From Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but 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.” (12:2)
I begin this morning with the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans. Why? Because we as a people and as a nation are being led to believe that up is down and down is up. Now more than ever, we need to heed Paul’s words and do everything in our power not to be conformed or resigned by the present state of our world. As Christians, we have to ask ourselves if our life makes sense in light of the life of Jesus. And if it does not, how far are we willing to go to achieve the will of God.
The very essence of what I thought were American values are, in my opinion, being distorted and redefined by what the writer of Ecclesiastes calls “vanity and a chasing after the wind” (1:14). I acknowledge that we, as a nation, have always fallen short of conferring the inalienable rights and sacred human dignity for every citizen, but I feel dispossessed when we cry out that racism and anti-Semitism are sins, and that when we speak up to protect the rights of say, transgendered people in the military, we are accused of practicing identity politics. No. We are simply presenting our bodies and voices as a living sacrifice against injustice and advocating for anyone who is marginalized because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual orientation, their religion, or their immigrant status.
Prejudice and discrimination are a sin against God and contrary to everything that Jesus taught and lived. I am preaching the gospel truth that everyone must be treated as an equally beloved child of God…without exception. And this includes loving our white supremacist neighbors as we love ourselves. We love because God loves. We forgive because God forgives; we all fall short in the eyes of God. My gut tells me though that if Paul were writing today, he would argue that the church must stand up to and apart from the ways of the world when basic biblical principles and Gospel values are dismissed or conflated as liberal identity politics.
This is what I mean when I say that the world I have always known is not the world I am living in now. We Americans have always had our differences and expressed them in myriad ways, with both positive and negative outcomes. But I feel now, more than I ever have in my 53 years on this earth, that our differences are being exacerbated for political gain; that the leader of the free world is loath to call on “the better angels of our nature” when we need him to do so now more than ever. We’re living in a different universe, a time of national cognitive dissonance. Not the end times, but truly painful times. Too many Americans have turned inward and dark. What went down in Charlottesville two weeks ago was not a reflection of the will of God; it was prophesied American carnage. Please, let’s step back into the light and do it together.
This is why Paul’s epistle is especially relevant this morning. Paul implores us to walk out of the miasma of despair and division that defines so much of this “world” and present ourselves, our body and mind, as a living sacrifice, an incarnate altar of devotion to God and as a consequence, to one another. This is the antidote to our present reality. We are to conform to the image of Jesus Christ.
And the third verse of today’s epistle could be the crux of it all. Paul admonishes us not to get the big head. To keep our narcissistic impulses in check. Why? “Because all are members of one human body, in which each part has value, and each part is as intimately connected to the other as the head, neck and torso of a human are connected. Each part of the body works, not to bring glory to itself or to meet only its needs, but to ensure the healthy functioning of the whole system.”[i] We Americans, even those espousing Christianity, are not of one body. Our limbs are dismembered and scattered across a political battlefield. Enough is enough. The time for our repentance is near, the church’s repentance too. As Jesus warns us in our gospel, “whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16: 19).
The Jesuit priest, poet, and peace activist, Daniel Berrigan (1921–2016) protested the assimilation of the church to the world. When he was asked how many times he had been jailed for the gospel, he famously lamented, “not enough.” So when the Jesuit priest John Dear asked Father Berrigan for some advice, he responded: “Make your story fit into the story of Jesus. Ask yourself: does your life make sense in light of the life of Jesus? All we have to do is close our eyes to the culture and open them to our friends. We have enough to go on. We can’t afford the luxury of despair.”[ii] Stand somewhere, said Berrigan. Do the Word. Put your body where your words are.
Do the Word. Live the Word. Be the body of Christ. Put your body where Jesus is. Let me tell you, I watched a remarkable story a few weeks ago on the CBS Evening News that broke my heart wide open. The man profiled in the piece is the living embodiment of the Word. Not only is he living beyond the norms of human politeness and decency, he is conformed to the body of Christ. This guy went the extra mile, 35 to be exact, to do the will of God.
The piece begins with the story of Anita Hughes, a 49-year-old African-American woman living in Cleveland, Ohio who rarely left her home (only to go to work or church) and who would not dare drive on the highway. But one day last fall, she was inexplicable moved to step out of her comfort zone, face her fears, and drive to North Carolina for a gospel concert. She arrived safely but on her way home she got terribly lost. So lost she didn’t even know what state she was in.
Surveillance video showed her walking into a 7-11 store in Strasberg Virginia and in frantic desperation screaming, “’Can somebody please tell me how get to Cleveland?!’ Next we see Jason Wright, a white preppy-looking customer, attempting to give her directions using hand gestures. He gave Anita directions, but she was still scared and skeptical. So she said, “If that’s the right way, you come show me how to get to Cleveland.” So he did.
Okay, this is where I get convicted. I would have drawn her a map…taken her outside and pointed her in the right direction…and made some excuse why I couldn’t drive the 35 miles out of my way to get her back on track. But that is exactly what Jason did. He drove 35 miles in the opposite direction to make sure she got home safely.
These two strangers didn’t exchange contact information before they got back on the road but they did pose for a selfie. Jason regretted that he didn’t get her phone number so he posted the selfie with this caption a few days later: “The Woman from Cleveland couldn’t have looked, talked or acted more differently, but we had the important things in common — love of God and of one another.” He turned to his followers to help him find his new friend and they did.
Just a few months ago they were reunited when Jason drove the 300 miles to Cleveland. Their reunion almost brought tears to my eyes. Anita and Jason have become fast friends. They talk on the phone just about every day and now share a real fondness for one another.
Anita agreed that Jason gave her a lot more than directions that day. Since their chance encounter she’s gotten a new job, road-tripped to Detroit and boasts she’s more confident now than ever. “Just a little bit of affection can change a whole situation,” she said. And as for Jason, he thinks he’s gotten even more out of this: the lesson of a lifetime, saying: “It just doesn’t matter — the skin color, the ZIP code — we’re brothers and sisters, and we really do have a responsibility to help one another get home.” The reporter asked him if he meant that sentiment metaphorically, he replied, “I mean that in every way imaginable.”
When one got lost, hope got found. Ah, this is what Paul means when he asks us to present our body as a living offering, holy and acceptable to God. We’re going to have to go out of our way—a few of us may have to go all the way—but opening our hearts and minds to someone who on the surface may repel us is the first step to reflecting the light of the life of Jesus onto the world. Daniel Berrigan said that all we have to do is close our eyes to the culture and open them to our friends.
Friends, Paul calls us to keep God’s unending mercies ever before us, to live by the essential truths, truths that may feel hard to hold on to in this crazy, mixed up world of ours. But we have to try. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. Now listen to Paul’s words in the verses following ours; beginning with verse 9 of this same chapter and allow them to be our lodestar: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…extend hospitality to strangers…Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Beautiful right? Out of reach. Nah. This is our offering to God; this is how we make sense of the life of Christ and reflect it as our own. To me…it means going about 35 miles out of my way. Amen.
[i] [i]Romans 12: 1-8 Commentary by Rochelle A. Stackhouse, pg. 377, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3.
[ii] Essay entitled Yes and No by Dan Clendenin, posted 20 August 2017, Journey with Jesus website; Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, 2009.