Saturday, August 20, 2011

Conformation to Transformation

Exodus 1:8—2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
We usually obey the rules.
As teens, we were told, “Don’t give in to peer pressure; remember the values you were taught.” But we often went along with the crowd because we were afraid the other kids wouldn’t like us. We may not have given in to the illegal activities our peers may have tempted us to do, but, at least we wore the clothes and hairstyles of our generation. We listened to the music and danced to it, even when our parents protested that it didn’t sound like music.
As law-abiding citizens we conform to the rules that have been made for us, because they are for or safety and the welfare of all. Even though we do not like paying taxes, most people do pay them. Most people obey the speed limit, within 5-7 miles per hour anyway.
Some rules are obeyed out of habit. The seven deadly words of the church are: That’s the way we’ve always done it. Or: We’ve never done it that way before.
Some rules, however, are for the self-interest of powerful people, to help them hold onto their power. For example, in the not so distant past, in this country, women and people of color were not permitted to vote or hold office.
Some rules deserve to be broken, and our transformation to rule-breaking starts with the question, “Why.” For example: Martha baked a ham every Christmas, and she always prepared it in the same way. Before putting the ham in the pan, she cut off one end of it. Her daughter Jennifer was watching one day and asked her Mom why she cut off the end of the ham. Martha said, “Gee, Honey, I don’t know. It’s just the way my mother, your grandmother cooked ham, and it always turned out good.”
Unsatisfied with that answer, Jennifer asked her grandmother, “Grandma, why do you cut the end off of the ham before you bake it?” Grandma replied, “I don’t know, Honey. It’s the way my mother, your great-grandmother cooked ham, and it always turned out good.” Still unsatisfied, Jennifer went to her great-grandmother and asked her why she always cut the end off of the ham before she baked it. “Well, Honey, that was the only way the ham would fit in the pan.” J
... Today, especially in the Hebrew Testament reading, several people choose to not be conformed to the rules, and they transform the world with their lack of conformation. Shiprah and Puah had the radical notion that babies’ lives were more important than the Pharaoh’s rules. They were so convinced what Pharaoh wanted was wrong, they even declared to his face that Hebrew babies are born faster than Egyptian babies.  
Jochebed, Moses’ mother, had the inspiration to find a way to save her child. Miriam, Moses’ sister, watched over her brother as he was put into the river, and suggested to the Princess that her mother could be his wet-nurse.
Moses, of course, was transformed by his miraculous salvation from the river, destined to serve God from the beginning of his life. He grew up a child of two worlds, the powerful household of Pharaoh, and the powerless world of slavery.
This was the beginning of the Exodus story, with women who chose to not be conformed to the culture but made choices to save one little baby.  
... As Jesus led his disciples through Galilee, little by little he helped them recognize his identity. Much of Jesus’ teaching was an invitation to understand God and religious rules differently than the traditional teaching of the day.  
On this particular day, Jesus and the disciples were in northern Galilee, the region we know today as the Golan Heights. In this mountainous region, there is a cave with a deep pool of water. For thousands of years, the area has been a worship center. There are niches carved in the face of the mountain, where statues of gods can be placed and worshiped. It was thought that the cave led to the underworld, or to hell, especially because once in a while, sulfurous fumes escape from the cave. In Jesus’ time, it was called the “Gates of Hades.”  
On this day, Jesus invites a conversation about his identity. First, he asks the disciples who people say the Son of Man is. The Son of Man is a scriptural reference with a variety of meanings, and the disciples mention several traditional possibilities. They also mention John the Baptist, who had recently been killed by Herod, and who many had hoped was the Messiah.
Next, Jesus asks who the disciples say he, Jesus, is. The text doesn’t say if any of the other disciples say anything, but Peter jumps in, as usual. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter doesn’t understand all that he has said, and he won’t until after the crucifixion and resurrection. For now, this insight is enough, and Jesus tells Peter it comes from God.
Peter was transformed by his growing recognition that Jesus was more than a wise rabbi and worker of miracles. His transformation began when he first met Jesus, and continued when he agreed to follow wherever Jesus led him. It continued as he learned about Jesus and his untraditional way of viewing the religious rules. It will continue after Jesus dies and is resurrected, and as he leads the new church into the future.
Peter himself was slowly transformed from fisherman to disciple to leader. Peter and the disciples will transform religion with the power to “bind and loose” religious rules. “Binding and loosing” is a technical religious term in which designated leaders are permitted to make changes in the religious rules. As the church expanded beyond the Jews, one of the first rules to be loosed was the requirement for circumcision. Another was the inclusion of women in leadership.
As the placing of baby Moses in the river eventually led to the salvation and transformation of the Hebrew people, so Peter’s confession of faith led to the transformation of religion under his leadership.  
... We are transformed when we recognize that there are options to those rules we have always taken for granted. Most of us here lived through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Lots of people made small decisions; a few gave their lives to make larger ones.
One day, a very tired black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. Some little voice inside her said she did not have to conform to the rules of her culture, and she was transformed by her refusal. Our country was also transformed by her actions and those of others like her.
Other countries have taken notice of such a simple act of refusing to conform. In Israel today, there are new laws against segregation on public buses. For many years, Orthodox Jewish men have insisted on their right to ride in the front of the bus and insisted, often violently, that women must ride in the rear of the bus. This tradition often prevents families from riding together, separating wives from their husbands, and mothers from their sons. Riding in the front of the bus can even lead to the women being ostracized in their communities, because they are seen as not modest and obedient enough.
In order to assist in the transformation of their culture’s customs, Freedom Riders are women who volunteer to sit in the front half of public buses and watch for any harassment by drivers or passengers. They have taken note of Rosa Parks’ simple action and are working in quiet ways to make a difference, to transform the Israeli Orthodox culture.
... During our lifetimes, we often have opportunities for transformation, times when we realize that we could do something a little or a lot differently, times for an AHA moment. Perhaps we stop to talk with a homeless person, recognizing her humanity over her social status. Perhaps we invite our new neighbor to church as we offer him a plate of cookies. Perhaps we speak out against an injustice, writing letters, sending emails, marching in protest, to make sure our voice is heard.
How do we know when to not conform? We know when we listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to speak, to act, to do something other than conform, when we decide to make waves, even when our deepest instinct is to not make waves.
Please pray with me: Lord, you give us rules to help us know how to love you and how to love our neighbors. We create lots of other rules for living with each other. Most of the time, conformation to the rules is a good thing. Help us know when it’s right to not conform, and to allow ourselves to be transformed by you to a new way of living. Amen