August 7, 2016
United Church of Montbello
Romans 12: 1-2
I appeal to you therefore,
sisters and brothers, siblings and cousins, relatives,
I appeal to you therefore,
To present your bodies as a living sacrifice –
do not be conformed to this world.
These word of Paul were inscribed on me
When I was 17, on a presbytery youth work trip
To Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, TX.
The summer before, in 1986 (yes)
30 years ago this summer (yes)
God called this tender-hearted 16-year-old
Into the work of justice and dismantling oppression.
A story for another day, but suffice to say
When I said yes, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
Nevertheless, by the following summer,
When the opportunity came to see for myself
The injustice I had only heard or read about,
To put my body somewhere else,
Into a different reality other than my
relatively mainstream white southern middle-class protestant upbringing –
So that’s how I found myself on a bus
Full of Arkansas teenagers and our chaperones
Heading from Hot Springs down through Texas to the border.
Somewhere on that drive, in the middle of nowhere Texas,
We noticed something odd about one of our chaperones.
I don’t remember her name anymore,
But I remember her kind face.
I remember she worked hard.
And I remember her smile when we asked her,
“Hey. Why don’t your socks match?”
“Oh!” she said. “That’s to remind me of what Paul says in Romans,
To not be conformed to this world. It helps me remember.”
I’m not kidding, that’s what she said.
I’m sure some of my peers rolled their eyes.
But I tell you, I was caught. Intrigued.
Do not be conformed to this world?
These words of Paul lodged in my heart and resounded there
As we immersed our bodies into the reality of life on the border
Utter poverty on one side, in the shantytowns where the only water source was a stream contaminated by chemicals from a US company –
where we wore our bodies out working and playing with Mexican kids and learning
and utter comfort on the other side, in the enormous, empty white church –
where we went back each night to shower, eat, and sleep
Do not be conformed to this world, to whatever makes the world like this,
the words seems to say to me.
I could get into that.
30 years later, Romans is my favorite thing in the whole Bible,
Especially chapter 12, especially these two verses, my “life verses,”
Which for me these verses are the whole point
Paul is trying to get to in his letter.*
I appeal to you therefore, therefore,
That little word is the key that everything has been leading us here,
In this letter to a particular subgroup
In the Christ-following community in Rome.
We know from all the names listed at the end,
This community is a gathering both of folks with systemic power,
Namely Roman citizens,
And folks with less power, or none at all:
Jews, working class and poor folk, immigrants from other areas in the Empire,
Enslaved folk trying to get free.
They meet in the tenements of working people,
Not the fancy homes of the more privileged Romans.
These folks, with vulnerable status and little systemic power
Were easy targets of the empire’s oppression –
Raids on their tenement homes, unfair taxation,
Conscription into war, slavery, poor working conditions,
The imposition of Imperial cult symbols into Jewish spaces.
That’s not who Paul is talking to in this letter.
See, when Paul starts off this letter with an utter indictment
Of the Roman way, of Rome’s idolatrous worship of Caesar the creature,
Rather than the one God the Creator,
Of Rome’s devotion to violence and its insatiable machinery of death,
He’s reminding the Roman members of this community,
Those who have systemic power,
That the way of Rome is death.
It becomes clear over the course of the letter
That the Romans are bringing those Roman ways
Into the community, using their power
To claim a place of superiority and judgment and boasting over the others,
Particularly the Jewish folk.
And so Paul kind of has to put them back in their place, if you will.
Listen, he says,
The ways of Rome are sin, and death
The ways of God are life, are love,
Are liberation, are restoration
The ways of God are salvation,
RESCUE from Rome’s ways, rescue
From the empire’s idolatrous oppression
And the appearance
That Roman justice is God’s justice,**
The appearance that the Empire will save you,
The appearance that the Empire defines life and worth
The appearance that all lives matter to the Empire
To the poor, and the enslaved, and the women,
And the immigrants, and the Jews, and the workers,
Their lives do not matter,
Except to be exploited for their labor, their land, or their wealth.
Listen, Paul says to the Romans,
The middle and upper class white people of his day,
Listen, Paul the Jew says to the Romans:
Remember your place in this story.
You are joining an ages-old resistance movement,
We cut our teeth resisting Pharaoh
We practiced being faithful to God’s Way
In the face of Assyria, in the face of Babylon
They thought they killed us but We. Are. Still. Here.
That’s what you are joining, remember.
Did we always get it right? Do we? Heck no.
But remember, we know deep down in our bodies,
In the marrow of our bones,
We know a little something about how to resist Rome.
We know we are accountable to GOD
Not to Pharaoh or Babylon or Rome.
We know that being faithful to God’s way…like Jesus was
Can cause us to suffer…like Jesus did
Because we will be rejected and marginalized by the Empire.
And we are not ashamed
Because God pours Her love into to every space we root the empire out of.
And we know it’s hard, sometimes
Because even though faithfulness is something you embody,
that is, you practice God’s way, God’s love
with your body, your senses, your voice,
sometimes…sometimes we have no idea
what the right thing is to do.
Or we think we do the right thing
And it turns out to be the wrong thing.
And no, we don’t always understand what God is doing
But we trust we’ll understand it better
By and by.
We trust in God, cuz it’s God
Who works all things for good,
God who makes a way out of no way –
God who has never failed us yet –
Not Pharaoh, not Babylon, not Rome
And if God is for us?
Who can be against us?
God our Savior
God our healer
God our deliverer
And nothing, nothing
Can separate us from that power, that love
Not even the insatiable machinery of death
That is the empire.
THAT is the way you have chosen,
THAT is the love you have been baptized into,
THAT is the tree of life you have been grafted onto,
And we give every praise to our God
For ALL of this, to GOD be the glory,
He’s built it all up and here we are:
I appeal to you THEREFORE, my sisters, my brothers, my siblings and cousins,
Therefore, present your bodies as a living sacrifice
And do not be conformed to this world.
And everything that comes after this crucial point
Is a description
Of how to live out God’s values, God’s vision for us
As a human community,
A vision for the flourishing of all creation
A vision that yes, requires not conforming to the ways of the Empire
Because everything in chapter 12 and on is utterly counter to the way of Empire.
Instead of domination, share power because we all are necessary and have gifts to share.
Instead of hypocrisy, love with genuineness and affection.
Instead of violence, infuse all you do with love and care and humility.
Instead of warfare, feed your enemies.
Instead of hoarding, redistribute your wealth.
Protect each other’s dignity
Stand firm under oppression
Be in solidarity with the poor
And love, love, love.
That’s God’s way
That’s the way of flourishing.
Do not be conformed to the Empire’s way,
But give all of your selves over to God’s way…
…So, I know you’re wondering. You know what I did when I was 17?
After that trip to Mexico?
Yep. I started wearing my socks mismatched.
I wanted that reminder,
even though I didn’t yet understand
The fullness of what “do not be conformed” really meant.
I’m not sure I fully understand now – it’s a journey, right? –
But what I have figured out along the way is this:
It’s not enough to wear mismatched socks.
My friend and colleague CWJ says about this text,
“Paul’s saying, it’s not enough to say I love you
It’s not enough to say I’ll pray for you
You must DO something with your body
That is what makes it a sacrifice
A living sacrifice, that is it gives LIFE.”
Like Jesus, Who did not live a life conformed to empire
But who put his body on the line
By refusing to give up God’s way
And gave us life.
It’s not enough to wear mismatched socks.
We have to live a mismatched life.
A life, as Rev. Dr. MLK says, that is “maladjusted”***
To the ways of empire in our time.
The ways that are sin and death
The ways that are the empire’s idolatrous oppression
And the appearance
That the Empire’s justice is God’s justice,
The appearance that the Empire will save us,
The appearance that the Empire
Defines life and worth
The appearance that all lives matter to the Empire
To the poor, and the Black, and the brown, and the indigenous, and the women,
And the immigrants, and the Jews, and the Muslims, and the working class,
And the queer and trans, and the incarcerated, and the detained,
and the animals, and the land itself,
Our lives do not matter,
Except to be exploited for our labor, our land, or our wealth.
Rev. Dr. MLK says “the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.” That through “courageous maladjustment” we will find our way to freedom and justice.
