When I was fifteen years old, I began working at a little country restaurant in a neighboring town. I wore a gingham apron with matching kerchief to cover my hair and I spent the evenings refilling tea and water glasses, visiting with the dinner guests, and taking care of their needs. I loved the job, and I thought that I was pretty good at it. Everything changed when the manager informed me that the girl who was hired to wash dishes wanted to work out front and that the two of us would be alternating our jobs every other day. I was to wash dishes? Something I didn't even do at home! I was appalled at the perceived injustice. Because I could not stand the thought of washing dishes for five hours each evening, I quit.
Several weeks later I began working as a Nursing Assistant at a skilled nursing center a few towns away. I took the job without fully understanding the requirements. Instead of washing dishes, I washed people! My primary responsibility was to bathe and care for the personal needs of the patients assigned to me. I changed bed linens, refilled water pitchers, fed meals, and provided for the patients in my care.
God used this experience to chip away at the pride, hypocrisy, and arrogance in my life; to teach me a lesson in humility. God didn't want me washing dishes. God wanted me washing people. God used that experience of caring for the personal needs of the sick, infirmed, and elderly to begin transforming me into the person God intended me to be.
Transformation. Today's text from Paul's letter to the Church in Rome is about transformation. Paul argues that, in Christ, grace becomes the structuring reality in our daily lives. Christ calls us to practice humility and sacrifice, to center our lives around grace, and in so doing God transforms us so that we can use our lives to transform the world. This reshaping, restructuring that Christ is doing in our lives requires sacrifice. This word conjures up Old Testament images of screaming animals laid before stone altars, blood trickling down marble steps, the raised, flashing knife of the priest preparing to slit the throat of some bleating beast.
In order to transform us into the people God is calling us to be, we are called to sacrifice, and sacrifice is not a pleasant word. Sacrifice suggests doing without, giving something up. It involves pain, loss. There is a cost.
When our daughter was three months old (she is 19 now), my husband and I made the decision that he would stay home to care for her. At the same time, we also made the decision to begin tithing to the work of God at Trinity Lutheran Church where I serve as pastor. It was a risky decision. It was going to be a sacrifice. Just one of us would be working and our one salary was a pastor's salary, but we knew that God was calling us to do this. We also knew that if we didn't begin the practice at this point in our lives, we might never do it. For nineteen years, we have given at least 10% of our before-tax income to the work of God at Trinity Lutheran Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Some months we write the check gratefully and joyfully. Some months we hesitantly ponder all the things we need or want. But, we always write the check. Sacrificing for the church in this way continues to give our lives meaning, order, significance. God has used this sacrifice to transform our lives, to form us into the people God intended us to be. And the strange thing is...the sacrifice of tithing is not a sacrifice. It has been a great joy!
This reshaping and restructuring that Christ is doing in our lives also requires humility. And humility is a real challenge for all of us! We are an arrogant, self-focused people. We want what we want when we want it! We can become so focused on our own wants and desires that we become blind to the needs, opinions, and concerns of others. In our pompousness, we begin to believe that the goodness and blessing in our lives is a result of who we are, a testament to our power and ability. Humility requires the dawning recognition that we are all completely reliant on the power of God at work in our lives. On our own, we can do nothing, but with the power of Christ at work in our lives, we can do all things. All of it, every good deed, every act of kindness, every gracious word spoken with gentleness - all of it is a testament to the power of God at work in and through us!
Through compassion and humility, God is transforming our lives. When grace becomes the structuring reality in our lives, transformation occurs. We begin to see that all people have value and worth. We begin to recognize that God has gifted all people with unique gifts and abilities, special ways to support and build up God's kingdom. We come to understand that all gifts are equally important in the kingdom - the gift of teaching, the gift of preaching, the gift of washing dishes, the gift of washing people, the gift of compassion, the gift of cheerfulness, the gift of tithing. All gifts are equally valued in the eyes of God. When grace becomes the structuring reality in our lives, we begin to see the value and worth in every human being. We see ourselves as no better or no worse than any other person. We come to understand that as God's beloved, precious baptized children, we are all loved, honored, valued, and celebrated.
God is at work transforming our lives so that we might transform the world. Look at your own life. Consider the places where you are struggling. Think about the people who are difficult for you, the ones who have hurt you, the ones with whom you disagree, the ones who see the world so differently from you. How can you extend grace to that person? How can you infuse a word of grace into that situation? How can you model the grace of God for the world?
God is reshaping and restructuring our lives around God's grace so that we can reshape and restructure the world around God's grace. God is transforming us for the sake of the world. It is up to us - people of faith - to enable the world to see and understand the value of every human being. God loves, honors, values, and celebrates all of humanity. This includes marginalized populations - the mentally ill, immigrants, the LGBTQIA community, the poor, the hungry, the homeless. This includes people of other faiths - Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. God loves, honors, values, and celebrates all of humanity. Our calling is to help the world see the value in every human being and to strive for peace and justice for every human being around the globe.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by God so that grace may reign in your hearts, so that grace may reign throughout the world.
Let us pray.
Good and gracious God, you see the frailty and failure in our lives, our fears, our worries, our anxieties. You know our burdens, our pain, our suffering. Transform us by your grace to become the people you created us to be and then use us, by your grace, to transform the world. Amen.