Psalm 30, 1 Kings 17:17-24, John 17:20-26, Galatians 1:11-24
Every year or so I like to say a word about the worship planning process, particularly as it relates to scriptures. Back when Nate and Jenn and I began sharing preaching responsibilities we were worried about preaching on the same Bible verses in close proximity to one another, or about preaching on the same theme back to back, or just kind of getting in each other’s way. So one of the things we decided to do was to use the lectionary.
Some of you have heard me talk about the lectionary before. By definition, a lectionary is a list of scripture readings for a given day in Jewish or Christian churches. There are several different lectionaries – the one the Church of the Brethren uses is the Revised Common Lectionary. When it was put together back in 1983 it was called the New Revised Common Lectionary, but after 33 years I think the “new” has worn off.
Lectionaries date back thousands of years – the first one was a Jewish list of specific scripture readings for specific days that is probably from around 300 A.D. Our lectionary goes in a three year cycle. Every Sunday and on special days like Christmas or Easter or Ash Wednesday there are four suggested scripture readings. One of them is from the Psalms, one from the Old Testament, one from the Gospels, and one from the New Testament. The worship folder uses one of the scripture readings, and as preachers we may use that one or another one. We may use one or two of the suggestions or we may use all of them.
As you see, today I have used all of the lectionary readings. We began our worship with Psalm 30, and then we just read together the Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel readings. I usually don’t use all four readings, or if I do then I will just mention one or two of them in the sermon. It’s unusual for me to have us read all four in worship.
The challenge with using all four lectionary readings is figuring out how they fit together. Sometimes it’s easy. In Christmas or Easter lectionary readings it’s usually pretty easy to find a common theme. Today was not quite so easy.
Well, two of those readings were easy enough. In two of the readings a common theme jumps out at you. The reading from 1 Kings about the prophet Elijah and the Gospel reading from Luke obviously fit together. It almost looks like they’re the exact same event or story, just run through the Dragnet formula: the names were changed to protect the innocent. But the Psalm and the Galatians passage – how do they fit in?
Let me step back from that a minute. For those of you who are on Facebook you may have seen that I posted that I’d be preaching today and that a current event fit in very well with what I wanted to preach about. I asked if anyone knew what the current event was, and gave the hint that it involved someone with whom I share a birthday. Does anyone have a guess about what the current event was?
It was Muhammad Ali’s death. Ali was born on January 17, just like me – he was just born 17 years earlier than I was. People today have different views of Ali, depending in large part on when they were born.
Ali’s last fight was in 1981 – 36 years ago. So for people who are much younger than 45 years old or so they have no memory of Ali the boxer. For a lot of those people, particularly those who aren’t boxing fans and have just heard about Ali in the news from time to time or saw him light the Olympic flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. This Ali, the post-boxing Ali, is kind of a black Jimmy Carter. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was a U.N. Ambassador of Peace to Afghanistan in 2002, he traveled to Iraq and met with Saddam Hussein to try to win the release of American hostages of the Gulf War. This Ali has won all kinds of humanitarian awards, has set up foundations for peace and community building, and was revered as a gentle hero to millions and millions of people.
Those of us who are old enough to remember Ali the boxer have had a chance to see how he has changed over the years. Ali was born and began his boxing career as Cassius Clay. He used to say, “I am the greatest!” He wrote little poems and came up with witty little boasts. Ali talked about how he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” In 1965 before fighting Floyd Patterson, Ali said, “I’ll beat him so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.” He did this kind of stuff ‘til the end of his career. In 1980 before a comeback fight against Larry Holmes, Ali said, “I got speed and endurance.You’d better increase your insurance.” He was loud, he was extroverted, and he was cruel. He was kind of like a WWE wrestling character. He made fun of his opponents – trash talked them, mocked them, got into their heads.
After becoming heavyweight champion in 1964, Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. When he was drafted in 1967 for service in the Vietnam War he refused induction, claiming to be a conscientious objector. After many years in the courts, his right to do so was upheld.
Ali kept up his taunting. He called Joe Frazier, a famous opponent, a big, dumb, ugly gorilla and an Uncle Tom. He never apologized, and Frazier never forgave him. As I said, he boxed until 1981, and then retired. Along the way Ali had converted to mainstream Islam, and then to Sufism, a variety of Islam. I hope that’s helpful for some of you who don’t have a sense of Ali’s life story and where he came from.
I said all of that because there is a point at which Muhammad Ali was less and less regarded as a braggart, a loudmouth, a showboat. There is a point at which the popular view of Ali changed and Ali’s actions changed, both of them slowly and over time. There is a point at which how the popular culture thought of Muhammad Ali began to transform, and Ali along with it.
That point was in 1967 when Ali refused induction into the Army. We Brethren understand conscientious objection, but for the public at large this was the first time they’d really thought about it. It brought conscientious objection based on religious faith into people’s minds in a way that it had not been there before.
Now let’s come back to our scripture readings from the lectionary. Between my little story about the transformation of Muhammad Ali and the title of the sermon, you can probably figure out what theme ties all four readings together. That theme is transformation.
We already talked about our readings from 1 Kings and from Luke. There are obvious transformations in those two readings. The son of the widow who hosted Elijah and the son of the widow of Nain had both died, and were both raised from the dead. They both were transformed from death into life, upon the request of people who believed that God could raise the dead to life.
Take a look now at our reading from Galatians. Paul is talking about his earlier life, his life before he knew Christ. Back then, Paul says, he was “a violent persecutor of the Christians.” He’s not lying. Paul was a violent and cruel persecutor who had Christians stoned to death. You can even hear a little bit of Ali in verse 14, where Paul says, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying, “I am the greatest?”
But Paul was transformed. Paul transformed when God reveals Jesus Christ to him, and he acts on that revelation by going to Arabia, and then to Syria, and then to Jerusalem to meet with Peter.
And now look at Psalm 30. The transformation there is from mourning into dancing, as it says in verse 11. Verse 2, 3 and 4 could have been written by the son of the widow in 1 Kings, or by the son of the widow of Nain in Luke. Listen to these words again: O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.”
From death to life, metaphorically. From mourning to dancing, literally. Those are quite the transformations. And what brought it about? Verse 2: “O lord, my God, I cried to you for help.” Verse 8: “To you. O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication.”
Ali’s transformation began when he acted on his faith. It wasn’t Christian faith, but it was following God as God had been revealed to him at that point in his life. The transformation of the Psalmist begins when he cries out to God, when he acts and cries out to the God in whom he has faith. Paul’s transforming journey begins when he acts on the faith that he has in the Christ that has just been revealed to him. The two men who were resurrected in our other two readings were raised when Elijah and Jesus acted on their faith and sought their resurrection. We don’t think about Jesus as someone who had faith and acted on it, but he was. Jesus the Son often expressed his faith in God the Father.
What about you? What about us? When we act on our faith, how will we be transformed? Who will be transformed because of our actions? What things, what causes, what people can be brought to life by our actions when we let them be directed by our faith in God? What parts of ourselves can be brought to life when we let God be not just our Savior, but our Lord as well?
I don’t know. I don’t know for you, and I don’t know for me either. But I hope that I find out. I hope that we find out together. I hope that we are transformed together. Amen.