that aren’t our own. It means taking off the drag and standing naked before world, as who God means for us to be: servants of Christ and servants to each other.

It means housing people and feeding people and caring for people and welcoming people. No matter who they are. No matter where they are on life’s journey. No matter what.

I don’t know what happened to the young woman who asked Mr. Jesse that question — “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?” — on a mission trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. But I have faith that somewhere on that trip — sometime while she was rebuilding a house or cleaning showers or handing out food or talking to someone she was serving — she met Jesus. And I have faith that she was changed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. I have faith that a word of God’s law was written on her heart. I have faith that Christ drew her a little closer to himself.

And I have faith that the same thing can happen to us. Whether in Jamaica or Haiti, whether in Kentucky or Colorado, whether in Biloxi or right here in DeWitt, when we serve, we give ourselves the opportunity to meet Jesus. And when we meet Jesus, we are transformed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer.

When we serve, we meet Jesus. When we meet Jesus, we are transformed. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer. Click To Tweet

And as we continue to serve day by day, our heart become cleaner and our spirits become more willing.

Because it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying to the ways of the world — to the lives that the rulers of this world demand from us — that we are born to eternal life.

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