We live non-conforming, mismatched, maladjusted and faithful lives
When we resist the ways Empire tries to get us to
define each other, wound each other, separate each other, fear each other —
when we resist white supremacy, capitalism, warmongering, mass incarceration,
militarization, violence, anti-immigrant fear, homophobia, colonization,
and all those ways that the Empire feeds the machinery of death.
Even when those things are embedded deep within our own bodies and minds,
because they are.
which is why Paul says
we have to DO something with our bodies
practice God’s way with our bodies
where we put them,
what we say with them
how we love with them
WHO we love with them —
It’s why we put our bodies in streets and classrooms and boardrooms
And neighborhoods and capitol buildings
And city council meetings and church meetings and school meetings
And organizing meetings and SO MANY MEETINGS
And claim with our voices, these voices that live in our bodies,
that Black Lives Matter, and Not1More Deportation,
And I love my Muslim neighbor, and refugees are welcome here.
Why we claim with our voices, even when our bodies shake,
That folks without homes should not be criminalized,
That Black boys playing with toys or walking home should not be murdered by police,
That queer folk are welcome just as they are
Why we claim with our voices
That the land is not a commodity to be extracted
But a community to which we as humans belong.
And that our bodies and minds and hearts belong to GOD
Not to capitalism to chew up and discard as if we were machines.
We present our bodies as a living sacrifice
That brings LIFE, and so doing we
Join that ages-old resistance movement, and
We teach our bodies and our minds a new way,
Rooting the Empire’s way out of our very bodies and minds,
Making more room for God inside our flesh and bones,
All with the Spirit’s help,
And Jesus’s guidance and example,
Ever proclaiming with our lips
That Jesus is lord, not Caesar,
That God provides, not the Empire
God heals, not the Empire
These are my life verses. That’s how I want to live.
And I want to tell you, I’m still trying to understand them.
And I want to tell you,
You’ve helped me to understand them a little bit more.
When I came to Montbello a year and a half ago,
I was in a place of surrender with God,
After many years of trying to live into these verses,
Basically, speaking up and putting my body where the Empire says it shouldn’t be. Nonconforming, mismatched, maladjusted.
And being marginalized and silenced and unpaid because of that.
I’m not telling you that to brag but to offer a testimony because
you know, I kept depending on the system to provide,
And I kept being disappointed.
I had finally walked away, not from God but from everything else,
and sat down in the back pew there,
You know the one I love, and wondered to God
What in the world I was supposed to do next
If the system was not going to provide for me.
One Sunday about a year ago,
I was sitting in that back pew,
And Ashlee was playing,
And the choir was singing.
“Our God is awesome.”
“Heals me when I’m broken”
Yes…yes that’s true, I’ve experienced that.
Yes, yes I’ve experienced that too, yes.
Provider? Hmmph. I don’t know about that.
But the choir kept singing it so…
Then I remembered.
God providing for me,
For so many years.
Community and mentors and
A beloved and
Food on our table
And a sanctuary to call home
Even though the system
Did not provide
We had what we needed.
Not the empire.
I may have cried in that back pew.
It wouldn’t be the last time.
Which you know is why I sit back there.
So I want to tell you,
Living and worshiping with you all this past year and a half
You taught me:
When we are in this sanctuary,
A refuge from the world that finds us
Non-conforming, mismatched, maladjusted,
Reminding ourselves of God’s vision,
To whom we belong
And who saves
And who delivers
And who heals
And who provides
And who gets every praise.
We find salvation. Rescue.
Here. We find the beloved community.
*Some sources for my understanding of Paul and Romans in particular especially include Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not a Christian; Neil Elliott’s Liberating Paul and The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire; and Elsa Tamez’s The Amnesty of Grace.
**This phrase, that I then play with, comes from Mark Nanos in his commentary on Romans in the Jewish Annotated New Testament (which is indispensable for Christian preachers and interpreters wanting to disrupt anti-Semitism and Christian supercessionism in our reading of NT texts.
***MLK apparently loved reminding folks to be maladjusted to the empire. I’ve found at least 4 speeches where he talks about this. This specific quote is from “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” in A Testament of Hope.