Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

“Chameleon or Human?”

Psalm 131: Romans 12:2; John 1:12-13

You show up at a party, and everybody’s got on jeans and you’re dressed like you’re going to “the prom!” Somehow you didn’t get the message, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Or, its parents day at the elementary school and everybody’s got at least one parent there but you - in situations like this, its uncomfortable and you’d like to just fit in. So often, in so many social situations, one of the main goals is to just fit in. Another word we use for “fitting in” is “to conform.” To conform to one’s surroundings relieves social pressure, because when you conform, no one calls you out for being the “odd ball.”

Thinking on these things got me thinking about Chameleons. Those lizards that change their color to blend in with their surroundings. It is a way of protecting themselves from being seen by predators. And, conforming to social expectations is a way of protecting ourselves from social criticism, which can be very painful. It is a way of not being socially exposed and vulnerable to social predators.

So, conforming has a function in social survival. But, Paul says to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to the world,” which is to say: “do not fit in with the ways of your society.” Rome was the main city of the empire, a vast city, with all of the advantages of great cities, like cultural events, diversity of peoples, religions, worldviews, the latest conveniences such as a city water and sewer system for some, and all of the disadvantages like higher crime, a variety of temptations, anonymity, and the concentration of impoverished populations spawning health and other social problems as well. In the middle of a big city, you can just get lost. You go there because of the opportunities it provides, but forget pretty soon about those opportunities amidst the struggle to survive. No one knows your name or your face. You can just fit in like a chameleon, fading into the anonymous mass of people, never being noticed by anyone. In a sense, many people in our big cities are invisible.

Now, in a small town, people at least know who you are, and how you are. You can’t fade into the background very easily, even if you want to. It may be that Paul chooses this particular teaching in consideration of the Romans life in a big city: “Do not be conformed to the world.” For, though it may be the case that people from small towns and small schools may at times think they are too important and not realize how big and varied the world is, it is certainly the case that people from big cities and big schools are likely to fade into the background and never know how important, how distinctive they really are. Whereas conformity by becoming anonymous occurs in big cities, conformity by meeting social expectations clearly occurs in small towns. Either process devalues the individual and keeps a person from realizing their distinctive promise and purpose.

Maybe we are like chameleons when we conform without any resistance to expectations at work, in class, in the community. For when we conform, we gradually become invisible to those around us. If you are simply fitting in to your surroundings, you are wearing the camouflage of conformity. Like a chameleon, you don’t stick out, you don’t draw attention - you just fade into your surroundings and fit in so you can comfortably hide out.

What Paul tells the Romans is this: God didn’t make you a chameleon; God made you a human. You were made in the image of the Creator, not in the image of a chameleon. And, those who still know inside that they have the image of God do not comfortably disappear in conformity. You may send a child of God to school in the camouflage of conformity, but he or she will take it off at some point and say: “here I am!” You may send a child of God to a party in such camouflage, but sooner of later he will say: “this isn’t me; here I am!” When a human being awakens to the image of God within, that person is going to stand up and say: “here I am!”

I was stopped in my tracks yesterday as I attended the UT/GA football game. And, it wasn’t that great half-back pass play for a T.D. (Lucas Taylor to Lemarcus Coker for 57 yards!). It wasn’t the action on the field that really got to me. It was the sense I had deep inside of the power of conformity in college life. Young coeds who had disappeared behind their camouflage - somehow looking like they came out of the same mold at the sorority factory, and, there were other such things I noticed as well. “Chameleons!” I thought - “they’ve gone off to college to learn how to be chameleons - how to fit in!” It’s just like it was when I was in college.

But, I want to celebrate with you this morning that God has not called us to “fit in,” but to be true people. . and to stick out at times like a sore thumb, and at other times like a beacon of light in the darkness. Young people should go to college - not to learn to fit into the world, but to learn how to transform it.

And, so Paul teaches: “Do not be conformed . . . but be transformed by the renewing of your minds . . . so that you might know God’s will.”

Be transformed - changed within - so that you might be free, free to choose, to live, to love, to love in the Spirit of God.

