When I was in high school, current events discussions were a part of every social studies or history class. Each student was asked to bring a newspaper article from home and be prepared to summarize it for the class. Questions and discussion followed. During the past few weeks I’ve imagined the serious conversations that could occur in social studies classes today. It seems to me there’s far more to discuss of serious nature than I recall from my high school days. Just in the past few weeks we’ve heard that language that’s not fit to repeat was uttered by the then acting white house communications director. North Korea and the United States have traded almost daily threats of military action. Demonstrations by hate groups, neo-Nazis, the KKK in Charlottesville and the tragic death of a peaceful demonstrator and two police officers happened last weekend. And just a few days ago a vehicle crashed into a crowd of tourists in Barcelona and another small town in Spain killing many. All of these troubling current events will make for really in depth learning opportunities and some thoughtful discussions in classrooms as schools open this week. But more importantly these national and world happenings are signs that the world is still far from God’s desires for us.
In the first century, life was far from the way God wanted it to be, too. So Paul’s advice to the Christians in Rome is good advice to us. For the first 11 chapters of Romans, Paul has been telling the Christians in Rome about the undeserved, generous, and life-giving gift of God’s mercy and salvation. “Therefore,” Paul says, or “because of that great gift, the only suitable response is to present your whole selves—your bodies and all of your living—to God as a form of worship.” The Message translation says it this way: “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” Paul is trying to move the early Christians and us way beyond casual and easy membership in the group of Jesus’ followers. He doesn’t want folks who go through the motions of following a bunch of Jesus’ rules and teachings, but still think like the rest of the world thinks (Wright 69). Paul wants us to be transformed from the inside out so that the essence of our being reflects the light of Christ in our lives.
Pliable substances conform to the shape they are in. A couple weeks ago when I was on vacation, Naomi and Leo and I sat on the beach and put moist sand into a castle-like mold. We packed the sand firmly into the mold and then turned it over. We pounded it gently and carefully lifted the mold. And there was a small castle made out of sand. That same sand could just as easily have been molded into a seahorse, a boat or a starfish. Paul recognizes that we humans have a tendency to be as pliable as that sand which makes it easy for us to be molded by our society. So he warns us to not be conformed to the world. The J. B. Phillips translation says “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold (Wright 705).
Society is almost subversive in the ways it shapes and molds us, so it’s hard to stand firm in our values. Advertisers are always feeding us messages about what is attractive, important to have, and gives us meaning in life. Over time, we give in to their messaging. We buy their products and are shaped by their values. When we’re exposed to violence and foul language and terrorism over and over and over again, we become de-sensitized. Eventually those things become nothing more than an unremarkable part of everyday life. We are in many ways as moldable as the sand on the beach.
Paul calls us to be totally transformed so that we can resist the attempts of people around us and our society to mold us. Transformed minds are in tune with God’s mind and heart. Transformed minds are alert, able to evaluate, think clearly, and make choices about actions and values that are consistent with God’s will for us and God’s desires for our world. Paul is hoping we will be so thoroughly transformed from the inside out that our whole life and all of our thinking become an expression of our devotion to God (Jones 377).
In a sermon on Romans 12 found in his book, Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr. boils Paul’s teaching in this text down to two words: transformed nonconformity (Clendenin). King goes on to point out how easily the pressures and norms of our world “condition our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo” (Clendenin). Paul calls us to become transformed non-conformists who resist falling into the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo in our world. Paul is encouraging us to be changed so dramatically by God’s mercy and love that we Christians stand out in the world. There needs to be a noticeable difference between the ways followers of Jesus talk, think, and act and the rest of the world.
