A Sermon On Non-Conformity and Sharing Our Diverse Gifts

Romans 12:1-8

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what God does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. 4-6 In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of Christ’s body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”

Most of us spend a great deal of time trying to fit into societal expectations and norms.  I know that “fitting in” is something that I have wrestled with in my own life, especially when it came to my pastoral call.

I tend to look at my pastoral calling with a bit of humor.  I mean, I didn’t expect to become a pastor and, if you look at the demographics of pastors in American Baptist Churches, I as a young woman in my twenties am in the minority.

When I was a senior in college, I began my process of discernment.  I had originally wanted to become a pastoral counselor and decided to get my social work and divinity degree from Boston University.

Yet, I wondered, was God calling me to something more?

I lived abroad in France my last semester in college.  When I was in France, I met two American guys who were Latter Day Saints and in France as part of their mission year.  They met with me every week to convert me and I met with them because I found it interesting to learn about their faith and enjoyed spending time with my fellow Americans.

When they found out that I was going to get a divinity degree, they became worried and consulted their supervisor.  The next time, they came back and let me know that it was okay to get the degree but that I should never become ordained because I was a woman.

The next year, I found myself in graduate school interning at a day shelter for homeless women.  I loved the work but felt called to something more.

The problem was, I found out, that I had certain stereotypes about what ministry should be.  To me, ministry was a middle aged man standing behind a pulpit and ministry was confined to a church building on Sundays.  “What about my homeless friends and my friends in the community?  Could ministry include them?”  I wondered.  The problem was that I couldn’t yet see myself behind that pulpit.  I was diverse. I was different.  I did not conform to what I expected a pastor to be.

In sum, I did not fit in a box.

What I experienced on an individual level is what we experience every day on a communal level.  Everyday society is pressuring us act and look a certain way.  Societal expectations want us to contort ourselves and our lives into unnatural shapes until we fit in nice, neat boxes.

What boxes do you find yourselves placed into?  Perhaps they are boxes that tell you that you have to act or look a certain way in order to be beautiful or successful.  Perhaps they are boxes that tell you how to look or act based on your age or family situation.  Perhaps they are boxes based on what all your neighbors do or what your friends or family expect of you.

People aren’t the only one who try to fit in, churches do it too.  I heard about a fellow who attended a mega church – one of those churches with thousands of members.  The fellow volunteered to be an usher and show people to their seats. He did it for a couple of weeks until the head usher finally took him aside and told him that he was doing it wrong.  You see, the church televised their services and he was supposed to put the more “pleasant-looking people” up front, so that when the minister wandered around during the sermon, only the good-looking people would be featured.

Apparently the church had paid attention to what makes for a successful television show and that’s having a lot of beautiful people appear on the screen.  And so the church wanted to fit in with what they thought people were looking for.

They contorted their godly identity to fit in a box.

Sometimes with all the contorting and forcing ourselves in boxes, we miss the voice of God.  That is the experience that the early Roman house churches had.  Paul writes to them today because the local Roman Jesus followers had been putting each other in boxes labeled “Jew” and “Gentile”.  The tension between these groups had been present in the Jesus movement since the beginning.  Jewish Jesus followers often maintained their Jewish practices of circumcision, worshiping on Saturday or following specific dietary rules.  Their practices clashed sharply with the Gentile or non-Jewish Jesus followers who did not hold such practices.

In Rome, these tensions were particularly rocky because, in the late 40s AD, a riot had occurred in Rome and, as a result, then-Emperor Claudis kicked out all the Jews in Rome.  For the following years, the Gentiles had become accustomed to worshiping by themselves.

Then, years later, a new emperor came to power rescinded the rules of Emperor Claudis, inviting all the Jews back home.  When the Jewish Jesus followers returned to their house churches, tempers flared.  The Gentiles, who had been worshipping there all along, thought of themselves as superior. The Jews, on the other hand, thought that the fact that they were descended from Abraham and Sarah meant that they were superior in the eyes of God. (Source: New Interpreters Bible)

From Paul’s writings, it seems that both groups were so busy trying to stuff and contort their bodies into boxes labeled “holy than thou” and “superior” and “closest to God” that they became distracted from listening to the voice of God.

And it is into these circumstances that Paul writes.  Paul tells them, “Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit in without thinking.  Instead, fix your attention on God.”  In other words, don’t because so focused on cultural values of status and importance that you lose sight of the Holy One.