But, in the middle of all the pressures to conform. . Pressures to conform to the materialism of the world, the cynicism of the world, the despair of the world, the selfishness of the world . . . how can we be transformed? The ways of the world have surely shaped us, so how can we simply start anew? Nicodemas asked Jesus a question something like this when he asked: “can a man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” I tend to think that Nicodemas sincerely asked this question as an old, respected teacher who felt there was just too much water under the bridge to go back, to start over, to start anew. Jesus answer is: “unless you are born by the Spirit, unless you are born from above, unless you become as a child, you may not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We have been born children of men and women; now we have to go through the struggle to be born children of the living God. We have been designed, created to be children of flesh and blood, to be born of our mothers; but, we have also been created and called to a second birth, but it takes some struggle to get there. “To all who received Jesus, he gave the power to become children of God, born not of flesh and blood, but of the Spirit of God.” In our first birth we are born as distinctive individuals, but we spend most of our growing up learning how to downplay our distinctiveness and fit in. When we come out of the second birth, the distinctiveness shines as a light that will never again be put under a bushel. It is our destiny to be born of the Spirit and called to our mature humanity in Christ. It takes some struggle to get there.

As we grow up we struggle to come out from under our parents’ supervision. This, though necessary, is hard. But, the struggle is meant to have purpose, for it is to be the passage towards becoming a child born of the revelation of God’s Spirit in our hearts. The main part of the struggle is to become like a child in the presence of God, having a trusting spirit before God. It is the struggle to come out from under our parents’ or guardians’ supervision and to come under God’s sovereignty. In this we find our dignity as mature human beings. If we come out from under human authority and come under God’s authority, we find the dignity of being a child of God. And, we confess with the Psalmist: “O, Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great or too marvelous for me. But, I have calmed and quieted my soul like a child at its mother’s breast; like a child with its mother is my soul.”

This trusting spirit is the beginning of freedom, new life in this child-like trust in God - being born of the Spirit, not merely born of flesh and blood, but born of the Spirit of the living God.

To discover this gracious authority and protection and inspiration and communion is to experience “the love of God poured out into our hearts.” It is to know our God who sets boundaries to protect us, and breaks down walls that constrain us; and this is done by the wisdom of God’s Spirit who speaks deeply within our souls. No longer under external authority, we are ruled from within by God’s Spirit which unites and awakens our spirit. The truth of Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled: “I will write my law within their hearts; no longer will one teach another saying, ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the greatest to the least.”

But, to get to this freedom you’ve got to cross the Red Sea; you’ve got to leave behind conformity with the world. In Egypt the Israelites knew who they were and where there next meal was coming from. But, they were called to leave it behind for a life in the wilderness. As you leave behind the ways of conforming to the world, the waters are pushed back on both sides, threatening to overtake you before you find out how you are to be transformed by God’s Spirit. And, that identity that you have learned so well, that identity that you social world is so comfortable with; it’s calling you to turn around and go back to Egypt. But, God, the living God, calls you forward, calls you to freedom in a land you’ve never seen - in the wilderness where you may die trying to find your way. And, now that you have stepped into that narrow path of dry ground going through the Red Sea, you can’t fade into the background anymore. When you begin to walk in God’s Spirit, something changes inside. You are like a chameleon that has lost his ability to change his colors and fit in. You are like the chameleon who is no longer camouflaged and who no longer cares. And, I hear this chameleon saying: “This is who I am; try to get me if you can! I am on my way to the Promised Land. This is who I am; I’m tired of changing colors to fit in.”

And, I swear before you all, when that Spirit gets into you, there’s no turning back. You are on the way. And, though you may no longer fit in, you know a peace and a power of God’s Spirit and pretty soon instead of being changed by your surroundings, you begin to transform them.

You see, in conformity there is no real communion and unity. There is no unity in uniformity, and there is no communion in conformity! But, when you are transformed by God’s Spirit, what is deep within you beings to connect to what is deep within others, even others who seem superficial. When God’s Spirit awakens your depths, you begin to awaken depths in others.

God didn’t call you to fit into this world. If God had, he would have made you in the image of a chameleon, not in the image of the living God. Amen.

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