12 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 spiritualworship. 2 Do not be conformed to the patterns of 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.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let us pray. O Lord, make us unconformed to the patterns of this world. Make us channels of your peace. Make us instruments in your reliable hands and may we play your endless song into this world. And through my words, may your people hear only your word. Amen.
During the pandemic, our family watched the 80s movie Groundhog Day. When we were about 162 days into lock-down, it kind of made us feel understood.
Bill Murray plays a grumpy weatherman who reluctantly reports on Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA. But, he gets stuck in a time loop and has to repeat that day over and over again. At first, when the day begins the same way, the repetition is terrifying to him. Then, he learns to master the patterns, greeting people by name, avoiding slushy potholes that had vexed him before, and messing with people. If there is no tomorrow, why not punch Ned Ryerson? Then the repetitive day starts to make him crazy and very depressed. He goes to a bar and asks a drunk man next to him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” The drunk man responds, “That about sums it up for me.”
Flash back to the Christians living in Rome. They woke up week after week in a world where they felt stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same. Conformity to the patterns of the world was strictly enforced. If you were a patrician, you got a nice purple stripe on your tunic. If you were a plebian, you kept your head down. Non-conformity could be deadly. Like the Japanese proverb goes, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. They must have asked Paul if following Jesus meant wearing different clothes or praying publicly in the streets or shudder, heading for the cross like Jesus.
And Paul sent them this letter, saying “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world. But be transformed by the renewing of your minds, and then you will be able to discern what is God’s will – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Today, I want to share with you three words that speak to how Christians press against the patterns of this world, and for those of us – myself included – who appreciate pneumonic devices to carry a message with you – they all happen to start with the letter P.
The first word is purpose. Paul’s words in Romans 12 are well suited for early September. It’s a time when so many of us are asking big questions, about whether what we are doing is good enough or acceptable to God. I think we left perfect behind some time ago. We wonder about our purpose in a world was put on ice for 2 years and now feels like it is on fire. For some of us, the notion of presenting our bodies as living sacrifices is all too real – especially those whose workplace or school feels more dangerous now, due to Covid or active shooters, or for first responders or military families, or those in some unchartered territory of life. Honestly, that is all of us. And to us all, Paul says, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world.” Paul assumes we know those patterns are there. Paul assumes they still are strong and still enticing. To us all, he says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” and that is where you will find holy ground, that is how you arrive upon the terrain of God’s will. He says, it’s an inside job.
When I was in my early 20s, I worked at the Home Depot HQ in Atlanta. I dinged the elevator every morning and came down that elevator every night. Badge, elevator, a mauve cubicle. Every Day. On Sundays, I would slide into the pews of Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta and ask God rather desperately to tell me what to do with my life, to give me a purpose that I understood to be a job or a geographic location. I wanted something out of the box, not a big box retailer. And then I heard these bracing words in a sermon, and they ran through my soul like a freight train. I scribbled notes feverishly on my bulletin, they smeared a bit from a tear that had fallen on the side of my hand. I went home and wrote this verse in magic marker on notebook paper and tacked it to my door so that I would see it every time I left my apartment. From that moment on, I realized that my purpose on this earth had less to do with where I worked. It had more to do with a trust that God was at work. In me. It was a posture of trust, of seeing myself as an instrument in God’s hands. My life written with God’s magic marker – I’d been marked at my baptism decades before, and the magic was when I was finally old enough to understand what that meant. When it finally dawned on me that whatever the career title, whatever the role, the purpose was the same. “Child, you are loved. Act like it.”
The second word is practice. It takes new patterns to gradually override old ones. One of the great gifts of going up that elevator at Home Dept every day was the chance to meet people who truly practiced their faith in every day settings. Like, Charlene. Charlene was an internal auditor. She lived it. She loved it. It was more than a job to her. She seemed to internally audit herself, her words so precise, her motives so transparent. As I came to know her, I learned she exercised every day and prayed every day and listened to sermons on her way to work every day, and she teased herself, “What can I say – I think God made me an auditor with a bunch of internal controls.”
I met Ron Griffin who was the CIO of Home Depot. He moved through the villages of cubicles like Paul said, not thinking of himself more highly than he ought. “I’m a nerd who figured out something important,” he’d say. In those days when people panicked about the Y2K Bug and dot com bubbles, Ron the CIO seemed un-conformed to these worries, “computers are actually predictable. The trick is to know people … what inspires them…What causes them to dig deep and find joy and work together and give back. If you focus on that, the rest fixes itself. Becca, I learned that in church.”
The third point today is perspective, and it might be the hardest. At some point, no matter how good you are at something, how hard you try, suffering comes. It is unavoidable. For some it is barbed with unfairness. For others it lasts a very long time. Perspective is ability to see beyond yourself and love someone else. Bill Murray figured that out in the movie Groundhog Day and it set him free. I have to re-discover that truth a lot. Self-pity, as it turns out, doesn’t comfort all that much. But taking a meal to a person who has just had a baby or to someone who hasn’t had a good meal or a conversation in days, that feeds my soul for days. That turns me inside out. That is the renewing of the mind Paul mentions.
This week, I listened to an interview of Anthony Ray Hinton. Ray Hinton was on death row for 30 years for a crime he did not commit, until he was finally freed and stepped into the Alabama sunshine in 2015, thanks to the work of his defense attorney Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson wrote about Hinton’s case extensively in his book Just Mercy, but in that story, you don’t hear too much about Ray Hinton’s side of things. What it was like for him to be in that jail for so long. In the interview, he said for the first three years in jail, he did not speak a word to anyone. Then he said this,
“For three years [I had a pity party.] I sit there with this anger for God. Questioning him. Why did you allow this to happen? My mother told me that you, [God,] can do everything but fail. And I believed in you. I still believe in you. But I wanted to know, what did I do so bad that you would allow me to come here? And I promise you this. Going into the fourth year, it’s like I woke up to the sound of a grown man crying, not knowing what he was crying about. But my mother had taught me compassion. And my mother told me, no matter what one does in life, he or she still deserve compassion. I got out of that bed and I said, Sir, is something wrong? Took him a while to talk to me. You see, this is a man that I had lived by for three years. Never asked him his name, where he was from, I just didn’t care. I was angry. And finally, he said no, I just got word my mother passed. I told him how sorry I was. I told him if I could do anything, please let me know. I sat back on that bunk bed. And I realized I was alive. My mother was alive. You see, I want people to realize that we tends to think we got it hard. But there’s some people that have it worse than you. And I’ve been a man of faith have realized, instead of complaining, I need to tell God thank you more. And that’s how I did my years there on death row. I didn’t think about Anthony Ray Hinton. Not one more day. I’ve always put myself in the need of serving others. And I often say, if you think about helping someone else. When you realize another day is gone and you haven’t had time to think about your problem. And that’s how I did my years.”
I heard those words and I thought, that is Gospel perspective. We are the most free when we are stuck in one place and every day is the same and discover that the tears of another person matter.
It’s not about where you work. You may not have gone to work in months. It’s about the promise that God is at work. Jesus Christ scribbled grace over our lives in magic marker. A giant cross. That grace undoes all of our death-dealing patterns and insists upon transformed lives. Grace written across our have-to-be-right patterns, our doubt-everything patterns, our toxic partisan patterns, our hyper critical patterns, our feeling too fat patterns, our left right patterns, our never enough patterns and our too much patterns.
God has made of us the very body of Christ. We are splendid limbs and hands that serve. We are eyes that well up with gratitude and hope. We are transformed. New. Free. And as member of that body, I promise you this: morning by morning, new mercies we see.