“Do Not Be Conformed”
Manassas Church of the Brethren
How many of you have seen the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that’s happening all over the internet this summer?
How many of you have DONE the “Ice Bucket Challenge”?
If you haven’t done or seen it, the Ice Bucket Challenge is an internet phenomenon that started back in May to raise money for research for ALS, or Lou Gherig’s Disease. Essentially, you are challenged to either dump a large bucket of ice cold water over your head or donate $100 to the ALS Association. You take a video of dumping the water over your head, and in the video, challenge several friends to either do the same or donate. Many people are choosing to dump the ice water on themselves AND donate.
As of Thursday, donations related to the Ice Bucket Challenge have totaled over $41.8 MILLION dollars. That’s more than the Association’s total Revenue for fiscal year 2013. But it didn’t stop there. This phenomenon has gone viral. On Friday, Ice Bucket Challenge donations totaled 53.3 Million. And yesterday, the total was up to 62.5 Million. Talk about exponential power of social networking - 10 MILLION dollars each day!
Some people are wary of the impact that good works based on social media can have - they call it “hashtag activism,” or “slacktivism,” chiding others for not doing more, being more deeply invested, giving to organizations equally as worthy and perhaps more in need as the ALS Association. To be honest, I’m pretty skeptical myself about how well our online activities correspond to the rest of our lives: does tweeting about something really mean I’m invested in it? Does posting a silly video on Facebook make me a supporter of ALS research? But, financially at least, the Ice Bucket Challenge is having a very non-virtual impact on research for ALS. Something about the Ice Bucket Challenge has caught on and taken root. It went viral, grew exponentially for some REASON. There’s something to this combination of doing good, practicing joy, and challenging one another.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in a context of this kind of exponential growth. The gospel was spreading, like wildfire. And Paul, in this letter, was issuing his own joyful challenge - the challenge to live up to the adventure of baptism, to live a transformed life.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is different from most of his other letters. Paul KNEW the people in the churches of Corinthians or Galatians or Philippians - he had founded some of those churches, and visited them all. Those places were all on the far Eastern side of the Roman Empire, and the gospel was expanding westward from the backwater region where Jesus had lived and taught.
But the church in Rome was not familiar to Paul. He didn’t found that church, and he’d never visited them. The gospel was spreading so quickly and so exponentially that Paul, the original circuit-riding preacher, couldn’t keep up with it. He couldn’t get to every church community to encourage them and teach them and challenge them to live out the gospel in the way of Jesus. So he wrote. He wrote to the Roman Christians.
That the story of Jesus - his life and teachings and healings and trouble with the law, his death and resurrection - that this story had made its way all the way to Rome, the center of the universe, seat of government and capital of empire, well, that was no small thing.
The writer of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the book of Acts, and the book of Acts describes this exponential spread of the gospel challenge all the way through Galilee and Judea, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece and right up to its arrival in Rome. The book of Acts ends when the gospel reaches Rome, as if to say: Finally. Legitimacy. The end.
But the storyteller of Luke-Acts doesn’t know - or, at least, doesn’t let on - what Paul knows: that to live out the gospel in the middle of Empire is a seriously difficult task.
I had dinner with Carl and Roxanne Hill this week, missionaries recently back from Nigeria who led us in worship last Sunday. They are great people, and we had really interesting conversation. We talked about Nigeria, and how hard it is for the people of the churches there, living with daily violence and persecution. And we talked about the US, how hard it is for the people of the churches HERE, living with so many opportunities for distraction and materialism and gluttony. “Living the gospel is hard,” Carl said, “EVERYWHERE.”
I think Paul knew about the ways living the gospel would be hard for these Roman Christians, living in the way of Jesus in the belly of the beast of empire - how hard it would be to:
To practice enemy love in the place where enemies are plotted against;
To refuse to build bigger barns and resist storing up earthly treasures in the place where the economy is burgeoning, where currency is created, where treasures are cheap and wealth is easy;
To welcome strangers, immigrants and aliens in the place responsible for the policies that regulate those people’s presence;
To practice forgiveness and radical grace in the place where systems of penal justice are created and maintained;
To live peaceably with all in the place where battle strategies and war departments are housed;
To not be haughty or claim to be exceptionally wise in the place that runs on knowledge and power.
