Rev. Dave Kovalow-St. John — 8/30/20 — Romans 12:1-8
I’ve told you before that my mother was a fairly negative woman. (If you listen hard, you can hear my wife – in spite of her mask and distance – saying, “What do you mean, ‘FAIRLY’?!”) Mom loved me I know, but one way she expressed her love was by giving me articles when I was barely old enough to read that warned about how bad the world in general, and men in particular, could be.
For breakfast, instead of the back of a box of cereal, I got to read how children were starving in China. If we took a vacation to the Redwood Forest, she’d find a brochure from the Sierra Club on how clear cutting was denuding the Rockies. And if I was blissfully watching “Gilligan’s Island” – wondering why the Professor could build a radio out of a palm leaf and two coconuts, but couldn’t repair a boat – mom would hand me an article on how television is rotting the minds of America’s youth.
Mind you, there were a lot of facts behind what she gave me, but if you asked her “why only negative stuff?” she’d say something like, “People need to get out of their ivory towers and into the real world.”
You didn’t know my mom, but I bet you’ve heard that argument. It’s not often applied to children, since a lot of people LIKE to keep things positive for them. But it’s often aimed at Christians in general and preachers in particular. The idea is: if we Christians could only accept the “real world” and “face facts,” we would see things differently.
But to ask that of us is to beg the question: what is the “real world” to which we’re being asked to adjust? Is the “real world” one in which a 17-year-old vigilante stands accused of killing two peaceful protesters and wounding a third? That happened, but are horrible things all we need know if we want to understand our world?
You can ask the same question in reverse. Are good things all we need to know to understand our world, or is that too childish? I watched the 2020 political conventions – both of them cherry-picked reality to put their party and candidate in the absolute best possible light.
Years ago, I saw the movie Crazy People. It wasn’t Academy Award worthy, but the thesis was pretty hilarious. Patients in a mental hospital, through a weird turn of events, were given high-paying jobs in the advertising industry because, being crazy, they didn’t know any better than to design advertisements that told the unvarnished truth. “Volvos: They’re Boxy, But They’re Good.” “Metamucil: It Helps You Go To The Toilet and If You Don’t Use It, You’ll Get Cancer and Die.” Or (what would have been my mother’s favorite), “John Hancock Life Insurance: We know you love him, but if he happens to die, we give you two Mercedes and a summer home. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
In the movie, the American public, having been told lies for so long, hears those truthful advertisements as something novel and wonderfully appealing.
In our Scripture reading, Paul said, “Because of God’s mercies…, 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” (Rom. 12:1-2).
I think he was saying: You and I, as people privileged to know the truth of what God has done in Christ, can no longer operate by the rules of the unreal world most people take as normal. Instead, let’s live in the TRULY real world – the world to which Christ has come – and let’s conduct ourselves in that world as his disciples.
As a church, one of our main goals is to encourage each other to offer (or “sacrifice”) ourselves to God—body, soul, and mind—not by giving up our lives, but by LIVING in God’s world – the truly real world – in a way that gives God joy.
Now, much of the rest of humanity wants to get us to live in a very different world, the old world they’ve passed off as normal. The goal of advertisements, Political Conventions, Hollywood, MSNBC, Fox News and the rest is to convince us their reality IS reality. They want us living by their standards of what’s important, what we should ignore, what we should value.
In the late 1970’s, Bob Dylan converted to Christianity for about three seconds, and during that time he wrote a song, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Harvard theology professor Dr. Paul Tillich didn’t have as many popular songs as Dylan, but he got at much the same thing when he said everyone serves his or her “Ultimate Concern.” The object of that concern is felt to be so overwhelming and valuable that all else seems insignificant, and for this reason requires total surrender.
For the addict, their ultimate concern is whatever they’re addicted to – they’ll tell you they CARE about other things. They may love their children, root for the Cubs, and get a kick out of petting puppies, but everything takes a back seat to the next fix.
Other people have more laudable ultimate concerns: their family or their country. And for many, especially in independent, freedom loving America, their ultimate concern is themselves. They’ll say, “I think for myself, I make up my own mind. I look out for number one.” It sounds okay, but reminds me of lyrics by another famous songwriter, “I am a rock, I am an island. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain…. A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” Putting yourself first can be very lonely.
Each of those ultimate concerns, the good and the not-so-good, are what the Apostle Paul would call “worldly.” Most of are conventional, even socially acceptable, and usually considered normal. But in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has flipped normal on its head.
The Apostle reminds us that a powerless young Jew turned the world upside down by embodying God’s love. In the face of the self-serving spirit of all things worldly, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the Gospel will save it.”
