A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 24, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Mister Rogers

My hero, Mister Rogers, told me he liked me just the way I am.  Paul, it seems, wants me to change.  Be transformed, he says.  “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.”

When I think back to what it was like to be a teenager, I grimace.  There was this part of me that longed to define myself, to show that I am an individual, separate – especially separate from my parents.  There was also part of me that desperately wanted to fit in.  These dual desires are pretty typical for teens.  In preparation for launching into adulthood, teens individuate and seek out peer groups to help with that individuation.  Amusingly, those peer groups typically demand significant conformity.

“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.”

I don’t remember who it was who pointed it out to me, but the gay rights movement of the past couple decades has been very conformist.  In an effort to gain full equality and cultural acceptance, the gay rights movement has focused on two conservative institutions:  the military and marriage.  How much more conformist can you be than to ask to be able to serve in the military and to get married?  I find it interesting that in being allowed that conformity, the equal rights movement is transforming society.  I would even go so far as to say that in that transformation, society is discerning the will of God in terms of equality and inclusion.

Paul, I think, would have been surprised by the effectiveness of this strategy of transformation through conformity.  It is unusual.  Typically, transformation happens when we open ourselves to values and ethics and norms that are different from those that are in the ether of our upbringing.  Typically, transformation happens by the rejection of conforming to the values, ethics, and norms of the culture that are not in keeping with the gospel.

As I thought about the non-gospel values, ethics, and norms that this world of the United States pushes us to conform to, I rather quickly identified three:  The myth of redemptive violence, the myth of redemptive accumulation, and the lie of white-skin privilege.

I spoke about the myth of redemptive violence last week.  It’s the myth that says violence can save us.  It’s a myth, and not an outright lie, because violence can, in a moment, save us.  Violence can in some circumstances, keep us alive and protect us from violence coming from another source.  But it won’t ultimately save us because violence begets violence and plunges us deeper into a cycle that ends in death.

This myth is so prevalent, so powerful across time that it has led to a misinterpretation of the salvific nature of the cross.  The bulk of Christianity has come to preach that it is through the blood sacrifice of Jesus that we are saved, that the violence of the crucifixion has satisfied some blood-lust on the part of God.  How ironic, when one of the very things Jesus sought to expose was the fallacy of the myth of redemptive violence.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, Peter says, “You are the Messiah.”  Another translation for the Greek is, “You are the Christ.”  Jesus compliments Peter on his wisdom.  We hear all that in today’s reading from Matthew.  If we kept reading, we’d hear Jesus tell his disciples that being the Messiah means:  going to Jerusalem, confronting the principalities and power, and being killed.

Peter’s response to this, we’d hear, is essentially, “No way!  Ain’t gonna let that happen!”  The Messiah can’t be killed.  The Messiah, conventional wisdom held, would raise up an army and save the Jews by violently overthrowing their Roman oppressors.

Yep, the myth of redemptive violence at work.  Jesus says “no” to this myth.  “Get behind me Satan,” he says to Peter.  Don’t tempt me with this myth.

The cross isn’t salvific because of the violent death of Jesus.  It is salvific because it shows us the path to love and the power of love to conquer the cult of violence.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul writes to the Romans.  A living sacrifice.  The whole system of offering animal sacrifices – be it an ancient Jewish system, an ancient Aztec system, or any other cultural system – is built on the myth of redemptive violence.  We will violently kill to appease God or the gods.  Violence will save us.

Paul tells the Roman Christians to reject that sacrificial system, the system that requires violence, and to adopt one that requires life.  I’ll unpack what that means a little more later.  For now, it is enough to say that a living sacrifice rejects the myth of redemptive violence.

Another value or norm that this world of the United States pushes on people is the myth of redemptive accumulation.  This is a culturally operative myth that I identified in January.  Like the myth of redemptive violence, it has a kernel of truth to it, keeping it from being an outright lie.  We need to accumulate enough food and water to survive, enough clothing to stay warm, enough shelter to stay dry.  If we don’t accumulate anything, we will die, so accumulating some things will save us.

But the myth of redemptive accumulation says that we need to keep accumulating in order to be saved.  The myth of redemptive accumulation says enough is never enough.  And so we accumulate stuff, and we accumulate wealth.

A quote attributed to someone named “B. Lester” (no idea who this might be) sticks in my mind:  “If a man has an apartment stacked to the ceiling with newspapers, we call him crazy.  If a woman has a trailer house full of cats, we call her nuts.  But when people pathologically hoard so much cash that they impoverish the entire nation, we put them on the cover of Fortune magazine and pretend that they are role models.”[1]

Robert Reich seems to have bought into this myth.  You may remember him as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.  He’s currently a professor at UC Berkeley.  And just about a year ago, he released a movie, “Inequality for All.”  His movie points out the threats income and wealth inequality pose to our democracy, points I agree with.

His solution to that inequality buys right into the myth of redemptive accumulation.  Reich says we need to restore an economic cycle he calls it a “cycle of virtue” or (something close to that).  He says in the movie, essentially, if we could get back onto this cycle, it would help restore equality (and reduce the threat inequality poses to our democracy).  The elements of the cycle are (as best I can remember):
> workers are paid a decent wage
> workers spend money consuming and accumulating more stuff
> this creates income for businesses
> businesses pay more taxes
> government invests in education, etc.
> this produces more skilled workers
> skilled workers are paid an even more decent wage
> they go out and spend money consuming and accumulating more stuff
> etc.