Jesus was a transformed non-conformist and his mother knew he’d be that way even before he was born. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty,” she sang in Luke chapter 1. No longer would some groups or races or nationalities be privileged over others. Jesus worked for a world that reflected God’s desires. In the 1st century the meek were run over by the powerful; the merciful were taken advantage of; the peacemakers were tortured. But Jesus did not conform to these attitudes in his world. In the Beatitudes Jesus declared that the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers are blessed. They will inherit the world, receive mercy, and be called children of God. Jesus was a transformed non-conformist when he suggested that wealth is not what we should seek and that storing up treasures on earth is not wise. He was a non-conformist each time he touched a leper, spoke to a Samaritan woman, healed the blind, and restored a demoniac to life and community. Jesus refused to be molded by the values of his society and overturned tables in the temple, healed the sick on the Sabbath, and challenged the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In a society where armies oppressed and men settled disputes with swords, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies and pray for them. And he didn’t just preach it. He lived it. Jesus was enough of a transformed non-conformist to ask forgiveness for those who tortured him on the cross and watched him die.
The goal of this transformed non-conformity that Jesus modeled for us is to seek God’s desires for the world so that God’s kingdom breaks into our lives. God’s desires include justice for all people, love and kindness, forgiveness and mercy, and peace within and peace between people, religious groups and nations. In his letter to the Romans, Paul lists signs of God’s kingdom breaking into the world: genuine love, hating what is evil, holding on to what is good, honoring one another, serving those in need, holding on to joyous hope, being patient in the midst of suffering, persevering in prayer, and welcoming the stranger.
God calls us to be the people who live as transformed non-conformists in a society that seems to be more and more acculturated to hatred, bigotry, violence and dishonesty. We transformed Christians need to be the people who are the face of God in this world because no one else is doing it. We transformed Christians need to be the people who are in tune with God’s desires, because no one else is. We need to be transformed non-conformists who incorporate the attributes Paul names into our hearts and our living. We need to be the people whose lives beat in rhythm with God’s heart and not in rhythm with the drumbeat of our society.
Several months ago, I mentioned to you the prayer attributed to Reinhold
Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” And I encouraged all of us to do what that prayer says. To accept the things over which we have no control. To recognize the things we can change in our community, nation and world. And then find the courage to do something to make our world more like God desires. Today another reminder of that. We can’t change the language that comes from folks working in the White House and that represents us to the world. But we can be transformed, so that the language coming out of our mouths is pleasing to God and gives evidence that we will not conform to a growing trend of degrading words and foul language. We can’t change the fighting, the wars, the threats of military action against nations, but we can be transformed and peacefully and lovingly work out differences with each other. We can’t control hate groups and their actions, but we can be transformed so that our hearts express God’s love and compassion for and the value of every child of God. We can speak up for the rights of people of all religions, nationalities, races, and gender preferences to be treated with respect. We can’t control the hatred that is communicated via social media. We can’t prevent terrorist attacks in tourist destinations throughout the world, but we sure can be the faces of God who care for those who are hurt and in need.
The world is far from the way God desires it to be. And much of what is wrong we can’t fix on our own. But we can do some things. We can be transformed non-conformists who refuse to fall in step with the drumbeat of values and behaviors that are quickly becoming the norm in our society. We can be transformed followers of Jesus who refuse to be molded by the ways of our world. Instead we can offer God’s love and mercy in the face of hate and intolerance and terror and violence and degrading language. God needs us to be the ones who deliver God’s message of love and kindness, justice and peace. God calls us to be transformed so that all of our thoughts and actions are directed towards God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for our world.
Clendenin, Daniel B. “Martin Luther King and ‘Transformed Nonconformity’” The Journey with
Jesus: Notes to Myself for August 24, 2008. Journey with Jesus Foundation, 2008. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080818JJ.shtml
Jones, Kirk B. “Homiletical Perspective on Romans 12:1-8.” Feasting on the Word, Year A,
Vol 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Louisville: Westminster John
Knox, 2011. 374-379
Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Romans.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume X.
Nashville:Abingdon, 2002. 393-770.
Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone, Romans: Part Two. Louisville:John Knox Press, 2004.