To live the peculiar life of Christian discipleship in the place where blending in and falling in line are how to get ahead.
Paul knew that it would be hard to follow Jesus in Rome. So he wrote this letter, full of crazy theological twists and turns (which, I think, he knew those sophisticated Romans would understand in ways that his churches back in the Galilee might not), and then he moves on to tell them what all that crazy theology means.
“So, brothers and sisters,” he tells them, “because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice...Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is - what is good and pleasing and mature.”
“Look,” Paul is saying, “I know who you are, and I know where you are. You’re followers of Jesus. We both know what that means, we both know who he is. And you are in ROME. You’re right there where everything comes together, where the government is situated, where the military is commanded, where the economy is centered, where the thinkers and philosophers and writers and artists and temples are all furiously creating and writing spinning out new ideas and new possibilities. You are followers of Jesus and you are THERE. Let’s take a moment, together, to contemplate what that means.”
And then, Paul says, “don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world.” Don’t let all that power and culture go to your head. Remember who you are, whose you are. Remember the example of Jesus, who did not consider himself better than anyone but knelt down to serve. And let that example transform you - so that you will be able to discern, even among all the noise of empire, what God’s will is. Not the will of the emperor. Not the will of the Pantheon. Not the will to power, not the will to riches. Let yourselves be transformed, let your minds be renewed, so that you will know the will of the God who brought you here - the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.
And, here’s the thing, you guys: we live in Rome. We are followers of Jesus smack-dab in the middle of empire. The Washington DC metro area has eight of the eleven U.S. counties with the highest median income. It has the highest concentration of post-graduate degrees of any other area in the country. Concentrated power is harder to calculate, but just take a minute to survey the jobs of people you know - in government, in law enforcement, in policy-making, in intelligence. We are a powerful people. We’ve got cathedrals and universities and libraries to rival any other city in the world. We live in Rome.
We are the people Paul is writing to. We are Romans. So it is especially important for us to listen to what he’s saying. We are followers of Jesus. Paul says earlier in the letter, in the midst of all that theological intensity, that in our baptism we have died with Christ and been raised with him. That means that we are a different kind of people, called to live differently than the culture of the empire around us. Baptism into this kind of community includes that kind of challenge.
Back to that Ice Bucket Challenge. Did you notice how like baptism the whole phenomenon is? People getting dunked, people being challenged, the joy of community and mutuality and service spreading as quickly as wildfire? Maren Tirabassi, a UCC pastor and poet, saw the connection and wrote a poem about it. She shared this on her facebook page this week:
Ice Bucket Challenge
Maren Tirabassi, UCC Pastor & poet
Of course, they’ve borrowed
the one we let become warm
and small and personal and private
They got it right –
a big splash in front of everyone,
for the sake of those
living with ALS,
a wild, re-jordaned,
cold compassion, soaking --
holy defiant dove and all
lou gehrig’s disease.
Amen to the
celebrities and CEO’s,
the politicians and techies
and ordinary folks
who may not be our go-to saints
but teach us something
about our fonts,
and our old three-holy punch –
a bucketful of icy and shocking,
of public and embarrassing,
of siding with the healing
of someone else,
a bucketful of awkward
wet and turning
to someone we love saying –
I challenge you to live baptized.
That challenge of baptism,
to side with the healing of others,
to consider others just as important as ourselves,
to live a life that refuses to conform to the patterns of the age and the place in which we live and
to learn - through God’s transforming grace - to figure out the will of God and to respond by DOING IT -
this is not a challenge that comes to us once and for all when we leave those the waters. Living out our baptism is a constant challenge, something we get to aspire to and reach for in each moment.
Our youth heard that challenge recounted to them this summer at NYC, when Jarrod McKenna called us to live like “Dunker Punks.” Jarrod challenged us to find one or two other people and pray together daily, and he challenged us to memorize the Sermon on the Mount. These are ways to respond to the challenge. Maybe you’ll hear yourself being challenged in other ways. What does it mean for YOU, to refuse to be conformed to the world, the empire, around you and to BE TRANSFORMED?
In the spirit of the Ice Bucket Challenge, and in an effort to do good, practice joy, and challenge one another to live transformed lives, even right here in the midst of Empire, here’s your invitation: