Sermon Preached April 16, 2017
Easter Day – “Not Transactional, But Transformational”
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Beverly Farms, Massachusetts
The Rev. Stephanie Chase Bradbury
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
When I turned sixteen years old, I was eager to learn to drive. Back in the day, when the Blue Laws were still intact, my first lesson was a Sunday afternoon in the empty parking lot at the mall. My father drove to the middle of this vast field of pavement, parked the car, and switched places with me. Finally! I was in the driver’s seat and eager to begin. But Dad decided that not only would it be best for me to learn on a manual stick shift but, being an engineer, thought he should begin our lesson by launching into a detailed explanation of the workings of the combustible engine.
After several minutes of this, I was practically about to explode with impatience, but Dad was still nattering on about gears. His voice droned on and on until I finally stopped him and said I don’t care, what do I do to start the car?! There was a short altercation until he realized that I was a lost cause. Finally, he showed me how to use the clutch and the stick shift, and I happily lurched my way across the parking lot.
This is how we learn things: by watching our parents model behavior, watching others, getting lessons from someone, or even reading a book on a subject. But what about life? How do we learn to live life well? What sources or strategies do we look to teach us tried and true best practices? Who models for us how to live well? As Christians, the obvious answer for us is the Bible, especially as told in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But there are two points I’d like to make about this which may be a little different from what you expect, and both points are grounded in the truth that what scripture and Jesus teach are not transactional, but transformational.
The first point is that we are not punished for our sins, but by our sins. When Jesus says, “love your neighbor,” there is no unspoken phrase which says, “or else I am going to send you to hell when you die!” Jesus is saying just what he is saying, “love your neighbor.” Period. This is a tried and true best practice for a life well lived. There is no implied transaction that if you don’t do what God and Jesus tell you that they are going to punish you. That God is keeping a cosmic score card on your behavior and that if you don’t measure up, watch out! That is a transaction, and it is not how God works. Rather, when Jesus says, “love your neighbor” or he advocates a life of humility, and gratitude, and forgiveness, and compassion, and generosity, he is trying to help us. God is seeking our transformation. Both by telling us these things, and modeling them himself throughout his life, Jesus is teaching us how to live lives of joy and meaning. It’s like the owner’s manual of your car. If you want to know how to care for the car, do what it says, get the oil changed, and the brake pads replaced, and so on.
The great God Subaru is not telling you that he will send you to hell if you forget to change your oil, but you will create your own hell if you don’t do it. So it is with loving your neighbor.
My Dad always told me to change my oil every 3,000 miles. One day when I went into the car shop, I was chatting with the mechanic there and he pointed to another SUV on the lift and said that that owner had only changed the oil every 10,000 miles and after 50,000 miles they were now having to replace the entire engine! That owner created her own hell.
The Bible is like an owner’s manual. It is not transactional, telling us to obey God or we will be sent to hell, it is transformational, telling us to obey God, because these best practices will bring about joy and meaning.
The second point I want to make is that knowledge of the cycle of life and death is the most profound of these best practices.
It is the resurrection story. All of us die many small deaths before we reach the final one. And when approached well, these small deaths lead to small resurrections, and over time we learn that dying and rising again is one of the paradigms of the human condition. Any recovering alcoholic can tell you what it means to die to your old life in order to resurrect to a new and better one. The theologian Richard Rohr writes, “Death is not just physical dying, but going to the full depth of things, hitting the bottom, beyond where you are in control. And in that sense, we all probably go through many deaths in our lifetime. These deaths to the small self are tipping points, opportunities to choose transformation.”
When faced by Pontius Pilate, Jesus, an innocent man condemned to death, did not fight back. The die was cast, he knew his future. The only way past it, was through it. Jesus modeled for us how to accept death, knowing that dying to your old self allows a new self to be born. Easter morning is not a one-time event 2,000 years ago; it is a promise for what we too can experience.
Any awareness or recognition that we are deeply flawed, or sinful, feels like a death. We often understand sin as meaning that we are evil, but the word for sin used in New Testament Greek is the word “hamartia.” “Hamartia” means “missing the mark” – as in the sport of archery. We all miss the mark, we all are sinful people. We all fall short of the glory of God. To be a sinful person doesn’t mean being an evil person. It means being someone who misses the mark. But there are different responses we can have to being sinful. We can either bury this flaw deep under a false mask of perfection, or we can acknowledge it and allow it to transform us. Because it is when we are forced to recognize that we are NOT actually in control of our lives, that we are in fact flawed, and we let go, that we find we are carried through the flood, and to a new shore. After enough experiences of this, we come to see we need not fear anything.
Many of you have probably seen that wonderful BBC comedy, “Keeping up Appearances.” In it the main character, a woman named Hyacinth Bucket (which she insists is pronounced, “Bouquet”) finagles and schemes, trying to appear to be of a higher social class than she actually is. Hilarity ensues.
The great irony is many Christians are no better than poor Hyacinth, working very hard to keep up appearances that they are without sin or flaws, fearing that otherwise they will not be acceptable to God. This is transactional thinking. The reality is that we are punished by our sins, not for our sins. In fact, it is only through acknowledging our sins, and allowing death and humiliation and imperfection, that resurrection is able to occur! This is transformational. Christianity is not about right belief, it is about a transformation of consciousness.
So this Easter season, I encourage you to pick up your owner’s manual, aka the Bible, read it, and consider how it may lead you through death to resurrection in your own life. Amen.
 Richard Rohr, https://cac.org/dying-into-life-2016-07-05/