Sermon for August 27th, 2017, the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.
I know that y’all are expecting a short sermon this morning, as this is my first time preaching after having double jaw surgery this summer, but I have to warn you, you may be disappointed.
In the first place I have had a long time to think about all that I want to say this morning, and in the second, I have to talk a bit more slowly with this new mouth of mine. So you may want to get comfortable and bear with me.
It was twenty years ago, as a matter of fact I think it was twenty years ago this very weekend, that I was heading South on I-95 in my VW beetle to start my first year of college. I say that I was headed South, but if you know anything about Florida, then you know that the further South you go, the more Northern it gets. Even though I was born and raised in Florida, my family is very southern, and we lived in a part of Florida that still had some strong elements of Southern culture (lets just say it was closer to the swamp than it was to the beach). I was very much supported by my immediate family in my adventure, but I am sure that more than a few eyebrows were raised among some of my extended family members when they learned that I was moving to Miami.
Why on earth would anyone want to move to Miami? Its crowded, its dirty, the people talk funny and they have all sorts of foreign ways and ideas. It’s a suburb of Sodom. I know that some people just didn’t understand why I wanted to go there, and frankly I’m not sure I understood it either, but that’s where I felt called to go and that’s where I went.
We stopped off on the way at my Aunt Faye’s house in West Palm Beach. Now my Aunt Faye is a devout Baptist and frankly as good a Christian woman as you are ever gonna find anywhere. I remember Aunt Faye being excited for me on my new adventure and the idea that I was moving to the big bad city didn’t seem to phase or concern her in the least. Well I must have seemed surprised that she wasn’t concerned, because she said to me very matter of factly before I left: “You can have your own values wherever you go.”
You can have your own values wherever you go. Where you are, and who you are, are not the same thing. Sage advice I think, although not always easy to follow. Sometimes it’s easier just to go along with the crowd. Maintaining your own identity and holding on to your own values can be tricky when everyone around you seems to be pulling you in a different direction.
Be not conformed, but be transformed.
That’s what the Apostle Paul says to the church in Rome in his letter that we heard read this morning.
Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
I wonder what Paul was thinking when he wrote that letter to the church in Rome. I have to wonder if Paul, looking at his audience to which he was writing, really understood just how difficult that little piece of advice would be. He knows plenty of people in the church in Rome, he has ministered with some of them elsewhere, some of these people were very close to him, like family almost. There are others that Paul knows by reputation, but he hasn’t actually been to the church in Rome yet. He just knows it, and its host city by what he has heard.
This was after all, the church in Rome, he wasn’t writing to some Christians living in some backwater district of the empire, this was the capital city; the heart of the known world. They had everything there: people from every corner of the world. Every kind of food you can imagine; every kind of diversion or entertainment you could want, from chariot races and gladiator battles, to other things that I won’t even mention. There was no reason to be bored in ancient Rome. And the Romans they had some pretty good ideas too: good roads, running water, sewers, a strong army….they even had a state religion. Now, you may have to declare that an insane emperor is a God, but in exchange you get toilets that flush so maybe its not such a bad deal.
How do you not be conformed to the world when you have millions of people around you that are more than willing to go along with whatever seems most popular at the moment without questioning it much? When you are just one person in the midst of millions…what difference could you possibly make? I could easily see how Paul’s advice might be taken to be a bit impractical, unreasonable. Don’t be conformed. Yeah right…that advice might work in the sticks, but not here in the center of all the action.
But what Paul knows is that so far, this church in Rome has been able to do just that: their faith is known to him. Paul has heard that this small group in the heart of the empire has been able to resist the pressure to conform to the world and they are being transformed and growing in the faith; spreading the faith even. These are people who live with every worldly pleasure at their doorstep, and yet they are able to faithfully proclaim that life is more than just worldly pleasures. These are people of Jewish ancestry and people of gentile ancestry coming together. This is a community where the strong are helping the weak, not just pushing them aside or trampling on them. Paul is proud of this church and wants to encourage them.
He says to them that they can be good citizens: responsible, tax-paying and law abiding, and still be witnesses to a power that is greater than the state. He goes on to say to them:
“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 honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
Paul doesn’t want the church in Rome to confuse resisting conformation with obstinacy…they aren’t necessarily the same thing. He doesn’t want them to be merely isolated and resisting all change. He wants them to grow, but he wants them to grow in Godliness, not in worldliness. He wants them to resist being conformed to the world, but he wants them to seek transformation in Christ. He wants them to discern, to test in their minds what is in accord with the values that Christ has taught, not to mindlessly go along with whatever the world wants them to be.
Paul believes that God is calling each and every member of that church to be something. Paul wants them to be who God is calling them to be, both in their lives out in the world and in their lives inside the church. The message is much the same: you don’t have to be like everyone else. Be who God is calling you to be. If he has given you a grace, a gift, or a talent, it’s because the church needs it. It’s because God needs it.
It isn’t easy advice Paul is giving here. It isn’t easy to resist conforming to the world. It isn’t easy to have your own values when they conflict with the values of so many people around you, but you can do it. You can follow where God is calling you, you just have to listen carefully. The world likes to shout at you. More often than not, God speaks through the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah heard. I love the hymn “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling” because I really do believe that most of the time that is how Jesus calls us: softly and quietly. He doesn’t force us to follow his ways or to recognize who he is. He doesn’t force us to choose him over the world; he softly calls us.
In the Gospel this morning Christ asks his disciples “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In other words: “who do people say that I am?”
They give him a bunch of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. You can kind of see the logic in those answers; Jesus does have plenty in common with those guys, but they’re all wrong answers. Just because a bunch of people are saying something doesn’t make it right or true. Jesus goes on to ask the far more important question: “but who do you say that I am?”
You can decide who Jesus is, or you can just go along with what other people are saying. You can be conformed to this world, or you can be transformed by the knowledge of God. You can have your own values, wherever you go.