Paul continues writing, call them to maturity, “Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.|”   Here Paul uses maturity to mean knowing who we are, what our abilities are and how to use them for good.  Paul continues on to celebrate the gifts in the Roman house churches.  Paul writes,

“We are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the whole … so since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”

In other words, Paul is calling the Romans beyond conformity to wild diversity.  Paul calls the congregation members to live into their uniqueness and place their “gifts that differ” as an offering before God.

What Paul is getting at is that sometimes we become so consumed with keeping up the Jones or being the Jones that we fail to realize that the world does not need more of the Jones … the world needs us and our unique gifts.

God calls us not to conform to the world’s cookie cutter ideas but to be ourselves, diversity and all.   This is what I slowly began to realize as I wrestled with my call to ministry.   I had struggled so much because, at first, I had thought it was a call to be like somebody else, to be like the ministers I had created in my head – ministers whose only work was behind the pulpit, ministers who did not talk or look like me.  Yet slowly it began to dawn on me that God was calling me, not to fit in a box, but rather – the complete opposite — to place the fullness of who I was as an offering before God.

Whereas before I wondered how I might honor my dual gifts of preaching and social action, of pastoral work and community work, I came to realize that my gifts were not feuding vocations within my soul but rather a united calling pointing me in the direction of the church.  God was calling me, Joy Perkett, to congregational ministry.

That’s the surprise of God’s call – that in the end, God is not calling us to be something we are not but rather is calling us to share the gifts we have.  God calls us to say yes I am Mary or Mark or Susan or Laurie and this is what I have to contribute.  No, these gifts are not like my neighbor’s but they are my own and are an important part of the body of Christ.

The beauty of our church is that we celebrate a diversity of people and gifts – we celebrate gardeners and builders, jam makers and prayers, planners and singers, musicians and financial experts, dreamers and trouble makers, volunteers and amazing cooks.  Every one of these gifts is needed for the body of Christ.  Paul celebrates the variety of gifts within the body and also invites us to dig down deeper.  Paul invites us to place our lives in its fullness as an offering before God.

The invitation begs the question: what are our gifts?  How might we use them?  How might we offer them up to God?

This invitation to offer our gifts to God is a challenging one.  The invitation calls us to climb out of our box of our norms and expectations and begin to discern for ourselves where God is calling us. One church struggled with it for many years.  Not quite sure what to do, Gladwyne church made the official decision that they would “share their gifts!”  and make a concerted effort to increase personal participation in mission projects.

The first year, they did this by selecting three mission opportunities, making colorful posters, writing engaging newsletters and preaching excellent sermons on the topic.

All their efforts were fruitless.  People were not participating.

The second year the church chose its mission sites much more carefully.  Again, they made colorful posters and wrote thoughtful newsletters.  Again, participation did not increase.

When they met for the third year, Joe, the chairman of the mission committee, suddenly exclaimed, “We’re taking the wrong approach.  We’re trying to be an airline when we should be building an airport.”  “What are you talking about?” Someone asked.  “An airline,” he explains, “tries to coax as many passengers into a limited number of flights headed to a limited number of destinations.  If your destination is not on the list, you don’t use that airline.  And airport, on the other hand, seeks to provide a setting for many different airlines headed to a variety of destinations.”  The problem was, Joe explained, that the committee had been picked destinations that did not match the gifts and graces of the members.  So the third year, the committee decided not to choose sites or projects for mission involvement but simply asked all members of the congregation to pray and reflect to discern where inner purpose and passion to serve stirred in them.  Resources were made available.  Sharing was encouraged.  After a period of listening, people began to speak.  One women stood up and discerned a call to work with those with AIDS and invited those interested to meet her after the service over a cup of coffee.  To her surprise, eight people joined her.  One person said, I could not wait for the sermon and postlude to end so I could come join this conversation.  Other people launched initiatives related to homelessness and gardening and education and art.  After giving up on forcing the congregation to fit into the boxes that they had constructed, the church found a way to celebrate the fullness of its members and their gifts and graces. (Source: Recovering the Sacred Center)

That fullness is what Paul invites us to.  Paul invites us to come out of the boxes that we have found ourselves stuffed in and to claim the fullness of our identity and giftedness.  The beauty of FBC is that we have many gifts and every one of these gifts is needed for the functioning of the body.  Paul invites us always to go deeper, to discern again how we might use our gifts to serve those in our church, in our community, in our world.

And so let us pray for guidance as we offer our gifts and our lives to God.

Amen.

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