You can have your own values, wherever you go.

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Sermon for August 27th, 2017, the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.

Readings:

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

 

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.

Lost between Conservative and Progressive: Why the Doctrine of the Fall gives me peace and hope.

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I have spent the past six weeks in Mayberry.

 

I have been more or less homebound this summer recovering from surgery, so television has been my escape. I love the Andy Griffith Show. I love the characters and their foibles. I love the values that Andy tries to instill in Opie. I love the small town world that is portrayed; a world filled with good people that make mistakes, but somehow manage to settle their differences with equal doses of neighborliness and Aunt Bee’s fried chicken. There is a part of me that very much wants to live in that world. Part of me longs to escape from so much of the nastiness of the age I live in.

 

Yes, I know that Mayberry is fictional, but like all good fiction there is plenty of truth there. Maybe one of the reasons I love Andy Taylor and all of his neighbors is because they remind me of so many people I have known in my own life. Maybe I watch it because it helps me to reconnect with them. I think it reminds me of some of the values I have let slip and how much those people still have to teach me.

 

And yet…

 

It doesn’t escape my notice that through eight seasons of this show I don’t recall seeing even one black face; not even as an extra. This show is supposedly set in rural North Carolina. I have been to rural North Carolina. There are plenty of black people there. The glaring omission reminds me that there is plenty of truth that this show leaves out; truth that it is so easy for me to forget when I am in a nostalgic mood. The truth of racism and segregation. The truth of hatred and violence. It’s easy to long for the days of Mayberry when we aren’t looking at the whole picture, but real history is a mixed bag.

 

History is a nuisance; it’s always interfering with my fantasies.

 

Part of me longs to be a real conservative, holding onto and defending traditions and “old-fashioned” ways, but history forces me to recognize that some times traditions die for good reason. Our ancestors may have had virtues to celebrate, but they also had plenty of sins too.

 

Part of me feels the power of progressive arguments, of the need to repent of past mistakes and develop new and better ways of doing things, but here history gets in the way again. How many times in the past have we thought that doing the “new” thing was the better way, only to discover farther down the line that it was in fact a mistake? Progress may help us to see past sins more clearly, but I think it very often blinds us to the sins of our own age, not to mention the sins of the future. Science can give us great insight into the natural world, but it cannot compel us to make good judgments. Science gave us Penicillin, but it has also given us Thalidomide, Zyklon B, the atomic bomb and margarine.

 

This is the tension of my life: I am constantly torn between being a conservative and a progressive. I want to uphold old values, but I don’t want to repeat past sins. I want to create a better world for future generations, but I am aware that I am probably leaving them a mess to clean up as well. The adjective “old” has no more intrinsic value than the adjective “new,” and I see no more salvation in marching to the left than I do to the right. What am I to do?

 

For me at least, it is the Christian Doctrine of the Fall that most eases this tension and helps me to find peace and hope in the midst of two conflicting ideologies.

 

Regardless of what you make of the history of the Book of Genesis, its opening chapters point to a fundamental truth that I find hard to deny: from the beginning human beings have consistently made bad choices. Our faith begins with the observation that the world is not as it should be, and we are to blame. That seems to me to be an insight that both conservatives and progressives could agree upon. We can desire to do good, but history has proven that our actions will frequently accomplish just the opposite. As the Apostle Paul says: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

 

The Doctrine of the Fall seems to be to be the great leveler across time. From the very beginning, innocence has been lost. We have forfeited Eden and God has posted his sentry at the gate. There is no going back. Regardless of what I may imagine or even remember about a bygone era, it wasn’t Eden. It couldn’t be. All of us humans, in every generation, have been products of the Fall. We are all guilty of sins, known and unknown.

 

But what is true of the past, is true of the present and of the future as well. In the Book of Revelation the New Jerusalem comes at the end of time, and it is instituted by God, not by humans. It is not a city that we could ever build on our own. Those who gather in that city have not overcome sin; they have not saved themselves. Their sins are washed away by the sacrifice of another: the blood of the Lamb. Their song as they stand before the throne is: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Salvation belongs to God. We cannot save ourselves. This isn’t just a theological belief, it is a historical conviction as well. Human beings have not through progress solved the problem of human sinfulness, and they never will.

 

The universal fallen nature of humanity throughout time gives me peace, because I no longer have to seek salvation in either the past or the future. My conservative side and my progressive side do not have to be at war with each other for dominance because I can recognize that neither one of them has the solution to the problem of human nature. In fact, I need both sides to point out the sins that the other is all too willing to overlook.

 

The Doctrine of the Fall is not an excuse for sin, far from it, but it is an antidote to self-righteousness. While I do think it is important to take a moral stand against injustice and evil when I encounter it in the world, doing a righteous deed in no way makes me a righteous person. That satisfaction that comes with being on the right side of an issue is often the Devil’s tool to get us to overlook the myriad other ways in which we may be wrong. I may be able to see other people’s sins clearly, but I have no doubt that there are plenty of my own that I am blind to or don’t want to see. I believe in striving to do the right thing, but I must always do so with humility. At the end of the day, I have to recognize that I am never going to get to heaven by confessing someone else’s sins.

 

It is worth noting that a defining feature of Andy Griffith’s character was that he almost never carried a gun. He continually had to defend his decision not to carry a gun and when a movie was made about his life it was entitled “Sheriff without a Gun.” I wonder what modern conservatives would make of such a progressive sheriff? Maybe people don’t fall into categories of conservative and progressive as neatly as we expect them to; I know I don’t, but then maybe I’m not supposed to. Because I believe that all humans are essentially fallen or broken, and prone to making bad judgments even when it is their will to do the right thing, I know that I cannot place my hope in any human ideology.

 

The Doctrine of the Fall means that no group of humans (either historic, political or otherwise) has a monopoly on sin. Maybe my conservative side and my progressive side are meant to work together, each pointing out the sins and weaknesses unseen by the other; each trying to direct a fallen and fallible human being closer to the one true savior. It can at times feel lonely, lost in that space between conservative and progressive, but for me at least, it was in that loneliness, and in that in-between space, that I actually found Christ.