Saturday, August 27, 2005

Proper A16 Be Not Conformed

I was watching “Good Times” on television today. The episode showed James stumbling upon a large sum of cash that had been lost by the local convenience store. After he returned the cash, he was shown on the news as a “local hero,” but the family’s neighbors didn’t think so highly of his decision. (It turns out that the grocer who lost the money has a bad reputation around town.) Amidst the ridicule among the neighbors, James reveals that he has kept a portion of the sum of money that he found, and a disagreement erupts between James and Florida. James insists that they need the money more than the corrupt grocer anyway, and Florida argues that their family can’t afford to steal. The program ends with Florida’s beautiful summary of Paul’s text today. James tells her, “You know what Florida, It’s a cold world out there, and we can’t change it!” Florida responds, “Well maybe we can’t change it James, but we sure can keep it from changing us!”
The subject of Christ and culture has perplexed most of us who practice the faith over the past century. Theologians have written classics texts taught in most seminaries like, “Christ and Culture,” and most parishioners have also felt the struggle between what is demanded of us by our faith versus what is demanded of us by our culture. Perhaps it is familiar to us, sitting in the comparative lap of luxury, to understand the severity of the position of the church in Rome. Although the church was persecuted, many of the believers in Rome came from privilege. Paul, himself a Roman, knew the persuasive pull of “just fitting in.” Indeed, he was able to use his status as a Roman citizen on more than one occasion in order to get out of a jam. Yet, he was unmistakably opposed to the Christian church “conforming” to what it meant to be a Roman. It was indeed a cold world out there, and Paul knew his people could keep it from changing them. Instead, Christians astounded the culture in which they dwelt by their uncompromising warmth. One of the earliest known mentions by an “outsider” in historical record of the Christian movement was, “Look at those Christians, see how they love one another!” Early Christians in Rome were known to shun the gladiator games (even before they were being slaughtered at them). Also, when epidemics would hit the city, and most of the people who could leave and avoid the contagious illnesses, Christians were known to stay in the cities and care for the sick and dying. Their faith was counter-cultural in that they were consciously striving to imitate Christ—which meant they put themselves on the line to show Christ’s love to the world.
How do we witness to Christ’s love in this modern day Empire? How do we know what to avoid and what to utilize in order to magnify Christ’s presence in the world?
The renewing of our minds is a stance against the stale conformity to the hollowness of this culture. The impulse we feel perpetuated by “this world” may be to conform to the givens. However, God’s vision for the future is often not couched in our expectations, but in an original creativity. When I was an assistant chaplain at Occidental college in Los Angeles, I created a student discussion group called “Spirituality in the Age of Consumerism.” It seems that many young people in this day and age feel not only opportunity, but constraint by the enormity of the “information age.” Most of us have absorbed to a certain extent the mantra of this culture. Though it may feel like the ultimate freedom, we are becoming more and more indentured to the God of mammon—the God of wealth. Did you know that the average child is bombarded by ……………………..put stats in here about advertising………………The point of consumer culture is that we aren’t ________enough without any given product. It may be blatant, or it may be couched in a tremendous amount of glitter, but the point is usually the same: we are told an enormous amount of times that we need what “they” can give us in order to be happy, better, prettier, healthier, etc. etc. etc.
How do we break the mold? How do we “become transformed by the renewing of our minds?”
Most of us live our lives as if we are on a rote schedule. Opening ourselves to the magnitude of the present moment is difficult because of the sheer gravity of what each moment contains. If we are to be guided by the God’s persuasion though, we must develop a discipline of “renewing our minds” through the discipline of meditation and contemplation. This takes time, energy, and concentration. Though the “cold world out there” is more than willing to offer us a sedative to deaden God’sr pull toward genuine creativity, the legacy of Christ is to rise above these distractions in order to perceive and make real the kingdom of God.
The Gospel message today contained those penetrating words, “Who do you say that I am?” The question of Jesus’ identity is as up in the air in this day and age as it was when Christ asked the question to his original disciples.
The Gospel passage also considers the influence of the world around us on our relationship with God. Jesus first asks his disciples about what the world thinks about him. “Who do they say I am,” he asks. They reply with the rumors—some spectacular, but none quite spectacular enough. Then he turns to them and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The question begs for internalization. Matthew undoubtedly points the question at the hearers of the Gospel. The message is clear—it’s not what the world thinks about this man, it is about our own confession. Our culture may pigeonhole Jesus in a particular political party. It may claim that he hates certain kinds of people because of who they may love. Whatever the world claims Jesus is, this passage asks us instead to go inside our hearts and see what the Christ is to our own experience.
Jesus praises Peter’s answer not because he got the right answer on a multiple choice pop quiz. He praises Peter because he gives answers Jesus with divine inspiration, not the conventional wisdom. Jesus says, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed these things to you, but my Father in Heaven.” This is when Simon bin Jonah earns the name “Rock.” The solid conviction to follow one’s own heart over the learned opinions of the world is a foundational prospect on which Jesus can build a movement. It is on this counter cultural, self-probing revelation that the movement of Christ begins in the world. It would continue through community of believers who refused to the death to buy into the corruption of the Empire simply to “fit in.” The same temptation exists in our current cultural context. We can join the crowds flocking to easy answers about Jesus. There are plenty of people who are willing to tell us who Jesus is. However, Matthew’s witness is that Jesus is asking us individually. When I consider this question, I am reminded of the Orthodox icon of Christ Pantokrator that has one eye softened, and one eyebrow cocked in interrogation.

It is as if one eye welcomes me with a warm embrace, and the other bores a hole through my soul like a laser. My answer to the question is received by a compassionate Christ, and at the same time judged by the lasting effects that my answer puts into motion. How I answer the question either adds to God’s Vision for the world, or it impedes its growth. “Who do you say I am?” he asks. Our life, God’s growth, the good of creation depends on our answer.
In the ritual of we are about to practice, Christ’s identity is proclaimed as present and presence. Through it, we mark and celebrate the one who has recently embarked on the journey of physical and spiritual life as a member of our family. WE believe that our family, our lives, are the answer to Christ’s question in this day and age. Who do you say that I am? We answer in the celebration of Baptism—we answer with a resounding “Us!” The presence of Christ in the world grows larger and stronger and more vibrant with each glowing life that we recognize as a member of the body of Christ.
The culture of conformity to consumption in which we live may try to convince us that we are nothing, that we are lacking, that we need only what it can give us. The culture of Christ—The culture of the church says that we don’t need to do or buy or pretend to be anything in order to belong. We are accepted as God’s children as easily as water trickles over our heads. In Baptism, we are washed of our plastic identities that this world attempts to convince us of and instead we “put on Christ.” We put on the presence of the real and living God who dwells and breathes among us.

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