Deep Transformation (Homily for February 12, 2017)

Readings:   Deut. 30:15-20     Psalm 119:1-8      1 Cor. 3:1-9     Matthew 5:21-27

Sherman Hesselgrave

Canticle of Transformation

Transform us, O God, as we walk with your grace;
your Word since creation has shown us your face.
Entrust us with vision of your reign on earth;
from chaos and corruption bring us to new birth.

When we flee, like Jonah, our calling from you,
you do not desert us to gloom in a slough.
To trust and to wholeness you call us once more,
and deep in our being we find faith restored.

As Jesus in story true love did portray:
a parent’s compassion for a child gone astray.
The prodigal in us may lead us to roam;
but may we be blessed with outstretched arms of home.

Saint Paul was transformed by a vision of Christ;
his new-found vocation: the world to entice
to One who had sojourned God’s news to make known,
a Light to the nations, and death overthrown.

© 2012 Sherman Hesselgrave

The hymn we sang between the Epistle and the Gospel, Canticle of Transformation, was written in the summer of 2012, when I was invited to coordinate worship for a week at the Sorrento Centre, on the shores of Shuswap Lake in British Columbia. According to their mission statement, “Sorrento Centre is a holy place of transformation for learning, healing, and belonging.” Transformation is a consistent theme in the Bible—including all three of today’s readings—and it is a theme that runs through the Church’s history, sometimes disrupting the status quo in dramatic ways.

In the portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we heard today, we see how Jesus calls his listeners to move beyond the literal, visible, outer, physical dimension to a deeper, invisible, inner, spiritual reality. He doesn’t dismiss traditional understandings, but he peels back the layers of tradition and invites his hearers to join him in the place where deep transformation occurs: the heart and mind. Paul would write to the church in Rome, urging them to “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]

The New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, shaped my thinking about such things early in my ministry. His trilogy, Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992), about the language of power in the New Testament and the forces that determine human existence, was born when Wink stumbled over a detail in the book of Revelation, specifically, in the letters to the seven churches John of Patmos describes in chapters 2 and 3. Wink noted that John writes that he was told to write these letters, not to the congregations in Ephesus, Smyrna, Laodicea, etc., but to the angel of each of the churches. Each of these letters, by the way, ends with the exhortation, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Wink concluded that the ‘angel’ seemed to be the corporate personality or spirituality of the church, its “ethos or spirit or essence.” Each letter affirms the positive things that are happening in each church, but then catalogs where they have gone astray: “loss of first love,” compromise, or being lukewarm, for example, and calls the angel back to its divine task. The call to transformation is to their corporate spirituality, not simply to individuals of a community. But the powers of the world—the dominions and principalities, as they are called in the New Testament—which are corporate spiritual forces, too, have enormous sway, down to our own day.

Jesus, throughout his public ministry, calls for the transformation of Jewish spirituality. “You have heard it said _____, but I tell you _____” is one way he communicates that the living God cannot be constrained by any construct or tradition. The old joke about the seven last words of the Church are: “We have always done it this way” comes to mind. Two weeks ago, we heard the prophet Micah pose the question: “What does the Lord require?” Today, Jesus provides another answer. Before fulfilling your religious obligation of bringing your gift to the altar, FIRST go and make peace with the person with whom you are out of sorts. THEN bring your gift. Jesus’ commandment to love one another as God has loved us means that not only is murder a sin, but all hostility between people is contrary to God’s will. The ‘hell’ referred to here is not the eternal damnation portrayed in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but ‘Gehenna’, Greek for the Hinnon valley outside Jerusalem, where child sacrifice had been practiced (and repudiated) long before. Jesus is speaking hyperbolically, but asserting forcefully that it is not OK to call someone a ‘moron.’

Paul, writing to the squabbling Corinthians, draws attention to their spiritual immaturity. Their journey to becoming a community marked by Christ-like love for one another has experienced arrested development. But it is, indeed, love that has the power to effect deep transformation. Anyone who has ever been in love knows this to be true. It is love that enables us to “choose life,” and not some cheap substitute that may present as an alluring alternative.

