This past week I taught the Core 1 course in Luther Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Preaching program. The Core 1 course is the first class the students take, “Preaching as the Word of God.”
It was an exciting week! Nine students of all different denominations and varying years of preaching who have recognized that they want to improve in their preaching. They are ready for a change. And it is not overstating the case that they are also hoping for a bit of a transformation.
But, as we discussed at different times throughout the week, transformation does not come easily. It means risk-taking. It demands courage. It admits that change is necessary. It reveals that which you’ve tried to hide. Imposter Syndrome creeps in and you begin to wonder — why was I admitted to the program? When are they going to find out I shouldn’t be here? When are my classmates going to realize that I really have no business being a preacher in the first place?
Transformation is a word we like to use — and a lot. Why? It means change. It signals a new direction. It promises a future that is different from our past. But we conveniently forget, or typically ignore, that with transformation comes exposure. It releases into the open, for all to see, that which you know you need to change. It’s one thing for you yourself to know what change is necessary. It is quite another for others to know it as well.
And if we think transformation is hard as an individual, it is even more so as an institution, as a culture, as a system. A church has to admit its complacency in decades of sexual abuse so as to be a true advocate for the victims. An institution has to come clean with a record of poor decisions so as to be able to move forward with an actual vision and purpose. A society has to acknowledge that it actively harbors rape culture so that the anonymous victim of the Stanford case can truly be “every woman.” With this much discomfort, even pain, with this much exposure, no wonder we choose to remain in our places of brokenness, possessed by that which the world says is okay — that’s just the way it is.
But then Jesus comes along and asks, “what is your name?” perhaps the first realization of exposure. The story about the possessed man in the tombs is no mere exorcism — and that itself would be enough for most of us: exorcised of that which keeps us from being who we are; exorcised of that which prevents us from telling the truth — about ourselves and about the systems in which we work and live; exorcised of that which keeps us from living a full life.
No, this is not just an exorcism but a full-blown, multi-fold transformation — for the man goes from being out of his mind to sitting at Jesus’ feet; from living in the tombs to preaching in the city; from being naked to being clothed.
Being naked is all kinds of vulnerable and all kinds of fear. What will people see? Do we want our partner to see our bodies or do we turn off the lights, acquiescing only if the truth of ourselves can be couched in darkness? Do we celebrate our bodies or make choices about our ministry attire so as to abscond from the reality of our identity? Do we defer to denominational and doctrinal commitments rather than take a chance on saying something new about God? Do we say, “there’s nothing I can do” or do we actively, intently, deliberately look and listen for the places and spaces and circumstances where we might make a transformative move and say “no” in the face of, “it’s a high price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”
What does the first step in transformation look like? One of my Facebook friends posted this and I then posted it on my Facebook page. “Due to the recent news, I ask all women to respond. I ask, with respect and dignity attached to your answer, for your honesty. Maybe this will help people to truly understand what we mean when we say that we worry about being vigilant every single day. Have you lived a life free of sexual violence? Sexual violence is any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, unwanted sexual comments or advances, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person’s sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim.”
My answer? No.
And to say “no” is a first step.
And what gives us the power to say “no”? Because of this story in Luke, we know that Jesus sees the naked and clothes them. Jesus hears our call, “O Lord, do not be far away!” (Psalm 22:19) and finds us. Jesus transforms our very selves — possessed by all that degrades and demeans life, both ours and others; all that insists we deserve to be overlooked or silenced; all that convinces us of our unworthiness; all that says “who am I that God would care about me?”
And then naked no more, we are able to proclaim throughout the world how much Jesus has done for us. And that proclamation, Dear Working Preachers, is transformative itself.