Romans 12, verses 1 and 2: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.
Today’s second reading has a very special significance for me. It was the confirmation text chosen by Peter Gomes, the university chaplain at Harvard from 1974 to 2011, and one of my dearest friends. When he announced his retirement, a classmate and I decided to honor him by commissioning an anthem in his honor and this was the text he chose. The choir of this church sang the anthem when I was instituted as your rector.
Peter’s life exemplified these verses in many ways. He was a genuinely unique individual, and no one could ever have accused him of being a conformist. Peter was an African American and a Baptist, but he was also a Republican for most of his life and only changed his affiliation to the Democratic party when a mutual friend of ours ran for and was elected governor of Massachusetts.
Peter was also a bachelor, but when an ugly anti-gay incident occurred on the Harvard campus, he spoke at a rally condemning it and came out as a gay man.
When his first book was published, Peter went on a book tour to promote it. While on a talk show on a black radio station in Philadelphia, the host noticed that no one was calling in, so he decided to stir the pot a little, and said to his listeners:. “This man is black, Republican, and gay. Do you think he’s going to hell?” And with that the switchboard started to light up.
Paul presents us with two alternatives: Conformity and transformation. But that just begs the question: Conformity to what? Transformation into what?
The first question is easy to answer: “Do not be conformed to this world.”
But isn’t the world good? Did God not declare the world to be good when he created it? Of course. But the problem is not with the world that God created but with the world that you and I have created.
The French theologian Jacques Ellul said that humans are made in the image of God but culture is created in the image of humans. And I would add that something is lost in the translation.
I don’t mean for a moment that everything about culture is bad. There is much that is good. We have created tremendous works of art and music and great works of literature. We have built political institutions that support the rule of law and protect human rights.
But we have also created greed and racism. We have created oppression and authoritarianism.
A topic for another time would be how can humans created in the image of God create a culture that so often deprives our fellow human beings of their rights, relegates them to second class status, declares that those who look different from us, believe a different faith, or love in a different way are inferior? But that will have to wait for another sermon.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deals with this text from St. Paul in a sermon entitled “Transformed Nonconformist.” I want to share some of it with you.
Dr. King observed that “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”
Quoting the poet Longfellow, he said, “In this world we must be either a hammer or an anvil.” In other words, we will either mold the world around us or be molded by it. Using a powerful, vivid image, Dr. King said that “… most people, and Christians in particular, are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.”
King observed that the church of Jesus Christ has too often simply blessed the status quo, even if that status quo included racial segregation, unjust wars, and economic exploitation.
But the most memorable words in King’s sermon are these: “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”
I love the phrase, “creative maladjustment.” I think that’s exactly what Paul is calling us to in today’s second reading. And there is a perfect illustration of that in the first reading today.
The story of Exodus tells us that “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Do you remember the story of Joseph?
Joseph was the youngest and favorite son of the patriarch Jacob. Joseph’s brothers bitterly resented the favoritism that Jacob showed to Joseph, so they seized him one day when he was out in the fields far from home watching the sheep. And when a caravan bound for Egypt came along, they sold him into slavery. But the joke was on them. Joseph rose from slavery to become Pharaoh’s chief advisor. And when famine struck the land of Joseph’s brothers, they came to him and pleaded for food to save them from starvation. Joseph had every reason to hate his brothers, but instead he loved them and showed them mercy and gave them the food that saved their lives.
Joseph’s entire family, then, came to live in Egypt. But after Joseph died, a new Pharaoh or king came to power in Egypt, one who did not remember what Joseph had done. And this new king feared and hated the descendants of Joseph’s tribe and decided to eliminate them in the cruelest way possible. He instructed the Egyptian midwives to kill all the Hebrew boys.
Even the life of Moses was at risk. But when he was born, his mother fashioned a tiny boat and set him adrift on the Nile River, hoping against hope that he would live. But he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up in the royal household. Or as a friend of mine used to say, Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river and picked up a little prophet!
But in spite of Pharaoh’s command to kill all male Hebrew children, two of the Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, refused to do this. They not only disobeyed Pharaoh’s command, they even lied about it, putting their own lives at risk.
In other words, Shiphrah and Puah were “creatively maladjusted.” They were “transformed nonconformists.”
It’s amazing how often the Bible lifts up women who were “creatively maladjusted,” who were “transformed nonconformists.” And it’s equally amazing how we have ignored them.
Think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. When the angel told her that she was going to be the mother of Jesus, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In effect, she was agreeing to be an unwed mother.
Or think of Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection. The Risen Christ appeared to her and told her to take the unbelievable news of the Resurrection to the other disciples. But she was a former prostitute. What reason did they have to believe her? But she went.
Maybe women find it easier to be “transformed nonconformists” because they have usually been on the outside; they have been economically and socially marginalized.
The church of Jesus Christ does not have a very good record when it comes to being “creatively maladjusted” to the world.
Social scientists tell us that Christians divorce at about the same rate as the general population; we watch the same films and television shows; we read the same books; we give about the same percentage of our income to charity as others; our teenagers have pre-marital sex at about the same rate as other kids; and so forth. The church has defended slavery and racial discrimination, wars and economic exploitation. During the Holocaust Christians pretty much turned their backs on the Jewish people.
We swallow cultural propaganda hook, line, and sinker. We believe that sexual pleasure should be unlimited, that politics is the most important news, that poverty is the worst thing that could ever happen to us, that a risky investment provides so-called security, that physical health is my right, and that whatever is technologically possible is good (even though it might be morally dubious). (From Daniel Clendenin, “Positively Maladjusted” in his blog Journey with Jesus.)
Last week we lost Mark Sewall. Mark was “creatively maladjusted,” too; he was a “transformed nonconformist.” Mark was also something of an outsider. He wasn’t from this community, and he was gay. Last year he gave a stewardship talk that I will never forget. He said that when he realized that he was not going to have a partner, he decided to make Jesus his life partner.
Mark seemed to be involved in everything at Christ Church. He was on the Committee on Gratitude and was going to be our stewardship chair this year. Mark was passionate about stewardship. He was so passionate that he took some of his vacation time to attend a stewardship conference in Atlanta.
Stewardship is a great example of being transformed, not conformed. We live in a world that tells us we should make and spend as much money as we can. But the Christian faith tells us that we are not measured by how much money we make but by how much we give away. And Mark lived that out. He gave selflessly of himself, and I can’t tell you how much I will miss him.
We need “transformed nonconformists” like Mark. We need people who are “creatively maladjusted.”
We need people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who gave up a promising career as a theologian and instead joined the German resistance to Adolf Hitler and paid the ultimate price – being executed in Flossenburg prison.
We need people like Rosa Parks who refused to sit in the back of the bus any longer.
We need people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who practiced non-violent resistance to an unjust social order, even though he knew that he was likely to be killed.
We need people like Andrew White, the so-called “Vicar of Baghdad”, who continues to minister to Christians there in spite of the great danger it poses to his life.
We are being “creatively maladjusted” when we practice service rather than self-aggrandizement, when we forgive those who have wronged us; when we seek reconciliation rather than estrangement.
I am glad that Peter Gomes chose Romans 12, 1 and 2, for the anthem composed in his honor, because it reminded me of the music inherent in those words. It reminded me, and I hope it reminds you, that Christians are called to sing a new song, not the same song that the world around us sings, to be just a little bit off key, to march to the beat of a different drum, to be “creatively maladjusted,” transforming ourselves and the world around us.