You see how his plan buys right into the myth of redemptive accumulation?  It relies on consumption and accumulation, and consumption and accumulation will not save us.  In fact, consumption and accumulation are destroying the environment and contributing to climate change – which itself is a huge threat to the economy.  (I suspect climate change is also a threat to economic equality and even to democracy, but we won’t go there this morning.)

On the other hand, we have Jesus’ ethics, which are opposed to the myth of redemptive accumulation.  Think of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about not worrying about what you will eat or wear.  Think about the parables he told about the foolish farmer who stored up his harvest in huge barns only to die before he could use it.  Think of his invitation to the rich young man to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him.  Think about his admonition for us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth, where thieves cannot steal and rust cannot destroy.

Jesus’ ethics come right out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I’ve preached a whole sermon series on Sabbath economics.  One of the main points is that the Sabbath day of rest is a reminder that God provides enough.  We don’t have to work seven days a week, like we did when we were slaves in Egypt.  We can take a day off and there will still be enough.

The myth of redemptive accumulation tries to get us to conform to it.  It’s something Paul asks us to refuse to adopt and instead be transformed so that we may discern the will of God.

The third ethic or norm that this world of the United States pushes us to conform to is white-skin privilege.  It’s not value of this country, but it is a norm.  It is an operative ethic, denied officially, but still lived by.

Rapper Nelly joins demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown

We have all heard over the past two weeks about the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting not just Michael Brown’s death, but the reality of racism, too.  That’s because the Michael Brown’s death did not happen in a vacuum.  He was shot in a society that sees black lives as less valuable than white lives.  He was shot in a community that has a long history of racial segregation.[2]  He was shot in a society where there is a new Jim Crow and it lives in the criminal justice system.[3]  He was shot in a society where poverty and race are intertwined, and as Robert Reich points out, poverty denies democracy.

Our conformity to the norm of racism can be subtle.  For instance, when we defend Michael Brown as “a good kid,” and therefore someone who shouldn’t have been shot, we’re missing the point.  Yes, “Michael Brown was a good kid, by accounts of those who knew him during his short life.  But that’s not why his death is tragic.  His death isn’t tragic because he was a sweet kid on his way to college next week.  His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered.  The Good Kid narrative might provoke some sympathy but what it really does is support the lie that as a rule black people, black men in particular, have a norm of violence or criminal behavior.  The Good Kid narrative says that this kid didn’t deserve to die because his goodness was the exception to the rule.  This is wrong.  This kid didn’t deserve to die because he was a human being and black lives matter.”[4]

“Brothers and sister, by the mercies of God, 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.”  If we are to be a living sacrifice, then this isn’t just about the ethics and values and norms we say we adopt.  It’s about how we live our lives.  It’s about our physical beings and discerning and living into the will of God.  It’s about the choices we make.

Paul goes on to talk about how we all have different gifts to use as living sacrifices.  We all have different gifts to use for the good of the whole, to use to fulfill the will of God.  Now, some gifts put us in the spotlight.  Paul warns us, we shouldn’t think of ourselves more highly that we ought.  We shouldn’t think that we’re “more than.”  It’s okay to think that we’re “all that,” just not more “all that” than anyone else.  The implication is that all of us shouldn’t think of ourselves too lowly, either.  “Oh, I’m not important” is a lie.

The reality is, we need each other.  Especially if we’re going to live, not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, we need each other.  Like teenagers, we need a place where we belong, where living according to these counter-cultural values, ethics, and norms isn’t so much work, like it is out there.

Back a couple months ago when I felt called to this scripture, I thought I’d have some great insight about how God works transformation in our lives.  I hoped I’d come up with a sermon that would tell you all about allowing God to transform your minds so you didn’t conform to the world.

Sorry.

I’ve come to the conclusion that being transformed is largely our work.  It’s our work to figure out, to discern the values, ethics, and norms of our cultures that go against the way of Jesus, and to reject them, so we can be transformed by the values, ethics, and norms of the Jesus Way.

I talked about three that we need to reject so that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  There are lots more.  And I’ll tell you:  the one I’m most concerned about is the one that I’m not aware of.  Just like I didn’t get what racism is until I understood it as institutionalized white-skin privilege, I suspect there’s some part of the world that I’m conforming to that’s getting in the way of discerning the will of God.

I want to live the Jesus Way because, like Peter, I say that Jesus is the Christ.  But that profession is not enough.  Saying “Jesus is Christ,” or “Jesus is Messiah,” or “Jesus is Lord,” is not enough.  It needs to lead to us being transformed, and in that transformation, to live according to the will of God.

Amen.

[1] From The Christian Left’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/TheChristianLeft/posts/264963140192497 (posted 11 September 2011).

[2] One place where you can learn more about the racialized history of Ferguson is David Von Drehle, “The Long, Tangled Roots of the Michael Brown Shooting,” Time, http://time.com/3104128/michael-brown-ferguson-cop-shooting-protests/ (posted 12 August 2014).

[3] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2010).  More information at http://newjimcrow.com.

[4] Janee Woods, “12 things white people can do now because Ferguson,” Quartz, http://qz.com/250701/12-things-white-people-can-do-now-because-ferguson/ (posted 17 August 2014; accessed 22 August 2014).  See also, Jasmine Banks, “Black Kids Don’t Have to Be College-Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic,” The Root, http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/08/michael_brown_and_our_obsession_with_respectable_black_victims.html (posted 12 August 2014).

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