The world may teach us to say, “I love those who love me. Everyone else can eat my dust.” Jesus says, “Love your neighbor” (even if they are Samaritans). “Pray for your persecutors” (even if they nail you to a tree).
What he said wasn’t normal, not the way the world defines normal. And it was bad enough when he only said stuff like that. He also went around healing and feeding people without charging a dime, and he chastised pious people for memorizing the Bible, but ignoring the poor.
He even told the rich and powerful that riches and power were NOT signs of God’s favor. In fact, there is a special place in God’s heart for the hungry, the thirsty, foreigners from strange lands, the sick and imprisoned…, the least of these.
I mean, holy cow! No wonder they got rid of him. His “facts” didn’t hold muster. The world was better off with him dead, ‘cause if there’s one thing the world knows, it’s that death puts a permanent end to such foolish abnormality.
However, you and I know – to quote the famous theologian, Gracie Allen (who I just this week discovered once ran for president) – it is never wise to put a period where God has placed a comma.
Even as Jesus’ few remaining followers were clinging to each other around a simple table, paralyzed by fear, he returned in power, having walked into the jaws of “normality,” pulled its teeth, and turned the old world upside down.
The once disheartened disciples exploded outward, saying, “It’s a whole new world! Wake up! Death loses! God wins!”
When the power of life appeared in that humble Jew from Nazareth, systemic normality—to which we’re always in danger of conforming—was thrown in disarray. Jesus called each one of us to accept transformation; to let our fingers, give up their death grip on the status quo of self-centeredness, bitterness, greed, pride…, fear.
Let me end with one of my favorite stories about what a non-conforming, transformed life might do. It’s a true story about my favorite social activist-slash-sociology professor, Tony Campolo.
Tony gets invited to speak all over the world, and this particular time he flew from Pennsylvania to address a conference in Hawaii. Jetlag for that trip is brutal. When he arrived, he was hungry and couldn’t sleep. But it was 3:00 a.m., and the only place open was a grungy dive in an alley two blocks from his hotel. Tony says he sat at the counter munching a donut and sipping coffee, when in walked eight prostitutes just finished with the night’s work. They sat at the counter and Tony (who’s also a part time American Baptist minister) says, “There we were – eight prostitutes…and me!”
Well, he finished his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway, when he heard the woman next to him say to her friend, “Know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” Her friend replied nastily: “So? What do you want? A birthday party?” The first woman said, “Come on, why you gotta be so mean? I’m just saying it’s my birthday. I never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why would I expect one now?”
Well, that gave Tony an idea. Instead of running off, he sat and waited until the women left; then asked the guy at the counter, “Do they come in every night?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“The one right next to me,” he asked, “she comes in every night?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Here every night. Been coming for years. Why you want to know?”
“Well,” said Tony, “She said tomorrow is her birthday. I’ve got nothing to do except a two hour conference tomorrow. Just for fun, you think maybe you and I could throw a little party for her right here in the diner?”
A smile crept over the man’s face. “Hey, that is a great idea, I like it!”
So, they made plans. Tony said he’d be back at 2:30 the next morning with decorations and the man, whose name was Harry, said he’d make a cake. At 2:30 the next morning, Tony returned with ribbons and a sign that said, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Together, they decorated the diner from one end to the other and even with harsh street lights glaring in, it looked – well, better. Harry had gotten the word out and by 3:15 half the prostitutes in Honolulu were in the place. At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open; in walked Agnes.
Everybody yelled: “Happy Birthday!” Flabbergasted, Agnes’s mouth dropped open, her knees started to buckle, she almost fell over. And when the birthday cake came out, she totally lost it and began crying. She barely managed to blow out the candles. Everyone sang and cheered, “Cut the cake, Agnes!”
She looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly said, “Harry, is it all right if…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? I want to share it with mom and my kids.” Harry didn’t know what to say so he shrugged and said, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.” Tony says Agnes got off her stool, picked up the cake, and carried it out like it was the Holy Grail. Everyone watched in stunned silence. When the door closed, nobody knew what to do. They looked at each other. Then they looked at Tony. So Tony got up on a chair and said, “What do you say we pray?” And there they were in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to the Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo pray for Agnes.
When he finished, Harry leaned over, with a slight trace of hostility in his voice, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
Tony says it was one of those times when just the right words came. He said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry thought a second, and in a mocking way said, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join. Yeah, I’d join a church like that.”
Tony answered, “There is a church like that, Harry. It was started by a man named Jesus, a man who showed us a whole new world…. Amen.