Walter Wink relates a moving story of how love has the power to transform [The Powers That Be pp.172-75]:

On a Sunday morning in June 1991 [in Lincoln, Nebraska,] Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife Julie, were unpacking boxes in their new home, when the phone rang. “You will be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph St., Jew boy,’ the voice said, and hung up. Two days later, the Weissers received a manila packet in the mail. “The KKK is watching you, Scum,” read the note. Inside were pictures of Adolf Hitler, caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, blacks with gorilla heads, and graphic depictions of dead blacks and Jews. “The Holohoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you,” read the note.

The Weissers called the police, who said it looked like the work of Larry Trapp, the state leader, or “grand dragon,” of the Ku Klux Klan. A Nazi sympathizer, he led a cadre of skinheads and klansmen responsible for terrorizing black, Asian, and Jewish families in Nebraska and nearby Iowa. “He’s dangerous,” the police warned. “We know he makes explosives.” Although confined to a wheelchair because of late-stage diabetes, Trapp, forty-four, was a suspect in the firebombing of several African Americans’ homes around Lincoln and was responsible for what he called “Operation Gooks,” the March 1991 burning of the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Centre in Omaha. (He later admitted to these crimes.) And Trapp was planning to blow up the synagogue where Weisser was the spiritual leader.

When Trapp launched a white supremacist TV series on a local public-access cable channel—featuring men and women saluting a burning swastika and firing automatic weapons—Michael Weisser was incensed. He called Trapp’s hotline and left a message on the answering machine. “Larry,” he said, “do you know that the very first laws that Hitler’s Nazi’s passed were against people like yourself who had no legs or who had physical deformities or physical handicaps? Do you realize you would have been among the first to die under Hitler? Why do you love the Nazis so much?” Then he hung up.

Weisser continued the calls to the machine. Then one day Trapp picked up. “What the f___ do you want?” he shouted. “I just want to talk to you,” said Weisser. “You black?” Trapp demanded. “Jewish,” Weisser replied. “Stop harassing me,” said Trapp, who demanded to know why he was calling. Weisser remembered a suggestion of his wife’s. “Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something, and I wondered if I could help,” Weisser ventured. “I know you’re in a wheelchair and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something.”

Trapp was too stunned to speak. Then he cleared his throat. “That’s okay,” he said. “That’s nice of you, but I’ve got that covered. Thanks anyway. But don’t call this number anymore.” “I’ll be in touch,” Weisser replied. During a later call, Trapp admitted that he was “rethinking a few things.” But then he went back on the radio spewing the same old hatreds. Furious, Weisser picked up the phone. “It’s clear you’re not rethinking anything at all! After calling Trapp a “liar” and “hypocrite,” Weisser demanded an explanation.

In a surprisingly tremulous voice, Trapp said, “I’m sorry I did that. I’ve been talking like that all my life. . . . I can’t help it. . . . I’ll apologize!” That evening the cantor led his congregation in prayers for the grand dragon.

The next evening the phone rang at the Weissers’ home. “I want to get out,” Trapp said, “but I don’t know how.” The Weissers offered to go over to Trapp’s that night to “break bread.” Tripp hesitated, then agreed, telling them he lived in apartment number three. When the Weissers entered Trapp’s apartment, he burst into tears and tugged off his two swastika rings. Soon all three were crying, then laughing, then hugging.

Trapp resigned from all his racist organizations and wrote apologies to the many people he had threatened or abused. When, a few months later, Trapp learned he had less than a year to live, the Weissers invited him to move into their two-bedroom/three-children home. When his condition deteriorated, Julie quit her job as a nurse to care for him, sometimes all night. Six months later he converted to Judaism; three months after that he died.

Deep transformation is possible. But it takes risk and it takes engagement. God has empowered us with the gift of in internal guidance system in the message Jesus left behind. And we receive encouragement from the living Spirit of God who is present with us always. So, let us live in hope, and let us choose life.