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 – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Preached on Sunday, August 27, 2017)
One of the stories to come out of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the dismantling of the racist system of apartheid was about a man who confessed to shooting a young man and then laughing while he and his drunken secret police friends bound the young man’s body. Then he and the police returned to the young man’s home, dragged out the young man’s father and shot him in front of his wife, forcing her to watch as they dragged away his body. Now, 18 years later, he confessed his crimes before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The horrified court sat in silence as one of the judges asked this old woman, “What would you like to see done to this man who has committed this crime?” The woman, who was both a grieving mother and a grieving widow, said softly, “This man has taken away from me all I had! But he has not taken away all of my ability to love. I want him to gather up some of the dirt from where my husband was buried. And I want him to visit me twice a month.”
Was justice done? After all, justice is what we think was due the woman and what is necessary to set the world back into balance when horrible acts are done. But the truth is: justice is tough to achieve. In this case something happened that was much greater than justice. That woman showed before the world the power of love.
Justice, fairness may be a worthy human goal, but how does God look at things? Justice may be less than the fullness of God’s expectation for us and for our world. What if God’s goal for us and our world is greater than the attainment of justice, as noble a goal as that may be? What if God’s goal is nothing less than love?
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:2: 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 – what is good and acceptable and perfect. The pattern of this world in which we live as citizens of the United States has been tainted from its very beginning by the overt evils of slavery, Jim Crow laws (our own form of apartheid) enacted and enforced for a hundred years after the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation which ended slavery, red-lining banking practices which continued to create segregated neighborhoods, unjust mass incarceration of people of color – particularly African Americans – and by thousands of less definable but still very real systemic injustices that take shape in everything from civil laws to the religious sanctioning of hatred by so-called Christian preachers.
For many of us, that is to say we who by the random luck of our DNA and birth as white people, we have largely lived in ignorance of all of this, perhaps even willful ignorance of it, preferring to believe that we are citizens of an exceptional and unquestionably moral society where only evil gets punished and “bad people” penalized. This pattern, this morally corrupt presumption, puts our nation and our society in a place of honor that only God should rightly occupy. Further, the myth of our perfection and superiority prevents us from engaging in the honest self-reflection that leads to repentance and the renewal of our collective mind so that we can know what is good, acceptable, and perfect. To be thus transformed creates space for values and actions that support a more just society and nation.
If we are to live faithfully, not conformed to the pattern of this world, fraught as it is with the original sin of racism, we must lay our minds and our hearts open to the piercing love of God who bids us to live as disciples of Jesus in “spirit and in truth.” Spirit strengthens us and urges us on while the truth sets us free – both spirit and truth are gifts of God for a moment such as this.
None of this is easy to face or to achieve. Will we ever achieve justice? Probably not. After all, what would justice look like after over 300 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow laws and, even after the Civil Rights achievements of the 1960’s continuing racism that still eats at the core of our society? What possible reparations or actions, repentance and forgiveness, will truly balance the scales of justice for all that history?
But love – the love of God which faces honestly all the evil, hurt, hatred, pain, suffering, horror, and ugliness and still accepts, still forgives, still loves, with overflowing grace – that might be possible. And that might just begin to transform our minds, transform us, transform our lives and even transform the world. That is what Paul is calling us to imagine. But even more than imagine, to begin to live into. And the way he calls us to do so is not on our own by our superhuman strength, but in community – by building a community of honesty.
The first step in building a community of honesty begins with me. I need to understand that I must start with myself – my attitudes, my actions, my understandings, my prejudices. I must acknowledge that I am part of the problem AND part of the solution, not just the person sitting next to me. Each of us needs to cultivate a healthy sense of humility. As Paul points out in verse 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. Notice Paul approaches this challenge with humility himself, acknowledging he can only bring this up because of the grace he has received from God. He also acknowledges how difficult this step is for us and that it is only possible because God gives us the faith to be humble.
Honesty and truthfulness must begin at home. To begin truthful living I must make regular, honest confession – not a catalog of my bad deeds or a public admission of a lie – but a personal reflection about how my attitudes, prejudices, words, deeds, and truth line up. The first step is to examine my life and make that examination concrete. In our current climate, for many of us, that must include an examination of our own white privilege – how we have benefitted, with knowledge and without knowledge – simply by being white in this nation – over and to the detriment of our brothers and sisters of color.
A second, deeper, more powerful step, is to find one other person, a close friend, pastor, counselor, someone I can trust completely, with whom I can then share my confession. That person can help me reflect on the truth I am living and help me begin to be transformed by the grace and forgiveness of God.
As I cultivate this attitude of humility in myself, it will lead me to a deeper respect for other people. From a position of humility I begin to see that each person I meet is also a child of God, just like me, and a bearer of Christ. As I begin to recognize this truth about each person around me, I realize that if I do not show respect for them in my actions and attitude, then I am not showing respect for Christ and for God. The way I do that is as Paul teaches: love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor … Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
These are just some of the practices which help us build a community of honesty. And in community is the only way we can truly hope to be transformed and no longer conform to this world. But there is one more practice vitally important to building this community which Paul does not address: the practice of forgiveness. For the truth of life in community is that none of us every live out those other practices perfectly and there are times we hurt one another.
In monasteries, one of the most intimate, close forms of living in community, the monks understand the importance of forgiveness. To help them remember how important it is they maintain a practice of saying out loud, in community gathering, twice a day, the Lord’s Prayer, primarily because of the phrase about forgiving one another. Twice a day the monks make this pledge to forgive, as they have been forgiven. By doing this they are recommitting themselves to a practice of continual forgiveness as an integral part of their daily life. It is a necessary practice for building a community of honesty.
Jean Vanier, the founder of l’Arche communities has said: One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing. Together, as we build a community of honesty, we offer ourselves the best possibility of growing in the love of God – the love which can transform our minds, our hearts, our lives, and even the world.